Fish-rich Mauritania looks to its Nouadhibou port for a brighter future

14 November 2016

Nestled on a peninsula overlooking the world's biggest graveyard of ships, the port of Nouadhibou may hold the key to a better future for Mauritania's 3.9 million people, of whom 42% live in poverty.

For years, Mauritania's economy ran on the iron ore buried deep beneath its Sahara desert sands. But Chinese demand for iron ore has fallen, and the government is putting more hope in its Atlantic coastal waters, some of the richest fishing grounds in the world.

"Mauritania's fishing industry could boost exports and create jobs, but its ports will need to become more competitive," says Mark Assaf, in charge of UNCTAD's port management programme, active in some 200 ports around the globe.

In 2016, Mauritania became the 34th country to join the programme, aiming to promote Nouadhibou as a door to the world, through which to export its processed fish.

Foreign boats may fish in Mauritanian waters, but they currently take their catch elsewhere. Every year, some 1.2 million tons of tuna, shrimp and other fish are caught in Mauritania's waters. But just 5% of this is processed locally.

According to industry executives, landing fish in Nouadhibou, Mauritania's only fishing port, is more expensive than in the Canary Islands nearby.

In 2013, Mauritania's government launched the free zone of Nouadhibou to improve the port's competitiveness and to attract fish processing industries such as tuna canning. In 2014, it completed an $18-million extension to accommodate bigger vessels.

Fish-rich Mauritania

"Upgrading a port needs new infrastructure but also investment in human resources," Mr. Assaf says. "Ultimately, a port's performance depends on the quality of its management."

The UNCTAD TrainForTrade Port Management Programme took a first crucial step last month when 11 senior port managers completed a workshop for instructors held at the port of Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital.

These newly-trained instructors will then deliver the first cycle of training to around 25 middle managers over the next two years, working closely with UNCTAD experts and managers from other ports in the programme.

"In the port of Douala in Cameroon, a manager took what he learned from our programme, reorganizing the cargo loading and unloading operations to speed the port's work by 30-40%," Mr. Assaf says.

According to World Bank data, delays in ports add roughly 10% to the cost of imported goods, more in many cases than tariffs. For exports the harm is worse.