Plans are on track for a high-speed rail network connecting the continent's borders by 2063, the African Union's Development Agency says. The ambitious multibillion-dollar project aims to ease the movement of goods and people across African borders, but the AU warns that corruption could derail that goal.
Road, rail, and air traffic connections are so poor between some African countries that it is better to transit through Europe than to travel directly between neighbors.
Intra-African trade is less than 15% of total trade, says Adama Deen, the head of infrastructure at the AU's Development Agency.
"You cannot have integration without connectivity, whether it is road or rail connectivity, especially when we are talking about the Africa Continental Free Trade Area, where you need a single market and connectivity to move goods, persons within the market," Deen said.
During a two-day meeting this week in Nairobi, AU experts discussed linking all African capitals and commercial centers through a high-speed rail network by 2063.
The Africa Integrated High Speed Network would ease the movement of goods, people and services across African borders by building on and improving existing national railways to link Africa's 54 countries, constructing at least 12,000 kilometers of new tracks.
The aim is for 20% of the pilot phase to be completed in the next four years, says the technical committee's Cleopatra Shiceka Ntshingila.
"In terms of the pilots that we have looked at — which ones can readily work in terms based on existing infrastructure, existing studies. And this is why we will take it one tranche at a time, and that is why we think we will have at least one project up and running," she said.
Six corridors have been designated for connecting Africa by high-speed rail.
Three of them include linking Kenya's Mombasa port city to Uganda's capital, Kampala; South Africa's Durban to Botswana's Gaborone; and the Ivory Coast's Abidjan to Burkina Faso's Ouagadougou.
In the past five years, Chinese loans have funded Kenya's first phase of the railway from Mombasa to Nairobi and from landlocked Ethiopia to Djibouti.
But critics say Chinese loans are risking state assets and saddling African nations with heavy debts that Beijing can use for political leverage.
The CEO for the AU Development Agency in Kenya, Daniel Osiemo, says the continent should look to funding from within.
"For example, look at the pension funds, all over the continent we have pension funds that have been established, but which have not been channeled to productive investments," he said. "So, if these are harnessed and put into this kind of investments, in a little time to come, they will be able to pay everybody. It will be a win-win for everybody."
But Osiemo says there are other challenges to meet the 2063 railway goal.
"Then there are political challenges, you know — Central African Republic, South Sudan — political instability to work in such countries requires extra effort at the highest level to have these corridors facilitated and the links established."
AU High Representative for Infrastructure Development, former Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga, worries corruption could be the project's biggest obstacle.
"I will you give an example of railway, you go to Ethiopia and the rates are different, you go to Nigeria they are different, you come to Kenya, you go to Tanzania — they are different — yet you find that the same companies [are] doing them. That has a lot to do with investment environment in those countries and this is an enemy of Africa, which must be fought," he said.
How many of those battles are won will determine just how quickly Africa's first cross-continental, high-speed train rolls out of the station.