Africa’s integrated high speed rail network

Adama Deen, Head of Infrastructure, NEPAD

Part of Africa’s Agenda 2063 flagship programmes include the creation of an integrated high-speed train network that connects all African capitals and commercial centres on the continent, facilitating the movement of goods, people and services. The Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa (PIDA) is an African Union initiative implemented through a partnership between the NEPAD Agency and the African Development Bank (AfDB). Adama Deen, the Head of Infrastructure at NEPAD spoke to CNBC Africa’s Wole Famurewa about the organisation’s plan to build a high speed rail Network that hopes to connect Africa.

It sounds like an impossible project, this high speed train connection, that’s supposed to connect all capitals and commercial centres in Africa. I think a good place to start would be to tell us why this project is so important.
NEPAD Agency is an African Union entity that is charged with the co-ordination of the implementation of regional programs and projects. In particular in this case you are referring to infrastructure and the high speed rail project. The whole idea behind this project and the NEPAD program is how do we facilitate regional integration in Africa and one of the means to solve this is cross border regional integration. You cannot really begin to talk about accelerating that development if you do not broaden your scope of development in terms of road and rail. So we’re talking about high speed rail as a means of accelerating this development.

But the sceptics will say that this is one of the projects that will be on the shelf for a while. It sounds really impossible when you look at the infrastructure deficit we have on the continent. We’re talking about the high speed rail network but then, this is a continent that at the moment is struggling to provide electricity, so where do you see the political will to get this done coming from?
Well I think if you look at it today in Africa, a lot of initiatives are being unveiled or implemented at national level. So when you talk about high speed rail for the continent, we’re not talking about starting completely from scratch. We’re talking about bringing in existing or the planned national networks that can form the backbone of this continental high speed project. Now if you take West Africa for example, you have the government of Senegal that has already invested in a high speed rail network that connects Dakar the capital with the new industrial site near the new airport. If you look at what the government in Kenya is doing, they’ve just invested in a $4 billion standard gauge network that connects Mombassa to Nairobi and it’s going beyond Nairobi to Kampala. We shouldn’t see it at just a a green field. We’re looking at bringing together all the initiatives that are currently ongoing and the planned ones. So it is not in my view or in our view a project which is not doable. It is of course a project that has to bring all the partners on board, whether they are public sector or private sector or from a development agency.

When you break it down that way it sounds a little more realistic if I may use that term but then even the little bits and pieces of this grand project. Getting individual countries to buy into the idea of building the infrastructure to connect individual countries and regions to drive trade and commerce. Are you seeing the political will across the continent today to make that happen.
Yes. If you look at the decisions of the heads of state taken in March 2013 to endorse and approve the ideological 2063 program which is the 50 year vision that the African Union has set out to achieve by 2063. If you talk about the political will, the decision was taken at that time to say that we the African Heads of State and Member States of the union will commit ourselves to this program and one of the first agendas of the program is the high speed rail project so if you are talking about political will, it is already there. What is now important is how do we achieve the first ten year plan of this high speed implementation initiative and this is what NEPAD is being charged to undertake with partners.

It is great to hear the role that NEPAD is playing in all of this, but let us think about the need to really connect Africa commercially and economically. At the end of the day I think this will go a long way to achieving that. If we’re able to get a project off the road and completed it will go a long way. As the world changes today, I want you to speak to the importance of Africa coming together to trade with itself.
If you look at Africa and compare it to the world, we are one of the least interconnected continents. We do very little trading amongst ourselves and that is one of the disadvantages of our development. Until we begin to connect our countries, our trade will not be meaningful in terms of making a dent in the development that we need to undertake. In Africa the average GDP growth is 5.5% we need to be able to move that from where it is to a decent double digit growth if Africa has to really address the issue of inequality poverty and unemployment. So, yes we are quite aware of the challenges but if you look at the program of infrastructure development whether you talk about the road network or the current high speed rail that we have set out to achieve, that will help us lift our economic growth to the desired level.

Where have you seen the most progress in terms of this interconnection? Many point to East Africa as a great model for the rest of the continent to adopt.
I think East Africa is one but I would also say look at your backyard – West Africa. There is a very strong political support of the 15 member states of Ecowas and today in West Africa, a private initiative whether you know it or not is being looked at linking Abidjan to Badagry in Lagos. It’s called the African speed rail project. Now we are aware of the fact that this High Speed Rail initiative is not only going to be a public initiative. It will have to be a public private partnership, and if you look at that sort of a private sector initiative, together with what we can do on the public side, currently you look at Dakar, Abijan and Lagos… All that corridor is now being looked at for development within the context of Ecowas. Of course in the East African corridor countries like Kenya have already taken the initiative to build a standard gauge rail network, the first phase of which is operational. That is linking the port in Mombassa to Nairobi. Other initiatives are taking place or they are already in the late stages of completion. In Morocco where you have the link that connects the capital and Casablanca to Marrakesh, these are the sort of links that will form the early stage of the continental high speed rail network. It will not be purely green fields. It will be a combination of both.

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