Improving rail connectivity is one of the key priorities for African nations. The continent’s railway network is far from developed and consists of tracks built a long time ago by European colonizers or other foreign partners working on local initiatives. Train lines in the Northern and Southern parts of Africa are the most advanced on the continent. But they are not very long and have varied track width, because they were built by various nations during different periods. As rail gauges do not match, the lines cannot be easily used within one network. The central regions of Africa, which are not even accessible by sea, have the least extensive railways. The fact that the continent’s rail network is poorly developed is one of the factors hampering economic growth of African nations.
In 2010, the African Union (with 55 member-states) initiated and in 2012, approved PIDA (Program Infrastructure Development for Africa), which includes a section regarding the wide-scale construction of railways. One issue (among others) ought to be resolved first and foremost: ports on the African coastline need to be connected to the existing train lines. Considering the current level of economic and technological development in most African nations, assistance from foreign partners in Europe and Asia was required to realize this initiative.
Media outlets have mostly focused on China’s contribution to the development of African infrastructure in their reports. And it is true that the former Celestial Empire has played a significant role in this process. It has been actively collaborating with all the African nations and has made substantial investments in their economies. And although the PRC is certainly in an advantageous position, there is also plenty of room for involvement of other nations, which have the necessary technologies and financial resources. According to Amani Abou-Zeid, the Commissioner for Infrastructure and Energy at the African Union Commission (AUC), overall, implementation of infrastructure projects in Africa requires up to $147 billion per year. So the continent would certainly be happy to receive aid.
Russia’s reputable standing in the field of railway engineering technologies has been widely recognized. Hence, the initiative to improve rail connectivity in Africa could become the basis for substantially strengthening the cooperation between the Russian Federation and Africa.
JSC Russian Railways (RZD, a state company) announced that it was ready to assist its African partners. Aside from building train lines, Russian Railways can also share its latest technologies and experience in running railway operations, and conduct joint research projects with its partners, as well as train staff from African nations and improve their skill level.
At the moment, RZD is engaged in negotiations on its involvement in rail network projects in Angola, Ghana, Egypt, Nigeria, South Africa and in a number of other nations.
Another Russian company, CJSC Transmashholding (TMH, the largest manufacturer of rolling stock in Russia), is also planning to actively take part in initiatives to develop African railway lines. In September 2018, Transmashholding and Egypt’s leadership signed an agreement on supplying 1,300 passenger cars, worth more than $1.14 billion, to the African nation.
Moreover, TMH set up a subsidiary called Transmashholding Africa (TMH Africa), and acquired a rolling stock factory in Boksburg (South Africa), in order to convert it to its own plant for assembling and repairing railway equipment, meant not only for South Africa but also for other countries on the continent. The opening ceremony of the manufacturing facility was in April 2019.
In November 2018, RZD and the Russian Export Center JSC (REC) signed a Memorandum on Cooperation with the African Export–Import Bank (Afreximbank) in order to finance joint projects.
Afreximbank is an international financial institution with headquarters in Cairo, which was established to stimulate African trade and increase its share as part of global trade. Russia is an important shareholder of Afreximbank, and in October 2017 it contributed $2 billion to this institution. It was a substantial amount of money considering the fact that the start-up capital for Afreximbank, when it had been established in 1993, amounted to only $750 million. And by 2014, its funds had increased to $5 billion. It was perhaps a sign of respect towards the Russian Federation and its contribution that the most recent annual shareholder meeting of the bank took place in Moscow in June 2019. Within its framework, the Russia-Africa summit, dedicated to fostering cooperation between the Russian Federation and Africa, was held. The participants of the sizable event included Dmitry Medvedev, the Chairman of the Government of the Russian Federation, and Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.
During the Summit, various issues on economic collaboration were discussed, including the possibility of Russia’s involvement in different infrastructure initiatives in Africa, particularly, in the development of railway networks. RZD representatives reiterated that they were ready to cooperate.
Afreximbank, the Russian Export Center and TMH signed a Memorandum on Cooperation on the African continent. According to the document, the parties will collaborate on various trade and investment projects. For example, TMH is planning on supplying 100 locomotives to Egypt and building a new metro line in Cairo.
TMH General Director Kirill Lipa said that his company intended to establish its own plant in Egypt, and had already signed all the required documents with the Egyptian leadership. By the end of 2019 – the beginning of 2020, the first batch of cars for Egyptian railways will have been produced at the new facility. From the viewpoint of Kirill Lipa, his company has the opportunity to use Russia’s manufacturing expertise throughout the entire continent, and thereby win contracts worth billions of dollars.
Currently, the Russian Federation and its African partners are continuing their negotiations on joint railway projects. It is expected that corresponding agreements will be signed in October 2019, when Sochi hosts the Russia—Africa Economic Forum.
In conclusion, we could say that although China is a strong contender for the ‘top job’ (due to its active role in Africa), Russia’s achievements in an important sphere such as rail networks are indicative of Russian Federation’s willingness to reinforce its position and increase its influence on the continent.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”