It Will Take More Than Money to Close Africa’s Roads Gap: The Case for Investing in New Materials

In 2014, West Africa became the epicenter for the world’s first epidemic outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease. The virus hit West African capitals hard, leading to more than 10,000 deaths, international travel restrictions, and significant economic hardship. Documenting the tragedy for a global audience was three-time Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post photojournalist Michel du Cille. Tragically, du Cille died in the field while covering the outbreak—but not from Ebola.

On his way back from reporting in a village in the Salala district in central Liberia, du Cille had a heart attack. He was transported over dirt roads to a hospital two hours away—for a condition where every minute is critical to survival—and was declared dead on arrival. The Ebola outbreak occurred in the middle of Liberia’s rainy season, a time when huge swathes of the country are inaccessible to motor vehicles, cutting off access to hospitals, schools, and markets for a significant segment of the country’s population. I (Gyude) served as an advisor in President Sirleaf’s office during the epidemic and saw firsthand how infrastructure challenges like these made the response to Ebola harder.

The tragedy that befell Michel du Cille remains a regular occurrence across sub-Saharan Africa, where less than 50 percent of the roads are paved—aggravating poverty and driving down quality of life. In Malawi, for example, median travel times to hospitals can be upwards of 1 to 2.5 hours. In Kenya and Ghana, families who live near roads rated as “fair-quality”  have better access to vaccines and other essential medicines, are more likely to get maternity care treatment, and typically receive more accurate diagnostics of health problems. In rural Uganda, children are twice as likely to survive childhood illnesses if they have access to hospitals via nearby fair quality roads.  

Of course, it’s not only about healthcare—weak or non-existent transport networks also undermine economic growth by imposing prohibitive costs on freight and passenger movement. Eighty percent of African goods and 90 percent of passengers travel by road. The final cost of goods traded within Africa is 30–40 percent higher than it otherwise would be due to transportation challenges. The OECD projects that improving infrastructure in the region could stimulate an additional 2.2 percent in GDP growth each year on the continent, thanks to the compounding benefits of expansive road networks in scaling businesses and investment. And the continent’s plan to put the ambitious African Continental Free Trade Agreement into operation will be dependent on its roads.

Why aren’t there enough roads on the continent?

Sub-Saharan Africa has the fewest paved roads of any region in the world due to high construction and increasing maintenance costs.

According to a 2008 market analysis of road construction across the continent, the median cost of paved road construction in sub-Saharan Africa was then over $400,000 per kilometer. A more recent analysis of prices found a range stretching from $300,000 per km of pavement in Kenya to as high as $1 million per km in Uganda. Even the low-end marks of $300,000/km in Kenya and $330,000/km in Rwanda are prohibitively expensive for most of the continent’s economies.

The increasing frequency of extreme weather events—especially torrential rains and flooding, as Nairobi experienced last month—damages or destroys existing infrastructure, increasing maintenance costs and further undermining infrastructure availability and functionality. Almost 60 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa live outside of urban areas, which means over 700 million people living outside urban areas often lack access to all-weather roads. Sealing or paving these roads would make them all-weather—but again, the typical materials to do so, Portland cement or asphalt concrete, are cost-prohibitive given the scale of the continent’s need.

Over the next ten years, the African Development Bank estimates that closing the infrastructure gap in Africa will require between $130 and $170 billion in finance, of which there is a shortfall of between $68 and $108 billion. The past two years have seen a major push towards restructuring the global financial architecture, including expanding financing for infrastructure—but more money is needed, and efforts to increase the supply of financing will need to be paired with efforts to reduce the cost of roadbuilding and better meet the region’s needs.

A new approach to roadbuilding in Africa is needed

$68 to $108 billion in additional finance is no small sum, especially given shrinking aid budgets from major donors and the many other pressing priorities African governments are facing. Closing the continent’s roads gap will be difficult—at least at current prices.

We think that new technologies could plausibly bring prices down. And we think there's a market for those new technologies—the World Bank alone approved $8.2 billion in new infrastructure, a large percentage of which are roadbuilding projects, to say nothing of African governments, other international institutions, and more.

But there's a market failure here, where potential innovators in road-building technologies see the payoff as too uncertain (after all, Africa is often seen as a riskier market than it really is).

How do we bridge that gap? With a prize challenge.

A prize challenge is part of the broader family of “pull mechanisms,” and a cousin to the advance market commitment (AMC), an idea that CGD helped innovate. AMCs are having a moment in the DC policymaking space after the success of Operation Warp Speed accelerated the development of COVID vaccines. While a prize challenge would encourage the development of new pavement material from engineers globally, an AMC would catapult this new product by generating a market for the new pavement material. One of the requirements for this new pavement material is a 15 to 30 percent cost reduction across the pavement’s life cycle. We targeted cost as a requirement of a new pavement material because it proved to be a major impediment for many African governments. As such, an AMC would be instrumental in incentivizing a new, cheaper pavement material by subsidizing the initial purchase of the material. The goal is that over time the material would become amongst the most reliable and widely used in developing countries as well as the most affordable. But first, we are seeking the technical expertise of engineers globally because the diversity of knowledge, resources, and environments makes way for a variety of new pavement solutions. We initially anticipated a single prize challenge winner, but after working with our working group and addressing the variation of climates across the continent, we concluded there may be more than one pavement solution.

Prize challenges have had some notable successes before—the XPrize foundation is one notable example, with successful prize challenges on carbon removal and space exploration. The Milken-Motsepe Innovation Prize Challenge has also hosted prize challenges in Africa to develop agritech, fintech, and accessible and sustainable electricity solutions. Challenge Works, based in the UK, has managed challenges like the Mombasa Plastics Prize and Afri-Plastics Challenge to mitigate marine pollution.

The basic idea for a prize challenge is that someone—a foundation, a government, or a major international institution would put up a substantial prize, probably in the millions or tens of millions of dollars, to be won by the firm or team that can deliver a road-building product that meets a set of specifications. With the concrete promise of a substantial, immediate payoff as well as the potential for expanding into a large market down the road, we think that will be enough to get innovators working on solving this problem.

The first step is laying out what that potential winning product looks like, which is what we're unveiling today.

Over the past year, we have consulted with engineers from top universities in the US and abroad to develop a Target Product Profile (TPP), which outlines the performance requirements for a new pavement material that is more cost effective, resilient against extreme climate events, and has reduced or at worst neutral greenhouse gas emissions during construction. While we focused on sub-Saharan Africa’s needs, this product could be used across developing countries in Asia and Latin America, too.

Given the prohibitively high cost of road construction on the continent, the winning product(s) should have a reduced cost of 15–30 percent during its lifecycle while maintaining its structural integrity to be on par or better than cement and asphalt. Other standards highlighted in the TPP include an Annual Average Daily Traffic load of 200 to 400 vehicles, ability to perform in varied soils across the continent, and more standards for performance, materials, and emissions that can be found in the full TPP note, also published today.

Rather than final procurement specifications, the performance criteria are intended to be broad guidelines to encourage creativity, deep engagement in Africa’s environmental and infrastructural context, and develop unique solutions.

We’re excited by this idea, and we’re hoping to keep it moving closer to reality. The next step is to design the rest of the prize challenge to bring the TPP into practice, by partnering with a partner that has run prize challenges before. But most of all, we’re passionate about Africa’s infrastructure challenges, which is why we’re publishing this project in an intermediate form—if you see an opportunity to collaborate, or to take some version of this idea forward, we welcome that.

If you’re interested in partnering with us, or just in sharing feedback and thoughts, please reach out to [email protected].


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.

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