Transportation in Nigeria and the Need for Innovative Thought

The Lekki-Ikoyi Bridge (Photo by Loye Oyedotun (me))

Ask the average Nigerian on the street these days what is one of the major problems which plagues Nigeria. The standard answer is always Kworruption. But dig a bit further and they are likely to also mention infrastructure, a dearth of which affects every facet of life in the country. A trip from the country’s capital of Abuja to Lagos the economic capital (think D.C. and New York) should take no more than 8 hours in an ideal world. Yet the lack of adequate road networks, railways etc balloons the estimated time to almost two days. Getting goods to market is a similarly trying experience. The consulting firm PwC tells us that “Nigeria’s roads carry more than 90% of domestic passengers and freight. Road network density is more than double that of other resource-rich African countries, although still only half of the levels found in Africa’s middle-income countries.” We need to consider new ways of moving our people which will prove cheaper and more efficient.

Using an analogy of the body, infrastructure is the network of blood vessels which pumps life blood to every corner of the country. The life-blood of a country are its people and the products they create (manufacturing is a story for another day). Thus, reading about both the recently signed $2 billion contract with GE to rehabilitate the country’s existing Rail network and President Muhammadu Buhari’s $6 billion loan request to the Senate to finance additional Rail projects was extremely heartening as I believe it is a step in the right direction in the grand scheme of things (although one wonders about the sustainability of such debt and would personally prefer a bond system be used which can then be paid off using the cash flow from tickets). Yet, read a little more into who is financing the $6 billion loan, the Chinese Exim (Export Import) Bank, and one starts to ask questions of if we are going far enough, especially when we think of what China itself had already accomplished 20 years ago.

Watching an Elon Musk interview from 2013 when he launched the Tesla S in the United Kingdom really got me thinking, especially as America’s infrastructure network is already so far ahead of Nigeria’s and he is still so deeply dissatisfied with it. He speaks about the California high speed rail and how they have been doing better things in Japan and China for the last 30 years (China popping up everywhere). Please watch the video for yourself starting at 1:58.

He goes on to note that in the near future (15–20 years most likely), a large part of Britain and indeed much of the developed world will be run off Solar energy which is becoming more efficient and as a result cheaper every day. Apart from the overhead cost of solar panels and the transmission network, the energy source itself is free perpetually. Do we understand the ramifications of what he has said? NO ONE will want our dirty oil (although in comparison to oil drilled in many other areas of the world our Bonny Light Crude is actually one of the cleanest).

Watch also:

Musk has raised two important transportation concepts worth exploring. The first is the possibility of underground tunnels as a means of mass transportation. The second is the Hyper-loop as it has been termed. A means by which rapid high-speed transport can occur.

As with most things in Nigeria it boils down to a need for innovation and what seems to be a low level of ambition. We don’t need to actually have the tunnels seen in the video, or implement the hyper-loop system. The ideas and spirit behind it are the aim. The implementation of a single gauge rail network is obviously not the answer. It will be impossible for Nigeria to ever progress past what has already been accomplished if we are unwilling to attempt new ideas and make the country a testing-ground for cutting edge technology. I don’t claim by any stretch of the imagination to possess all the answers, my purpose in writing this article is to provoke discussion about how we as a nation could go about leapfrogging rather than playing catch-up.

At the rate the world is advancing if serious action (NOT JUST PLANNING) is not taken, Nigeria will be left behind. It’s that simple. Nigeria is a country with weak regulations, we complain about it constantly, but we do not see the inherent opportunities that this presents to our country. We do not have entrenched legislation which makes doing something new hard (speaking tongue-in-cheek here). This means we can invite many of these cutting-edge companies to run tests of their new technology, give them space to innovate, but make sure they hire from the domestic labor force to directly ensure they train a portion of our population in advanced hard skills.

Are we as a country content to forever lag behind? Or are we ready to try new things where chances/probability of failure might be high, but the return on even a few of these ideas bearing fruit would be astronomical?

Lastly, I know how large Nigeria’s Energy problems are, and that after Corruption this is the next thing the average Nigerian will mention. But I have not deigned to discuss them as I genuinely think Nigeria’s power problems will be resolved within the next 20–25 years as long as we are able to upgrade our transmission network. We will start to notice an incremental increase in electricity around every two or so years as more and more power projects such as Azura and many Solar projects come online in phases and then fully.

Food for thought: In a recent Bloomberg article which discussed the emergence of the UAE Space Agency as well as Space Agencies in a few other Middle Eastern countries, it was mentioned that the middle East serves as a good launch site for rockets and ships as “ The closer a country is to the equator, the more surface velocity there is from spinning around the Earth’s axis, meaning space ships need to burn less fuel to exit the atmosphere.” By this very same reasoning, it is in no way shape or form a leap of logic to think that Nigeria, a country based directly on the equator with large masses of unoccupied land might serve as a fantastic launch site. If the Nigerian Space Agency (Yes, there is one) were to get in contact with both Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin just to utilize Nigeria as an assembly ground and testing ground for their rockets we could get the ball rolling. It’s a matter of gaining expertise.

For those interested, more resources to read:

Please leave your comments below and let me know your thoughts. I am looking for constructive conversation as a starting point for us to create the future.