Africa is home to some of the poorest road networks in the world, which act as a major barrier for trade, education and healthcare. Not for long, though—as it's embarking on a frenetic road-building exercise that could revolutionize the entire continent.

You only need look at the numbers to realize that Africa's roads need attention. Figures from the World Bank reveal that the continent has 204 kilometers of road per 1000 square kilometers of land area, a quarter of which is paved. The world average is 944 kilometers per 1000 square kilometers, with over half paved. Sure, that's partly due to the fact that the continent is so large, but normalizing by population makes the picture even more bleak: the UK boasts 6,231 kilometers of paved road per million inhabitants, while South Africa manages just 1367 and South Sudan a mere 19.


Those figures are compelling enough that the Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa is taking the issue seriously, sinking 30 percent of its budget into transport. By 2040, it plans to grow the current network of major roads in Africa from 10,000 kilometers to 100,000. By then, through a process of upgrading existing roads or building entirely new ones, the continent should boast nine major arterial highways, some along the coast, others cross-country. Another 250,000 kilometers of smaller roads will also be upgraded or built, too, along with 70,000 kilometers of basic rural routes.

All told, that's a load of road. So what can the continent expect from them? The intention, as New Scientist points out, is to "boost trade, spark growth and create jobs." That's not as speculative as it sounds, either: a recent study near Johannesburg revealed that farmers living fours hours travel time from a major city achieved 45 percent crop yield, while those eight hours away managed just 5 percent. Efficient journeys allowed them to get tools and supplies more easily, and the benefit speaks for itself. Education and healthcare will also, naturally, benefit by reduced transit times.


It's not all roses, though. Much of the road-building has been spearheaded by mining organizations desperate to lay their hands on the mineral deposits of Central Africa. Such developments aren't very flexible in terms of routing, and sadly, many of the required roads storm straight through irreplaceable natural habitat. Add too that the natural environmental damage caused by building roads anywhere, not just in Africa, and the human risk created by the accidents that result from faster motor traffic, and there's at least some cause for concern.

But in the relentless push for development, those downsides are far outweighed by the promise of improved trade, education, healthcare and, above all, prosperity. Africa's plans for its new road infrastructure are storming along like the juggernauts that will end up using it—and it looks like little will be able to get in the way. [New Scientist]

Images by Felix Pharand-Deschenes/Globaia and jbdodane