Overuse and poor maintenance have resulted in extensive delays at the port of Douala, increasing the time and costs of trade at the terminal. Congestion has had a particularly detrimental effect on the export of cocoa, of which Cameroon is the fifth largest producer globally. Although the government has taken some steps to reduce the delays, the absence of viable alternative terminals and growing demand for Douala’s facilities mean the disruption is expected to continue.
Port authorities have attributed the high levels of congestion at Douala Port to the repeated failure of crucial equipment, including gantry cranes that load goods on and off ships. The delays have been exacerbated by overuse of the port, with nearly 90 percent of all trade from Cameroon, Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR) passing through the terminal. According to officials, despite the port only having capacity for 14,000 twenty-foot containers (TEUs) it regularly receives around 19,000 units per month, while the port’s timber yard has been operating at almost double its capacity.
Congestion has had significant implications for shipping companies and businesses using the terminal. Vessels have reported delays to loading and unloading of up to 28 days and ships are being forced to pay a congestion surcharge of up to USD 300 per TEU for using the port. The increased costs and delays associated with using Douala have resulted in some shipping companies such as the Mediterranean Shipping Company bypassing the port altogether. AGB Transit Freight Chad declared in August that it was exploring the potential of using alternative ports including Cotonou, in Benin and Port Sudan.
Delays at Douala, in combination with unfavourable weather conditions, have begun to have severe consequences for Cameroon’s cocoa exports. Cocoa officials report that container waiting times of up to 30 days in hot and humid conditions have resulted in a decline in the quality of Cameroonian cocoa, reducing international demand for the product. Export company Union Trading International reported in September that there had been a decline of 3.37 percent in Cameroonian cocoa exports since 2013. With cocoa exports generating some USD 391 mn in state revenues each year and employing some 6 mn people, the declining competitiveness of Douala port has significant implications for the Cameroonian economy.
Over the coming weeks, the capacity constraints will be compounded by the influx of timber arriving at Douala from the CAR. The political and security crisis in CAR led to paralysis of its timber industry in early 2013, reducing demand for port facilities in Douala. However, with the arrival of UN troops at the beginning of September, timber production has begun to improve and Douala port authorities have complained that they have been overwhelmed with the quantity of timber arriving at the port in the past three weeks.
Government efforts to increase port capacity have thus far only had limited success. Yaounde inaugurated four new gantry cranes for Douala in September, each with an average capacity of 120 movements per hour. These will replace several faulty cranes and will likely go some way to increase the speed at which goods can be exported. Cameroonian port authorities have also asserted that the newly operational Kiribi Seaport will relieve congestion at Douala in the coming months.
Delays are likely to persist in the short term. Although the seaport at Kiribi began operations in June 2014, the specialised terminals at the port will not be completed until at least early 2015 and it is unlikely the port will be able to absorb much of Douala’s trade before it is fully operational. This will leave Cameroon dependent on Douala to process around 13 mn tonnes of traffic in 2015, with capacity to only move 10 mn tonnes per annum. The absence of wider efforts to upgrade Douala and improve productivity there suggests that operators are likely to continue to be plagued by delays and associated costs for the foreseeable future.
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