A recent article by Michael Lyon Baker in Foreign Affairs make an unconventional but interesting point: African maritime ports are in bad shape and this produces a bottleneck for trade and economic growth.
Africa has the least efficient ports in the world. Dwell times -- the amount of time a ship must stay in port -- for the loading and unloading of cargo exceed global averages by several days and are nearly quadruple those of Asian ports, thus driving up shipping costs through delays. No African port can be found on the list of the top 70 most productive in the world. As a result, shipping companies send smaller, older, and cheaper ships to Africa in an effort to reduce their losses.
A number of factors are to blame: poor harbor maintenance, bureaucratic red tape, inadequate maritime law enforcement, and lax security....
Baker points out that poor infrastructure in ports means that shipping companies reallocate their fleet in such a way that further slows trade:
Moreover, many African ports cannot handle ships of median size due to infrastructure limitations. Meanwhile, the global shipping industry has been modernizing its fleets, scrapping obsolete vessels for newer mega-carriers. This means that shipping companies will continue deploying their remaining smaller and slower ships for transport to and from Africa.... In this environment, companies producing goods in Africa cannot reliably or efficiently get their wares to market. This plays a large role in explaining why Africa garners only 2.7 percent of global trade despite its cheap labor force, cheap commodities, and proximity to major markets.
However, if governments really want to get shipping companies to use their bigger and better ships in Africa, it is probably the case that infrastructure and market opportunities would need to not only improve, but surpass opportunities elsewhere (such as China). This may not be realistic.
Probably too much of the article focuses on piracy, but his mention of labor market opportunities seems to agree with many of the things we know about predation:
A crucial means of countering piracy, oil theft, narcotics trafficking, and terrorism along the African coast is creating better job opportunities. Development approaches usually focus on land-based projects such as agriculture. To be sure, African states need to attract investors for manufacturing companies, but they must also entice shipping companies to get those goods to market. The poor state of Africa’s maritime sector is the most important factor stifling the continent’s growth.
I think it is extremely interesting to think about African maritime infrastructure, because Baker is right that most of the policy focus in Africa is land-based. Although I'm not sure we have enough evidence that dilapidated ports are the "most important factor" for African development. It is notoriously difficult to pin down the effects of infrastructure on economic development since infrastructure is frequently developed in response to increasing demands, itself a result of development.