The Best Roads in Africa? Not Where You’d Think
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because roads create wealth, not the other way around.
During my recent trip to Namibia, Fessy, my taxi driver, took me all over Windhoek. I oohed at the grand old German castles in the hilly suburbs, munched kapana (grilled beef) in Katutura, the capital’s poorest area, and embarked on a long road trip to go on safari. Throughout my journey, I didn’t see a single pothole, traffic jam or reckless driver, so it came as no surprise to me that, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017–18 Global Competitiveness Index, it doesn’t just have the best roads in Africa:
Namibia has better roads than Australia, Italy and Belgium, ranking 31st in the world.
That’s according to the business leaders in each of the countries surveyed. The rankings, explains Roberto Crotti, practice lead in competitiveness research at the WEF, are based on an executive opinion survey that asked a simple question: How developed and sound are the roads in your country? “There is no better way to assess qualitative aspects for 140 countries,” Crotti says, than asking the people who make the economic decisions.
Apart from running traditional outlier tests and double-checking the responses against hard statistics — such as the extent of each country’s road network — the WEF makes no further intervention, Crotti explains: The WEF “wants to be transparent and produce simple methodology.”
So perception can be an issue. “Executives in Poland always rate their infrastructure poorly because they compare themselves with Germany,” Crotti explains. So, perhaps the index can’t prove that Namibia’s roads are categorically better than those in Australia and Italy, but it does show that they are without peer in sub-Saharan Africa: Zimbabwe ranked 124th, Botswana 63rd and even South Africa came in 19 places behind Namibia.
But Namibia’s high road ranking doesn’t come as a shock to Africans — the country has consistently scored high on the annual index and is a favorite among overlanders who are fond of proclaiming (usually after a few Windhoek Lagers) that Namibia’s untarred roads are the best in the world.
Conrad Mutonga Lutombi, CEO of Namibia’s Roads Authority (RA), says the ranking represents the RA’s ongoing commitment to maintaining the country’s 29,000-mile road network (of which 4,524 miles are asphalt). Roads provide a base for a “multitude of productive activities,” he explains — not least the strategic corridors Namibia has established between the port at Walvis Bay and its landlocked neighbors.
And unlike many African countries that rely on foreign contractors and loans for ambitious road projects (maintenance be damned), Namibia gives “preferential treatment for Namibia-registered companies,” Lutombi says, and when they do award a contract to an outsider, the RA has a “mandatory requirement for the foreign companies to enter into joint ventures with well-established Namibian road contractors.” The win: building local capacity and skills.
And while Namibia still ranks No. 1 for roads among African nations, its overall score did slip slightly from 5.28 (out of 7) in 2013 to 5.03 this year. Some of the country’s roads “are way beyond their design life,” Lutombi admits — the RA’s biggest challenge is a lack of funds. Still he’s confident that the situation will be resolved in “the not so distant future.” And to plan for more distant bumps in the roads, the RA has awarded 136 bursaries to young Namibians from previously disadvantaged backgrounds to pursue various qualifications in the engineering field.
Just another reason to visit the world’s highest sand dunes …