Every government recognizes that strong national infrastructure is critically important to steady economic development. Transportation infrastructure is one of the lubricants that keeps the gears of an economy operating smoothly.
For the Democratic Republic of the Congo, infrastructure has long been underfunded and poorly maintained, but that is beginning to change.
Fridolin Kasweshi, Minister for Infrastructure, Public Works, and Reconstruction, said that the country requires $1 billion per year to upgrade and maintain its roads, according to a Radio Okapi interview conducted in March 2016. As the government does not have those funds, a three-tier plan has been developed, he said.
A key constraint to infrastructure development in the DRC is simply size. The DRC is a vast country, encompassing about 905,600 square miles (slightly bigger than the United States east of the Mississippi) with huge equatorial forests, difficult terrain and crisscrossing rivers.
To date, the country has depended on a network of navigable waterways, roads, railroads and small airports to move goods and people around the country. But that network is inefficient, due to the multiple transfers necessary to cross the country, and it is reaching its capacity. To maintain and increase the DRC’s rate of economic development, the national infrastructure needs investment.
Currently, the DRC has approximately 95,000 miles of roads of which about 1,850 miles are fully paved. Its railroad network runs about 2,490 miles. Those networks are supplemented by more than 170 airports, of which 26 are paved and three accept international flights.
Agricultural extension, internal and international trade and the continued development of the mining industry depend on the maintenance and expansion of this network, according to development experts.
“National unity and economic stability are DRC government’s two top priorities,” said Ahmadou Moustapha Ndiaye, World Bank Country Director for the DRC, in a World Bank announcement. “Accordingly, improving the transport sector’s performance constitutes a vital goal for the government, and spending on transport can be considered core development spending.”
Minister Kasweshi outlined the three-tier development plan in the Radio Okapi interview. The first tier depends on private business. Where there is sufficient economic activity, public-private partnerships (PPPs) can finance paved roads, Minister Kasweshi suggested. These roads must have at least 15,000 vehicles per year to be sustainable, he said.
The second tier aims to develop 2,200 miles of ultra-priority roads with the help of the African Development Bank, the European Union, and the World Bank. “But many routes are not eligible for this type of funding and must depend on the public treasury,” Minister Kasweshi said.
The third tier is to use DRC resources to complete roads. But the financial resources are limited and alone are not sufficient to address the road infrastructure problems in the country, the minister said.
Pieces of the plan are already being put in place. In February, the World Bank approved an IDA (International Development Association) credit facility of $125 million for reopening and maintaining high-priority roads.
This credit is part of a larger project to improve about 5,600 miles of earth roads with the goal of connecting key areas in Orientale, North and South Kivu, Katanga and Equateur, as well as access to parts of Uganda and the Central African Republic, according to a World Bank announcement.
“This would facilitate internal connectivity and enhance trade opportunities between different parts of Congo. Furthermore, it would reduce the isolation of large parts of the Eastern provinces of Congo caused by decades of conflict, and lack of infrastructure,” said Alexandre Dossou, World Bank Task Team Leader for the project.
The railroad system is also a target for new investment. The main railways of the DRC are not connected to each other, but do connect to the country’s approximately 10,000 miles of navigable waterways and roads.
The Socit Nationale des Chemins de Fer du Congo (SNCC) connects some provinces in the interior including Katanga, Kasais, South Kivu and Maniema. The Socit Commerciale des Transports et des Ports (SCTP) runs the line between the seaport of Matadi and the capital, Kinshasa. This line was relaunched in March of 2015 after 10 years of suspension, according to a Radio Okapi report.
Mostly inherited from colonial times and updated in the 1970s, the railways of the DRC are in need of upgrades and maintenance, according to the World Bank’s DRC Multi-modal Transport Report.
In 2010, the World Bank provided some funding to refurbish or upgrade about 1,000 miles of track, mostly between the copper mining region and the border with Zambia, as well as between Kamina, Kabalo and Mwene Ditu.
In June 2013, the Bank also reported approval of $290 million in International Development Association (IDA) funds targeted at railway infrastructure, primarily to support the agricultural sector.
“DRC is the largest country in Sub-Saharan Africa with huge potential for feeding its own people and, the rest of the continent,” Eustache Ouayoro, World Bank Country Director for the DRC, was quoted in the 2013 announcement of World Bank funding for railways.
“We welcome the opportunity to support the Government’s plans to rebuild its railroad system and build up its agriculture sector. These projects will help boost income, food security and overall livelihoods for the country’s poorest people,” he said.
Other parts of the budget gap are being covered by international agreements, especially with China. According to the Africa Report, the governments of the DRC and China signed an agreement in 2007 in which China would provide a line of credit to mine cobalt and copper, and improve DRC infrastructure.
In exchange for 68 percent ownership in Sicomines, the Chinese firms Sinohydro Corp. and China Railway Group Limited would build roads, railways and hospitals. The Congolese state-owned companies Gcamines and the Socit Immobilire du Congo own the remaining 32 percent of the shares.
The initial $6 billion deal was revised down to about $3 billion over concerns from the International Monetary Fund that a debt of $6 billion would be unsustainable. The deal was also briefly suspended due to operational and management issues, according to Reuters and the Africa Report.
The deal, however, is back on track after these hiccups. The ASIA Miner magazine reported that the Chinese were involved in 10 infrastructure projects between 2008 and 2014, and were projected to spend $250 million in 2015 on stadiums, roads and other projects.
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