Roadside communities in frontier markets

One of the greatest challenges facing logistics and supply chain efforts in frontier markets is the existence and quality of the roads. The World Bank and others have generated a number of useful Reports on spatial modelling taking into account expanding urban areas as well as how best to develop connectivity for remote rural communities. What about those in between – the people who sell and the communities who live alongside roads all over Sub Saharan Africa?

What happens to drive-thru communities?

The point came home to me as I drove from Lusaka to Livingstone in Zambia recently – see the Post Reading the Road. It was as if every mile was characterised by a different focus; close to Lusaka selling everything from Corinthian pillars to concrete blocks and then, mile after mile of agricultural produce from sweet potatoes to tomatoes. Many of the sellers seemed to be young and, all down that road the various mobile phone operators were doing their best to brand the space. One village after another was painted red for Airtel and others were yellow for MTN.

On the other hand, though I didn’t see this on the road to Livingstone, there are local communities elsewhere who see these roads as conduits for local products and, in some cases as a source of money from bribes. Under current conditions in many countries, local barricades become improvised toll stations for local police and other groups surviving on low wages (if any). Malawi has a real issue with these informal road blocks and delays contribute to keeping the costs of delays at over 50% of products in transit. This compares with 36% for Uganda and no more than 8% for Botswana.

These roadside communities, like informal traders in urban settlements, should not be underestimated. I was speaking with a friend who had been in Rwanda – a place that touts itself as Africa’s Singapore these days – and her view was that Rwandans lacked the street-wise savvy that is a vital ingredient for entrepreneurs the world over. The Rwandan roads and hinterland are not rammed with street sellers and other micro businesses like battery recharging, second-hand clothes and cafés which light up villages even in the Congo. Informal activity is based on survival and that is a harsh but effective school.

There needs to be a concerted effort to integrate these communities into any schemes to develop local infrastructure as part of improved National road networks or, trade corridors linking regions and countries in a common purpose. In the developed world, local communities can be hostile to road developments and mount objections accordingly. In frontier markets, local communities have to see that there is more to be gained in enabling the road’s success than being disruptive. This means making the local community part of the construction and long term maintenance of the network as well as demonstrating that this road gives them market access for their surplus fruit, vegetables, meat or poultry.

Various studies have been completed looking at African Infrastructure (World Bank Report 2011) and the need to spend up to … on upgrading; building from scratch and, above all, maintaining the network has been well documented. The idea is to build a network of functional – not state-of-the-art roads that will connect more rural communities to the wider world and, provide the linkages for products and services to move.

In this Post, let’s focus those roadside communities. Fundamentally, the road system is the spine of a trade corridor around 20 kms wide. This is where communities are to be found and, any improvements have to be part of their lives. For example, there will be major construction projects and, maintenance on an ongoing basis. One study estimates that, for the whole trans-Africa network, there will be an 8.4 million person-years of rural construction employment would be generated by initial upgrading, with about 365,000 rural jobs generated by annual maintenance (Road Network Upgrading in Sub Saharan Africa, World Bank Report, 2006).

Any infrastructure project on this scale will have a significant social as well as economic impact in the poorest parts of Africa. The key issue is to sell the benefits so that local communities work with rather than against the roads. For example, the removal of barriers and allowing truckers safe and rapid transit. In parallel, there needs to be a concerted effort to ensure that local produce makes it to wider markets as cost to market falls. This is especially critical when the same Report highlights the demographics within these 20 kms corridors (10 kms either side of the road) – rural Sub-Saharan Africa Network countries within Sub Saharan Africa have a mean population percentage of 53% in the age range 15-64 and, approximately 67 million people, or 15% of the Region’s total rural population, live within the corridors.

Studies of African logistics look at Ports and network roads but there is more to this than hard infrastructure. We need to factor in the soft skills needed to develop communities that depend for their livelihoods on the roads – as if they were rivers or canals.

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