October 2013

Fits and starts

Some Senegalese transport options improve as others flounder

By Eavan Moore

Senegal’s transportation network radiates from its western focal point, the coastal capital of Dakar. Recent years have seen considerable investments made towards networks that go into and out of that region, which contains a natural deep-water harbour, a quarter of Senegal’s 13 million inhabitants and about 80 per cent of its economic activity.

A new international airport, estimated to cost over $45 million and funded in large part by international loans, has been under construction just outside Dakar since 2007. It is expected to be commissioned in the first quarter of 2014. The first phase of construction will allow a capacity of three million passengers per year, with an ultimate expansion goal of accommodating 10 million – about the same as the Honolulu International Airport.

The Port of Dakar manages a growing load of traffic bound for Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mauritania. Altogether it handled 11.9 million tonnes in 2012, an increase of four per cent from 2011 and 19 per cent from 2008.

An exponential increase in container traffic led the terminal operator DP World to construct a new terminal with doubled container capacity, from under 300,000, 20-foot equivalent units (TEU) to more than 600,000 TEU. The new terminal opened in 2011. The government of Senegal has plans for a deepwater port at Sendou, but those have yet to be formalized.

Bulk handling facilities at the port are limited to phosphate shipments, according to Simon Finnis, CEO of Grande Côte Operations, which is building a mineral sands project 150 kilometres north of Dakar. The port allocated a berth and a patch of land to Grande Côte, which is using the space to build its own storage facility and automated ship loading facility at a cost of US$25 million. “There are certainly other bulk products being shipped out and coming in but they’re done on a piecemeal basis and they use very rudimentary methods for unloading,” Finnis adds.


Most of the overland traffic to and from the port travels by road. The 35-kilometre Dakar-Diamniado Toll Highway, which opened this year, is intended to ease congestion and help revitalize low-income Dakar neighbourhoods. Whe­ther it accomplishes that or not, it has helped at least one local highway user: having a high-quality freeway shaved a half an hour off the commute between Dakar and Grande Côte.

Paved highways extend into eastern Senegal as well. Teranga Gold’s Sabodala gold mine (p. 66) uses one of the few highways in the country: a two-lane asphalt road heading east from Dakar, through the town of Kedougou, and into Mali. “We have a pretty good highway for approximately 95 per cent of the distance from Dakar,” says Paul Chawrun, Teranga’s vice-president of technical services.

Where the highway stops, users build their own roads out of laterite, an iron-rich soil type that hardens to form cheap, all-weather surfaces. “We just buy the raw material and it comes as loose earth with some rocks in it,” says Finnis. “You lay it out and prepare it properly and it goes down quite hard. It’s really quite good quality.”

The laterite needs to be maintained, especially in the rainy season when it becomes slippery, but Chawrun says easy access to construction materials and a favourable topography are two of the reasons that road-building costs significantly less than in other parts of the world. “It’s nothing [compared] to the cost you would have, say, to build a road in northern Ontario,” he says.

Twenty kilometres away from Teranga’s operation, gold exploration company Bassari Resources relies on the public roads that run within its leases. President Jozsef Patarica says about a 10-hour drive gets him from Dakar to the site, with about 90 per cent of the 700-odd kilometres on paved roads – an improvement from earlier, pre-asphalt years when the same distance would be a three-day journey. “They’ve been bituminized in the last couple of years,” he says.


Senegal’s 906 kilometres of railway, in theory a helpful link to the Port of Dakar, have a chequered history and uncertain future. The narrow-gauge rail line between Dakar and Bamako, Mali, dates back to the early 20th century. In 2012, stories in the Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that iron ore cars travelling to Dakar could only run one-third full because the track was too weak to sustain full loads, and that passenger service had been cut entirely on the Senegal side for safety reasons. El Pais also reported that in 2011, there was a derailment every three days on average.

An attempt to kick-start investment in the railway system by privatizing it in 2003 did not bear fruit. According to an essay in the Montreal-based Les Journals des Alternatives, the Franco-Canadian consortium Transrail, which took over operations, ran a deficit of $20 million over its first three years of operation and created union unrest by laying off workers. In 2011, a Senegalese government railway source estimated that US$1.6 billion would be needed to strengthen the tracks and allow iron ore and phosphates from Malian mines to reach Dakar. To date, Transrail has not found such funding.

“I think there’s been chronic underinvestment on rail in Senegal for the last two decades,” says Finnis. “So, the rail has been underutilized and of a poor quality.”

Grande Côte has taken over the management of 100 kilometres of rail and is refurbishing it at a cost of about US$40 million over three years. “There was a main rail line that ran up past the project, and we’re building a spare line into the mine and also renovating the line between the mine and Dakar, so that we can send our products via rail,” Finnis explains. “We’re bringing our own locomotives and our own rolling stock as well. So we’ll own our own transit, so to speak.” Existing users will continue to use the rail line.

Finnis notes that Grande Côte would have had to make investments in transport infrastructure anywhere it operated. “Certainly, we took the position that we wanted to control our own destiny with regard to rail transport, hence we were happy to invest in the infrastructure,” he says.

However, when asked what is needed for the country’s future, Finnis returns to rail: “Senegal has a wonderful asset in the port. If the country was able to link that port with rail to other West African nations, that would be a huge benefit.”

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