By Dr. Harry Barnes-Dabban, Founder and Executive Coordinator of Ports Environmental Network-Africa*

Most African ports have in the last decade been undergoing institutional restructuring influenced by economic liberalisation, which is a prominent feature of globalisation processes. The ports are beginning to transform from their typical service and tool port management model towards landlord in which the port authorities take charge of port infrastructure, maritime access and port regulation, while port operations and logistical functions are concessioned to the private sector.

The ports are thus opening up to increasing private sector participation, particularly in the area of container terminal operations, with several multinational terminal operators vying for domination and control in the ports. Multinational terminal operators such as Bolloré and Maersk, for instance, dominate terminal operations in West and Central African ports.

Export-import dependencies

The institutional restructuring, which has mostly focused on modifying and expanding port infrastructure, has been with the view of overcoming their operational inefficiencies. African economies have high export-import dependency. They depend mostly on the export of bulk materials cocoa, timber, bauxite, manganese, iron ore among others to support their economic growth and development. Recent oil discovery in most of the economies adds to the export concentration. The economies also have increasing domestic demand for a substantial share of their food consumption and fuel for energy needs driving their import dependencies. These domestic demands are being boosted by population growth.

Africa’s import-export concentration makes ports an important sector for its economies and thus the need for maintaining the role and need for efficient ports. The economies have been growing. The continent’s GDP is forecast to accelerate to 4% in 2019, up from an estimated 3.5% in 2018. Continuing economic growth means growing trade. Growing trade means increasing shipping. And, increasing shipping means port growth. Some major African ports are already showing growth with increasing vessel traffic and cargo throughput in recent years. The participation of multinational terminal operators as private business actors in African ports has played a significant role in the turn-around of the operational inefficiencies of the ports towards increasing growth and profitability and contributing immensely to the continent’s overall economic growth.

Risks from increasing shipping and port growth

Increasing shipping and the associated growth of African ports however has a caveat. It is that of environmental implications with significant risks for marine, port area and hinterland environments. Among the several risks is the potential of waste discharge and dumping by ships. Dealing with this risk requires an adequate implementation of a number of international conventions. Prime among the conventions are International Maritime Organisation’s MARPOL 73/78 Convention, Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, and Africa’s own Bamako Convention on the Ban on the Import into Africa and the control of Transboundary Movement and Management of Hazardous Wastes within Africa.

Dealing with ship-generated wastes

African ports acknowledge that economic gains from their institutional restructuring can be eroded, with damaging outcomes, if negative environmental impacts including those from ship-generated wastes are not dealt with. Most of the ports have therefore sought to put in place mechanisms for the provision of port reception facilities to collect oily mixtures and wastes, garbage, sewage and other residues generated by calling ships in a bid to preserve the marine environment and allow for the ultimate disposal of ship-generated wastes to take place in an environmentally appropriate way. Most of the port authorities lack the capacity to provide the facilities. Provision of the facilities have therefore been opened up to private business actors. The approach for operationalising the facilities however varies widely among the different ports as the port authorities are embedded in different local and national situational contexts, with peculiar environmental policy practices.

In ports as Abidjan and Douala, port reception facilities operate under an ‘direct environmental regulation’ approach, in which calling ships pay a direct charge or fee only for the amount and type of waste they discharge. Abidjan, on one hand, after its Probo Koala incident in the year 2006, had a government moratorium placed on the discharge of oily wastes in the port pending state action. Therefore, while calling ships could discharge their garbage in the port, they could not discharge their oily wastes. Calling ships therefore had no choice than to keep their oily waste onboard irrespective of having capacity or the lack thereof. On the other hand, ships calling Douala are able to discharge both oily waste and garbage. But the mode of payment of the direct charge of fee is rather nuanced. Waste collectors receiving garbage discharged by calling ships get paid by the ships. But calling ships get paid by waste collectors for receiving oily waste discharged by the ships. The reasoning here is that oily waste is a resource with monetary value.

Ports as Lagos and Tema operate their reception facilities under a ‘indirect environmental regulation’ approach, in which calling ships pay an indirect charge or fee irrespective of discharging their wastes (oily and garbage) or not. And here also operation of the approach is nuanced. Ships calling Lagos pay environmental levies for environmental improvements beside waste fees. However, ships calling Tema do not pay environmental levies. Ships to Tema also enjoy a rebate in ships’ waste charges if they call up to three times or more in a given month.

Incentives and disincentives of approaches

The two different approaches to providing port reception facilities in African ports – ‘direct environmental regulation’ and ‘indirect environmental regulation’ - bring up the subject of international regulatory coherence. While the direct regulation serves as economic incentive for ships to dump wastes at sea as they are required to only pay for what they choose to discharge, the indirect regulation offers a disincentive for doing same since ships pay for their waste irrespective of discharge or not. Furthermore, the indirect charge offers incentive for in controlling shipping pollution and contributing to the preservation and improvement of the marine environment. The implication of the different approaches to the provision of port reception facilities in Africa in their bid to implement an international convention that regulates a global common, as the marine environment, is as divergent as the associated incentives and disincentives of the approaches. The divergent situation reveals the weakness and dilemma of international environmental policy making and governance. The challenge it presents to the global maritime community is how to bridge such divergencies pursuant to the letter and spirit of MARPOL 73/78 Convention, which is to prevent marine pollution by ships.

Institutionalising port environmental reform progress through port reception facilities

Notwithstanding challenges and divergencies in the provision of reception facilities in African ports, the port authorities are leveraging on their provision to improve and institutionalise their environmental reform progress in a number of ways. First, following the concessioning of terminal operations in the ports to the private sector, some of the port authorities are continuing to increase the role of private business actors in the ports through concession arrangements for the provision of reception facilities. Lagos and Tema are typical among such ports. While Lagos has concessioned the provision of its facilities to a single private operator, African Circle, Tema has concessioned its facilities to six different private operators. The Port of Pointe Noire has also recently concessioned its facility to a single operator, Cortel Engineering and Environmental (CEE) Congo, which is yet to commence operations early in the year 2020. Increasing role of private business actors in African ports is premised on the belief that the private sector has the knowledge and capability to enhance operational and financial efficiencies. And to a large extent, just as the multinational operators have contributed to the environmental reform of the ports as a result of global environmental practices they brought along with them, the private reception facility operators are embedding the environmental role and responsibility of the ports.

Second, the provision of reception facilities in African ports is strengthening the implementation of international port and marine environmental agreements. African ports until recently have not given much attention to the environment. Their focus has mostly been on their commercial and profit orientation. This however is beginning to change, with environmental considerations being to play a role in the overall planning, management and operations of the ports. The use of the private sector to establish port reception facilities in implementing the MARPOL 73/78 Convention attests amply to an emergent commitment to international environmental agreements.

Third, establishing port reception facilities in African ports is promoting their compliance with good global port environmental standards and practices. Environment is new to African ports. They therefore lag behind in environmental experience and innovation. Nonetheless, the ports are not shying away from existent practices as may be available across the globe. They are adapting these in ways that seem suitable to their local and national situational contexts. Economic disincentives from their ‘direct environmental regulation’ for instance notwithstanding, it is better than not taking any approach at all. From an incremental policy making perspective, the approach has a potential of being reviewed over time to suit the letter and spirit of the MARPOL 73/78 Convention. The EU Directive 2000/59/EC, which governs port reception facilities in the European Union, for instance, faces a similar review currently. The Directive has been found not to be prescriptive enough after almost 20 years of implementation. It is now up for review to ensure that environmental impacts and problems associated with its poor performance are fixed .


African ports have not in any way achieved environmental efficiency. Nonetheless there is a prominent shift away from the status quo that pertained a little over a decade ago where environmental considerations were largely absent in their planning, management and operational approaches. The establishment of reception facilities in the ports had become a demonstrable practice of their environmental reform. The approach to its institutionalisation reveals a divergencies with negative environmental implication. But it nevertheless exposes and bring to the fore empirical incoherence in the interpretation and implementation of international marine environmental regulations and governance practices that require pragmatic action from the international maritime community. The ports are obviously  poised for improving and institutionalising their environmental efficiency through private sector partnership in the provision of reception facilities for ships to discharge their wastes while calling African ports. The moment is now for international ship waste facility businesses across the globe to tap into the readiness of African ports to expand their business reach and investments.

*Ports Environmental Network-Africa, a transnational organisation with interest in the sustainable development of African ports through international collaborative partnerships.