Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Unlocking the Kinshasa-Brazzaville Bottleneck

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Kinshasa-Brazzaville is predicted to become Africa’s largest, and the world’s 11th largest, city by 2025.

With an international border running right through it, it is the obvious focal point for cross-border exchanges between the two Congos. But despite this, formal trade and passenger traffic between the two cities is pitifully small.

Only 1.12 percent of all imports recorded by the Republic of Congo (RC) come from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Passenger traffic is around five times smaller than that between East and West Berlin in 1988 – well before the dismantling of the Wall. The volume of passenger traffic, scaled to city sizes, is also one hundred and seventy-fifth the size of river-crossing passenger traffic in Kisangani, another conurbation straddling the Congo River, but not crossed by a national border.

A new Africa Trade Policy Note explains the bottlenecks that lead to such low-levels of trading and passenger traffic between the two capitals.

The cost of crossing the Congo River at the Malebo Pool is the main culprit. The average cost of a return trip across Malebo Pool is estimated as USD 40, equivalent to between 40 and 80 percent of the average monthly income earned by Kinshasa residents.

If residents travelling between San Francisco and Oakland (which are separated by a similar distance) had to pay pro rata the same level of fees as people crossing from Kinshasa to Brazzaville  they would pay between $1200 and $2400 for a return trip. The costs of formally shipping goods across the pool are also exorbitant.

These high prices largely result from lack of competition in river crossing services in the form of the duopoly granted to the two national operators, ONATRA (in the DRC) and CNTF (in the RC) and their lack of investment that has limited transport capacity.

Cumbersome customs procedures are also costly and cause long delays for both passenger transport and the transportation of goods. For example, only 4 agencies are mandated to be present at the Kinshasa border crossing, yet up to 17 agencies operate there, raising fees from traders and travelers without offering any corresponding services.

Unblocking the Malebo bottleneck through a combination of regulatory changes that increase competition and encourage investment by ending the stranglehold of ONATRA and CNTF together with customs reform and systematic implementation of single clearing and payment points for traders would yield significant economic gains for the citizens of both cities. It would also have symbolic value as a gesture of political good will, and represent a test case for trade reform, which, if successful, could later be replicated throughout both countries.


Gözde Isik

Senior Transport Economist

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