Port of Call

Letter from Dar es Salaam

The main port in Dar es Salaam, December 4, 2009. (Katrina Manson / Courtesy Reuters)

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Sultan of Zanzibar decided to build Dar es Salaam, today Tanzania’s capital and largest city, next to a sleepy fishing town on the Indian Ocean. For years a backwater, Dar es Salaam had its first boom in 1887 when the German East Africa Company set up operations there, turning the city into the main shipping portal into German East Africa. After World War I, Dar es Salaam came under indirect British rule and became a provincial trading post. It got its independence in 1964, when the republics of Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged to form Tanzania.

The port has remained important regionally, but has been well off the major shipping routes between Asia and Europe. Now the Tanzanian government wants to change that. It hopes that with a few improvements it can turn Dar es Salaam into a major regional trade hub, catapulting Tanzania into the global ranks of middle-income countries. Those plans rest on Dar es Salaam becoming an increasingly important port for six neighboring countries: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia.

But to get there, Dar es Salaam has some work to do. The port clears $15 billion of goods each year, but it is woefully inefficient. It is not among the hundred busiest ports in the world; Durban, South Africa, which ranks 42nd in container traffic, is six times busier than Dar es Salaam. Goods -- and sometimes entire containers -- disappear. Ships sway idly at anchor, gathering barnacles while they wait ten days, on average, before being able to berth in the port and then ten more days to unload cargo and clear it through customs. With rental rates for large merchant ships typically ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 per day, the delays add tens of thousands of dollars to shippers’ costs, according to the World Bank. The standard international waiting time is two days.

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