Clearly, the Last Mile video (see below) has struck a chord in many places all over the developed, fractured and emerging world. Many thanks for the comments. More has to be done on infrastructure. However, several commentators stress that this is only part of the story. What about the roads to the marketplace and the perils beyond the potholes…

In another post we have mentioned the horrendous issues facing truck drivers. Robert Guest’s book The Shackled Continent (2004) develops this theme in Africa. He tells the tale of hitching 500 kms on a Cameroonian truck carrying Guiness from the brewery in to Douala to Bertoua, a small town in Cameroun’s south-eastern jungle. The journey, on unpaved rainforest roads and with a detour caused by a collapsed bridge was supposed to take 18 hours – it took four days. Before we go back to the drawing board and yell and scream for the funds to build the roads and bridges to speed things up – after all, African logistics costs are ridiculously high – there is something far more sinister at work. The beer truck was stopped FORTY SEVEN times at police roadblocks while the police worked hard at finding faults that only bribes could solve.

A study on the investment climate in Rwanda covered on the BBC World Service in December 2008 tracked product movements from the ports in Kenya through Uganda and into Rwanda. This is a journey of 1400 kms. There were 50 roadblocks or, one every 30 kms. At each roadblock local police would seek bribes to allow the trucks to move on. This is a purely local issue demanding concerted action.

Tim Harford, a former member of the World Bank’s Doing Business Study, highlights the havoc that such bribes are causing in Africa. It is the same story in India and elsewhere. It gets worse – as Guest points out, the road system in Cameroun is not just poor it has shrunk! In 1980, there were 7.2 kms of roads per 1,000 people; by 1995, this had shrunk to only 2.6 kms per 1,000 people, less than 10% of which are paved.

We will explore the value of a functioning road network to a developing country in another post. However, Logistics is not just about the physical movement of goods. It has to be about all of the procedures and processes that ensure or slow down the flow of goods and threaten the business continuity that foreign investors seek. 

Corruption does play a role BUT this is made easy by far too often by the spaghetti of Policy and regulation that makes it easy to slow things down to speed things up – at a price. Given that much of the goods in the bottlenecks are medicines (with low temperature tolerance) or perishable foods – this is a calamity that is lost in the obsession with roads cure all. Cameroun regulations require nine documents, 27 days and almost a thousand dollars in official fees to export a shipping container. There are other examples and, the World Bank’s Doing Business data suggests that about two thirds of the time taken to import or export products is down to paperwork for customs clearance.   

The point is this. As we look at what Logistics can do to transform economic and social outcomes, we must address the issues that slow things down. For example, few countries have an integrated Logistics Policy. Far too often, policy imperatives are lost between independent Ministries for Maritime Affairs; Transport; Agriculture; Small business; Inward Investment and so on. The annual horsetrading excercise (Budgets) rarely allow for a coordinated approach and, without it, there is little chance of a long term perspective winning through.

As Tim Harford puts it: “it is easier to scrap daft regulations than it is to build new roads.”