The government of Tanzania is planning to invest $11bn into development of a new port in Bagamayo, aiming to make it east Africa’s biggest port and an engine of economic growth.
The project, backed by Chinese investors, wants to beat Kenya’s Mombasa port, also on the African east coast, which is currently the most important trade-gate in the region.
The plan foresees an industrial zone to be built around the port together with rail and road links to improve ailing transport infrastructure.
"It will be the engine for economic activity not only for Bagamoyo but for the entire region," district executive Ibrahim Matovu told Reuters.
Start of the construction, however, has been delayed since July last year and some doubt it will kick off before the general election, which will take place in Tanzania in October.
"Unfortunately, I think they lost a bit of focus. There is a need for more coordination and clear direction on priority projects," said Jacques Morisset, the World Bank's lead country economist.
Funded jointly by China Merchant Holding International and the Omani sovereign wealth fund, the project has been criticised by many as a mere vanity venture of the country’s current President Jakaya Kikwete, who comes from Bagamoyo.
Critics say Bagamoyo’s location is not that well suited for a new port as it is only 75km (50 miles) up the coast from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s largest city and an existing major port. Investing into the development of the Dar es Salaam port instead of building a new one at Bagamoyo is seen by many as the more viable solution.
The analysts agree though, that the Dar es Salaam port either needs a major upgrade as well as efficiency improvement, or an alternative facility needs to be built. Dar es Salaam's port already handles 90 per cent of exports and is growing at 10 per cent per year.
Another disadvantage of Bagamoyo is its distance from Tanzania’s oil deposits, located in the south of the country.
"Bagamoyo is a really good example of a white elephant," an analyst told Reuters. "If you're going to have two major ports, then isn't the place to have it in the south, where the gas is?"
Tanzania has up to 53.28 trillion cubic feet of off-shore gas, putting it on par with some Middle East producers, but it has yet to construct a liquefied natural gas plant.
Plans to upgrade Tanzania's central corridor rail line that connects mineral-rich Democratic Republic of the Congo to the coast are moving slowly.
"If you improve only the ports without improving the railway, you are not doing anything," Shaaban Mwinjaka, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Transport, told Reuters.
The Bagamoyo superport project, described as ‘too much too soon for a nation with solid growth but big infrastructure gaps’, comes at a time when Tanzania is going through a lengthy budget crisis and is cutting infrastructure spending.
Tanzania, a former socialist state, is struggling to shake off its image as aid-dependent and corrupt. Last month, the acting port authority director was suspended amid a corruption inquiry, two years after his predecessor was similarly ousted.
Across the region, fast-growing economies have launched infrastructure projects at a scale unprecedented in most of Africa.
Kenya, east Africa's top economy, is upgrading Mombasa port and says it plans to move ahead with a long-delayed megaport in Lamu, an ancient Arab trading post near the border with Somalia.