Channel to Malawi

The leaders of developing nations are too often obstacles to effective infrastructure development, but a project in Africa is a case study in good government, reports Cezary Podkul.

Imagine a scenario in which a country prioritises a project based on its national significance and economic impact, in which the president takes the project under his personal supervision, signs a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with neighbouring countries to get it done, and a year later hires a private sector partner and makes mud fly.

Sound too good to be true?

You might think so if you saw the latest KPMG survey of private sector infrastructure providers, which found that 69 percent saw government ineffectiveness as the top obstacle to infrastructure development.

But such an effective scenario is indeed underway. . . in Malawi.

The landlocked country, one of the poorest in the world, is aiming to literally dig itself out of poverty by dredging a shipping route from an inland port in its southern region to an Indian Ocean port in Mozambique.

Waterway: under

The rationale behind the project – called the Shire-Zambezi Waterway – is quite simple: 60 percent of the value of Malawi’s imports and exports is embedded in transportation costs, according to the Malawi Embassy in Washington DC.

Just talk to Brigitte Zimmerman, program director for Goods for Good, a charity that transports donated goods to poor countries like Malawi. Since 2004, she has brought 116 tons of goods into the country, and she estimates that 67 percent of her costs go to transport.

“It would be amazing if Malawi weren’t landlocked,” she says.

That’s why re-opening the Shire-Zambezi Waterway (it was used until the 1970s, when civil war broke out in Mozambique) is priority number one in improving the quality of life for its 13.1 million in habitants. So much a priority, in fact, that the project will soon be transferred to the office of Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika, says Victor Lungu, director of transport planning for the Malawi Ministry of Transport & Public Works.

Under Mutharika’s watch, the country already signed an MOU with neighboring Zambia and Mozambique to move the project along and, a year later signed an MOU with Portuguese engineering and construction firm Mota-Engil to begin the first phase of the project. In May, hoisting a billboard that read “Nsanje Port: Gateway to the Future, The Dream Comes True”, Mota-Engil broke ground on the inland port, estimated to cost $50 million.

That’s quite speedy and efficient for any country. But given that a success story like this comes out of Malawi at the same time as the KPMG survey indicates that private sector practitioners are as dissatisfied as ever with government effectiveness, it is telling indeed.

It’s not to say that Africa is a great success story of efficient government and infrastructure investment (it is not). But the story of its infrastructure is largely off the industry's radar – only 7 percent of the KPMG survey’s respondents hailed from Africa or the Middle East – and so success stories like the Shire-Zambezi Waterway largely go unnoticed.

“Africa represents the future,” says Gilberto Rodrigues, board director for Mota-Engil, who is supervising the project.

That Malawi’s leaders are building the infrastructure to make the future arrive that much quicker warrants attention.

The September issue of Infrastructure Investor magazine will include a full profile of the Shire-Zambezi Waterway project.