Gabon invests in transport infrastructure to boost economic diversification

As part of Gabon’s economic growth strategy, the authorities have been looking to accelerate the development of transport infrastructure in recent years as a means to improve national logistics competitiveness and boost development in remote areas of the country. For this reason, public spending on transportation has averaged CFA780bn (€1.2bn) per year, or 70% of the state investment budget between 2010 and 2015, compared to CFA310bn (€465m) in 2009. All of the state’s planned infrastructure development projects – road, railway, shipping and aviation – have been outlined in the National Programme of Infrastructure Development (Schéma Directeur National des Infrastructures, SNDI), which was set out by the government in 2012. The SNDI aims to boost inter-city connections as well as raise transport infrastructure to international standards.

In advance of the Africa Cup of Nations football tournament in 2017 – the second time this decade the country has hosted the tournament – road renovation is vital. As a means to ensure Gabon’s capacities to transport the expected 150,000 visitors at the event, the authorities have also sought to give a boost to key infrastructure in the four hosting cities, namely Libreville, Port-Gentil, Franceville and Oyem.

Public Agencies

Until 2015, all transportation infrastructure projects were entrusted to the National Agency of Public Works (Agence Nationale des Grands Travaux, ANGT), a public agency founded in 2010 and operated in partnership with US contractor Bechtel, before the entity was merged with the Road Maintenance Fund (Fonds d’Entretien Routier, FER) to create a new overarching superstructure, the National Agency of Public Works and Infrastructure (Agence Nationale des Grands Travaux et des Infrastructures, ANGTI). The new agency is tasked by the government with implementing the major infrastructure projects outlined by the SNDI, either through its own resources or via the launch of tender bids.

Currently, ANGTI is involved in nearly 200 infrastructure development projects – encompassing the transport, housing and energy sectors – spread throughout the country. As a means to secure the funding for the rising number of transportation upgrades, authorities have been increasingly resorting to external financing through loans from development institutions, as the 2014-16 decline in oil prices has noticeably affected Gabon’s financial capacities.

Road

As is the case in most African countries, roadways are still the main means of transportation in Gabon, accounting for 80% of internal movements for people, trade and distribution. Gabon’s road network currently extends over 10,500 km, including nearly 2500 km of paved roads.

Since 1992 Gabon’s road network development has been determined by the Development of the Road Network Programme, which set the objective of connecting all of Gabon’s provincial capitals by road and reaching 3600 km of paved road by 2016. Between 2009 and 2015, some 650 km of roads have been paved across Gabon and, with the ongoing development of several road projects, an additional 750 km of paved roads should be delivered by 2017.

Road Maintenance

Road maintenance has fallen under the responsibility of ANGTI following the ANGT and FER merger in 2015. As the FER has been primarily funded by a tax on petrol, the recent drop in oil prices has led to a reduction of public spending in road maintenance by 30% in 2015, from CFA25bn (€37.5m) down to CFA18bn (€27m) year on year.

As part of a push to boost local content and help reduce state expenditures, authorities have also contracted out road works to local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as part of a supporting programme for sector governance co-funded by the EU. In 2016, the minister of infrastructure and public works signed deals worth CFA630m (€945,000) with nine Gabonese SMEs and engineering firms for the maintenance of earth roads in Malibé 2 (in the north of Libreville), Benguié and Makouké in the province of Moyen-Ogooué, and Lastourville, Carrefour Libeba and Koulamoute in the province of Ogooué-Lolo. The authorities are set to launch 36 additional tendering bids of this kind in early 2017.

Maritime

Due to Gabon’s limited road links with neighbouring countries, and the high volume of trade it conducts with Europe and Asia, the vast majority of Gabon’s external commerce moves by sea. The country relies on two major commercial ports in Owendo and Port-Gentil, responsible for nearly 90% of Gabon’s international trade. The two ports are regulated by the government-owned Ports and Harbours Office of Gabon (Office des Ports et Rades du Gabon, OPRAG) and managed by Gabon Port Management, a subsidiary of the Singaporean firm Portek International, under a 25-year concession deal, which includes infrastructure maintenance and dredging.

The Port of Owendo is Gabon’s largest port and primary entry point for imports. The facility includes a 455-metre-long wharf with an 11-metre draught, as well as an 8-ha yard for general cargo, a 10-ha container yard and three berths. Since 2007 Owendo’s container terminal – with capacity that amounts to 4000 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) – has been operated by Société des Terminaux de Conteneurs de Gabon (STCG), a joint venture (JV) between Necotrans Gabon and Bolloré Africa Logistics.

As part of a 20-year concession contract with OPRAG, the company is currently responsible for handling domestic distribution, ship loading and goods storage. Between 2009 and 2016, Port of Owendo saw numerous upgrades, including a new harbour-master’s office, warehouse and logistical areas, two new tugboats and the rehabilitation of the port’s entry points, alleviating what had previously been severely congested roads.

Port-Gentil’s port is the primary platform for Gabon’s oil exports. The port includes a 375-metre-long quay with an 11-metre draught as well as a 10-ha container yard. Most of Gabon’s oil exports pass through the Cap Lopez terminal. Run by Total Gabon, the facility can receive 300,000-tonne ships and store up to 640,000 cu metres of goods.

Port Traffic

After years of continuous growth, port traffic levels decreased in 2015 on the back of lower imports and slower headline growth – a result of low oil prices – with the combined number of ships at quay in Owendo and Port-Gentil falling to 754, down 11.2% y-o-y. Similarly, treatment of goods shrank to around 2.9m tonnes, down 3.3%, as well as containers movements from 132,000 TEUs to 129,000, down 2.2%. However, port authorities expect port traffic growth to recover in the long run, driven by the diversification of the economy towards agriculture, wood processing and mining.

New Port Terminals

In spite of the cyclical slowdown, the government has been seeking to boost the country’s capacity and upgrade its ports of entry. In March 2015 the authorities entrusted the development of a new cargo terminal, to the east of the Port of Owendo, to the Gabon Special Economic Zone (GSEZ), a JV between Olam Gabon and the government. Estimated at a cost of €50m, the project, which extends to over 12 ha, includes the construction of a 420-metre-long quay as well as two 5000-tonne grain storehouses, one 10,000-tonne storage tank for palm oil and one 8000-tonne tank for petroleum products. Scheduled for completion by mid-2017, the facility is expected to double Owendo’s handling and storage capacities and reduce overall costs by as much as 25%, according to local media.

Since October 2015 GSEZ has also been involved in the construction of a new mining-focused port at Owendo. Scheduled for completion by the end of 2016, the facility – which extends over 45 ha – includes an aggregate terminal with a capacity of 10m tonnes, which should help relieve congestion at the single existing mineral terminal at Owendo, which is currently run by Compagnie Minière de l’Ogooué (Comilog). Estimated to cost €250m, the project has been partly financed via a €80m loan from the Central African State Development Bank and local BGFIBank Gabon, with the remainder funded by GSEZ.

One of the biggest greenfield port developments is in the south-west, where Moroccan company Satram is building a new deepwater port in Mayumba. Targeting mining and agricultural activities in the sparsely-populated region and scheduled for completion by the end 2016, the facility will include in a first phase a 130-metre-long wharf with an 8-metre draught. Longer-term plans include the extension of the quay to 308 metre and the construction of additional wharfs for mineral and timber exports. The authorities eventually expect traffic of 2.5m tonnes per year. The port will bolster the export of resources such as iron, wood, oil, gold, manganese and food items.

Inland Maritime

With approximately 3000 km of navigable inland water highways, fluvial transportation plays a key role for Gabon’s economic activity in remote areas. The sector is made up of a state-owned river operator, the Compagnie Nationale de Navigation Intérieure et Internationale (CNNII) which offers a number of passenger services, including managing informal boats and small ferry companies. However, in recent years, the CNNII has experienced some financial and technical difficulties, with only four vessels operational out of a total fleet of 14. In 2016 the authorities put in motion a plan aimed at restructuring CNNII’s domestic lines between Port-Gentil, Lambaréné, Gamba, Omboué and Fernan Vaz. This has helped sustain the company’s finances in the short term and allowed for the acquisition of a new 350-seat catamaran for the Libreville and Port-Gentil route, reducing travel times. The cost of this journey is CFA17,500 (€26.25), providing a cheaper alternative to air travel. In early 2016 the CNNII reopened its Libreville-Benin route and plans to do the same with Sao Tome. Feasibility studies have also been conducted by ANGTI for the development of an expanded inland water port in Lambaréné but no timeline has been defined for the project.

Aviation

Gabon boasts a relatively dense aviation network for its population of 1.9m, with three international airports in Libreville, Port-Gentil and Franceville, as well as 24 smaller airfields and private runways spread across the country. In recent months, several major infrastructure upgrades broke ground, in part to ensure ample capacity for the increased traffic ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations and improve access to the country’s oil capital. In June 2016 the authorities completed expansion works at Port-Gentil’s airport, estimated at a cost of CFA73.7bn (€110.6m). Renamed the “Ali Bongo Ondimba International Airport”, the facility – a partnership between Total Gabon and the government – will have a capacity to handle 1m passengers per year. Upgrades include the extension of the runway from 1900 to 2600 metres, enabling the airport to accommodate larger aircraft and operate long-haul flights. Air France has announced it will launch a direct service between Paris and Port-Gentil in 2017, by which time the airport should have received all the certifications related to security standards.

The new facility was financed by Total Gabon while the Agency for the Security of Aerial Navigation in Africa and Madagascar is in charge of Port-Gentil’s airport management. The agency also operates the airport of Franceville as well as seven secondary airports located in the provincial capitals.

LMIA

Gabon’s primary hub for air transport is Léon M’ba International Airport (LMIA) in Libreville, operated since 1988 by Aéroport de Libreville (ADL) under a 30-year concession contract, the first airport public-private partnership ever signed in Africa. ADL is jointly owned by engineering group EGIS, Aéroport de Marseille and the Gabonese government.

In recent years, ADL has invested in a number of equipment and infrastructure upgrades, including the rehabilitation of the runway in 2014, the extension of passenger facilities, and the installation of new freight scanners and new passenger e-gates. The company, whose concession expires in 2018, has announced plans to invest CFA40bn (€60m) to modernise the terminal building in a bid to increase handling capacities from 1m passengers annually to 1.7m annually. While LMIA is set to handle the bulk of the country’s overseas flights for the foreseeable future, the government has announced plans for the construction of a new airport on the outskirts of Libreville, as the existing airport has been progressively overtaken by the development of housing projects. Three sites have already been identified at Owendo, Ntoum and Nkok but no specific timeline has been announced for further developments.

Regulation

Since 2008 the National Civil Aviation Agency (Agence Nationale de l’Aviation Civile, ANAC) has been the regulatory authority of Gabon’s air sector. As of the end of 2016 seven of the country’s domestic carriers are blacklisted by the EU, for failing to meet security and safety standards. As a result, ANAC has begun the extensive process of updating the country’s aviation regulations and is currently awaiting the results of an audit by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

Speaking to local press, Ernest Mpouho Epigat, minister of transport, said that Gabon’s civil aviation sector must address three major issues to remove itself from the EU’s blacklist – a new civil aviation code aimed at reinforcing safety standards must be enacted, airport infrastructure should be upgraded in compliance with ICAO’s airport development programmes and the authorities must implement an airport gas-emission reducing scheme.

Moreover, as part of a wider regional integration process, the authorities have shown a keen interest in bolstering intra-African flights. These have still remained costly since the signing of the Declaration of Yamassoukro in 1998, which should have paved the way for a pan-African open-skies policy. However, no major steps have been taken thus far by any African authorities to consolidate regional air traffic.

While the bulk of Africa’s aviation markets are currently heavily regulated and relatively restrictive, Gabon has sought to increasingly liberalise access to the country’s airports. In August 2015 Gabon’s civil aviation authority signed an open-skies agreement with the UAE, paving the way for unrestricted flights between the two countries.

Air Traffic

Benefitting from strong economic activity, high oil prices and increasing industrial diversification, Gabon’s airport segment experienced a solid increase in air traffic in recent years, with a number of passengers growing at an annual average of 3.16% between 2009 and 2014. However, after seven years of continuous growth, air traffic experienced a downturn in 2015 as a result of Gabon’s broader economic slowdown and lower oil prices.

At LMIA, passenger air activity dropped by 2.6% in 2015, with 940,000 annual passengers recorded as opposed to 965,000 passengers in 2014. Connection flights with Europe are the most directly affected segment, down 8%. Albeit fairly limited in Gabon, air freight has followed the same bearish trend, down 21.5% y-o-y between 2014-15. However, the authorities are expecting air traffic to stabilise in 2016 before picking up in 2017 for the Africa Cup of Nations. The performance of intra-African flights bears this projection out, with more than two-fifths of the country’s passengers coming from elsewhere on the continent, including an estimated 140,000 passengers from West Africa.

Nearly 20 international airlines are currently operating in Gabon, including Air France, Royal Air Maroc, Ethiopian Airlines, Turkish Airlines and South African Airways. A number of regional African carriers also offer service, including Nigeria’s Arik Air, Trans Air Congo, Air Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya Airways and Asky Airlines among others. In 2015 Air France was the leading air carrier in the country by passenger numbers, with 150,000 passengers over the course of the year. New entrants are continuing to express interest in Gabon, with Qatar Airways set to begin operating in the country in January 2017.

Domestic Market

Gabon’s domestic air market saw a substantial drop recently, with traffic shrinking 14% from 305,000 passengers in 2014 to 266,000 passengers in 2015. Port-Gentil’s diminishing activity – which accounts for two-thirds of Gabon’s domestic passenger traffic – was the main cause of this decline. Afric Aviation was the leading domestic airline, with 140,000 passengers, leading La Nationale Régionale Transport with 60,000. Afric Aviation has enlarged its air network, opening new routes from Libreville to Koulamoutou and Oyem in 2016. It is also conducting feasibility studies to open international routes to nearly 20 African countries.

Railway

In recent years, authorities have been keen to revamp Gabon’s ageing railway infrastructure as a means to meet the increasing demand of mining operators in transit capacities. Built in the 1970s-80s as a way to open up Gabon’s remote, mineral-rich provinces, Gabon’s railway system consists of a 669 km-long single line, the Transgabonais, which connects the Port of Owendo, south of Libreville, to Franceville, in the south-east.

Since 2005, the Transgabonais has been operated under a 30-year concession by Société d’Exploitation du Transgabonais (Setrag), a subsidiary of the local mining company Comilog, which is itself part of the French mining group Eramet.

In terms of both passengers and freight, the Transgabonais has shown a notable upturn in traffic in recent years. In 2015 the transport of manganese – which accounts for 85% of total freight – grew by 10%, with a total of 4.1m tonnes, of which 3.9m come from Comilog’s facilities.

Transport of non-mining products, mostly timber and building materials, remained stable at 600,000 tonnes over the same period, with decreasing volumes for logs, hydrocarbons and containers offset by an increased traffic in lumber, and manganese metal processed by the Moanda Metallurgical Complex.

Rail passenger numbers have also followed an upward trend, from 215,000 in 2014 to an estimated 237,000 in 2015, aided in part by the launch of a weekly automobile transport service.

Upgrading

On account of an ageing infrastructure, Setrag has been operating at half capacity in recent years, offering only eight daily commercial slots out of a total of 16 the network is able to accommodate. However, the company is set to restore maximum capacity by 2022 on the back of a seven year investment programme co-financed by the government worth 180bn CFA (€270m). Within the plan, the state is expected to assume the cost related to the work on track foundation, while Setrag will rehabilitate the superstructure. Once the initial capital upgrades are completed, the company will also replace more than 1.1m sleepers on the network.

Furthermore, Setrag is also expected to spend €37.5m to renew its rolling stock. In October 2015 Setrag bought six fuel-efficient shunting locomotives from US manufacturer Railserve – the first new equipment acquisitions since 2011 – as a means to reduce energy costs. To help fund its investment programme, Setrag secured a €85M loan in July 2016 from the International Finance Corporation and the French Development Agency.

Soft infrastructure is also getting an upgrade as Setrag has overhauled its traffic management system, by decentralising the decision-making processes at regional level and dispatching territorial brigades responsible for rail work along the way. As a result, average travel times have been reduced by approximately 20% between Owendo and Franceville for both passengers and mining freight trains in 2015. Similarly, the rehabilitation of the tracks is expected to increase average speeds and ultimately the duration of the journey from 18 to 12 hours.

New Rail Lines

In an attempt to foster the development of mining and agricultural activities in remote areas, authorities are planning the construction of two additional railway lines across Gabon’s territory. The first project concerns the development of a railway line connecting the existing railway to the planned Bélinga iron ore mine in the north-east of the country as a way to ease the transportation of minerals to the Port of Owendo.

Another important proposal envisions the construction of a railway connecting Mbigou to the future deep-water port in Mayumba with a view to improving export access for agricultural producers (see Agriculture chapter). Feasibility studies for both rail connections were under way as of late 2016.

Urban Transport

Gabon’s population is predominantly concentrated in the cities of Port-Gentil and Libreville. As is the case in most African capitals, the two cities have witnessed urban sprawl driven by population growth and have been increasingly exposed to road congestion. As a means to reduce traffic jams, Libreville’s urban transportation company, Société Gabonaise de Transport (Sogatra) has enlarged the public transportation network to Libreville’s outer surrounding areas, reaching out to Owendo, Akanda, Cap Estérias and Ntoum. Approximately 20 additional 60-seat buses have been purchased, transporting 10,000 passengers daily. However, Sogatra’s fleet of 80 buses is unable to keep pace with a demand that is forecast at 100 buses daily, particularly as the company inaugurates new routes to Mouila and Oyem.

Outlook

In recent years, authorities have heavily invested in transportation development as a means to improve Gabon’s logistic competitiveness and bolster economic diversification in remote areas. Although transport infrastructure is set to continue expanding, with the ANGTI participating in roughly 200 infrastructure projects across the country, the lack of financial resources is expected to slow the pace of project developments. Since the drop in oil prices in 2014, the government’s budget has shrunk and debt has risen. As such, the development of new economic segments should serve as the primary drivers of growth for the sector in coming years.

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The Report: Gabon 2016

Transport chapter from The Report: Gabon 2016

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