For a Ugandan farmer trying to get a shipping container of coffee to Europe, the first leg of the journey is always the most frustrating. Because Uganda is landlocked, the shipment must go by rutted road to the Kenyan port of Mombasa, a 750-mile journey that rarely takes less than a month, $3,000 in shipping costs, one border crossing and sometimes protracted negotiations with Kenyan port authorities.
Getting the container from Mombasa to Europe, by comparison, takes $800 and a week or so at sea.
"Imagine every U.S. state with border controls and visas," said Susan Muhwezi, a presidential assistant on trade in Uganda. "That's what it's like doing business in Africa. How can we compete?"
Such economic frustrations are just one reason the continent is in the midst of an unprecedented push to look past its colonial-era borders and integrate.
Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in East Africa are pushing for a common currency and eventually a common president. West Africa has its own regional court of justice and an advisory parliament. Eventually, the continent-wide African Union hopes to unite most or all of Africa's 53 countries to form a new and powerful world player: the United States of Africa.
More than a century after the partition of Africa by European colonial powers, "we're trying to put together the jigsaw puzzle to create Africa again," said Chungu Mwaila, an investment and development director at COMESA, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa.
Uniting the continent, he said, "is our vision."
At the start of a new century, Africa is struggling to find ways to succeed. In trying to solve the continent's persistent poverty and other glaring problems, its leaders are sorting through deeply rooted cultural traditions, colonial-era legacies and the new demands of a globalized world.
It is a search for African answers to Africa's problems, and in the process, they are redefining what it means to be African.
For many of the continent's nations, that means finding ways to overcome differences of culture, language and outlook and to unite in hope of winning a bigger share of world trade and a stronger voice on the international stage.
"If you look at our potential in human and natural resources, Africa can compete," said Mwaila, who is from Zambia, another of Africa's many poor, landlocked countries. "But our economies are too small and fragmented. Economically and politically we cannot each survive on our own. We must integrate, so we can speak with one African voice when we go to negotiate."
Divided along the lines drawn by European colonizers, Africa is better known for its border disputes than for integration. About 70,000 people died in the first border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and the two nations are threatening to fight again. Nigeria and Cameroon are at odds over the Bakassi peninsula, an oil-rich area awarded to Cameroon in 2002 by the International Court of Justice. Southern Sudan will get an opportunity to vote on secession under a recently signed peace deal with the Arab-dominated north.
But behind the conflicts and divisions, Africa is quietly following an international trend toward regional integration that has spawned free trade zones and increasingly free movement of people and goods from Europe to South America.