Infrastructure for growth: Increased investment can help to diversify transport options and support growth

Ensuring easy access to outlying and rural areas, particularly given Gabon’s economic dependence on commodity production in those very same areas, is crucial. As a result, the government has made it a priority to develop a transport corridor connecting Gabon’s major cities and its mineral and agricultural zones so as to facilitate the flow of goods and people across the country.

Under the Emerging Gabon initiative, which includes the July 2012 Strategic Plan for Emerging Gabon (Plan Stratégique Gabon Émergent, PSGE), an outline of a number of the state’s economic development objectives, the government is planning infrastructure investments in road, maritime and air transport.

The specifics for these projects were set out in greater detail in the National Infrastructure Master Plan (Schéma Directeur National d’Infrastructures, SDNI) announced by the National Agency for Public Works (Agence National des Grands Travaux, ANGT), a government agency operated in collaboration with US contractor Bechtel, in June 2012.

Among the priorities are improving connectivity between Libreville and the oil centre of Port-Gentil, as well as providing additional capacity on rail networks for mineral and passenger loads from the lesser developed interior of the country – both of which are needed, given the poor state of linkages.

The sector received a boost in terms of infrastructure in the lead-up to the Africa Cup of Nations (Coupe d’Afrique des Nations, CAN) in 2012, which sparked a flurry of road and aviation improvements prior to the competition. Despite some delays, transport projects are progressing, in many cases with the support of international lenders and donors, as well as the expertise of foreign contractors.

GOVERNMENT PRIORITY: As with many markets in Africa, domestic transport, both in terms of cargo and passengers, is dominated by road activity. Gabon has a 9170-km road network, with 1055 km of road asphalted and 8115 km unpaved, though of this unpaved total just 20% is in good condition. The government is thus seeking to create a road network capable of unlocking Gabon’s economic potential.

The priority is to create a transport infrastructure corridor connecting Libreville to the provincial capitals of Moyen-Ogooué, Ogooué-Lolo, Haut-Ogooué, Ogooué-Ivindo and Woleu-Ntem, as well as connecting the provincial capitals to each other. The government has a goal of 3600 km of newly paved road by 2016 and a further 2500 km to be laid between 2017 and 2025. Considering the number of projects that are already under way, the target for the end of 2013 is 768 km. The state allocated CFA50bn (€75m) to road rehabilitation in 2012, with the government seeking to invest some CFA1.8trn (€2.7bn) in the road network between 2012 and 2016.

The former CEO of ANGT, Henri Ohayon, announced in 2012 that the agency would seek to generate $6bn in investment for roads by 2016. While no specifics have so far been provided as to private-public expectations, the ANGT noted at the launch of the SDNI that private and international lending would be encouraged via a series of instruments, including public-private partnerships, foreign direct investment (FDI), international financial institution lending and build-operate-transfer concessions. Various donor institutions, including the African Development Bank (AfDB) and Islamic Development Bank, are already present, as are investors from France, Spain and China.

URBAN TRANSPORT: Alongside the improvement of intercity links, the development of urban transport is also a priority for the government, particularly given the country’s high rate of urbanisation. The ANGT has plans for road improvement in major cities, with a focus on the capital. Key projects include the widening and renovation of the primary north-south axis of Libreville, the Route Nationale 1 (National Road 1), the extension and rehabilitation of the Boulevard Triomphal, seafront, neighbouring areas and the Glass road project, in addition to the building of a series of north-south ring roads, with a number of feeder roads leading outward from the coast.

The Glass road, in particular, has attracted attention internationally as a model for future urban road improvements. The purpose of this 1.2-km project is to improve circulation, parking space, security and overall quality of life in Glass, an industrial and commercial neighbourhood of Libreville, by redesigning it according to international norms of urban planning laid out under a smart code. To this end, the project includes work to widen the road and pavement, create more parking spaces, make room for bus stops and circulation, and provide solar-based lighting.

While the project itself was officially launched in September 2012, construction has yet to begin for several reasons, including difficulties with the acquisition of land titles, as well as evictions and compensations thereof in order to make way for the start of construction (see Construction chapter). In its effort to overcome these issues, the government expects work to begin by late 2013.

ROAD MAINTENANCE: Road maintenance efforts had until recently come under the responsibility of the Second Generation Road Fund (Fonds Routier de Deuxième Génération, FER 2), which was established with the support of donor bodies, including the EU, in 2006. While on paper the FER 2 was dedicated to road maintenance tasks, it still undertook various other activities, such as funding new road construction.

In order to improve the transparency of government funds oriented towards the development and sustainability of the national road network, a new law, No. 0004/2012, was ratified in August 2012 to modify the structure of FER 2.

The new institution that emerged, Road Fund (Fonds Routier, FR), consists of two elements with distinct budgets: maintenance and investment, the latter of which includes new road construction. In 2012 the FR spent about CFA100bn (€150m) on investment and CFA45bn (€60m) on maintenance. In 2013, the budget for investment rose to CFA241bn (€361.5m), while maintenance diminished to CFA41bn (€61.5m), according to FR figures.

While institutional reform is still fresh, some concerns already have surfaced as to whether sufficient investment funds can be secured to ensure maintenance activities can be properly carried out.

According to the new institution, however, the attribution of funds is defined by the legislation. “Resources are made available during the year by the responsible state services, i.e. the Treasury, to the respective FR accounts for maintenance and investment,” Patrick Oyaya, director-general for FR, told OBG.

ROAD SAFETY: Although it has a better record than many other African countries, with more than 23,000 road accidents recorded over the past decade, 7000 deaths and some 11,000 wounded, road safety has become a growing concern for the government in recent years. The government has implemented several initiatives aimed at improving road safety in the country, including a number of awareness campaigns, as well as the creation of the National Centre for the Publishing and Release of Transport Documents ( Centre National d’Édition et de Délivrance des Documents de Transport) in 2012 to tackle the falsification of driving permits through the use of electronic cards.

Notwithstanding, there is still room for improvement. The limited capacity of authorities to patrol the road network is a case in point. Currently, the Road Control Brigade has 19 agents and one vehicle to monitor road safety at the national level.

RAILWAY: While limited in scope, the railway in Gabon plays a key role for many industries, including timber, mining and construction, for which it transports large amounts of materials across the country. The only existing railway line is the Trans-Gabon Railway, which extends 640 km between Libreville and Franceville, a mining area with agricultural potential (see Mining chapter). The railway has been operated by Société d’Exploitation du Transgabonais (SETRAG) since 2005 under a 30-year concession. SETRAG is a subsidiary of the local mining company La Compagnie Minière de l'Ogooué, itself a part of the French group Eramet. The line carries both freight and passengers.

In 2012, SETRAG registered an estimated total of 711,201 tonnes of freight (excluding mining products), amounting to a 7% year-on-year (y-o-y) jump from the 665,039 tonnes recorded in 2011. SETRAG also transported 255,930 passengers in 2012, up some 9.8% from the 233,034 passengers registered back in 2011.

In terms of mining goods, the company carried 3.17m tonnes of manganese in 2012, 8% less than the previous year, during which it recorded 3.44m tonnes.

While SETRAG has pointed to this fall as a result of new operators entering the sector since July 2012, such as the China-based Industrial and Commercial Company of Mines of Huazhou, other factors, including obsolete railway equipment, also represented an obstacle to further company growth.

To tackle these, SETRAG recently acquired two JT 42 locomotives, bringing up its total to 11, and the group is currently working on stabilising the railway tracks between PK 111 and Ndjolé, a railway segment in which 80% of the country’s derailments occur. Such efforts are part of a wider investment initiative. Since 2010, the government has been working with SETRAG to carry out a railway improvement programme, contributing CFA2bn (€3m) in 2010 and CFA7bn (€10.5m) in 2011, while SETRAG itself invested CFA14bn (€21m) in 2010 and CFA13bn (€19.5m) in 2011.

SETRAG announced in June 2012 it would invest around CFA30bn (€45m) to CFA40bn (€60m) per year over the next three years to renovate the railway, acquire new equipment and improve efficiency. This includes, among other initiatives, the acquisition of some 35 wagons, the launch of direct freight connections to shorten travel time and the signature of a partnership with the Ministry of Tourism to benefit the development of this sector over the longer term.

KEY PORTS: Gabon has two key ports, Owendo and Port-Gentil, which together handle 80% of the country’s trade. Located 15 km from Libreville, Owendo is the key point of entry for the majority of imports, while Port-Gentil plays a greater role in terms of exports. According to the latest statistics published in 2011 by the Gabonese Shipping Council, Owendo is responsible for the lion’s share of manufactured, agricultural and forestry, and extracted product imports, whereas Port-Gentil exports the majority of extracted and manufactured products.

The two ports are currently managed by Gabon Ports Management (GPM), a subsidiary of the Singapore-based Portek International, and the Ports and Harbours Office of Gabon (Office des Ports et Rades du Gabon, OPRAG). GPM signed a 25-year concession in 2007 on a number of port activities, including infrastructure covering maintenance and development and dredging and engineering, among others.

As the country’s main point of passage for container traffic, which has been on the rise in recent years, Owendo has grown by around 7% to 10% since 2009. Owendo has a 455-metre-long quay with four wharfs, of which only two or three can be simultaneously operated. As one of these is solely dedicated to oil products, there are only two wharfs that can handle container traffic. Average annual container traffic reached 5.5m tonnes in 2012, according to OPRAG, the equivalent of 120,000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs), against 110,000 TEUs in 2011.

The increase in container traffic is perhaps an indication of a growing economy. “Construction-related imports, including in particular construction equipment, are growing rapidly, while food imports are stable,” Philippe Géry, CEO for GPM, told OBG.

“As country development plans unfold and new projects come on-line, we would expect freight exports to pick up and bring a balance to this trade,” he added.

Ship loading, goods storage and domestic distribution are handled by the Société des Terminaux de Conteneurs du Gabon (STCG), a joint venture between Bolloré and GETMA/Necotrans, but there is certainly room for competition to emerge. Rigobert Ikambouayat Ndeka, director-general of OPRAG, told OBG, “As far as bulk and cereals are concerned, the unloading speed could be more efficient.”

Gabon ratified Law No. 022/2011 in February 2012, under which port concessions with logistics companies ceased to be exclusive. “While the law has yet to be implemented, we are confident that with time and effort the situation will change,” Pablo Andres Alvarado Salinas, CEO for Maersk Gabon, told OBG. “The construction of a new terminal at Owendo, for instance, could boost competition in the medium term,” he added. This opportunity could eventually make room for a new actor to emerge via a call for tenders or a public-private partnership.

Port-Gentil is the country’s main exit point for oil exports, which represented around 74.20% of total extracted product exports in 2011, whereas manganese exports comprised the remaining 25.80%.

The city has a number of maritime transport facilities, including one 17 km from Total’s oil terminal at Cap Lopez with a capacity to welcome 250,000-tonne ships. North-west of town at Pointe-Clairette, there is also a 1-km-long deepwater port that includes a 375-metre quay for commercial goods. Finally, Port-Gentil itself has a port with a main quay of 241 metres and a river quay of 150 metres, the latter of which serves a fluvial route reaching eastwards towards Lambaréné, in the interior.

RIVERS: River transport is coming under increasing scrutiny in other major African economies, ranging from Nigeria to Egypt, for its relatively low per-km costs and bulk capacity, and Gabon is no exception. Gabon has an estimated 3000 km of water highways, of which only 20% are in commercial use. The government aims to rehabilitate five docks and upgrade navigation infrastructure along the Ogooué River as part of a project supported by the AfDB. “The project for the Lambaréné river port is currently at a preliminary stage. We are waiting for an update on the Port-Gentil-Mandorové road segment to move forward because we plan to build a terminal in Mandorové, the purpose of which would be to ensure a transition from river to road transport and thus facilitate the flow of goods up to Port-Gentil,” Jean-Felix Edjodjom’ondo, transport specialist for the AfDB, told OBG.

AIRPORTS: Meanwhile, in terms of aviation capacity, Gabon has a relatively extensive airport network. According to the sector regulator, the National Agency for the Civil Aviation of Gabon (Agence Nationale de l’Aviation Civile du Gabon, ANAC), this network comprises 35 public and 150 private airfields, of which 31 (18 public and 13 private) are currently in operation. Of these, 13 airports are located in major cities and provincial capitals, three of which have international flights: Libreville, Port-Gentil and Franceville.

Initially built in the 1950s, Libreville’s Léon Mb’a International Airport (LMIA) remains the country’s chief commercial hub for air transport today. Aé roport de Libreville (ADL) has operated the airport since 1996 under a 30-year management contract to operate, maintain and develop the conceded infrastructure. The airport has, over the years, evolved under this framework, with recent investment made to keep up with economic growth, including reinforcing the runway for the CAN jointly hosted in 2012 by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. While other works were still under way in June 2013, the company had already recovered its investment thanks to the revenue generated by CAN-related air traffic.

Libreville’s airport posted significant increases in air traffic in 2012. The total number of passengers passing through LMIA grew by 7.36%, from 773,440 to 830,376 passengers between 2011 and 2012. International traffic, on the other hand, excluding the Economic and Monetary Community of Central Africa (Communauté Économique et Monétaire de l’Afrique Centrale, CEMAC), registered a 13.29% y-o-y increase, going from 368,111 to 417,045 passengers.

This growth in international movements reflects the opening up of new routes, together with the intensification of existing ones. Turkish Airlines, for example, inaugurated a new route in February 2013, flying three times a week from Istanbul to Libreville, while Air France increased its frequency of flights between Paris and Libreville, to seven days a week in March 2013.

Other foreign carriers operating in Gabon, and ranging among the top 10 in terms of the total number of passengers registered in 2012, include Royal Air Maroc, South Africa Airways, Air Senegal, Ethiopian Airlines and Air Burkina.

LMIA is also a point of passage for air freight traffic in Gabon, even though the flow of air freight is relatively limited in the country, as the majority of exports travel by ship. Most air freight consists of hydrocarbons, together with perishable foodstuffs and dairy products. COREX, DHL and Sky Gabon are some of the leading companies operating in this field. Air freight and postal traffic going through Libreville had until recently expanded consistently, reaching 20,539 tonnes in 2011, but 2012 saw a sizeable reduction, with traffic falling to 17,060 tonnes. This decrease is largely the product of two factors: DHL’s own reduction in traffic following problems related to a sub-contractor and a low level of tonnage transported by COREX given its operational difficulties. However, according to an ADL official, traffic is picking up in 2013.

Plans to build a new international airport for the capital at Andème, 65 km from Libreville, are currently under way. While the full details of the project had not been made public at the time of publication, local media has reported a government decision to impose a tax on all international commercial flights departing from Gabon to fund the construction of the new international airport, starting in September 2013 and ending when the debt incurred to pay for the construction is eventually covered.

Located in the country’s economic capital and headquarters of the hydrocarbons industry, Port-Gentil International Airport (PGIA) is also undergoing considerable modernisation and expansion works in order to comply with international standards and welcome increased global traffic.

Key to receiving such traffic is the renovation and extension of the runway, from 1900 to 2600 metres, so that larger aircraft catering to long-haul flights may land at the airport. The renovation project also includes the upgrade of electronic equipment and the building of a new 5800-sq-metre terminal, for a total cost of $60m, co-financed by the government and Total Gabon. If traffic growth were to eventually require it, additional works are planned for a second airstrip of 3000 metres and an expansion of the terminal up to 9000 sq metres.

The Agency for the Security of Aerial Navigation in Africa and Madagascar (Agence Pour la Sécurité de la Navigation Aérienne en Afrique et à Madagascar, ASECNA) currently oversees operations at PGIA, in addition to a number of other facilities in the country, including 10 national airports in major cities and provincial capitals. Notwithstanding the diversity of ASECNA’s assets in Gabon, the majority of its revenue comes from the management of PGIA. The airport’s future is likely to depend on both the execution of ongoing infrastructure projects and, to a certain extent, developments in the hydrocarbons industry, the latter of which could have an impact on air freight traffic going through Port-Gentil in the medium to long term. However, this is dependent on significant oil discoveries being made at deep and ultra-deepwater levels (see Energy chapter).

FRANCEVILLE: The provincial capital of Haut-Ogooué, Franceville also has an international airport, M’Vengue El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba International Airport, which was recently the focus of a project to modernise its facilities and included the construction of a presidential pavilion of approximately 700 sq metres, the development of an outside façade and enlargement of the terminal to 2000 sq metres. However, construction that was expected to finish by the end of 2012 was still ongoing at the time of writing.

REGULATORY HURDLES: The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a specialised UN agency, carried out an audit of the Gabonese aviation sector in May 2007, the negative results of which led to the country being included on ICAO’s blacklist on account of its high rate of non-compliance with international civil aviation standards, especially safety norms. Before this evaluation, the EU, too, added Gabon to a blacklist of its own, banning a number of Gabonese airlines from operating in its airspace, with the exception of a few aircraft from Afrijet, Nouvelles Air Affaires Gabon and the formerly private-owned Gabon Airlines.

Gabon received a new ICAO mission in August 2012, which was intended as a follow-up to the 2007 audit. “The evaluation exercise focused on five of a total eight civil aviation domains recognised and evaluated by the international organisation,” Dominique Oyinamono, the CEO of ANAC, told OBG.

These correspond to a series of areas in which ANAC has concentrated its efforts since its inception back in 2008, specifically legislation, organisation, personnel licensing, aircraft operations and aircraft worthiness. Progress over the past five years in these areas elicited a small, yet nonetheless encouraging result in 2012. “The evaluation established a gain of 12 points,” Oyinamono told OBG. “From 93% of non-compliance, we went to 81%,” he added. Having completed a number of steps since the evaluation mission itself left Gabon, the ANAC had, by March 2013, begun implementing an action plan to work on further improvements. “Our goal is to achieve the global standard, below 50% of non-compliance,” said Oyinamono. A new mission is only likely to be requested once further progress has been registered. According to the ICAO’s “2013 Safety Report”, Mali, Rwanda and Benin have resolved several safety issues, in the process setting a benchmark Gabon and other African nations.

Aside from international regulations, other issues, such as the limited availability of qualified human resources and the long distance to repair sites, can also pose a challenge to the development of aviation in Gabon. The closest sites for repairing aircraft, for instance, are located in South Africa and Morocco.

AIR CEMAC: The creation of a regional airline has been in the pipeline for some time and generated much debate over its viability as CEMAC member states also support the development of national airlines, which could take away traffic from a regional carrier.

Despite the slow progress of negotiations, which had been in the works for four years as of June 2013, CEMAC member states had agreed on both the nomination of a chairman of the board of directors of Air CEMAC and location of the company’s headquarters in the Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville). Negotiations with technical partner Air France were still going ongoing in mid-2013. The French airline holds 34% of Air CEMAC, each of the regional organisation’s states own 5%, while the Bank of Central African States has a 15% share.

TRANSPORT COOPERATION: Recent regional initiatives to support transport cooperation in Central Africa, including a private sector conference and a couple of union and government seminars on issues of road transport and international trade, suggest that Central African countries, and in particular key stakeholders, are working together to facilitate improved rates of intra-regional trade. If successful, their efforts could contribute to the improvement of intra-regional trade relations in the medium to long run.

In April 2013, a two-day workshop organised by the International Road Transport Union on the importance of international conventions in facilitating trade and road transport within CEMAC took place in Yaoundé, the political capital of Cameroon.

In September another event took place in Douala, the commercial capital of Cameroon. The Week for the Facilitation of Transports and Transit in CEMAC brought together regional stakeholders, with the support of the World Bank and CEMAC itself, to go over regional challenges to and initiatives on transport cooperation. According to the IMF, intra-regional trade within CEMAC in 2012 accounted for about 1.2% of the region’s total. By comparison, within the West African Economic and Monetary Union, the World Bank reports it grew from 10% in 1994 to 16% in 2000 as a result of the establishment of a Customs union.

At the same time, intra-regional trade within ECOWAS and the African Centre for Commerce, Integration and Development, respectively, represents approximately 12% and 6% of the region’s total annual exports and imports, respectively. The low level of intra-regional trade in Central Africa as compared to other regions is a result of several factors, including physical and non-physical trade barriers, as well as a lack of intraregional infrastructure. While transport infrastructure integration is being promoted in the region via projects such as the construction of a road linking Cameroon, Gabon and Congo-Brazzaville, much work lies ahead. Yet other regional initiatives, such as the collection of actionable data about trade barriers and its use to inform trade-related decision-making, as evidenced by the development of a regional transport observatory, may contribute to the development of road transport and trade in Central Africa.

OUTLOOK: With government support to develop transport infrastructure and projects already identified under the SDNI, Gabon now requires increased investment to move forward. Projects completed and under way show the extent to which instruments such as public-private partnerships, FDI, international financial institution lending, and build-operate-transfer concessions are contributing to the development of transport infrastructure. New infrastructure is, in turn, helping transport service providers to keep up with rising demand. Going forward, the maintenance of infrastructure improvements will be vital to ensure the sustainability of the transport network. The creation of a transport observatory could, to this end, prove useful in the long run, while further cooperation on reducing trade barriers may contribute to improving the flow of goods and people within the region. In the medium term, the completion of a connection to Congo-Brazzaville will represent an important step towards the integration of transport networks in the region.

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