The Road Less Traveled: New Mechanisms to Spur Innovation in Expanding Africa's Road Networks

While Ghana and Zambia are at the center of debt restructuring negotiations in Africa, the African Development Bank reports that “23 African nations were either in, or at high risk of, debt distress” at the end of September 2022. A significant portion of African borrowing over the last decade has gone toward building infrastructure, but still, infrastructure has not kept up with population growth across the continent. Africa currently trails the rest of the world on every measure of infrastructure coverage. This deficit is most pronounced in the availability of power and paved roads. The continent will require roughly $130-$170 billion a year over the next decade (with a financing gap in the range of $68-$108 billion) to close this significant infrastructure gap. Transport infrastructure accounts for 40 percent of this gap. Africa is the only region where road density has declined over the last two decades, further intensifying challenges for development in health, trade, education, and a rapidly growing urban population. Expanding transport links through functional roads not only contributes to economic growth, but it also enables access to services essential to improving quality of life.

The changing climate presents even more challenges to keeping roads passable year-round, heavy rains and unseasonable heat impair existing roads, requiring high maintenance costs. Preserving the functionality of roads through changes in the weather means treating road surfaces to prevent water ingress from various forms of precipitation. In many parts of the world, roads are sealed or paved for this purpose, primarily with two types of materials—bituminous seals and Portland cement. However, both materials are cost-prohibitive for the scale of Africa’s needs, and both are carbon-intensive. Extreme weather events—whether flooding or harsh dry seasons—are also taking a toll on roads, wiping out millions in sunk cost. Efforts to build Africa’s transport network must account for climate change; a solution to Africa’s road problem must decrease the unit cost per mile of paved roads.

At the Center for Global Development, we propose exploring solutions to these problems—unit cost per mile, emissions footprint, and climate-resilient road infrastructure—through market-shaping interventions. Our proposal is to deploy two pull mechanisms to spur the innovation required to close Africa’s road infrastructure gap in a cost-effective way. The first is the creation of a prize challenge that would invite geotechnical, pavement, and materials engineers and scientists from the world’s best laboratories and university science programs to develop cheaper seals and road materials that could be scaled quickly across Africa and are environmentally neutral. Second, we will explore the use of an advance market commitment (AMC) to incentivize the creation and production at scale of cheaper seal and road materials.

In pursuit of these outcomes, CGD has convened a working group to create a target product profile (TPP) for the “goldilocks” road pavement material, co-chaired by Gyude and Dr. Lori Tunstall, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. On February 3, 2023, CGD hosted the first of three planned working group meetings. Becca Kirby, assistant professor in the Sustainability and Social Impact Program at Northwestern University, kicked off the meeting with a presentation about the utility of TPPs in adapting to resource-limited environments in healthcare, and outlined avenues for potential use in infrastructure. Following Becca’s presentation on TPPs, Lori led 11 of our 15 (four experts had scheduling conflicts) engineering experts in a guided dialogue to develop the specifications for the TPP of a winning prize—a new paving material. Lori and her graduate assistant, Jaime Styer, are producing a scoping paper on new pavement materials to provide a foundation for the working group’s TPP. The first working group meeting explored engineering and sustainability factors that would influence a TPP.

Given the vehicle load variability across rural, urban, and township roads, working group members considered the possibility of recognizing multiple winning products instead of a single product. Working group members suggested more context-specific information, an evaluation of local supply chains, and considering soil maps for various environmental conditions. The group also agreed on the need to expand the expertise of its membership by including life cycle assessment experts. The team is currently collecting the data required for the second working group meeting as well as seeking engineering experts across Africa to collaborate with.

We’ll be sharing more information about the working group’s efforts in the months ahead. Keep an eye on this space, and check out our page with background info on the working group and the project.

We would like to thank our distinguished group of working group engineers for their assistance in our project.


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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