The State of the Road & Break Bulk Industry in Africa

The African continent has been one of the fastest developing economies in the world. Increase in trade has led to the development of more transportation routes to carry the cargo from one place to the other.

Currently, road transport accounts for 80% of all of Africa’s cargo transportation. According to a 2001 survey, there were 2.06 million kilometres of roads in all of Africa combined. Now, with an increase in trade and commerce, the length, quality and connectivity of these roads is increasing, thanks to the numerous cross-border road freight operators. Road freight meaning, here, is the process of transporting goods by road.


Evolution of road transport in Africa

To understand how the road transport industry is today, we need to first study how road freight has changed African & South African logistics industry as a whole.

Initially, road quality and connectivity in Africa were very poor. According to the African Development Bank, even until as late as 2014, 53% of the roads in Africa were unpaved. Then there was the issue of high distances between countries. For example, the distance between Ethiopia and Nigeria – two extremely busy trade spots in Africa – became almost untraversable due to the lack of quality roads. These are some of the reasons why the cost of road freight in Africa was about 40%–100% higher in Africa than it is in Southeast Asia and 5X higher than in America a few years ago. High costs coupled with traveling discomfort actively discouraged companies from using road freight.

However, today, various African governments have been investing in the development of better road connectivity. They are also reducing cross-border tariffs for road transport. Take Rwanda, for example; by investing in roads, the country shot up to 82nd place in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business list from the 131st rank.

Then there is South Africa.


Road freight history in South Africa

During colonization, and even in times pre-colonization, South Africa was the primary port of contact for foreign traders. This is why ports to inland transport became so common here. Today, South Africa has the longest (747,000 kilometres) and best road connectivity of all African nations. These roads are jointly maintained by the Department of Transport and the South African National Roads Agency.

A slew of road development and freeway improvement projects, like the S’hamba Sonke program, have helped uplift the condition of roads and road transport in the country. Surveys show that 2017-2018 saw over 566 million tons of cargo (worth R90.88 billion) traversed the roads of South Africa as part of the African supply chain process. Overall, the South African road freight market saw growth by 5.6% in cargo quantity carried and an increase in revenue by 7.7%.


Break bulk – Africa’s most popular form of cargo transport

With the rise in takers for road transport, there has also been an increase in the number people opting for break bulk freight.

Break bulk meaning

Break bulking is a form of cargo transport that involves loading and transporting items individually, without containerization or in bulk. Here, the items are stored in packages, but they aren’t placed in portable containers or transported in bulk either. Usually, items like machinery, rolls/sheets of metal, vehicles, wooden boxes, and so on are shipped using the break bulk technique.

Although a more expensive and difficult-to-implement form of transport, it still is the best way to ship Africa’s most powerful and precious resource – its renewable materials (Oil, Natural Gas, Hydrocarbons & Minerals). Additionally, these very low-cost and renewable resources can be used to implement the break bulk shipping, allowing freight operators to provide low-cost solutions to all participants involved.

The break bulk history in Africa isn’t quite long. This form of freight is quite nascent. It started in 2013 when China strengthened trade ties with Africa as part of the One Belt One Road policy (Belt and Road Initiative Africa). By 2017, the China-Africa break bulk partnership had generated $85.3 billion in revenues. Today, this project connects Africa to Asia and Europe through break bulk servicing. South Africa has also joined the game, and its most recent shipment of 5200 tones of citrus reached China on the break bulk shipper named Baltic Reefer in June 2019.

In July 2019, two operators – United Heavy Lift and Marguisa – joined hands to offer break bulk service between West Africa and Europe. Then there are Boeckmans Belgie and BREB, which offer a similar break bulk service between North Africa & other African nations and North Africa & Europe. Finally, there is SAL Heavy Lift, which provides break bulk transportation between East Africa and the Middle East, East Asia and India.

Within Africa itself, there have been lots of investments in break bulk shipping. Kenya’s Kenfreight has recently invested $3 million in developing break bulk shipping facilities. This is expected to transform the internal trade mechanisms of the continent.


Current road freight trends to watch out for

Now that you know how the road freight and break bulk freight industries are performing in Africa, let’s see some of the trends we need to watch out for:

  • More than 93 projects in the hydrocarbons sector are already underway. There’s the ultra-deep offshore project in Namibia and the drilling project in the Nile, which are two of the most promising hydrocarbon projects on the continent. Many more such projects are expected to come underway, requiring greater investment in road transport.
  • Mozambique is also receiving $20 billion in funding to mine its oil and natural gas-rich land. So, both road and break bulk transport will be in high demand.
  • Nigeria too has made plans to invest $48 million in remote regions like the Frontier River Basins. Road freight is expected to be the primary mode of connectivity for these projects.
  • South Africa is at the helm of the road transport decarbonization project, and the usage of renewable, alternative fuels has begun. This will make road freight more eco-friendly and more takers will be there for this mode of transport. Additionally, with break bulk culminating in sea transport (which is far more sustainable than road freight), you will also see an increase in takers for break bulk shipping.