The Senegambia bridge, a new $93.7m bridge over the Gambia River, has the potential to transform trade in west Africa by improving the road corridors connecting Mauritania with Senegal and Nigeria. 

The 942-metre-long toll bridge, opened by Gambian president Adama Barrow and Senegal president Macky Sall in January 2019 – is located entirely in Gambia, close to the town of Farafenni, but has a much wider social and economic impact as part of the trans-Gambia road corridor.

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It forms a major plank of an initiative spearheaded by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, the economic development programme of the African Union, to link Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, with Lagos in Nigeria via a 15-country, 4560km highway. The aim of the road link is to boost trade and co-operation significantly in the west African region. 

Unusual geography

Gambia, which has 2.4 million inhabitants and a $1.95bn economy, according to the International Monetary Fund, is a sliver of land surrounded by much bigger neighbour Senegal on its northern, eastern and southern sides. Known as the ‘Smiling Coast’, the Anglophone country is the smallest nation in mainland Africa with a geographic area of 11,295 square kilometres – around the size of the US state of Maryland. Francophone Senegal is much bigger, however, at 197,000 square kilometres and has a population of 17 million and a $25.7bn economy. 

The bridge connects northern Senegal with the country’s Casamance region, which mostly lies south of the Gambia, for the first time. Until it was opened, Senegalese people had to use an unreliable ferry crossing or go the long route round Gambia. Lorry drivers could spend days – and sometimes up to a week – queuing to cross the river, with the risk that perishable goods could spoil. It now takes a lorry about eight hours to queue up and cross the bridge. The new border posts significantly reduce the time for customs formalities. 

However, the Covid-19 pandemic has hampered commerce between Gambia and Senegal and the bridge’s full economic potential will not be realised until the emergency passes. Land borders between the two countries have been closed since March and the bridge’s authorities have only allowed emergency vehicles to pass over. 

“The new bridge will really help Senegal more than the Gambia,” says Jobe Hally Mass, managing director of Atlas Energy, a Gambian petroleum-importing company that owns 29 petrol stations in the country. “The borders between the Gambia and Senegal have always been pretty porous but the new bridge will make it a lot easier for Senegalese to travel between the southern and northern parts of Senegal. 

“Before it was constructed, many Senegalese had to travel up to 700km to go around the Gambia. The bridge will cut off a big bottleneck and will also make trade between Senegal and other neighbouring countries such as Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Sierra Leone a lot easier.”

Cutting time

The trans-Gambia highway is expected to slash passenger and freight transport costs by more than 50%, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB). 

The bridge took seven years to construct and was almost entirely financed by the AfDB through a grant of $88.4m to the Gambian government and a $4.4m loan to the Senegalese government. Construction works were carried out by a joint venture of Spanish company Isolux Corsán and Senegalese firm Arezki Group. The Gambia Ferries Service and the National Roads Authority jointly share the revenue from the tolls. 

“For Senegal, the bridge has considerably shortened travel time and facilitated the movements of goods and people from Dakar [the Senegalese capital] to the rest of Senegal to the south,” says Victoria Billing, the British ambassador to Senegal. “The key impact for Senegal is that the region of the Casamance – which used to have a separatist conflict – is no longer as isolated from the rest of Senegal. It will have a big impact on tourism and trade in that region.”

She adds that better roads are needed leading to and after crossing the bridge. Bridge users are also demanding an automatic toll to reduce the long queues to manually pay the fee, which is around $5 for a car.   

“The main beneficiaries of the project – estimated at over 900,000 [people] – comprise mostly rural local communities, private enterprises involved in the freight sector, governmental institutions and the ordinary population in the region who are expected to have improved access to reliable and affordable transport services,” says Marie Laure Akin-Olugbade, director for the west Africa region at the AfDB. “We are very proud that this bridge is not just a piece of infrastructure. It is a vital link between people, between communities, and between regions. Future generations will wonder how people could have lived so long without it.”

The project aligns with the Gambia’s National Development Plan spanning 2018 to 2021, which recognises high transport costs as a major barrier to the development of the economy’s productive sectors. 

Effect of Covid-19

Gambia was ranked 155 among 190 economies in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business annual ratings 2020, a deterioration of six places on 2019 rankings. Transparency International ranked the country in 96th place out of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index 2019. 

The economy expanded by 5.97% in 2019 but is forecast to rise by only 2.5% in 2020 before recovering to 6.5% in 2021, according to the IMF, while Senegal expanded by 5.3% in 2019 and is forecast to grow by 3% in 2020 and by 5.5% in 2021. 

Covid-19 has had a major adverse impact on the Gambia. Tourism accounts for 20% of the country’s economy and provides a living for a fifth of the population, according to the World Economic Forum. FDI inflows into Gambia dropped to $32m in 2019 from $33m in 2018, according to Unctad, while total stock of FDI was estimated at $443m in 2019. Agro-processing activities and tourism attracted most investment, with main investors coming from India, Lebanon, Mauritania, China and the UK. 

The Gambia Investment and Export Promotion Agency says the biggest opportunities for foreign investment lie in agro-processing, information and communications technology and light manufacturing. 

The Senegambia bridge should play a vital role in facilitating future trade in west Africa and helping to integrate the region – but its full potential will only be felt once the Covid-19 crisis passes. 

This article first appeared in the August - September edition of fDi Magazine. View a digital edition of the magazine here.