A hinterland corridor out of Haut Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has for long been a “sleeper link” compared to more active Copperbelt corridors to ports in Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, and Tanzania, but not for much longer.
With bulk rail infrastructure upgrades on the line from the DRC to Angola apparently nearing completion, the Lobito Corridor could become a significant challenger in the tug-of-war over copper and cobalt from mines around Kolwezi in the DRC.
As the crow flies, that corridor is the closest access way to the Port of Lobito, at just over 1 500 kilometres.
The corridors to the ports of Durban and Dar es Salaam are decidedly much further away, at respectively more than 2 900 and 2 100 kilometres away.
On the east side of Southern Africa, Beira is Lobito’s closest competitor, just over 1 900 kilometre from Kolwezi.
But many industry leaders believe its Namibia’s Port of Walvis Bay that could feel competition from Lobito up north the most, as the Angola port corridor is much shorter than the Walvis Bay-Ndola-Lubumbashi Development Corridor (WBDLDC).
However, logic in logistics isn’t necessarily just a distance issue, an industry thought leader (*) based in Walvis Bay has told Freight News.
“We’re not too worried about Angola and its corridor to the DRC. Of course, we’ve noticed that they are considering upgrading the ports and improving processes. But we also know how easily the port at Lobito can become a problem.
“What’s more is that Angola’s economy is largely oil-based, and we’ve also seen in the past how a drop in price of crude can cause big-ticket infrastructural upgrades to tank.”
“As for the other ports,” he remarked: “Beira is too small, regularly silts up and Dar and Durban, well, let’s just say that congestion is their Achilles heel, which is where our efficiency comes in.”
He said apart from the fact that there’s enough ore out of the DRC to keep everyone busy, free-flowing freight will always be an attractive market dynamic, even for outflows going to Asia and having to round the Cape.
“As with real estate, a port’s place on the map is all about location, but I think given the fact that we have capacity for ramped up volume, and because we don’t have congestion issues, shippers and lines will rather look at using Walvis Bay and efficient throughput than the congestion experienced at ports out east.”
One also has to factor in the roads in Namibia and its relative road safety – better maintained, safer and comparatively free of labour issues compared to what’s ‘on offer’ in countries like South Africa, he said.
Cost, though, is the proverbial elephant in the room, especially when competing with South Africa.
“If we can become more competitive with our rates, we could pose a serious challenge to South Africa and see more ore from the DRC coming out this way.”
That there are many angles to consider goes without saying, but one thing is certain – to realise its ambitions in becoming the principal outlet for DRC ore, Namibia has a lot riding on the WBNLDC,
Talking to anyone from the port’s marketing body, the Walvis Bay Corridor Group, and they will confirm that the WBNLDC is Namibia’s most important corridor.
Maximising volume on its Copperbelt corridor will be the surest way in the immediate to near future for Namibia to sweat one of its costlier assets, a port terminal upgrade that started with an input cost of about 3.5 billion US dollars, went to about $4.2 billion, and now exceeds $5 billiion.
* The source requested not to be named.
Read our special focus feature about Namibia's logistics sector, available this Friday, 19 May, only on Freight News.