African ports are facing a challenge in handling a new generation of ultra-large container vessels due to lack of sufficient infrastructure and shallow berths that hinder bigger ships from calling to these harbours.
Over the past 50 years, the capacity of container vessels has increased by around 1,500 percent, doubling over the last decade alone.
Juanita Maree, the chief executive officer of the South African Association of Freight Forwarders (SAAFF) says the exponential growth of container vessels can be attributed to shipping lines' focus on economies of scale.
“The more containers they can load on a vessel, the greater the income generated by these vessels. Thus, larger vessels carrying more containers increase the profit per voyage for each vessel. The increase in capacity relates to significant changes in the length, depth, and beam of a ship,” said Dr Maree.
Dr Maree said that for many African countries, it has been challenging to develop ports of entry and connected transport infrastructure that keeps up with the growing trend of containerised vessels.
Many of Africa's ports are not deep or wide enough to handle such large vessels. And should the vessels be able to berth at African ports, the ports would still need the equipment to offload such large vessels.
African countries' trade relies heavily on seaports and shipping, as most of their trade is sea-borne. In 2019, the ports represented close to seven percent of world maritime exports and about five percent of global maritime imports, according to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.
In an op-ed published in the Maritime Executive, Dr Maree said port performance has become a significant aspect in shipping lines making a choice of a port by regional and international stakeholders.
“Importers or exporters may opt for the port that saves them time or money. For shipping lines, the longer a vessel stays in port, the more money is lost, which means that shipping lines tend to favour ports where their vessels are serviced as quickly as possible,” he said.
In May, Kenya operationalised the port of Lamu, making it one of the largest harbours that can handle large ships in the region.
The new facility, which is expected to become the largest port in sub-Saharan Africa, is targeting countries along the Indian Ocean Islands such as Seychelles and Comoros among others.
The depth of the port, which is 17.5 metres makes it ideal for handling large ships that cannot dock at the Port of Mombasa whose depth is 15 metres.