Making room for growth: Infrastructure upgrades are meant to accommodate higher maritime trade flows

A major investment in its port infrastructure is under way in anticipation of rising demand due to Gabon’s economic expansion. Activity is picking up across a number of sectors that rely on external trade, including mining, construction and forestry, and the Office of Ports and Harbours (Office des Ports et Rades du Gabon, OPRAG) reported a corresponding 57% increase in container exports in 2011. Rigobert Ikambouayat Ndeka, director-general of OPRAG, explains, “The creation of special economic zones and the expected growth in the Gabonese trade balance provide opportunities to further develop the transport and logistics chain.” Gabon’s ports will need to supply new infrastructure and services to keep pace with growth.

CAPACITY BUILDING: The Port of Owendo has already seen important infrastructure upgrades in recent years. In 2007 the Société des Terminaux de Conteneurs du Gabon, the company responsible for loading, stockage and domestic distribution of goods from Gabon’s ports, invested approximately CFA12.3bn (€18.45m) in the construction of a new container terminal at Owendo. Gabon Ports Management (GPM) stated it would invest approximately €45.6m to upgrade port infrastructure in Owendo and Port-Gentil, including an extension of Owendo’s quay. Work is set to begin in late 2012 to construct an additional 300-500 metres, allowing at least three large vessels to dock simultaneously.

The Port of Owendo has seen an average of 7-10% growth in shipping traffic since 2009. The total import-export volume at Owendo reached 5.45m tonnes in 2011, and OPRAG projects that volume will continue to grow in the coming years given increasing production in the agricultural and industrial sectors. To support higher levels of traffic, the GPM recently purchased and installed two 100-tonne Gottwald HMK 6407 cranes for a total of €7.6m. They were still in a test phase by mid-2012, but the general-director of Maersk Gabon, Pablo Alvarado Salinas, told OBG, “In the next six to eight months, we will certainly see increased port activity as the cranes come fully into service.”

LOGISTICS: Port officials have also taken measures to streamline operations and optimise the container terminal in Owendo, which should help in reducing lag time. Container traffic is picking up, due in part to a higher proportion of processed timber products for export, rather than raw logs. In order to accommodate the changing traffic, warehouses have been removed to expand container storage space. In addition, a new system has been implemented so that now containers are only allowed into the terminal once they have been cleared by Customs and are ready for loading.

Since September 2009 the Gabonese Shipping Council has been operating a mandatory electronic tracking system for all cargo. Although the system is meant to streamline storage and distribution logistics by providing a direct link for merchants and shipowners, shipping lines and their clients incur an added fee to pay and a penalty in case of failure to do so.

OBSTACLES REMAIN: A number of challenges remain to streamline the port’s operation. Following blockages due to increased demand around the African Cup of Nations in early 2012, a Customs strike in March 2012 also hampered distribution for weeks. These logistical obstacles, compounded by expensive distribution on insufficient road networks in the interior, mean that many costs are passed on to the consumer.

However, the recent introduction of new equipment and procedures at the Port of Owendo should help to reduce these obstacles. As efficiency increases and vessel waiting times begin to drop, import prices should also fall, and Gabon’s export products will become more competitive. This will be important in the coming years as Gabon faces competition from regional ports, including Douala, Abidjan and Pointe Noire. Côte d’Ivoire had indicated in June 2012 that it aims to triple the annual container capacity in Abidjan to 2.3m twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) by 2016. A bid for tenders was launched in mid-2012 for the construction of a second container terminal, which would increase Abidjan’s capacity from 800,000 to 1.5m TEUs per year.

Despite the positive outlook for increasing export traffic at Owendo in the medium-term, 2012 exports are expected to see a significant drop related to the damaged Kango Bridge, which spans the Komo River and forms the primary link between Libreville and production zones in the interior of the country. The bridge will be only partially operational until it is fully repaired, expected in late 2012, which has slowed down a number of industries and created a price jump in consumer goods. The timber industry is expected to be the most affected, as approximately 90% of wood exports must cross the Kango Bridge to get to Owendo. While imports remain robust, export levels in the first half of 2012 are marginal compared to previous years.

PORT-GENTIL: Port-Gentil is Gabon’s second most important port and handles almost all traffic related to the hydrocarbons industry, as well as some timber exports. The port contains the country’s only oil terminal and three tanker docks. In 2010 the deepwater port handled 13.3m tonnes of goods, an increase of 2.4% year-on-year. Port-Gentil benefits from a deeper harbour than Owendo, reducing the need for regular dredging and allowing it to accommodate larger ships.

With several major construction projects on the horizon for the region, the volume of goods coming through Port-Gentil should continue to rise. The government launched an effort to establish the long-discussed Port-Gentil Special Economic Zone, which will require an investment of €510m and will be devoted to petrochemicals, timber processing and hydrocarbons operations. There are no roads linking Libreville and Port-Gentil, so goods that are not shipped directly to Port-Gentil must arrive by boat from Libreville.

NEW PROJECTS: Several facility upgrades have also been slated for the interior of the country, in order to support increased output from extractive industries such as mining and forestry. Under the National Infrastructure Master Plan, the ANGT has undertaken feasibility studies to enlarge the river port of Lambaréné and transform it to a large-scale river transport and logistics hub. The Programme Routier 2, set to begin in early 2013 with funding from the African Development Bank, will rehabilitate five docks and improve navigation infrastructure along the Ogooué River.

The ANGT is considering plans to develop a mineral-specific port to handle the export of iron ore from the Belinga site in the north-eastern Ogooué-Ivindo province. The government also plans to establish a deepwater port at Mayumba in the south-western Nyanga province. The depth of the site positions it well to serve as a trans-shipment hub, but Mayumba will have to compete with more established ports in the region. Construction is expected to cost roughly $1.2bn, with a projected handling capacity of 2.5m tonnes per year. However, plans for the port construction are unlikely to advance until some of the basic transport infrastructure is in place. Much work remains to be done to further expand port capacity and to increase efficiency, but with increasing export traffic and several projects in the pipeline, maritime trade should be more than able to support economic growth in the medium term.

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The Report: Gabon 2012

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