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High freight costs remain obstacle to trade of sub-Saharan Africa

22 October 1996

Continuing a ten-year growth trend, world seaborne trade increased by 3.7 per cent in 1995, reaching a new record volume of 4.65 billion tons, UNCTAD announced today in its Review of Maritime Transport, 1995(1) (150 pages). On the basis of preliminary data, it anticipates a growth rate of 3 to 3.5 per cent in 1996, with an annual seaborne trade volume of nearly 4.8 billion tons.

This annual publication of the UNCTAD secretariat provides trends in seaborne trade and analyses the performance of different regions with a special focus on problems encountered by developing countries.

The relative level of freight costs incurred by developed market-economy countries continued to be about half that incurred by developing countries. Structural differences in foreign trade, more efficient infrastructure facilities and trading arrangements as well as greater bargaining power of developed countries´ shippers are among the causes of this disparity.

According to the Review, the growth in seaborne trade volume in 1995 was primarily generated by a strong demand for dry bulk cargoes (in particular grain, iron ore and coal) and to a lesser extent on growing volumes of general cargoes (mainly manufactured goods). Growth in oil cargoes was more modest than in dry bulk cargoes with an increase of only 2.3 per cent in the crude oil sector and 1.8 per cent in the products trade.

The share of developing countries of cargo loaded remained virtually unchanged at 50.6 per cent. The developing countries´ share of cargo unloaded was stable at 26.9 per cent; reflecting the faster growth of their economies, Asian countries were able to increase their shares in both goods loaded and unloaded to 27.2 per cent and 17.8 per cent, respectively.

The share of countries of Central and Eastern Europe continued to decline both in terms of goods loaded and unloaded to a low of 3.5 per cent and 3.0 per cent in 1995, respectively. This is due, to a large extent, to a continuous decline in the output of the Russian Federation

Sub-Saharan Africa experiences growth in trade...

The Review places a special focus on freight costs incurred by African countries. Many sub-Saharan African economies performed well in 1995, with an overall growth in exports (+14.3 per cent in value and +7.5 per cent in volume over 1994) and imports (+11.8 per cent in value and +5.6 per cent in volume).

These trade statistics were naturally reflected in an increase in total liner cargo transported to and from the region: +5.3 per cent, reaching 16.5 million tons. However, a directional imbalance (54 per cent import and 46 per cent export cargo), which has been a long-term concern for shipping operators, persists. By geographic region, some 40-45 per cent of liner cargoes were loaded or discharged on the west coast. A similar volume was moved to or from the southern coast, of which about two thirds were reportedly traded by South Africa.

Coal, iron ore and grain are the major dry bulk cargoes traded by the subregions of sub-Saharan Africa. Coal exports from the southern coast, handled entirely by South Africa, reached 56 million tons in 1995. Iron ore shipments were made from the west coast and the southern coast. Combined exports aggregated 19.8 million tons in 1995. Exports of crude oil reached 103.9 million tons the majority of which was produced in West and Central Africa. The 1995 grain imports exceeded 5.0 million tons, of which more than half were imported from the United States.

...but their maritime engagement is gradually coming to a halt

Notwithstanding the increase in their trade, the fleet capacity of the developing countries of the sub-Saharan region remains very poor. The total tonnage owned in sub-Saharan Africa (excluding Liberia, which is an open-registry country, and South Africa) has decreased from about 2 million dwt in 1980 to less than 1.4 million dwt in 1995. Also, in relative terms, shipping of sub-Saharan Africa remained insignificant with a share of only 0.19 per cent of world tonnage in 1995. Fleets mainly consist of obsolete conventional general cargo vessels and tankers, each group accounting for about 40 per cent of tonnage registered in these countries. No container ships are registered in the region.

High cost of inland transport hampers African trade

Freight costs of sub-Saharan African countries constituted a higher proportion of total import value than those of countries of most other regions. In 1993 (the most recent year for which country data are available) the ratios of all but one sub-Saharan developing countries were above the developing countries´ average of 8.33 per cent. Wide variations were recorded. At the lower, more efficient end of the scale, in Africa Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria recorded freight ratios of less than 10 per cent, compared with 12-15 per cent in most other African coastal countries.

The incidence of freight costs was, predictably, felt most severely by land-locked countries. Chad, Mali and Rwanda, for example, paid freight costs of between 25 and 30 per cent of cif import values. At the same time, freight costs paid by other land-locked countries, such as Niger or Zimbabwe, remained below 15 per cent.

The explanation for this divergence lies more in land than maritime transport costs, as available data suggest that there is only a limited difference in ocean freight rates between the African subregions. Major differences do exist, however, with regard to inland transport costs on the different corridors serving land-locked countries. Container rates are particularly high on some Central African corridors, which may be due in part to restrictive transport policies.

Developing countries improve ownership position in growing world fleet

The world merchant fleet continued to expand, to 734.9 million deadweight tons (dwt) by the end of 1995. The rate of increase of 2.1 per cent remained significantly less than the growth of seaborne trade thus confirming a timid trend to an improved fleet employment situation.

Analysis of the regional structure of the world fleet shows a slight increase the share of developing countries in 1995. They expanded their fleet to 137.5 million dwt, representing 18.7 per cent of the world fleet, as compared to 18.5 per cent in 1994. The Review finds that some of the chronic structural problems and qualitative deficiencies which had plagued developing countries´ shipping for a long time could be partly remedied. Qualitative improvements have been observed particularly in the liner sector, bringing the share of developing countries in efficient container tonnage to 17.2 per cent.

Regional structures, however, remain problematic and unbalanced. Container tonnage is concentrated in Asian developing countries who own 13.5 per cent of world tonnage, while - at the other end of the scale - African countries own virtually no container tonnage at all.


1. The Review of Maritime Transport, 1995 (Sales No. E.96.II.D.9) may be obtained at the price of US$50, from United Nations Publications/Sales Section, Palais des Nations, CH-1211 Geneva 10, Switzerland, F: +41 22 917 0027, or from United Nations Publications/Sales Section, Room DC2-0853, United Nations Secretariat, New York, N.Y. 10017, U.S.A., T: +1 212 963 8302 or +1 800 253 9646, F: +1 212 963 3489, E: publications@unctad.org, Internet: UN publications web pages.

For more information, please contact:
Peter Faust, Chief of Transport Section
Trade Infrastructure Branch, Division for Services Infrastructure for Development and Trade Efficiency
T: +41 22 907 2045
F: +41 22 907 0050
E: peter.faust@unctad.org
Carine Richard-Van Maele, Press Officer
T: +41 22 907 5816/28
F: +41 22 907 0043
E: press@unctad.org


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