Getting moving: Investment in infrastructure will support economic diversification

The improvement of Gabon’s transport network is a necessary precursor to growth in the extractive industries, forestry, agriculture and other high-potential sectors, and the government has recognised this. Planned infrastructure upgrades, particularly for roads and ports, should help unlock the country’s economic potential in areas outside of Libreville and the economic capital, Port-Gentil. Of the $20bn in total investment, which has been proposed for projects under the National Infrastructure Master Plan from 2011-16, $6bn has been earmarked for road infrastructure projects, $5.5bn for rail upgrades, and an additional $2bn for air, maritime and river transport. While state goals for the sector are ambitious, Gabon currently lacks the necessary funding and qualified workforce to fully implement these plans. As a result, foreign investors, private companies and international financial institutions will be critical in providing the financial, technical and technological expertise necessary to overhaul the transport network.

NATIONAL PLAN: Future transport projects will be coordinated under Gabon’s National Infrastructure Master Plan, (Schéma Directeur National d’ Infrastructures), which was drawn up in consultation with US-based engineering, construction and management firm Bechtel. The plan was formally launched in June 2012 and focuses on 21 priority projects in transport, housing and energy. The plan will be implemented by the National Agency for Public Works (Agence Nationale des Grands Travaux, ANGT), which was established in September 2010 with the original task of overseeing the various construction projects related to the African Cup of Nations (Coupe d’Afrique des Nations, CAN) football tournament held in early 2012.

KEY LINKS: Certainly work is needed given that the current system does not take into account many of the geographic corridors that are critical to economic growth. The country’s primary axis extends along the 640-km Transgabonais railroad, which connects Libreville and the Port of Owendo with Franceville, the capital of the Haut-Ogooué province in the south-east. The railway is critical to the transport of minerals, timber and industrial materials. However, railway infrastructure is outdated, and the road along this corridor has never been completed. In addition, there is no road link between Libreville and Port-Gentil, which is the headquarters of the hydrocarbons industry and accounts for roughly 75% of country’s wealth from oil as well as timber. Most transport in and out of Port-Gentil is conducted by air or boat to Libreville, which isolates this key area from the interior. A number of other corridors, including a stretch between Bitam and the Cameroon border in the north and from Booué to the Belinga iron ore site in the north-east, have been identified as priorities for unlocking the country’s economic potential.

ROAD LINKS: Gabon is ramping up programmes to improve its national road network in an effort to decentralise economic activity and increase regional trade. On average, one-half of all manufactured goods, one-third of timber and 65% of passengers are transported by road. Gabon has three main arteries nationwide: a 486-km road from Libreville to Bitam and the surrounding agricultural areas in the north, the primary east-west route stretching 887 km from Libreville to Franceville via Ndjolé, and a 876-km north-south route from Libreville to Tchibanga via Mouila.

All provincial capitals and major towns are accessible by road, but in early 2012 only 936 km, or approximately 10% of Gabon’s 9170-km road network was paved. The ANGT hopes to widen and pave 3300 km of laterite roads between 2012 and 2016, and an additional 2500 km between 2017 and 2025. The low percentage of paved roads creates transport difficulties throughout the country, in particular during the rainy season from September through May. Many roads become impassable in particularly heavy rains, and cargo trucks are forced at times to wait up to two days for roads to dry sufficiently. The state of asphalt roads is further complicated by low budgets for routine maintenance and damage caused by timber trucks that exceed weight limits. The maximum laden axle weight is 10 tonnes and 50 tonnes per truck; in the absence of monitoring, many actually exceed weight limits, thus contributing to road deterioration.

In February 2012, the Kango Bridge over the Komo River, the principal road link between Libreville and the interior of the country, was damaged by a barge that collided with one of the support pillars. Traffic is severely restricted on the weakened bridge, which has been a major obstacle for all transport and export-oriented industries and caused a spike in the price of consumer goods. An Italian company began repair work on the bridge in May 2012, and it is expected to be fully operational by November. In the interim, many companies have turned to river transport, using less-efficient barges (which only operate during the daytime) to float timber and other goods toward the port area.

NEW ROUTES: Despite the remaining challenges, the road network has already seen improvements in recent years. The 2012 CAN football tournament, which Gabon co-hosted in January-February, provided the impetus to launch urban transport projects that eased circulation in the capital. Several stretches of Libreville’s road network have been refurbished, three highway interchanges were constructed at key circulation points and new access roads to stadiums in suburban areas will benefit local populations well after the tournament.

The first phase of the Programme Routier (PR1) will have expanded and paved 236 km of roads when work wraps up in October 2012. The programme received 90% of its funding, or CFA165.08bn (€247.62m), from the African Development Bank (AfDB). The programme will significantly reduce travel time on the critical north-south Route Nationale 1 (RN1). The RN1 is also part of a regional artery connecting Gabon to Cameroon and the Republic of the Congo, and its modernisation should significantly expand possibilities for regional exchange. The second phase of the Programme Routier (PR2), slated to begin in early 2013, will complete the north-south link and increase regional linkages to key cities such as Tchibanga and Port-Gentil. (see analysis) In addition to this programme, the ANGT has identified several key road projects to be launched in the next five years. Most importantly, the ANGT plans to complete the road link along the critical Transgabonais route from Libreville to Franceville, following Route Nationale 3 (RN3), in order to harness the full economic potential of this key corridor. Work is also under way to refurbish and pave 163 km of RN1 leading east from Libreville, which will help to accelerate the transport of goods and passengers to the capital.

URBAN TRANSPORT: The ANGT has also developed a plan to improve roads in major urban centres, including Port-Gentil, Lambaréné and Franceville, but the focus will be on the capital. The plan will widen and refurbish the primary north-south axis, the coastal Boulevard de Bord de Mer as well as add a series of three concentric ring roads that will link the city north-to-south, interconnected by feeder roads leading outward from the coast. The Ministry of Transport conducts an annual maintenance programme, but the road network in Libreville is still in poor condition in many areas. The creation of an efficient, interconnected road system will allow for greater speed and reliability of service delivery, including the distribution of goods from Owendo.

The ANGT is also working in partnership with Société Gabonaise de Transport (SOGATRA ) to establish a Libreville bus system. Personal vehicles are ubiquitous in the capital, and public transport consists mainly of shared taxis and vans, as well as a few buses operated by SOGATRA. As a result, the roads can be chaotic and is subject to frequent traffic jams. The bus system under study will establish six priority routes for standard buses and eight minibus routes throughout the city and to surrounding suburbs such as Nzeng Ayong, which should help to lighten the number of vehicles on roads. The infrastructure master plan provides for the purchase of 178 standard, 70-passenger buses and 53 30-passenger minibuses in 2012 and 2013. The first phase, the development of the Glass Road section of the bus system, is expected to be complete by the end of 2012. As roads are widened and pedestrian areas and bus stations are added, it is hoped that public transportation will be a more viable option.

RIVERS: Waterways have traditionally been a very important mode for transporting timber to processing centres around Libreville. With the Kango Bridge damaged and traffic crossing the bridge potentially limited for up to a year, companies are increasingly relying on barges to transport timber and other heavy materials to shipping and processing centres on the coast. The Ogooué River is a key link for the transport of petroleum products, merchandise and passengers between Port-Gentil and Lambaréné, capital of the central Moyen-Ogooué province.

Despite its utility, Gabon only uses roughly 20% of its river network, or 600 km of a total 3300 km of navigable waterways, as barge transport is often slow and depends on changing water levels. The PR2 includes a budget to restore the banks of the Ogooué River and install floating and fixed beacons to ease water transport. Ultimately, the PR2 will improve transport on several waterways, including the Fernan Vaz Lagoon and the Ogooué, Komo and Banio Rivers. The state is also studying a project to dredge the Ogooué River, thereby allowing larger ships to pass, but the project has been slowed with the delayed arrival of the dredge boat.

The Compagnie Nationale de Navigation Intérieure et Internationale (CNI) manages all marine, lake and river transport. The CNI transported 102,400 passengers in 2010, an important increase from only 12,208 in 2009. The transport of goods also rose from 7118 tonnes in 2009 to 33,015 tonnes in 2010.

RAIL: Railways are a limited but critical means of transport for many Gabonese industries, particularly timber, mining and construction. The country’s only railway is the Transgabonais line, which stretches 640 km from Libreville and the Port of Owendo to Franceville, a key mining area and the future site of an Agricultural Special Economic Zone. The line has been operated since 2005 under a 30-year concession by the Société de l’Exploitation du Transgabonais (SETRAG). SETRAG is a subsidiary of the local mining company COMILOG, which is part of the French mining group Eramet. Although it also runs passenger trains, the primary purpose of the line is to transport minerals toward industrial and transport centres along the coast.

DEMAND FACTORS: SETRAG allows other mining operators to transport minerals on the Transgabonais using their own rolling stock. The Industrial and Commercial Company of Mines of Huazhou (CICMHZ) of China began transporting manganese between Ndjolé and Owendo following the signing of such an agreement in July 2011. Mineral traffic should climb further in the next year with the entrance of the Australian mining group BHP Billiton, which launched manganese mining operations near Franceville in 2011.

When the ban on raw timber exports went into effect, SETRAG saw a sizeable decrease in the volume of wood transport, which fell by almost half between 2009 and 2010. However, as the forestry industry begins to recover and sectors such as mining and construction begin to accelerate, a high demand for rail transport has returned. The company also saw a corresponding 15% year-on-year increase in turnover, with CFA42.99bn (€64.48m) in 2011, driven primarily by rising mineral and container transport volumes. With the addition of CICMHZ traffic, manganese transport grew from 3.16m tonnes in 2010 to 3.44m tonnes in 2011. In response to dropping demand for log transport, SETRAG converted 61 log cars into container cars, which helped to boost container traffic by 39.9% year-on-year to reach 162,554 tonnes. Passenger transport remained fairly stable at 233,000, with a slight rise due to legislative elections at the end of 2011, as railways are not the most efficient mode of passenger transport.

INVESTMENTS: SETRAG plans to invest heavily in its rolling and fixed stock to improve transport on the line. The railway has had trouble with derailments in recent months due to outdated infrastructure and the terrain, which can swell and contract depending on the climate. The state allocated a budget of €30.4m to purchase six new locomotives and 10 passenger cars in advance of the CAN. The first two JT 42 locomotives were introduced in late 2011, and another two in March 2012. Each operates at 3000 horsepower and is adapted for the transport of passengers and heavy goods.

In addition, SETRAG replaced over 52,000 ties and 36 km of track in 2011. The company has also projected that it will invest a minimum of CFA30bn (€45m) over the next three years for further upgrades to rolling and fixed stock. Given the investment plan and growing mining activity along the line, SETRAG expects rail traffic to increase by an additional 32% in 2012 to reach turnover of CFA59bn (€88.5m).

Improvements to this critical artery should go a long way to strengthen the transport sector and support economic growth. However, given the limitations of the road network and the difficulties posed by the seasonal rains, Gabon would also benefit from expanded rail links to other productive zones. Under the master plan, the ANGT has set the goal of creating a 320-km rail link between Belinga and Booué to support future mining activities, as well as a new railway directly connecting Belinga to a deepwater port, the site of which has not been decided. A 300-km rail link from the Transgabonais to the new special economic zone in Port-Gentil is also planned within the next five years.

MULTIMODAL TRANSPORT: Gabon’s transport infrastructure lacks sufficient connectivity between various networks. The primary multimodal hubs are located in Owendo and Franceville. A land-based multimodal port with a 550-container capacity is operated by the Société des Terminaux de Conteneurs du Gabon (STCG) near the Franceville railroad terminus. In order to expand transport linkages, the ANGT plans to establish and expand several multimodal centres, with a focus on the interior town of Ndjolé. The ANGT’s plan for the construction of an intermodal hub would make Ndjolé the logistical centre for products passing through Gabon. Work on the project was expected to begin by late 2012, however, concrete steps have yet to be taken. Once launched, construction is expected to be complete within four years. Intermodal hubs are also planned in Lambaréné, as part of its upgrade to the Lambaréné river port, and in Booué which will support future mining operations at nearby Belinga.

A Multimodal Transport Observatory was established under the Ministry of Transport with the primary goal of creating more efficient domestic transport links with Gabon’s ports. The observatory monitors the frequency and volume of freight passing through Owendo and Port-Gentil and is tasked with identifying bottlenecks in the system and prioritising investment needs, which should help to increase efficiency in the medium term.

PORTS: The Office of Ports and Harbours (Office des Ports et Rades du Gabon, OPRAG) is making a push in 2012 to increase port capacity. The Port of Owendo, on the outskirts of Libreville, is the main point of entry for the vast majority of both imports and exports of timber and minerals. The second-largest port, Port-Gentil, is mainly responsible for crude oil exports, which represented 67% of total export sales in 2011, but few imports. Both ports have been managed under a 25-year concession since 2003 by Gabon Ports Management (GPM), a subsidiary of Singapore-based Portek International that was acquired by Mitsui in 2011.

OPRAG reported that ports saw traffic of 6.29m tonnes in 2011, which marked an increase of over 20% from 5.08m tonnes in the previous year. Philippe Gery, director-general of GPM, explained, “Gabon’s ports are vital to its economy, with up to 90% of the country’s trade passing through them.”

Expanding the port system will be crucial as Gabon starts working on stepping up the pace of industrialisation. “These days, up to 70% of imports coming through Owendo are either tools or equipment for the country’s industrialisation and construction materials destined for large infrastructure projects,” said Gery.

Although transport volumes are climbing, the Port of Owendo experienced severe bottlenecks in late 2011 and early 2012 as shipping demand increased with preparations for the CAN tournament in January. Waiting times for ships increased from an average of three to four days to up two weeks, which highlighted the need to improve port efficiency and infrastructure.

GPM has also indicated it plans to invest €45.6m in 2012-13 to enlarge port capacity and overcome transport bottlenecks at both Owendo and Port-Gentil. Owendo includes a mineral port and a 7-ha container terminal, which processed 67,000 twenty-foot equivalent units for import and export in 2011, up from 50,494 in 2010. Work is expected to begin in late 2012 to extend the port’s main quay to up to 1 km, which allow three ships to dock at once. GPM has also purchased and installed two mobile cranes in 2012 that should triple loading speed to 30 movements per hour once they come on-line (see analysis).

COMPETITION: The state is also working to facilitate the entrance of new operators in maritime trade and distribution in an effort to enhance sector competition. Major shipping lines such as France’s CMA CGM and Denmark’s Maersk have traditionally dominated maritime trade. Ship loading, goods storage and domestic distribution are exclusively handled by STCG, a joint venture between Bolloré and GETMA/Necotrans. These two companies are competitors elsewhere on the African continent, but formed a joint venture in Gabon given the small size of its ports and domestic market.

In February 2012 Gabon ratified a new law, No. 022/2011, under which port concessions with logistics companies are no longer exclusive. Liner service, meanwhile, remains non-exclusive, and additional actors are entering the sector. New shipping lines Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) and Pacific International Lines (PIL) launched services to Owendo in 2011. The market is complemented by other lines, including SCL Logistics, NileDutch (NDS) and Grimaldi – although the latter is reportedly moving away from container transport and into roll-on/roll-off and break-bulk shipping. STCG continues to be the primary logistics provider given its national and regional footprint, but the field is now open to other groups interested in building and operating a new dock.

Competition in the sector may help to bring prices down, but it has also caused some bottlenecks as traffic expands faster than storage and unloading space at the docks. Port expansion plans have been limited at Owendo due to the lack of available space. The land surrounding the port is not available for purchase, which limits expansion and puts the burden on companies to increase efficiency and speed with the space available in order to increase turnover.

AIR TRANSPORT: Gabon has a surprisingly extensive air transport network given its small population, with 13 national airports in major cities and provincial capitals, with varying levels of infrastructure. In addition, 20 private airfields are maintained by companies, particularly those in forestry, oil and mining. The CAN provided the impetus to launch refurbishment programmes at three air traffic hubs – Libreville, Port-Gentil and Franceville – which have improved capacity.

Libreville’s Léon M’Ba International Airport is the primary point of entry for all air traffic, including both freight and passengers. The passenger terminal was refurbished in 2011-12 before the CAN to ease passenger circulation and Customs processing. The airport, which has been managed since 1996 by Aéroport de Libreville (ADL), saw a total of 773,442 passengers in 2011, up from 721,297 in 2009. ADL estimates that passenger volumes grew by 18% in January and February 2012 related to the CAN. Further infrastructure improvements included under the master plan should help to streamline the sector’s operation in the coming years. A three-year project to refurbish the runways is set to begin in early 2013, to be financed by ADL and the Ministry of Transport at estimated cost of CFA1bn (€1.5m).

SECOND HUB: Port-Gentil’s airport is in the midst of a €30.5m renovation project, financed in partnership with French oil company Total, to upgrade airport infrastructure and support its growth as Gabon’s second hub of international traffic. The runway has been lengthened from 1900 metres to 2600 metres to accommodate Boeing 737-800 aircraft, which will allow for direct flights from Paris and Frankfurt.

The airport saw a total of 174,000 passengers over the course of 2011; the conclusion of the runway project, expected in August 2012, is a welcome development, as airport capacity has been limited by periodic runway closures for work. Studies are currently under way for the construction of a new 5800-sq-metre international passenger terminal, in addition to a 1200-sq-metre presidential pavilion, both slated for completion by 2015. The airport is currently managed by the Agency for the Security of Aerial Navigation in Africa and Madagascar (Agence pour la Sécurité de la Navigation Aé rienne, ASECNA), but there is a possibility it will be opened up to other operators in the future. A project is also in place to rehabilitate and expand infrastructure at eight provincial airports with funding from several international institutions, including the Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa, the Islamic Development Bank and the Development Bank of Central African States (BDEAC). Work is already under way to elongate the runway as well as upgrade passenger terminals in Franceville, Koulamoutou and Lambaréné. Similar projects are also planned in Makokou, Mouila, Oyem and Tchibanga. This project has existed in concept since 1998, but international financing and the structure created by the arrival of the ANGT meant that it finally got off the ground in 2011.

The government is also considering a project to construct a new international airport at Andème, which is 67 km north of Libreville, to eventually replace the Léon M’Ba International Airport. While the project is still in the conceptual phase, it offers many benefits in terms of available space for expansion, which would permit the establishment of a multimodal transport hub nearby. A tentative project budget of €608m has already been identified by the ANGT.

TRAFFIC FLOWS: The expansion of air traffic in Gabon has been affected by a European Union blacklist of several Gabonese carriers, after an audit of the national civil aviation authority conducted in 2007 found insufficient compliance with European safety regulations and standards. As a result, locally registered airlines are currently unable to land in Europe except for Afrijet, Comores Air Services, SN2AG and the now-defunct Gabon Airlines. Foreign carriers such as Air France, Lufthansa and Royal Air Maroc operate the bulk of foreign traffic, and while international passenger numbers have been climbing, the blacklist has prevented partnerships with local operators. As such, the number of domestic passengers has declined slightly from 288,361 in 2010 to 260,736 in 2011.

A new regulatory agency created in 2009, the National Civil Aviation Authority (ANAC), has been working to raise regulatory standards. A new audit was scheduled to be conducted in August 2012 and, if successful, could lead to opening up the air transport field in the next year. The disappearance of Gabon Airlines has affected domestic air travel. The project to create a regional airline, Air CEMAC, was also put on hold earlier in 2012 when South African Airways withdrew as the project’s technical partner. The idea has been discussed for a number of years, and while efforts have not yet gotten off the ground, the potential is strong.

AIR FREIGHT: Several firms manage air freight, including Fret Services Logistiques, COREX, DHL and Sky Gabon, but only a small percentage of Gabon’s foreign trade passes by air. Total freight and post arrivals have risen steadily in the last five years, reaching 20,539 tonnes in 2011, slightly down from a peak of 20,895 tonnes in 2010. Freight picked up slightly in late 2011 and early 2012, as some large supermarkets and other companies have increasingly turned to air transport as imports were blocked at the overburdened Port of Owendo prior to the CAN. Notably, the turf for the main stadium, the Sino-Gabonese Friendship Stadium in Libreville, was flown in prior to the tournament.

“There are high margins on air freight in Gabon,” said Jacob Cabinda, the general manager of COREX, “but air freight business is unidirectional as almost all exports pass by maritime trade.”

Most of air freight consists of perishable foodstuffs and dairy products, in addition to some heavy machinery, much of which is imported by petroleum companies and shipped to Port-Gentil by boat. Petroleum companies should be able to import freight directly to Port-Gentil once the airport opens to international flights, expected within the next year. ADL’s business should remain steady, however, as an average of 60% of all air freight remains in the capital.

PRIVATE INVESTMENT: In order to make the ambitious projects for the transport sector a reality, the government will need to attract significant amounts of international funding, as well as private sector partnerships. Much of the management of national transport networks has already been privatised, with GPM and Mitsui managing ports, COMILOG and SETRAG managing the railway system, and ADL managing Leon M’ba International Airport. The ANGT noted at the launch of its master plan that private and international financing will be encouraged through a variety of instruments, including public-private partnerships, foreign direct investment, loans from international financial institutions, and build-operate-transfer concessions.

OUTLOOK: The creation of the ANGT and the master plan has provided coordination and structured planning, which Gabon’s transport sector had lacked. Much work remains to be done, but ongoing projects on road, port, air and rail infrastructure bode well for the sector in the near term. The volume of the proposed investment programme and a government commitment to opening up the sector will create considerable opportunities for international partners. If work advances as anticipated, the capacity of Gabon’s transport network to support continued economic growth should expand considerably in the coming two to four years.

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The Report: Gabon 2012

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