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Des mobilités aux transports. Regards croisés en Afrique de l'Ouest

The West African port system: global insertion and regional particularities

Jean Debrie


The changes that occur in a port system depend on how it is integrated within the global maritime network and its relationship with local and regional spaces with their specific economic, political and geographical characteristics. The aim of this paper is to observe how this combination of the general changes affecting ports and specific regional transpositions is affecting the port system of West Africa. The way the system is changing is part of process of integration within the maritime network, but also a process which requires international transport operators to adapt to the characteristics of the West African space. This changing role of ports in the regional space allows us to identify a geography of operators which modifies services to areas.

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Port networks: a global change and regional transpositions

1The spread of containerization to all the world's maritime ranges has been accompanied by a change in the morphology of the networks that serve ports. Shipping lines and container terminal operators have thus developed a global network based on the hub and spoke system. This has created a new classification of ports, consisting of hinterland ports serving localized markets, transhipment ports, where a number of different shipping lines operate and carry out freight transfers, and combined ports which perform both functions (serving markets and reorganizing shipping routes). The development of the global network is thus based on the principles of port concentration and the hierarchical operation of shipping lines (Ducruet & al, 2011). There is an abundant academic literature on this network morphology (Fleming, 1994), on the change in port function from serving markets to performing transhipment (Gouvernal & al, 2009), and on the strategies of the international operators who are creating this new network (Frémont, 2007; Parola & al, 2008). This change goes hand in hand with globalization and therefore involves corporate affairs. Its basis is a trend towards "terminalization" to use the term coined by Brian Slack (2005), that is to say the transformation of ports into a set of interconnected terminals that operate within a global network that is structured by the strategy of a small number of international operators.

2The increase in the number of port concessions in the world in varied contexts of deregulation has permitted the break-up of ports into terminals and led to a change in the nature of the relationship between networks and the areas they serve. However, although the change in the network is a general phenomenon, it nevertheless takes different forms in different port ranges depending on the economic, political, and technical characteristics of the areas that are served. In order to understand a port system it is therefore necessary to explain the connection between the new types of maritime and port networks (a global hub and spoke network) and the way it is implemented in areas with specific regional and local features. Considering ports in their contexts provides a way of understanding the interplay between organizational factors (network morphology), institutional factors (regulation) and geographical factors (the characteristics of the area served by the port). The aim of this paper is to observe this combination of factors at work in the West African port system. West Africa occupies a marginal position in the economic system, but nevertheless provides a striking illustration of the changes that are occurring as a result of globalization and the deregulation of transport networks. The development of the region's ports is taking place within a process of integration within the global network (Part 1) which nevertheless requires the operators to adapt to the characteristics of the West African space (Part 2). The changes that are occurring in ports within the regional space reveal the presence of an operator geography which is changing or how areas are served.

Changes in West African ports: towards terminalization?

The colonial past and extraversion: a brief survey of port history

3The make-up of the West African port range was originally determined by colonial exploitation and subsequently consolidated by economic extraversion which determines the structure of trade. This is a well-known process that has been described by a number of geographers (Taaffe & al, 1963; Hoyle & Charlier, 1995; Debrie, 2010). Maritime transport was the means by which the European empires achieved continuity. It relied on the development of port infrastructure, which was served by railways and a network of tracks that made it possible to exploit the colonies. Although the ports and the inland routes permitted colonial exploitation it is important to note that the system was set up with a minimum of investment. The heritage of this historical period therefore consists of a small number of ports with poor facilities and a few railway lines that were not linked to each other and which enabled the competing colonial powers to carry out their export activities (for example, peanuts on the Niger/Dakar route, bananas on the Niger/Conakry route, coffee, cocoa and timber on the Niger/Abidjan route, and cotton, cocoa and mining products on the Gold Coast/Cape Coast routes). This initial system of ports was subsequently consolidated by the planning policies of the independent States. The ports were used by national economies to serve their regions by means of the historical railway lines alongside which roads were gradually built that formed an increasingly comprehensive national road network. The colonial epoch followed by the early days of independence produced infrastructure (ports and inland roads and railway lines) which matched the dominant economic structure of the areas served (extraversion). They are the first two stages of the way successive political authorities planned the path ports would follow. This way is similar in all area with a colonial past. In different areas in Africa (Maghreb, South Africa, East Africa), port cities have a polarization function in regional economy and spatial organization (Mohamed-Chérif & al, 2011).

Figure 1 – Ports and inland links (2007)

Figure 1 – Ports and inland links (2007)

Source: Michelin Map, n°953 – 2007.

The period of structural adjustment. Transport deregulation or opportunities for firms

4The 1980s marked a break with these planning operations and the start of a new phase of deregulation characterized by the withdrawal of the public authorities. In a context of crisis and debt, two major global organizations (the IMF and the World Bank) put in place structural adjustment plans which were approved and accepted throughout what is known as the international aid sector, i.e. at multilateral and governmental levels. These plans targeted the financial and macroeconomic context in the case of the IMF and the economic and sectoral context in the case of the World Bank and have divided the various areas of society and the economy into different sectors. In all cases, these sector-specific projects share the same underlying principle of reducing the scale of public involvement and increasing the presence of the private sector in increasingly deregulated sectors of the economy. In every West African country, Transport Sector Projects (TSP) have thus increased the role of the private sector in the transport and public works industries and revised the regulatory frameworks to permit the advent of the private sector within a so-called "priority" regional network (Lombard, 1999). The ports, which provide the entry and exit points to this network, were opened up to competition at the same time as the widespread application of a Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) concessionary system advocated by the World Bank. From the end of the 1980s, this network was to attract international investors who aimed to guide the ports towards new service strategies with support from international donors who focused their aid on the main infrastructure network and therefore the routes leading to and from ports.

5In this context, the 1980s and 1990s saw the massive involvement of the Bolloré and Maersk-Sealand groups in the full range of activities related to port services. This involvement first of all reflected the Bolloré group's strategy that it developed very early, in the mid-1980s. As the result of a sequence of takeovers, the activities of the group (which now operates under the single banner of Africa Logistics) are centred on the ports. Its activities range from port handling to rail operation and also include the management of inland terminals. This business model, which was launched by a series of takeovers (SCAC, SAGA…) and strengthened by a number of concessions for operating ports (Abidjan, Lagos, Tema …) and railway services (Sitarail, Camrail) and then more recently by the development of inland terminals (Bamako, Sikasso…), enables the company to offer integrated door-to-door services (transport, freight handling, administrative formalities) to a number of destinations from the ports. What is important here is not so much the detailed nature of the set-up, but the process of vertical integration involved, which has its basis in the desire to organize a hierarchical network around a small number of routes.

6The advent in the 1990s of the world's largest shipping line, Maersk-Sealand, duplicated Bolloré's set-up and produced a type of duopoly for services to the main ports. Maersk-Sealand's presence dates back to 1986 when it started to operate at Dakar, Abidjan and Lomé. From 1992 it began to implement an effective strategy of integration, after the Bolloré group's conviction under European law for non-competitive practices. Gradually, Maersk-Sealand developed a set-up similar to Bolloré's, at times operating port and inland terminals as a joint venture with Bolloré (Abidjan, Douala, Tema) or in competition with it. It served the West African coast as a shipping line, operated port terminals through its freight handling subsidiary AP Moller, and increasingly also performed inland transport via its logistics subsidiary DAMCO (Le Mens, 2011).

Towards terminalization? The spread of port concessions

7Recent years (2005-2010) have witnessed a third stage of development, characterized by the spread of port concessions leading to a broadening of competition. It marks the renewed presence of the private sector in the operation of terminals. Maersk-Sealand and Bolloré still dominate port activities - the new port concessions at Tema, Lagos, Pointe Noire, Abidjan and Conakry have been allocated to Bolloré and/or AP Moller, the Maersk-Sealand group’s freight-handling subsidiary (1Moller, haersk-Sealoler, the Maersk it. n>

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Figure 1 – Ports and inland lin2s (2007) 2

Source: Michelin Map, n°953 – 2007.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1 – Ports and inland links (2007)
Credits Source: Michelin Map, n°953 – 2007.
File image/jpeg, 100k
Title Figure 2 – The spread of port concessions
Credits Source: Port authorities, World Bank, 2011.
File image/jpeg, 172k
Title Figure 3 – Port containers traffic in West Africa, 2009
Credits Source: Containerisation international, 2011.
File image/jpeg, 164k
Title Figure 4 – The growth of containerisation in the West African Ports
Credits Source: Containerisation international 2011 & Secafil/Yann Alix 2011.
File image/jpeg, 209k
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Electronic reference

Jean Debrie, « The West African port system: global insertion and regional particularities  », EchoGéo [Online], 20 | 2012, Online since 13 July 2012, connection on 15 December 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/echogeo.13070

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About the author

Jean Debrie

Jean Debrie,, est Chargé de recherche, Université Paris Est, IFSTTAR, SPLOTT Il a publié récemment :
- Beyer A., Debrie J., 2011. Les temporalités urbaines et frontalières du port de Strasbourg : analyse géo-historique d’une relation fluviale ville-port. Revue Métropoles, n°10,
- Debrie J., 2010. From colonization to national territories in continental west Africa: the historical geography of a transport infrastructures network. Journal of Transport Geography, vol 18, Issue 2, p. 292-300.
- Debrie J., Comtois C., 2010. Une relecture du concept de corridors de transport : illustration comparée Europe/Amérique du nord. Les Cahiers Scientifiques du Transport, n°58, p. 127-144.

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