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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Aiding a New Frontier in African Transportation

Monday, December 9, 2013

A week after the United States closed several embassies in North Africa and the Middle East in early August, Volpe engineer Roger Wayson traveled from his home in Texas to speak at a transportation conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The trip should have been easy, if long. But it was nearly spoiled by nature and national security.

First, Wayson was waylaid in Dallas due to weather. Then, connecting flights out of Cairo, Khartoum, and Istanbul were cancelled. Wayson finally ended up in Frankfurt, Germany, boarding a plane to Ethiopia at the zero hour.

It had been a bone-weary 32 hours, but the journey was worth the delays. Wayson—called on to support the U.S. Department of Transportation at the African Growth & Opportunity Act Sustainable Transformation through Trade and Technology Forum—presented Volpe’s innovative transportation research to five dozen government officials from across Africa in a breakout session.

Wayson talked about SeaVision for ships and GPS for trucks, which both improve safety and track shipments. He talked about wireless technology that will help Africa avoid the growing pains the United States endured when it applied transportation advances using wire-based communications. He talked about the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen program, which is making air travel more efficient. And he talked about technology that lets border guards check containers without opening them, so perishable goods are not exposed to the elements.

After his presentation, Wayson was surrounded by government officials. They wanted more. They wanted to know how to make shipments arrive on time. They wanted to know how to decrease the three months it can take a package to move across Africa. There were so many questions that Wayson and his new entourage were ushered into a different room so another presentation could begin.

“I was very fortunate to be the one to go, but it was a true overall Volpe effort,” Wayson said. “The last-minute travel changes to make sure I got to Ethiopia, the research and speech prep we provided Assistant Secretary Susan Kurland—we can really be proud of the teamwork that went into this.”

On his last afternoon in Addis Ababa, Wayson walked two miles of winding road from the Sheraton Addis to St. George’s Cathedral, an Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church and a major attraction in the city. On the way he stopped in a little art shop and found an intricate chair carved from a single piece of mahogany. The chair was beautiful, comfortable to sit in, and inexpensive. But shipping it to the United States might have cost nearly three thousand dollars.

That mahogany chair and its whopping shipping rate explain why Volpe’s work with U.S. DOT, sharing transportation technology in Africa, is vital. Individuals and businesses in the United States desire African goods, from woodwork to fine leather, to coffee and petroleum. But international shipping costs are prohibitive.

“Their products are very enviable, if we can get the transportation worked out,” Wayson said. “It’s a new market, a new frontier for the United States and African products.”

U.S. DOT’s and Volpe’s work in Africa isn’t only about the American consumer. It’s also about giving African producers access to transportation innovations that can help swell their ideas, companies, and economies to the continental borders and beyond.

And after three nights in Addis Ababa, how did Wayson’s trip back to Texas go? Not bad. It only took 23 hours.

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