It all starts with a road

Msafiri’s business columnist Nkem Ifejika is keen for africa to develop its infrastructure to unleash the potential of its tourism industry

RoadOne of the great things about the current stage of Africa’s development is the amount of low-hanging fruit. A little development, something that doesn’t require the wheel to be reinvented, goes a long way – and usually has a domino effect. This is probably most true for basic infrastructure. I’ve seen how a road created ostensibly for hauliers between Nigeria and Cameroon can become a lifeline for market women along the route. They take their goods to the road that didn’t exist before, and are able to sell much more than they ever did. For some, it becomes the difference between an education for their children and illiteracy.

There are also instances where infrastructure built by the private sector benefits local communities. I remember asking a businessman in Uganda what his advice would be for towns and villages where oil has been discovered. It was simple: traders, use the roads to get your goods to market, and to get your children to school, because after all they can’t take the roads away.

Basic infrastructure such as roads can make a huge difference. Not just for the transportation of goods, but for tourism. Africa is beautiful. There is much that is unspoiled, much to be explored, much to marvel at – from the deserts in the north, to the rainforest in the middle. But when it comes to tourism, Africa is still the undiscovered continent, missing out on foreign exchange revenues.

To give you an example of the potential: between the months of August and October you can go whale watching just off the coast of west Africa, as they migrate south for winter. Just think of the possibilities. All that’s needed would be some jetties and individuals to provide seaworthy boats. These are fairly basic: we’re not talking expensive high-speed rail or space travel.

Relatively cheap air travel has made the world a much smaller place. ‘Exotic’ holidays are no longer so rare because prices have brought them within the reach of many. But more important is what happens when travellers get to their destination? If someone does an Internet search for ‘getting from Accra to Cape Coast’, what shows up?

If basic roads, jetties, and railway lines are constructed, there’ll be entrepreneurs taking advantage by building restaurants and hotels. Some countries are already doing what’s needed to attract visitors to their countries in huge numbers. OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg can handle the huge Airbus A380 as well as the new 787 Dreamliner, and the nightly flights to the city from London are always packed. Likewise, Kenya’s JKIA is now host to the new fleet of KQ’s Dreamliners. But compare it to Nigeria. Lagos airport isn’t equipped to deal even with the A380. Granted, they’re at a different stage of tourism development. But if an airline wanted to land an A380 full of tourists, it wouldn’t be able to. It all starts with a road, of one kind or another.