THE BLOG
02/15/2009 05:33 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Trains, Planes, and Economic Growth

As the global economic crisis deepens, developing African nations must adjust for the many new realities they face. It was just a year ago that optimism and promise imbued economic conversations about Africa's promise. With the global economy soaring and the need for basic commodities following, wealth was being created at a rate not seen in a generation. That promise is now evaporating at a startling rate. Research conducted by the World Bank shows that the 6.4 percent GDP growth originally forecast for Africa in 2009 will decrease to 3.5 percent or lower. In this current climate it is imperative that governments forge commitments to band together, cooperating instead of competing.

Forming a true African union is a concept that has been talked about for several years, but it may be an idea whose time has come, at least in economic terms. Muammar Qaddafi has recently proposed a single African military, but what is really needed is greater economic integration. Through cooperative efforts in economies and infrastructure, countries on the continent will gain the advantage of being able to build collective identities greater than their individual parts while maximizing their own economic viability. From my perch in landlocked Rwanda, it's clear that regional, if not continental, security and cooperation are critical for this nation's long-term success. Only by pooling resources will it be able to thrive going forward.

One example of precisely the type of innovative integration needed is emerging in an unlikely place. Burundi, Tanzania and Rwanda have begun efforts to develop a multi-national railway plan. For Burundi, Rwanda, and the interior of Tanzania, this is a key development for getting goods to international markets. That point was driven home recently when I learned that air freight for a few Rwandan baskets would cost me $10 per kilo - more than the cost of the baskets themselves! These three countries and others are already involved in a regional initiative aimed at increasing Internet accessibility across borders. Internet plus transport equals bigger markets - and more wealth and prosperity created locally.

For Rwanda, the rail line is a critical component of the nation's long-term development. Post-genocide Rwanda has taken pride in its thriving economic growth in tourism and information technology, but has fallen short in the export of commodities due to transport costs. The rail system is therefore a necessary link for connecting Rwandan producers to international and regional markets, which will serve to create and maintain prosperity for the country's working poor and emerging middle class.

The timing couldn't be better. Beyond the global economic crisis, recent fuel shortages also point towards the need for a railway network with direct connections to the coast. Food crops have to perform well and other products must be produced efficiently, but transport and energy are equally important business factors. While the world is to some degree coming to Rwanda - 40,000 tourists came just last year - the real wealth is to established by taking Rwanda to the world. A train track may just fulfill that purpose.