The Roads of Africa: Moving Beyond the Tragedy of the Commons

The solution to Africa's moribund road system was illustrated to me in two recent trips to Kenya, one during the rainy season and one in the dry season.
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After ten trips to Africa, there is little that can shock me and not much I haven't done. I have slept in a Maasai village; slaughtered goats for community festivals; danced with Maasai warriors and gone dirty dancing in Nairobi nightclubs. Still, the one thing I had not done until recently was drive a vehicle on the African roads.

The Driving Challenge of African Roadways

Driving in Africa requires an earthly dose of manual dexterity; a physiological quantity of intestinal fortitude and an ethereal state of tranquility and grace. The roads challenge vehicles beyond their intended use and push the drivers beyond normal endurance. The sensory acuity and manual dexterity required to navigate African back roads rivals what is asked of fighter pilots or race car drivers. The fatalistic nihilism of matoto drivers challenges the courage of all but the most heaven-bound individuals.


Whenever I get in a taxi in an American city with an African driver, I have a profound sense of confidence that I will reach my destination safely. Nothing in the bawdy traffic of Boston, the repressed aggression of DC or the caffeine-induced pettiness of Seattle commuters can rival the death defying challenge of the African roads. Entering a taxi with an African driver gives me solace and comfort. Alighting from the taxi with a heartfelt "Salam Alachem" provides a spiritual coda for a trip well taken.Long in awe of African drivers, I never thought I could become one. But on my sixth trip to Kenya when we purchased a well-worn four wheel drive vehicle for our school program, I undertook the ultimate challenge. If I could navigate my boat through rocky shoals on the West Coast of Vancouver Island or fly an airplane through a cloud bank I could surely drive in Kenya. At a deeper level, however, the desire to drive in Kenya was part of my maturation as a true expatriate. It was the ultimate test of my acumen and ability to adopt the African ways. Driving African roads is more akin to navigating a boat through challenging seas with each road type corresponding to a different sea state.

There are the heavily graveled roads where millions of loose pebbles cover the surface never permitting the tires to make firm contact with the road surface. Navigating these roads is akin to piloting a speedboat on a plane, skimming above the surface of the water. On a road, this sensation is manifested in a floating sensation for the passengers and a feeling in the driver that he is not fully in control.

Then there is the hard dirt road with firmly imbedded rocks jutting four to six inches from the surface creating a random pattern like a huge upward turned metal rasp. Driving a vehicle over these roads creates a banging osculation from the base of the spine to the top of the neck, an experience that even John Yoo would characterize as torture. These roads are avoided at all costs. Drivers put one wheel in the worn track and the other in the ditch resulting in the vehicle travelling down the road at a 40 degree list. Whenever possible, the driver diverts from the established road to one of the many dirt tracks that have been cut through the bush by previous victims. The proliferation of diversions cuts into the grass, etching a progression of ugly brown scars in the pristine savannah as each diversion fills with mud and becomes impassable, fording drivers to divert further and further afield from the main road.

Occasionally, one comes across a well packed gravel road and cautiously increases speed to 40 MPH. However, drivers must keep a weather eye as a gravel road can switch to a rock-strewn crater surface in an instant.

The above road types describe the better road conditions that one encounters in the African bush. Often the road ceases altogether and the driver is confronted with a series of 24 inch ditches that must be navigated through or a rock pile that must be dexterously transited. Overcoming these obstacles requires the driver to come to a complete stop and slowly ease the vehicle down into the ditch and gun the motor to lift the front tires out again, hoping that sufficient traction will be maintained to lift the vehicle out and that the long suffering clutch will not choose this time to abandon its brave struggle.

And then there is the mud. I have learned that the mud in African roads comes in many forms calling for different navigation strategies. Deep troughs of mud between each wheel track require the driver to balance precipitously on the two tracks lest the vehicle becomes sucked into the muddy bog. Other times the wheel tracks become channels of mud requiring the driver to balance on the vehicle between the crown of the road and the outer shoulder. Other times the mud covers the entire road causing the vehicle to yaw from to side.


Just as a pilot must learn to ignore his sensation and trust his instruments , so must the African driver learn to avoid the instinct to choose dry mud over deep puddles of mud. Where standing water covers the trench, the driver learns that the surface below the water may be hard enough to be impermeable to water and thus hopefully able to withstand the weight of a vehicle. In contrast, dried mud has no bottom and gleefully sucks the unsuspecting vehicle into an axel deep caldron of traction-less oblivion.

As with the roads impregnated with stones, drivers' attempts to avoid muddy bogs causes the road to progressively broaden as vehicles seek the relative stability of grasslands over the known frustration of mud. After a few passes, the lush grass itself is reduced to mud and a new diversion is established, progressively transforming the pristine grassland into a vast lake of mud, a stark blemish to the unspoiled beauty of the Serengeti and a blight to the delicate environmental balance of the region.

The challenge of navigating through mud is separate from crossing rivers and streams. The better bridges in the bush are one lane sheets of concrete bereft of any guardrails or markers. Most streams one simply drives on through. The level of a stream varies hourly; waterways that can be safely transited in the morning may become impassable by afternoon. Driving through a stream requires a willful suspension of disbelief because the brackish water conceals its true depth, leaving the driver unsure whether the stream can be successfully crossed. Slowly entering the stream, one feels the bow of the vehicle descend and water rise to the axel level. At this point, there is no turning back. Slowly moving forward, the water level rises to the wheel wells and the driver must control his instinct to accelerate quickly lest the splash from radiator fan short out the distributor or, worse, hydro-lock the engine. As the nose of the car ceases its downward motion and begins to move upward the driver experiences an exhilarating sense of grace with the only remaining hope that the creek bottom is hard enough to provide sufficient traction to lift the front of the vehicle out of the water and onto land. Once ashore, the driver floors the gas pedal to lift the vehicle back to road level, emitting a jet blast of mud in a 45 degree cone of filth behind the vehicle.

If the aforesaid road conditions described private driveways or informal passageways, it would not be so surprising. However, all of the roads described above are official government roads that connect major communities and trading centers. Roads once built are seldom repaired and with heavy use soon delaminate into a lunar surface of cracks and potholes.

This is all a stark illustration of the stifled economic development that Africa experienced in the last quarter of the twentieth century. For example, in the Maasai Mara region of South Kenya where I maintain my program, the road between Talek and Mswani is a significant trading route transited by hundreds of vehicles per day. Along the road, there is a three foot gash bisecting the road that requires each driver to come to a complete halt, ease the vehicle down into the ditch and up power up the other side. Despite the fact that hundreds of vehicles transit the road daily, the gash has remained in the same unrepaired state from January to October with no sign of improvement in the future. This road impediment provides a fitting talisman of a government lacking the organization, resources or commitment to provide safe and reliable roadways for its people and a populace bereft of confidence to demand more for its leaders.A Tragedy of the CommonsAfrican road conditions provide a perfect case study for what economists refer to as a Tragedy of the Commons. In classical economic parlance, a Tragedy of the Commons exists where a common resource becomes progressive depleted when each individual user of the resource follows his individual economic self-interest to collective detriment. The classical paradigm is a common grazing land in medieval England where each villager's economic interest is to graze as many cows on the commons as possible, despite the fact that the collective result is to deluge the common resource with more cows than it can sustain. The analogy has also been used to describe the collapse of the New England cod and Alaska King Crab fisheries where fisherman invested ever-increasing amounts of money into ever more elaborate and expensive technology to capture a progressively diminishing quantity of fish. However applied, a Tragedy of the Commons describes an economic death spiral where an individual's efforts to pull out of the spiral, however rational, only accelerate the collective crash.

Economic theory teaches that the only exit from a Tragedy of the Commons is to assign the collective resource to a single individual or government entity. Once the right to graze on the commons is assigned, the owner has the economic incentive to allow the maximum number of cows on the grasslands to maximize profit, but halt grazing at the precise point where future profitability is impended by overgrazing.

African roads have all the hallmarks of a Tragedy of the Commons. In rational pursuit of their economic self-interest, drivers push their vehicles to the maximum level of endurance, replacing tires, air filters, shock absorbers and clutches with a far greater frequency than the intended useful life of these products. 2010-11-10-images-tireJPG.JPG Mechanics are constantly on hand to replace distributor caps shorted by unsuccessful river crossings, axels broken by ditches and oil pans and mufflers shattered by uncharted rocks. Even with constant repair, a vehicle can only take so much abuse and in Kenya one rarely sees a vehicle more than ten years old. Ironically, while Gross National Income (Per Capita) in Kenya is one percent that of the United States, one sees far more of late model cars operating on American roads than in Kenya. Moreover, the tortuous road conditions force African drivers to eschew lightweight fuel efficient vehicles in favor of more robust gas guzzlers, notwithstanding the fact that the price of fuel in rural Kenya is significantly higher than in the United States.

Besides out-of-pocket expenses caused by damaged and depreciating vehicles, the extended delay caused by decrepit roads imposes opportunity costs that are equally significant. While the African maxim of Hakunah Matata alleviates most of the frenetic anxiety experienced by American commuters, the decrepit state of African roads imposes substantive economic costs. On my last trip, I saw a farm tractor that had become stuck pulling a wagon stacked with farm goods to market. By the time the ungainly vehicle was extricated at around 1pm, it was still more than an hour from Talek where the weekly market day had begun at 9am. By the time their goods arrived, the market day would be almost over and the merchants would have to sell their goods at vastly reduced costs or pay to ship them back and hope for better prices the next market day. The opportunity costs on the merchants were palpable.

Unreliable road conditions also raise construction costs and increase delays. We experienced this when attempting to purchase lumber for the desks in one of our solar powered computer labs. The pickup truck carrying the lumber was unable to get across a stream that had become engorged by a spring downfall while the carpenters waited at the school to commence work. We manually unloaded each sheet of plywood from the truck, carried it across a foot bridge and loaded it into another pickup truck to take to our center. A simple task of obtaining plywood became a day-long ordeal with corresponding opportunity and out-of-pocket costs. In other regions, crops rot on their way to market or arrive in such poor condition that the price must be discounted to effectuate a sale. Finally, the high cost of transportation imposes a tax on every African who purchases good in rural areas, from sandals to sodas.


Despite the prodigious economic costs imposed by the moribund road system as well as their stultifying effect on future development, none of the effective individuals has the economic incentive or ability to solve the problem. A vehicle owner will simply double down on spare tires and shock absorbers rather than smooth the rock studded road that chew up rubber tires like a cheese grater. A truck driver will come to a complete stop and ease his vehicle across a rock strewn ditch rather than invest in the weeklong project to build the road back up to grade. A driver will cut diversion after diversion into pristine grasslands, diminishing grazing lands available for Maasai cattlemen, rather than invest the time and resources into patching the pot holes on the paved road. And the traveler will continue to blaze on through a stream instead of building a bridge.

In Western countries, road building has been the province of governmental entities and a tremendous source of revenue and political pork. However the interstate highway system that transformed American demography, culture and economics emerged in a bygone era of pax-Americana when bountiful amounts of federal money were available to finance road construction and bevies of well-trained and experienced road contractors were on hand to implement the program. While highway construction is quintessentially the object of political pork, the paucity of outright graft enabled the relatively high quality roads to be completed more or less as intended. Once built, the existent gas tax and other revenue generation, together with public demand for quality roadways, ensures a steady source of funds for maintaining roads and the large array of public and private contractors ensures that the work will be performed.

None of this economic and political infrastructure exists in Africa and effort to replicate the model has proved a failure. In the 1990s the road from Nairobi to Narok was paved, but the contract was awarded to politically connected contractors and within five years the road was impassable. (The road has since been re-built by Italian contractors but its unclear how long it will last). African governments often lack the political capital to finance expansive road projects and the political ability to deliver.A (Modest) Market Based Solution

The solution to Africa's moribund road system was illustrated to me in two recent trips to Kenya, one during the rainy season and one in the dry season. During the first trip, the road from Narok to Mswani was strewn with mud and a line of cars and trucks backed up as they cautiously transited across streams and through mud bogs. At one point, the mud in the road became too deep and wide for even the most skillful driver to navigate and the only way to complete our passage was to divert through a farmer's adjoining field. As the line of vehicles exited the roadway driving up onto the field, the farmer collected a toll from each passing vehicle as compensation for the crops damaged by vehicles.

The second example was a similar example where the laws of economics offer a solution to Africa's road system. Driving from Talek to Narok, the road became increasingly potholed, but the private land adjoining the road negated the typical solution of a self help diversion; a man with a shovel was patching the potholes with gravel to smooth out the ride and accepting gratuities from passing motorists.

These two examples provide the outlines of a paradigm for solving Africa's endemic road crisis in an obtainable and sustainable manner. Instead of expending large sums and employing foreign contractors to construct state-of-the-art road systems in the African bush, foreign aid should provide loans to local entrepreneurs to purchase bulldozers and graders at a reduced price and encourage local governments to grant the right to exact tolls for passage on the road.

While the assignment of the building will surely be subject to political and economic influence, the entrepreneur will have the incentive to maintain the road in a manner that maximizes the number of drivers that utilize his roads. Unlike a publicly-built road that once constructed will decay into impassability, a private road owner retains the incentive to preserve her investment. Similarly, market forces will set a level of toll that is high enough to cover regular road maintained but low enough so as not to dissuade drivers from taking another route or reducing their number of trips. Finally, although drivers will be forced to forfeit a toll to pass the road, the cost will be offset by the time savings of a faster trip, the reduction in wear and tear on the vehicle and the ultimate ability to utilize a less robust but more fuel efficient vehicle.

Clearly, some regulation will be required to ensure that the roadway conforms to a minimal standard and that isolated villages do not experience the monopolistic perfidy from road barons that rural American communities received from the railroads in the Nineteenth Century. Nevertheless, government exercising its regulatory function is closer to traditional governmental functions than putting the government in charge of road building and maintenance. Finally, a foreign aid paradigm centered on empowering indigenous entrepreneurs to address local problems with local solutions provides the only real hope for sustainable development and meaningful progress.

Adoption of a market based solution to the African road crisis will clearly lack allure to large international donor communities. Indigenous private investors lack the multi-million dollar budgets of foreign governments and are unlikely to festoon the African bush with ribbons of concrete. Instead, private road networks are likely to begin with relatively simple gravel and dirt roads that are a far cry from the super highways familiar to westerners or even African urbanites. Nevertheless, a private road owner will have the incentive to maintain the road with regular application of bulldozers, graders and gravel trucks and, over time, recognize the economic benefits of paved roads. That will allow more drivers to make more trips in less time.

Most significantly, under a market based paradigm, road improvement and expansion will track economic development in local communities with more elaborate road networks emerging in areas of growing commerce and opportunity. While this market-based approach will ensure that there will be fewer elaborate highways to hold up as a symbol of western largesse, it will provide African communities with a meaningful antidote to the Tragedy of the Commons, expand opportunities for sustainable economic development and bestow the African people with something lacking under the current foreign aid regime: respect.

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