For centuries, the Port of Maputo was a rich gateway between Africa and the trade winds of the open seas. In years of civil war and crumbling decline, the port was left dead on its feet. Twelve years ago, it woke up to stage one of Africa’s great comebacks.
It’s a hot sweaty day on the docks of Maputo; container ships line up, facing east, in the blazing afternoon sun. In the distance, the sea breeze billows the sails of dhows slipping home from a long day out fishing on the Indian Ocean.
The wind is as refreshing as a mountain stream. On the other side of steel vessels the size of titans; the air is flavoured like no other; fish, diesel and the sweet and sour smell of molasses. Above churn the grinding innards of cranes that are a lot busier these days. Hundreds of workers sweat like frenzied dancers.
Seamen aboard the Maritime Lijiang, the 40,000-ton bulk container flagged from Panama bound for China, swing the cranes with the grace of a fandango dancer. Below, men in red safety hats and orange overalls move along the ship’s 224-meter length, catching cases of coal. They are heavy enough to crush a man but they are guided gently onto trucks lined up along the docks in military formation.
Ten years ago, a container ship docking, let alone loading, would have been a sight as rare as a flying rhino. It is all part of a great African resurrection story – like a maritime Lazarus – the port that died and rose again.
The present port was built in 1903. It was a pioneering trade gateway, first surveyed by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1498. By 1972, nearly 17 million tons left these docks a year; the busiest of times. It was not to last. Mozambique gained independence in 1975 and the port was nationalized by the Portos e Caminhos de Ferro de Mocambique (CFM). It became a ghost port. In 1977, with the onset of civil war, imports shrank to a million tons a year.
“After independence we had internal fights with Renamo, South Africa was on the side of Renamo, versus the government. So they were fighting which meant business went to almost zero with South Africa, our major exporter. At that time, when we took over it was bad. There was nothing at all. During the war, the port was never maintained and not only that we were losing a lot of cargo basically because you didn’t have distribution to the interior. You didn’t have the security on the route to South Africa. The trains were bad,” says Ricardo Roberts, Commercial Manager at the port, who has worked there for 40 years.
At the age of 20, Roberts started work on the docks; just weeks after he stood cheering at the Machava Stadium on the night of Mozambican Independence.
“South Africa was exporting coal at Matola. So when they came to our side of the port in Maputo, they used to bring all kinds of non-perishable things. That helped a lot. You couldn’t go to a shop and buy food. We had a card like they used in Russia,” says Roberts.
“At the Polana Hotel, which was always a five-star hotel, customers had to bring their own sugar because all the Polana would over you was a cup of tea and a piece of bread. There was no sugar in Maputo.”
Independence for Roberts meant he could move into a nationalized house, which he bought years later for $100. The three bedroom house also had a backyard, where he could park one of the few Volkswagen Passats in the country. It was red.
“I chose one house and it was empty so I went in and stayed there. All the neighbors had Russian Lada Nivas, but because I was working at the port I managed to buy the Passat,” he says.
The war ended in 1992 and the rusted Passat of Roberts survived into the era of free markets, only just. The port did the same and the renaissance began in 2003.
“When the port was privatized in 2003, things started to improve slowly. Then four years ago, the improvement was crazy fast. Three years ago, we reached the volume that this port did before the Richards Bay [a competing port built in South Africa in 1976] which was 15 million tons,” says Roberts.
The concession, under the Maputo Port Development Company (MPDC), brought a consortium of international and Mozambique partners, 51% under the name Portus Indico, with the CFM, holding 49%.
The port is currently undergoing a $1.8 billion facelift.
“The scale of these achievements should not be underestimated. Annual cargo volumes have more than doubled in recent years and look set to continue to grow,” says Dave Rennie, Chairman of MPDC.
“It was different because it was a private company. The methodology was totally different. The guys were used to working in a relaxed way, like being paid without much to do. It was a big fight to change this and to change the mentality and say now you have to work together. You had to report to the shareholders. It took time but now we have got it,” says Roberts.
Roberts says that the Port’s goal is to reach 40 million tons by 2020.
In March, the port began a $70 million dredging project that will lower the port’s channel to a 13.7 meter depth, allowing bigger ships, of up to 80,000 dead weight tons, to reach the port. It is the second dredging of the port’s channel in the last five years. The railways are next. Up to 1,000 trucks call at the port every day, 80% of them due for South Africa.
“Changing the Port of Maputo to become a rail based gateway is absolutely essential. We move high volumes of bulk commodities and it is much easier and cheaper to use trains and not trucks,” says Osório Lucas, CEO of MPDC.
Back in the pale green walled offices that overlook the gates leading to Maputo, Robert’s recalls fond memories of the port’s revival.
“I love working here. There are little things that have not changed between that time and now. You still have people trying to steal cargo. The difference in operations now, is that guys are bringing in cargo and the guys want to bring a piece of equipment which weighs 210 tons. That time, we never had something like now. The ships now are able to bring in 3,000 cars. To go in and see that ship with all the robots and the guy who controls the traffic out of the ship; it’s crazy. Obviously I have seen bigger ships, but they can’t come here yet. I love my port; I think it’s the best in the world. We’ve got problems but I love the competition with the South African ports. We have less equipment and we’re doing it better than them. That is something that needs to be to be stressed,” says Roberts.
On Saturdays, you will be able to find the lively 60-year-old Roberts, with three or four of his friends, in a small coffee shop along the Avenida 24 de Julho with an espresso in hand and a pastel de nata on the table; a sweet reward for a man who has lived through the sour times on the tough docks of Maputo.
Jay Caboz is an award winning Forbes Africa journalist.