Extending the Great Silk Road into Central Africa

silk road

Published Jun 10, 2016 9:06 PM by Harry Valentine

The Great Silk Road is an ancient trading route that dates back some 3,000-years which connected across Asia between China and the Mediterranean lands. Advances in maritime transportation technology that date back over 1,000-years moved the trade from land to sea. 

Boats with a central longitudinal-vertical plank installed under the hull, a triangular sail and a plank at the stern that rotated about a vertical axis eased the task of navigation while using wind from any direction as a source of propulsion. The maritime industry could therefore move more goods at greater speed and at lower transportation coast that overland transport.

In more recent years, China has sought to re-activate the overland Great Silk Road with railway lines and pipelines. Trains have already travelled the railway line that link Beijing and Tehran, from where branch railway lines extend to the coast of the Strait of Hormuz. Oman and Iran have already discussed the possibility of building a bridge or causeway across the Strait of Hormuz, while the Bin Laden construction is a proposed bridge across the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb which separates the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden. 

Railway Tunnel Option

The alternative to building causeways across channels and straits is to excavate tunnels under the sea, as railway corridors. Previous undersea tunnels include Japan’s Seikan tunnel that includes a 14.5-mile (24 kilometer) section under the seabed, which has its lowest point 790 feet (240 meters) below sea level. The English Channel tunnel includes a section that runs for 23.5 miles (38 kilometers) below the sea and up to 75 meters below the sea bed. 

A distance of 29 nautical miles (54 kilometers) separates Oman from Iran, while channels of 20 miles (32 kilometers) and 2 miles (3 kilometers) separate Djibouti from Yemen. 

A railway line connects between Djibouti and Addis Ababa with branch lines extending from Addis Ababa toward the borders with Kenya and Sudan. Perhaps at a future time when Yemen is less politically volatile, a railway line could connect across the southern area of the Arabian Peninsula to connect between the Strait of Hormuz and Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. 

A future railway line linking Nairobi and Addis Ababa may be a future possibility, especially given that East African Railways connects to Lake Victoria northern ports that mat serve as terminals to a future trans-African inland navigable waterway.

Waterway Connection

The headwaters that flow into Lake Victoria are within close proximity to headwaters that flow into Lake Tanzania, offering the future possibility of an interconnecting navigable barge canal. Lake Tanzania flows into the headwaters of the Congo River, sections of which are already navigable. 

One possible option for the long-term future would be to develop barge navigation along the Congo River between its mouth at the Atlantic Ocean and Lake Tanzania. A future African section of the Great Silk Road could include inland barge navigation between the mouth of the Congo River and Lake Victoria northern ports.

A future railway line could connect between Lake Victoria and a future undersea tunnel between Djibouti and Yemen. At such time, ocean going ships would carry lower priority container freight to and from the Port of Mombasa with trains carrying the containers between Lake Victoria ports and Mombasa. 

Railways could carry higher priority freight at higher speed between Lake Victoria and Tehran than maritime transport. A railway hub at Tehran would offer connections into Turkey, Western Russia and into China. Future political developments between India and Pakistan would determine future railway connections into those countries.

Future Trade Routes

There is potential for increased future train between Central-West Africa and the Middle and Far East into China. Development of barge navigation between the mouth of the Congo River and Lake Tanzania would greatly reduce the sailing distance via Cape Town and via the Strait of Gibraltar. 

Sections of the Congo River are already navigable and extending navigability would greatly enhance future trade. A railway line connects the Indian Ocean Port of Dar-es-Salaam to the port at Ujiji/Kigoma on eastern Lake Tanzania and improved future navigation on the Congo Rover would require railway upgrading.

An east-west railway/waterway connection across Central Africa offers the combined potential to enhance the movement of trade between Central West and Central East Africa, between Central West Africa and the eastern Middle East into Asia, also between Central East Africa and South Eastern United States. Development of barge navigation between Lake Tanzania and Lake Victoria would connect to the East African Railways at Entebbe (Uganda) and Kisumu (Kenya). 

A future railway connection would extend north to Ethiopia to connect to existing railway lines that will be in need of upgrade that connect to Addis Ababa and Djibouti. 

Political Concern

The American State Department has expressed discomfort over a proposed causeway linking Yemen and Djibouti, citing instability in both Yemen and Somalia as being problematic. However, Somali pirates sailing in small boats have regularly intercepted ships far offshore, suggesting that they already have transportation across the Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb. 

While a causeway carrying road traffic across the strait would offer easy access to/from Yemen, a railway tunnel and people who board passenger carriages may be easier to monitor. 


Future east-west trade across Central and equatorial Africa would depend on improved future transportation access. The combination of improved inland waterway transportation between the Gulf of Guinea and East Africa’s large lakes along with improved railway connections in East Africa would contribute greatly to improving the east-west movement across Central Africa. 

While the United States State Department may be uneasy with a future road or future railway connection between Djibouti and Yemen, there will be a need to develop possible solutions to the perceived problems in the interest of international trade.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.