The tortoise and the hare: will America ever match China's impact in Africa?

Halfway between Angola’s capital city, Luanda, and the country’s southern border with Namibia, lies the Atlantic Ocean port city of Lobito. From here, a century-old railway line snakes its way deep into the interior of Angola, eventually crossing into the mineral-rich southern reaches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and, further, into northern Zambia.

This 1700 km rail corridor once carried most of the copper exported from Zambia and the DRC (then known as Zaire). However, Angola’s disastrous 27-year Civil War (which ended in 2002), along with similar troubles in the DRC, brought all the traffic to a lengthy halt. The corridor was abandoned and neglected. Rails rusted into the soil, and nature slowly reclaimed the right of way.

But now the Lobito corridor is stirring back to life. It has recently become the target of the largest-ever investment into infrastructure in Africa by the United States, and the stage from which it hopes to start diluting China’s influence on the continent. It has been primarily through large and ambitious infrastructure projects, after all, that the Asian giant has cultivated friendships with African countries.


Consequently, the Lobito Corridor is the first project under the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PGI), America’s answer (through the G7) to China’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It consists of proposed upgrades to, and maintenance of, the existing railway line, as well as the building of a new 800 km extension to connect it to another railway line that runs from Zambia to the coast of Tanzania, which will result in the first trans-African railway corridor.

Alongside these core interventions, the project also involves investments into supporting facilities and additional infrastructure, like bridges in rural areas, new and upgraded access roads, mines, renewable energy plants, and agricultural processing facilities, among others. In short, its ambition is to catalyse development along the entire length of the corridor, rather than just at its termini.

The project has come together with a swiftness that is quite rare for projects of its type and scale. The PGI was launched at the G7 meeting in Japan in May 2023. Barely two months later, on 4th July, the Lobito Atlantic Railway, a new joint venture involving three large European multinational companies, secured a 30-year concession (extendable to 50 years) to operate the railway.


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The last piece fell into place in October, when the governments of Angola, the DRC and Zambia, together with the United States, the European Commission, the African Development Bank, and the Africa Finance Corporation, signed an MOU to jointly promote and finance the corridor’s development. The parties have already held two forums, and committed US$1 billion to various aspects of the project so far.


The full price tag of the project is yet to be determined (and will probably be overshot anyway, given its scale). Nevertheless, whatever it ends up costing will be pocket-change in comparison to what China has already invested into African infrastructure. China has been at the game for so long, and spent so much, that not even a project this ambitious can even begin to dislodge it. While America was busy promoting the LGBT agenda and other culture war crap in Africa, China was laying down concrete; now America has to play catch-up, on a pitch China built.

To illustrate China’s entrenchment in Africa’s infrastructural fabric, there’s perhaps no better example than the Lobito Corridor project itself. It was China, after all, that first revived it. From 2006 to 2014, it renovated and upgraded the 1300 km-long Angolan section of the railway, at a cost of US$2 billion, in exchange for oil. By the end of the works, the line had 67 stations and a design speed of up to 90 km/h, with a capacity to move 20 million tonnes of cargo and four million passengers annually.

And now that America and its friends want to upgrade and extend the line further, it is Chinese mining companies that stand to gain the most from it. They control most of the mines in the DRC and Zambia, and export most of the ores (in various states of processing) back home. Right now, this cargo is mainly moved by lorries to ports in various southern African countries, with up to 50-day round trips. A revamped Lobito corridor would cut this down to under 20 days, and significantly lower costs.

In short, unless America stays focused, likely for decades, on developing new critical mineral value chains running through Western facilities (hopefully via African ones), it is China, rather than America, that will make its first-ever large-scale infrastructural investment on the continent economically viable in the long run. This is the inescapable result of China’s first-mover advantage.

This is not to say that America and its Western partners should abandon the project. Quite the contrary. They can, and should, make an alternative infrastructural offer to Africa, and commit to its long-term success. The rewards to be had are rich, the costs are hardly unaffordable, and necessity bids them. For all its ambition, the Lobito Corridor should be just the start.

China’s lead is massive, but it is not unassailable. Unless, of course, America is willing to concede the future.

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.

Image: Pexels


Showing 4 reactions

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  • Christopher Szabo
    commented 2024-02-17 01:34:11 +1100
    Nice article, Matthew!
    I am just concerned that the West, but especially America, will lose interest as is their custom, and fail to take advantage of the possibilities. I hope the African leaders can keep both in the game and reap the benefits.
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-02-16 12:53:49 +1100
    Hi Mathew Otieno,

    My suggestion: Africans should simply play the two sides off against each other.

    As for the Lobito Corridor, my guess is US interest has as much to do with access to copper as to countering Chinese influence. Lobito, after all, is an Atlantic port.
  • mrscracker
    China has been pretty busy in Latin America also.
  • Mathew Otieno
    published this page in The Latest 2024-02-14 18:16:10 +1100