The government of Gabon mitigates obstacles in the construction sector

Real estate activity in the country has decreased slightly since 2014, although demand in key segments, such as commercial property and affordable housing, continues to remain strong due to a shortage of current supply. Demand for rental property is also on the rise and represents an area of expected growth in the short term. However, time delays in acquiring land titles continue to be a considerable constraint.

Sector Activity

Residential prices in Libreville have increased considerably over the past five years. While property prices in the capital vary greatly due to a lack of market structure and unplanned urban development, basic residential units cost about CFA300,000 (€450) per sq metre. Meanwhile, high-end housing prices average between CFA600,000 (€900) and CFA1m (€1500) per sq metre. In contrast, in 2010 houses in Libreville would sell for an average of CFA200,000 (€300) per sq metre. Property prices continue to differ considerably.

Regulatory Framework

Alongside the National Agency for Urban Planning, Topographical Works and Land Registry (Agence Nationale de l’Urbanisme des Travaux Topographiques et du Cadastre, ANUTTC), the government has created the National Housing Council to establish and implement a national housing policy with representation from both the public and private sectors. Meanwhile, the Special Brigades for Construction and Urbanism are responsible for dealing with illegal land occupation, which is not uncommon, particularly in Libreville, due to limited sector regulations and unplanned urban development. The National Agency for Public Works (Agence Nationale des Grands Travaux, ANGT), tasked with developing public infrastructure projects under the National Infrastructure Master Plan (Schéma Directeur National d’Infrastructure, SDNI), also plays a role in Gabon’s mixed-use projects, though it may soon be replaced by a new agency per a July 2015 decision by the Council of Ministers (see Construction overview).

Land

Though acquiring access to land has been a significant obstacle to new real estate development for years in Gabon, the government has been working in recent years to improve the situation by implementing a number of regulatory reforms designed to reduce the bureaucratic burden. Perhaps most significantly was the overhaul of the Ministry of Housing, Urban Planning and Land Registry, which saw the creation of the ANUTTC. Created in 2011, the agency is tasked with reforming the land title attribution process to reduce the time needed to acquire a land title. The goal of the agency is to deliver land titles within 180 days, down from as much as 10 years.

Since banks typically will not grant mortgages without a land title, the timeframe to acquire one is particularly crucial for the residential segment of the market. In 2012 the agency established a onestop shop coordinating key players involved in land title attribution in an effort to speed up the process. According to Philippe Chandezon, the director-general of local real estate firm BICP, “The ANUTTC was created a few years ago to speed up the process of acquiring land titles, but unfortunately the process is still very difficult. Though there has been little improvement, I am still hopeful that it will get better.”

Financing & Credit

The Ministry of Housing, the ANGT and the Société Nationale Immobilière (SNI), created by the government in 1976 to develop and oversee housing projects across the country, contribute to the budget for housing projects in Gabon. The SNI works in partnership with several banks, including the Banque Gabonaise de Développement (BGD), BGFIB ank and the Banque Internationale pour le Commerce et l’Industrie du Gabon. The SNI’s CFA1.3bn (€1.95m) capital comes primarily from the state (70%) and BGD (20%). Both real estate developers and homebuyers can access loans from housing banks, such as the Banque de l’Habitat du Gabon, a subsidiary of BGD that offers subsidised loans. However, obtaining financing for real estate remains difficult. Relatively high interest rates continue to be an obstacle, particularly for smaller developers and buyers. “Another setback is that banks require the developer or buyer to have the land title before granting any loans, and because of the time delays associated with acquiring titles in Gabon, this can create additional delays in the process,” said Chandezon.

Meanwhile, the Gabonese Strategic Investment Fund, a state fund financed by hydrocarbon revenues, was established to support economic diversification in Gabon and has invested in a number of initiatives in sectors including infrastructure and urban development. The fund contributed to initial financing of the 43-ha modernisation project in the Port-Mole area of Libreville, before the development was put on hold.

Urban Development

Establishing urban development plans in Gabon’s two major cities, Libreville and Port-Gentil, has been challenged by the natural settings of the cities, both of which have limited expansion capacity due to surrounding marshy zones, as well as significant informal construction along the outer limits. In 2013, with the help of the International Urban Development Association, the government identified priority areas for urban development in Libreville that would be overseen by the ANGT (or its replacement agency), not only to regenerate central neighbourhoods and infill development but also to strengthen infrastructural capacity for the future.

Priority projects for the two major cities in the coming years are outlined by the SDNI. These include the development of special economic zones near Libreville in Nkok and Port-Gentil, a city sewer system in Libreville, a treatment and distribution system for potable water and improvements to sanitation in the capital, as well as improvements to main transport arteries in the city to reduce congestion. Similarly, the renovation and widening of a 1.2-km segment of one of Libreville’s principal north-south axis in the neighbourhood of Glass, south of central Libreville, was completed in early 2014. The transformation of the road into a dual carriageway was designed to improve circulation and provide space for the city’s growing public transport network, with a separate bus lane.

A number of other developments are under way in Libreville. The new “Life by Mayena” complex was inaugurated in May 2015, with five restaurants, a Sky Bar and a banquet hall with a capacity of 150 people. Expansion works at the University Hospital Centre of Libreville were 85% complete as of April 2015, and should be completed by the end of the year, including an annex to the emergency centre, new intensive care units, radiology services and an administrative bloc. New works in the hospitality sector include a new hotel being built by Amman Resorts and renovations at the Radisson Hotel. In transport, the Boulevard Triompal is being renovated, widening the main artery into the city to reduce traffic congestion.

Residential

Housing prices peaked in 2012 alongside the Africa Cup of Nations, which was co-hosted by Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and market activity in this segment has since stabilised. Though buying and selling remains steady, demand for high-end rental properties grew in 2014 and continued to rise in the first quarter of 2015. “A lot of people come to Gabon on a temporary basis and prefer rental options over staying in a hotel, which can be very costly,” Chandezon told OBG. Growth in high-end housing has been driven by rentals and sales to expatriates, with an increasing number of international companies setting up offices in Gabon and requiring accommodation, both long and short term, for their staff.

However, while high-end activity has seen comparatively stable performance, one segment that is expected to see a significant jump in activity over the coming years is at the other end of the income spectrum. The urbanisation rate in Gabon, at 86.9% in 2014, is the highest in Africa. With the overwhelming majority of the population currently residing in cities, inadequate housing as a result of informal urban development is not uncommon, particularly in the capital. Gabon currently has a housing deficit estimated at 200,000 units, most of which are needed in Libreville. With the completion of 872 new affordable housing units in 2014 and over 3000 more on the way, the housing gap is gradually narrowing.

To reduce the shortage, the government promised to build 5000 houses each year starting in 2009. Since then the number of units has fallen significantly behind target. Obstacles to expanding low-income housing are similar to those found in other markets across Africa. In some cases, private developers are limited by delays in government projects to build access roads and provide utility connections.

Meanwhile, some of the housing developments that have been successfully built remain unaffordable for low-income people. According to industry experts, the price of a social housing unit starts at CFA20m (€30,000), reflecting the high cost of building materials and wages for construction workers, while the monthly minimum wage in Gabon stands at CFA150,000 (€225). Developing social housing projects is also typically costly and time-consuming, according to Chandezon, primarily due to extensive bureaucratic requirements. “We considered expanding and setting up a new supermarket in Angondjé, but the price per sq metre discouraged us from doing so,” Patrick Gomez, accounting and financial director of Société de Distribution Gabonaise, told OBG.

Commercial

While the market for office space has been mostly informal in the past, there is a growing trend towards using more formal space. The shortage of office space in Libreville is rising as many companies continue to be based out of residential properties and standalone villas. The handful of high-end office buildings in the city were priced at around CFA200,000 (€300) per sq metre in 2014. French architecture firm Ataub designed a new business centre in Libreville which is currently under construction and will provide 14,500 ha of office space, representing an investment of CFA21bn (€31.5m). The average rental price for commercial space in 2014 ranged from CFA10,000 (€15) to CFA18,000 (€27) per sq metre. The shortage of available centrally located land and high-quality stock explains the prices, which are relatively high compared to neighbouring countries. In other cases, potential land for commercial development, such as is available in Angondjé, awaits access roads and utility connections.

Outlook

Demand for housing, particularly affordable housing for low-income locals and high-end rental properties for visiting internationals, is likely to continue driving the real estate sector. As the housing deficit persists, opportunities for investment in this segment are expected to continue, though working through the bureaucratic red tape of acquiring a land title remains a challenge and continues to delay development in the sector. Despite these constraints, the government’s objective to deliver on social housing promises will likely continue impacting the real estate market positively in the medium and long term.

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