Africa suffers from an overall lack of transportation facilities, and many of those that do exist are inefficient, inconvenient, unreliable, and poorly maintained. Moreover, the quality and availability of transportation varies greatly from one place to another. Methods of getting around in Africa range from jet aircraft to camels. Upgrading and expanding the transportation infrastructure is a major challenge facing most African nations.


Most of Africa’s transportation systems were developed during the colonial era. Designed to serve the interests of the European colonial powers, these systems largely ignored the needs of local populations. Colonial policies have had a profound effect on transportation facilities in Africa today.

Colonial Transportation

European colonization and settlement altered the nature of transportation in Africa dramatically. The most obvious change was technological. Mechanized transport, such as steamships and railroads, replaced canoes and animals as cargo carriers. This allowed the movement of greater quantities of goods, more quickly and reliably, over longer distances. Modern transportation also overcame various problems associated with Africa’s difficult terrain and climate, such as seasonal flooding.

Although colonial authorities greatly expanded the ways of moving people and goods, the networks they created were focused on bringing raw materials from interior regions to coastal ports. This approach benefited European mining companies and white settler plantations, but it did little to help ordinary Africans get around more easily or to improve their access to markets, schools, and shops. In many cases, modern transportation actually reduced people’s mobility as new and more expensive forms of transport replaced affordable indigenous ones.

After the Colonial Period

As African nations won their independence, they sought to restructure transportation systems to suit the needs of their people. A major goal of many states was to link rural districts to each other and to the growing urban areas. Most focused on constructing new roads rather than railroads because they were cheaper to build and maintain and could be more easily completed in difficult terrain. At the end of the colonial era there were few overland links between African nations. The colonial powers had seen no reason for building highways or railroads to the colonies of rival nations. After independence many new African states wanted to construct highways connecting them with their neighbors. Unfortunately, this goal was only partly realized.

Many of the same European countries that had colonized Africa took part in the modernization of African transportation after independence. Some African nations also received help from the Soviet Union and their allies. Despite these efforts, transportation networks grew slowly and had much less economic impact than expected. Local organizations lacked the money and expertise to develop a transportation infrastructure, so the job fell to the governments of each country. However, the financial condition of most African nations severely limited the amount of money available for such projects. Moreover, the roads, railways, and ports that were built often deteriorated due to a lack of funds for maintenance. An economic downturn in the 1970s and 1980s aggravated the problem by further reducing the money available to spend on transportation.

Technological changes also had a negative effect on African transportation. As oceangoing ships became larger and more sophisticated, few African ports could handle them. Nor were the ports equipped to deal with containerization—a system in which specially designed ships carry goods in large metal boxes called containers. Aircraft got bigger as well, making it less profitable for airlines to serve Africa’s small market for air passengers and freight. In addition, new ships and planes required special navigation equipment that African seaports and airports did not have.

All these factors contributed to a crisis that has caused many African nations to reconsider their transportation plans. Instead of building new facilities, many nations have devoted more money and effort to improving and maintaining existing ones. National airlines and railroads, for example, have tried to increase efficiency by standardizing their vehicles. This reduces maintenance costs because the vehicles all use the same parts. Having fewer types of vehicles also makes it easier to train pilots and drivers.

One of the greatest challenges facing African nations is providing adequate transportation for their poorest people, both those in urban areas and remote rural communities. In the past African nations focused their transportation programs on the needs of corporations and government. Some recent plans attempt to offer solutions for people who lack access to reliable public transportation. Such plans include promoting simpler and more affordable technologies, such as bicycles and donkey carts, in order to decrease reliance on expensive forms of mechanized transport.


Africa’s air transportation lags far behind networks in other regions of the world. The continent commands a very small share of global air traffic, and its airlines are, for the most part, extremely uncompetitive.

African Airlines

Africa possesses very few large air carriers, and only a handful of the world’s leading airlines are based on the continent. This lack can be explained in part by colonial history. The European powers in Africa operated only a couple of airlines from a few major cities. Air connections to the outside world were limited; connections between African destinations were even rarer.

At the time of independence, most African countries with air service nationalized their airlines. These carriers then had to compete with other government programs for funding. Many had to borrow money to keep operating and are now heavily in debt and lack funds for maintenance and modernization. In addition, deregulation in the airline industry in the 1970s led to greater competition and lower fares, making it extremely difficult for African airlines to compete effectively.

A major trend in recent years has been the formation of global alliances between airlines in order to reduce costs and share passengers. However, only a few African airlines have joined such alliances. In some cases, major international airlines have bought a stake in local carriers. For example, KLM Royal Dutch Airways acquired part of Kenya Airways when that carrier was partially privatized. Unfortunately, most African airlines are so heavily indebted that they are unattractive to foreign investors.

Air Traffic

Africa is a very minor player in the area of international air traffic. The continent’s airlines account for less than 2 percent of international air passengers and airfreight. The vast majority of this traffic is between Africa and Europe. In addition, the number and frequency of scheduled international flights to and from Africa is extremely limited, and Africa’s largest airports handle far fewer passengers each year than the largest American and European airports.

Flights between African countries are also limited, with few and infrequent connections between cities. This is primarily a result of the continent’s poverty, because the majority of Africans cannot afford to travel by plane. It also reflects the small market for business travel within Africa. Business travelers contribute a significant share of airline revenues in the United States, but a very small percentage in Africa.


Several factors influence the establishment and growth of seaports. These include the presence of a good natural harbor and links to areas of economic activity in the interior. Both of these factors have played a significant role in the development of Africa’s ports.

Despite its large size Africa contains few major seaports, and these few are unevenly distributed around the continent. In part, the lack of ports can be explained by the fact that Africa has few good natural harbors. It also stems from colonial history. The European colonial powers typically built only one or two major roads and railroads to connect mining and agricultural areas with a single seaport on the coast. As a result, most coastal African nations have only one port that dominates seaborne traffic.

Africa has several different types of seaports. The largest are designed solely for the export of minerals or crude oil and have no other significant role. The most important general-purpose cargo ports—including ABIDJAN, CAPE TOWN, DAKAR, and LAGOS—are also major urban centers. Even these ports suffer from inadequate and outdated facilities, though, a result of tight-fisted colonial policies and the weak economies of modern African states. Finally, various medium-sized ports—such as FREETOWN in Sierra Leone and DAR ES SALAAM in Tanzania—serve as commercial hubs for particular regions.

Not all African countries have access to the sea. Landlocked countries such as NIGER and UGANDA must depend on neighboring coastal states for access to ocean ports. This presents difficulties for those nations but also forces ocean ports to be competitive and offer better services to attract business. Some landlocked countries have ports on lakes and rivers that play an important role in regional transport between African nations.


The coming of railroads to Africa in the late 1800s had a significant impact on the continent’s economic and political development. Railroads served as avenues for the export of raw materials and the import of finished goods. They also allowed European powers to exert political control over territory and thus justify their colonial claims over the land.

Rail Networks

Colonial rail-building policies left most African nations with only one or two major lines running from a seaport to the interior. As a result, only a handful of African nations have more than 500–600 miles of track. SOUTH AFRICA, with about 13,000 miles of track, boasts the largest rail network on the continent. Many landlocked countries, such as CHAD and RWANDA, have no railroads at all.

The colonial powers also made no effort to link together the various parts of their colonies with rail networks. For this reason, even nations with fairly large rail systems contain many areas with little or no access to railroads. In recent years African governments have proposed plans to join existing national railways to form a system linking the continent. This would greatly benefit landlocked countries with no rail access, but the cost of such a project makes its completion unlikely.

Rail Technology and Traffic

African railroads are burdened with outdated equipment and inefficient routes. Colonial railroads were built cheaply and quickly, often using lightweight track. To help speed construction and keep costs down, engineers avoided building tunnels or embankments, so many lines have sharp curves, steep inclines, and roundabout routes. These factors limit both the speed at which trains can travel and the loads that they can carry. Aside from South Africa, which has modern and efficient railways, most African rail systems are inefficient, poorly run, and technologically backward.

The main activity of most African railroads is carrying freight, particularly raw material for export. However, the volume of freight varies considerably from year to year because of the changing demand for the raw materials. In recent years railroads have lost a large amount of traffic to highways. Most railroads also offer passenger service, but slow travel make this an unattractive option. Only in South Africa do railroads serve as a main element of urban mass transit.

The same financial problems that affect other forms of African transportation hamper the development of better rail service as well. International lending agencies have recommended closing inefficient rail lines in some nations as a way to reduce government spending. As a result, Africa’s rail network is likely to shrink even further in the near future. (See also Colonialism in Africa; Development, Economic and Social; Economic History.)