It doesn’t matter how many capital cities you have flown into; the descent into Maputo never fails to impress. It is a breath-taking expanse of wide, deep water flowing into the Indian Ocean, 92km long and 32km wide, that sparkles in the sun. When Portuguese navigator, Lourenço Marques, surveyed the bay in 1544, on behalf of his seafaring country, tears of joy must have welled up in his eyes. Maputo is a perfect natural harbor made for ships. Marques laid the foundations for the port and lent his name to the colonial city that grew up.
The mouth of the harbor is hemmed in by banks thick with bush, and the blue waters lead right up to the city of Maputo, perched on a ledge of rock above the cranes, palm trees and funnels of the mighty ships in dock. Offshore tankers from Namibia to New York line up for their turn at the quayside.
They say in Maputo you are never far from the port, and in many ways it dominates the city, home to two million people. It helped pay for the high-rise concrete buildings of this rich city center—or “cemento”, as it is called in Maputo—but for many years it was failing.
In the early years of this century, the port was crumbling to dust after decades of neglect. By 2003, the roads to the port, once among the busiest in Africa, were strewn with rubble. There was barely enough working equipment to load the dwindling amount of cargo. Hundreds of idle casual dock workers lounged by the waterfront waiting for jobs that would never come.
It is a sign of changing economic times in Maputo that private business has been allowed to ride to the rescue with the dash of Zorro. The government of Mozambique invited Grindrod—Africa’s largest shipping company—from South Africa, and DP World, from Dubai, to operate the harbor in return for a stake each.
The turnaround was dramatic. The number of ships docking in Maputo has doubled, compared to 2003, to more than a thousand-a-year. Coal exports have more than doubled to four million tons and chrome exports are set to reach two million tons this year—five times what they were in 2003. The port is reopening rapidly to trade and now handles everything from citrus fruit to steel from neighboring Zimbabwe.
The change in fortunes, for this key piece of infrastructure, couldn’t have come at a better time to support the rising economic fortunes of Mozambique. The Moatize coalfields, in the north-west corner of the country, are set for a boom; gas has been discovered on the northern coast of Mozambique and BHP Billiton’s Mozal smelter in Matola, south of the capital, is churning out aluminum for export. Rio Tinto has been buying up coal mining assets to add to its international portfolio.
Maputo millionaire Venancio Matusse, an engineer by trade, is one of 42 shareholders in the consultancy, Mozambique Gestores, which manages the port and owns 3% of the free carry business. He said the port is investing $800 million in security and dredging the channel leading to the docks to make way for the big ships. The Maputo River empties into the bay, bringing with it tons of silt that choke the channel.
“A lot of money needs to be spent on the dredging; it is a job that almost never ends,” says Matusse.
“Now the port has all the equipment it needs, but still needs to grow. We need to earn more of the container cargo market because that is where the money is. One challenge is the time goods take to go through the port inspection side. You can take three or four days to clear your goods and that costs money.”
Fernando Lima, a veteran journalist in Maputo, agrees that the port has a long way to go.
“If you look at the container terminal, it is completely congested. Grindrod has attracted a lot of business and now the terminal is facing serious problems of congestion,” he says.
“There is also a problem with bureaucracy, especially when it comes to customs. Delays mean you are losing money as an importer or exporter, which is bad when you have to compete with Richards Bay and Durban in South Africa.”
Even so, millions of dollars are
flowing into infrastructure at the port and another school of thought is that exporters from South Africa—struggling against high cost and a lack of rails at home—could be looking towards Maputo. Either way, to borrow from the words of American writer Mark Twain: reports of the demise of the Port of Maputo have been greatly exaggerated.