We have witnessed several significant moments in the past six months, ranging from Ethiopia’s acceptance of UN peace-deal, Ethiopia and Eritrea leaders visiting each other’s country to opening borders allowing civilians to move freely. This has brought an end to almost two decades long enmity. The peace deal was seen as a new opportunity for the two countries to work together and strengthen their influence in the Horn of Africa and beyond. This was soon followed by a historical call of one of Ethiopian merchant ship MV Mekelle to Massawa port in September 2018 heralding the first peaceful use of Massawa port.
Even though the full length and width of the peace deal which was concluded between Ethiopia and Eritrea are not yet disclosed, from the movement of our ships in Massawa port, we can easily conclude that some agreement has been reached allowing Ethiopia to utilize Eritrean ports for commercial purpose. This is, in fact, good news and to some extent brings relief to Ethiopia from depending only on the Djibouti port. However, contrary to the common people applause to this event, it seems Eritrean ports come nothing close to comparison to Djibouti port. The purpose of this article is to highlight some the challenges of Massawa ports when it comes to handling Ethiopian cargoes.


Massawa Port (Source: Google Maps)

Massawa Port is one of the two major Eritrean ports in the Red Sea. The approach to Massawa port is done by keeping close to the coastline either on a North-Westerly or Southerly heading depending on from which side the approach is performed. The area is dotted by some shallow patches and series of small islands (collectively called Dahlak Islands).
The Port of Massawa facilities has 6 operating berths with more than 1,007 meters of quay line. The Berths are normally used by ocean-going vessels handling Bulk Cargo, General cargo, Container, and Ro/Ro goods. The berths all together can accommodate about 6 ships at a time. The Port can also accommodate ships with 11.8 meters Draft and 240 meters long.
Massawa 2
(Source: Google Maps)
Commercial harbour: Depth of water at MLWS and length of berths
Berth No Purpose Length Depth
1 Conventional 176 4.9
2 Ro/Ro Conventional 150 7.4
3 Ro/Ro Conventional 137 8.7
4 Conventional 137 8.0
5 Container Conventional 186 1.5
6 Container Conventional 208 12.0
Container Terminals: The Port of Massawa has 2 container berths 5 & 6 (397m of quay line.
Oil Harbour: Depth of water at mean low water springs (MLWS) and length of berths are shown below:
Description LAM(M) Draft(M)
Tamoil Oil Terminal 185 8.84
Total Oil Terminal 192 9.20
(Source: Port of Massawa website)
Massawa 3
(Source: Google Maps)
Port of Massawa:
Once called the “Pearl of the Red Sea”, Massawa port is no more in line with other commercial ports in the region. Djibouti has far better well built, equipped and well-connected port facilities than Eritrea. It took more than 15 years to bring Djibouti to current stage in terms of the port facility even though almost 90% of the cargo handled by Djibouti belongs to Ethiopia. In other words, the Djibouti port was developed using income generated by handling Ethiopia’s cargo.
Future Challenges:
From logistics and shipping perspective, above listed information will bring a series of questions:
  • Is Massawa Port ready to handle the full capacity and variety of cargoes destined for Ethiopia?
  • Is there any expansion of the port and upgrading required in terms of infrastructure within the port, cargo handling equipment, storage and warehousing and hinterland connectivity?
  • Is Ethiopia once again paying the costs of developing Eritrean ports same like Djibouti port?
  • What are the long-term legally binding commitments of Eritrean government for motivating Ethiopia in investing and participating in the development of the port?
  • What have we learned from the past?
From what is clear at this moment, it seems that Massawa port is not fully ready to accept cargoes destined for Ethiopia. To name a few of the challenges/ limitations:
  1. The port lacks cargo handling facilities dedicated to container ships. There are no modern gantry cranes for handling containers. This means that if containers have to be discharged using conventional cargo handling equipment, then there will be a delay which in turn will restrict some of the shipping companies calling at this port in order to avoid the delay.
  2. There is no specialized cargo handling for bulk cargoes which can be used to discharge bulk cargo into bagged cargoes. Though this equipment is relatively cheaper, they are required to be brought in to avoid delays of bulk carrier ships bringing in cargoes like grain and fertilizers.
  3. Dedicated areas for cargo storage within the port looks much smaller. In addition to exposing cargoes for harsh weather and theft, this creates unnecessary bottleneck in the whole transportation process.
  4. Currently, there are dedicated six berths for handling cargoes ranging from general cargo to containerized cargo. However closer look at available depth at each berth, those berths don’t have sufficient depth to handle bigger ships. As per the port information the maximum depth is 12m at berth no.6. If this berth is occupied, the next available berth with 8.7m is berth no.3. Hence if two or more bigger ships call at this port, then only one ship will berth and the remaining ships will have to wait at anchorage until the berth is free again. This creates inconvenience for both ship owners as well as cargo owners. Any delay in ship movement means unwanted extra costs for cargo owners.
  5. Future expansion plan: Massawa harbour has deep water areas close by and hence it is possible to plan for expansion of the port. However, port construction is capital-intensive, time-consuming project. Considering the fact that the Eritrean government won’t afford to indulge in this type of project, it is unlikely to see any port expansion project materializing soon (unless sponsored by China?). Even if they get the money to start an expansion project, it will take anywhere between 2 to 3 years to complete the expansion and then appreciate the change it brings.
In conclusion, even though the peace deal and all other related honey-moon events call for a celebration, from logistics and shipping perspective, there are lots of work to do in order to bring the standard of Massawa port to the level where we can compare it to Djibouti. Until we are closer to such standard, we should expect very limited service from Massawa port. On the other hand, the details of the deal with Eritrea on the use of its ports need to be public knowledge so that stakeholders can criticize and work on the pros and cons of the deal.


  1. Thank you cap. Yigezu for your detail explanation and ur positive remark regarding portofino Massawa. Hope the gvt bodies also will look to the matter and act accordingly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massawa can operate as a redispatchment port for traffic bound to Northern and Western Ethiopia but not as transhipment port. Beyond its position as a gateway to more developed Central and Southern Ethiopia Djibouti enjoys an extremely favorable natural harbor which drew continuous investment in deep port over the last 40 years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is the fact right now and I agree with you. However due to favorable geopolitical condition and steady cargo flow to Assab and Massawa ports, I think with in coming 5-10 years, Djibouti port will find itself competing with Assab/Massawa ports. This is likely scenario provided Eritrean government takes this opportunity and develop its ports to international standard.

      Liked by 1 person

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