Serengeti-Mara Road & the future of 2 million Tanzanians

By Brian Sandberg,

The Mara region of Tanzania lies to the west of the great Serengeti National Park. It is estimated that this is home to over 1.5 million Tanzanians. I’m reliably told that various government departments are working on strategies to bring greater economic activity and prosperity to this region over the next 5 years, to cater for what will be more than 2 million citizens resident there by 2015.
Clearly the proposed commercial road linking Musoma on Lake Victoria, via Loliondo, to the hub city of Arusha sits at the heart of government plans. The crisis lies in the planned routing of this road through the pristine, iconic Serengeti.

To try to seek out solutions, one needs to understand several dynamics.


Fortunately the Christmas season brings together old friends and I had the privilege of sharing a few drinks with an old business associate who has some extensive, recent experience in logistics and international trade in Kenya and Tanzania. As my home city – Durban – is Africa’s largest and busiest port, it is also home to many multinational freight and logistics companies – my friend’s business being but one of them.

Essentially, there are 2 key ports for international trade in Tanzanian produce. Dar es Salaam on Tanzania’s southern coast and Mombasa, on Kenya’s southern coast. Central and southern TZ goods (and those of her neighbours) route via Dar. Much of northern TZ routes via Mombasa.

Now look at the regional map I’ve laid out and see the geography and potential trade routes for economic produce for and from the Mara region and one begins to understand the real challenges facing government and her private sector.

In addition, you should be interested to know that Mombasa, as a port, offers many more benefits to shippers than does Dar es Salaam. Through the handling of a range of mineral products – cement, steel, soda ash, flourspar, etc – it offers greater versatility for a range of such materials. Through its agricultural produce handling, again there is wider experience in more types of goods for transshipment.

Another very key logistics factor is that Mombasa offers more frequent and more diverse options for salings than does Dar.
Hence, Mombasa is somewhat a key regional port for northern Tanzania, and that includes produce of Mara origin.

Let’s ignore the eastern region of the Serengeti for the moment – i.e. Loliondo-Ngorogoro-Arusha. That’s easy to understand, since any goods or produce for or from that region requiring international logistics has no bearing on the Serengeti.

However, Mara is effectively an island. And soon, there will be 2 million people semi-cut-off from trade and commerce. In other words, a key life-blood to socio-economic development for their peoples.

I get really peeved when an American TV journalist – from NBC Today – produces a piece that centres on minerals for cellphones produced in China, without little other research or understanding of this region’s economy.

We need to accept that there are some valuable minerals to be found in the Mara region and commercial development will proceed in the years ahead. I’m not discussing ethical mining, I’m simply stating an economic fact. The people of Tanzania have every right to exploit their rich natural resources in this sector, to the advantage of their nation and their peoples who find work and wealth in such projects.

Now let’s talk more importantly about agriculture. There are many online research and seminar/workshop documents, so let’s skip some detail, to focus on a few simple issues:

1. Leading international development agencies are united in a critical economic matter – agriculture creates trade, jobs and food security, especially in impoverished regions. This means that Mara must accelerate growth and development in this sector to build more regional prosperity and opportunity;

2. Did you know that because of the high rainfall in the Mara region, cotton grown there produces a higher yield and a better cotton staple, compared to other local regions, thus leading to a better quality cotton yarn and higher prices? In fact, with widespread small-scale farmers in the area, plus an efficient access to markets, all coupled with a global growth in organic cotton goods, this agro-sector could in itself be hugely empowering;

3. Did you know that tobacco growth (leave out the dangers of smoking!) in this region is becoming increasingly important and 2009 produced some really positive growth in plantings, sales and related-trade for this sub-regional economy?

4. Did you know that there are plans to develop more Arabica coffee bean trade out of Tarime?

5. Did you know that with more advanced agro-processing techniques, the aqua-culture sector (such as fishing) can be quite extensively expanded, quite rapidly, with good logistics routes? and

6. Have you studied how abysmally poor the road infrastructure in the Mara region is? If not – please Google map it. Without a doubt, this must be urgently remedied by the state.


I fear not, since I’m also still learning and thinking, and I spend a lot more on this project that most people I know.


Clearly, one can understand local voices saying the world cares more for wildlife than they do for people. Especially when thinking simply about the future prosperity and wellness of more than 2 million Mara residents.

If you look carefully at the map with it’s potential routes to ports and even with some new southern road development, it makes regional economic sense for Mara’s private sector to rely on “northern” route options.

So let’s say – NO commercial trade through the Serengeti.

Then producers and traders have one of 2 options – north via Nairobi or south via Singida or a new route more northerly than Singida.

A. North via Nairobi – very expensive if one wants to route goods or produce from or to Arusha, but it looks seemingly fine for Mombasa. BUT – talk to the logistics specialists. Trucks travelling via this capital city would face enormous delays for traffic congestion, thus greatly impairing transit time. So that’s a problem for traders; and

B. South via Singida – roughly speaking it could almost be quicker to route via Nairobi, but yet it probably offers much the same transit time to Dar es Salaam as it would be the case for Mombasa. However, let’s not forget Mombasa’s far more competitive port advantage? Hmmm?


Now that I’ve triggered some critical thinking for readers, hopefully you might start to see that the only REAL solution for the future economic prosperity of the Mara region lies in the leaders of Kenya and Tanzania sitting down and discussing some meaningful bi-lateral co-operation, where a collective of smart minds and key sector role-players engage constructively.

It has just been announced in Tanzania that Africa’s first One-Stop customs and border control post is to be established between Arusha and Nairobi at Namanga, in terms of the East African Community economic treaties.

IF one assumes that government MUST develop proper commercial roads east (Loliondo-Arusha) and west (Musoma-Mugumu) of the Serengeti, and IF Kenya is committed to protecting its Mara Triangle eco-tourism and biosphere from threats to the great migrations, then surely some smart outcomes can be devised through some northern Serengeti-Mara new road network.

If one then looked at 2 options – upgrading roads north of Singida in the south for better trade access or north of the Mara triangle in Kenya, I’d say the Kenya bypass would be infinitely more cost effective and add more road infrastructure to their south.

So – it makes far more economic sense for Tanzania and Kenya to expand trans-frontier development in seeking solutions to protect the sanctity of the priceless Serengeti-Mara eco-systems.

To me, anyway.

Brian Sandberg
Durban. South Africa.

2 thoughts on “Serengeti-Mara Road & the future of 2 million Tanzanians

  1. Gert Svensson

    There might be another option for a road connecting Mara region with Mombasa. Ever since I first visited the area in the end of 1978 there have always been talks of developing the road between Nbi-Narok-Lolgorien-Isebania. That should be just north of the Masaj Mara. It should make it a lot easier for the residents of the Mara Region to comunicate. However, this has never materialized and I am curious to why it has not.
    Gert Svensson


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