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From the Field

The Logistics City: Insights from Africa

What might a city dedicated to logistics look like in Africa? How does it connect with global goods flows? These are the questions addressed by Hélène Blaszkiewicz, based on the case of Kasumbalesa, a small town straddling the border between the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zambia that has become a major logistics center.

“Your parcel is available at a pick-up point!” It’s a familiar and reassuring message, one that many people living in large Western cities will have received at some point. Behind this short phrase lie major production lines and thousands of workers, workshops and factories, warehouses, ports, and containers, linked by increasingly sophisticated logistics. Logistics—the management of orders, customs clearance, and the transportation, storage and delivery of goods—goes hand in hand with the reorganization of relations between places of production and consumption, and the transformation of towns, cities and regions concerned by the circulation of goods.

In the city, the proliferation of parcel pick-up lockers and home deliveries is often experienced through its inconveniences and nuisances: noise, air pollution, traffic congestion, unsafe roads, encroachment on sidewalks, and so on (Baraud-Serfaty 2021). These problems generally call for technical solutions presented under the umbrella term “logistics city”: a connected urban space, organized in order to facilitate the storage and “just-in-time” delivery of goods. The literature on the subject, whether managerial or critical, has focused on the (post-)industrial cities of the Global North. Is the same true in countries considered part of the Global South? How are urban spaces, in this case in Africa, transformed by the circulation of goods? Applying the theories of the logistics city to African cities reveals different ways of controlling and profiting from goods on the move. This article aims to call into question the importance of urban forms of logistics, based on a case study located in the Copperbelt, a mining, industrialized and urbanized region of Zambia.

Rethinking urban forms to “facilitate” the movement of goods

Logistics underwent a real revolution in the 1960s (Cowen 2014). Intermediate operations between production and consumption, until then considered unproductive costs, became fundamental elements of value creation. This change in representation, combined with the lower transportation costs made possible by containerization, profoundly transformed the geographies of capitalism, making it possible to lengthen industrial production chains. The fluidity and speed of trade flows, the supreme values of 21st‑century commerce, are made possible by major investments in infrastructure networks around the world, and by the “black-boxing” of information between different segments of the same chain (Posner 2021). The non-circulation of information, the dilution of responsibilities, and the invisibilization of the real conditions of movement it enables, combined with the dogma of speed, places the burden of hellish working conditions on the workers at the end of the chain (Benvegnù and Gaborieau 2020).

The lengthening of value chains and the progress made by online commerce have brought all sorts of goods, mostly from East Asia, within easy reach of a click (and a wallet). But the problems associated with “last-mile delivery” highlight the difficulties of matching the logistical ideals of speed and fluidity with the geographical realities of urban environments. The infrastructures of industrial cities must be adapted to this new era of capitalism (Hepworth 2014): digitization and uberization of deliveries, networking of distribution centers and warehouses on the outskirts of cities (Cidell 2011) are all solutions demonstrating the importance of tangible and intangible infrastructures in the territorialization of international flows.

The works cited, which are part of the critical current of logistics studies, are keen not to take the logistics industry’s image of fluidity too seriously. On the contrary, they remind us of the importance of frictions and pauses in international trade, as well as their strategic potential (Simpson 2019). Observation of business practices in Southern Africa’s highly industrialized Copperbelt also suggests this. A border mining region located between Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Copperbelt is criss-crossed by numerous trucks materializing transnational trade exchanges. They all converge in Kasumbalesa, a border town and warehouse, whose organization enables transnational trade flows to be fixed.

Figure 1. Unloading of heavy goods vehicles at the Kasumbalesa warehouses

© H. Blaszkiewicz, 2017.

The ambiguities of a warehouse town

Kasumbalesa is the name of the Congolese town, today home to some 250,000 people, [1] formed in the early 20th century at the intersection of a mining operation and a railroad line linking the southern ports of the continent to the copper seams. By extension, this is also the name taken by the Zambian part of the agglomeration, close to the border, which is more recent and entirely dedicated to trade, or more precisely to the storage of goods. The Zambian part of Kasumbalesa is administratively attached to Chililabombwe, [2] a mining town of colonial origin whose center lies some 20 kilometers (12½ miles )to the south (Figure 2). Warehouses take up almost all the available space in Kasumbalesa-Zambia, leaving little room for the municipally-supervised covered market, sales containers and traders’ stalls. According to local traders and entrepreneurs, the prevailing insecurity means that few people have actually taken up residence here. Kasumbalesa-Zambia thus provides an opportunity to question what logistics can do to an African city.

Figure 2. Kasumbalesa: location map and satellite image

© H. Blaszkiewicz, based on data from OpenStreetMap and Google Earth.

Kasumbalesa-Zambia exists and thrives for two main reasons. Firstly, the town has grown up on a major road linking the south of the DRC to the African coast, around a major border point. Like any border market, it derives its existence from the sharp differential in living standards between Zambia and the DRC: rich in copper and cobalt reserves, the DRC suffers from a lack of agricultural and industrial base, making it dependent on its neighbor for supplies. [3] Secondly, Kasumbalesa-Zambia benefits in mirror image from the negative representations of its Congolese neighbor. In Zambia, in the discourse of administrations and traders, the DRC is always presented as a dangerous and chaotic space. Stories of insecurity for people and property pepper conversations.

The negative portrayal of the Congo serves to present Zambia as a stable, business-friendly country, and feeds the border town’s commercial specialization. At a deeper level, it is part of a wider economic policy, making Zambia a “structured platform” [4] for trade flows to the DRC, particularly for companies not wishing to set up directly on Congolese territory but wishing to take advantage of its domestic market. This backroom position is defended by the government. Through subsidies or loans at preferential rates, it encourages productive companies to set up on its soil, even if their products are then destined for the Congolese market [5]. The same applies to banks and insurance companies. Investing directly in Congolese francs is risky, and commercial procedures in the DRC are not considered reliable. Most banks choose to set up on the Zambian side of the border, even though most of their customers do business in the DRC. Goods and services are therefore sold in Zambia; the Zambian tax authorities always levy internal taxes, such as VAT, on goods that are sometimes exported illegally. This was summed up by a Zambian customs official: “smuggling is a good thing for Zambia.” [6] The customs authorities levy taxes on these flows that they would not be able to do legally, given the free-trade agreements between the two countries. The city thus becomes a haven for entrepreneurs of all nationalities, a veritable distribution center organized for the Congolese market. This is reflected in the commercial infrastructure of Kasumbalesa-Zambia, whose urban landscape makes it possible to immobilize and take advantage of flows bound for the DRC. With the exception of the new customs building, the town has few multi-storey buildings that would allow a more global view of the city. It is entirely occupied by conventional or bonded warehouses, in which goods in transit can be stored duty-free for a renewable period of 365 days (Orenstein 2018). In Kasumbalesa, the warehouses resemble those found alongside European freeways: imposing sheet-metal cubes surrounded by wire fencing.

As a result, Congolese traders and transporters dominate this market made for them, and contribute, via the payment of VAT, to the Zambian economy. In return, Kasumbalesa-Zambia is no longer really considered part of the Zambian national territory. According to one of my interviewees, Kasumbalesa is "just a market where you don’t even pay in kwachas [7]." Zambians are even wont to say that Zambia stops at Chililabombwe, with its clean, well-ordered streets. Kasumbalesa is then nothing but "organized chaos" [8] where Congolese ways of doing things are dominant: people pay in Congolese francs or dollars, they speak Kiswahili (a language not spoken in Zambia) mixed with a few words of French, and they insult one another using the term "Kasai". [9] Even the dirtiness of the place is blamed on the Congolese. All this, combined with a large population in the DRC [10] feeds fears of spillover. It’s as if the border were always in danger of retreating at Zambia’s expense, constituted as an empty space. Kasumbalesa would then be no more than an urban splattering of Congolese agitation.

From the logistics city to logistics suburbs

Kasumbalesa-Zambia doesn’t really meet the criteria of a typical "logistics city", as evidenced by its streets clogged with heavy goods vehicles (figure 3). However, its urban structure maintains a balance between movement and immobility, making commercial traffic highly profitable for both private companies and Zambian administrations. Although on the margins of the global logistics industry, Kasumbalesa echoes the development of the well-studied suburban logistics in the North (Cidell 2012; Raimbault et al. 2013), characterized by these distribution centers whose numbers are exploding in the European countryside. The nuisances generated by intense commercial activity are concentrated in one point of the territory, while its financial benefits are transferred to more distant locations: Kasumbalesa’s commercial successes are reinvested in other, more affluent mining towns (Chililabombwe, Chingola, Kitwe), while Amazon’s new logistics centers in rural France mainly benefit Silicon Valley. Logistics allows the exploitation of distant natures and cheap labor; it builds and feeds on otherness to better exploit it (Tsing 2009). Reflecting on the logistics city and its suburban corollary highlights places closer to consumption centers, closer to us, but also completely damaged by logistics activity. All this suggests that logistics should be seen as an activity that redistributes the gains and losses of the new economic order, including geographically. And it also redistributes the constraints associated with traffic to certain areas that have been sacrificed, as well as to the workers at the end of the chain.

Figure 3. Kasumbalesa streets

© H. Blaszkiewicz, 2017.


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To cite this article:

Hélène Blaszkiewicz & translated by Oliver Waine, “The Logistics City: Insights from Africa”, Metropolitics, 29 September 2023. URL :

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