Gabon’s president Ali Bongo Ondimba has ambitious plans to develop the country’s infrastructure and has drafted in engineering firm Bechtel to help. Katie Coyne reports.
President Ali Bongo Ondimba wants to bring Gabon country into the 21st century and for it to become a hub for the surrounding West African countries,” says Bechtel’s project director for Gabon Jim Dutton. “The president is seen as a leader in driving Africa forward.”
Ondimba - who came to power in 2009 - has charged Bechtel with drawing up the country’s first ever master plan for the country’s infrastructure.
Wide in scope it covers the infrastructure needed in the main economic areas of education, health, housing, neighbourhood development, utilities, transport, energy and tourism.
The master plan is part of Ondimba’s broader aim to transform the country with his “Gabon Emergent” plan to boost the economy and ensure lasting growth. The masterplan will be based on an economic strategy with three main pillars: industry, environment and services.
The former French colony is in central west Africa bordering the Atlantic Ocean and located between the Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea. It has a per capita income roughly four times that of most nations of sub-Saharan Africa. “It’s very well resourced as a country but its income is extremely poorly distributed,” says Dutton. According to the World Bank, the Gabonese per capita GDP stood at £15,183.47 in 2010. But there is a huge divide between the poorest and richest in society.
Gabon boasts the world’s largest unexploited iron ore reserves plus reserves of manganese and niobium. Oil is its biggest export - roughly about half of GDP - but output has passed its peak so the president wants to diversify away from it.
The country is also a big exporter of timber. The government’s decision to ban the export of untreated wood and raw timber from 2010 has helped encourage the development of a local timber finishing industry, creating more jobs.
“Bechtel got involved with the African Cup of Nations because the stadiums being worked on were not progressing fast enough”
That same year, Ondimba invited Bechtel to develop Gabon’s infrastructure masterplan to help further stimulate the country’s economy. Bechtel was on the government’s radar simply because it had previously carried out some economic studies for the previous administration.
But just a few months later the firm got handed an opportunity that could prove to be a poisoned chalice or a chance to build a great reputation for itself among the Gabonese. It was asked to help out with the organisation of the 28th Africa Cup of Nations football tournament.
“Bechtel got involved because the stadiums being worked on were not progressing fast enough, so we were asked to take on the management of stadium and associated infrastructure,” says Dutton.
“Delivering on time was critical and a test of our capabilities and politics.”
Bechtel soon found itself stretched and involved in all sorts of unexpected areas, but it had to pull it off.
“Because our name became associated with delivering on the CAN [Coupe d’Afrique des Nations] we sort of became responsible for lots of things that weren’t our responsibility such as ticketing and security. We had to get involved in these things.”
But success has paid off for Bechtel, by improving its standing within the country, and for Gabon by improving its standing within Africa.
“They’ve proved they can run an international sporting event - it was the best, it raised the bar,” says Dutton enthusiastically. “That’s not to say there weren’t glitches but these were dealt with.” This gave Bechtel enormous goodwill to deliver the infrastructure masterplan, which it has just delivered to the government.
But what is the country like to work in? Around 40% of the Gabonese population lives in the capital city of Libreville in the north west. “Essentially it’s a coastal town with pains au chocolat and good coffee and very expensive restaurants to rival London prices,” says Dutton.
“But drive east of the coast for five minutes and there are people living on a dollar a day.”
Asked about corruption and red tape, Dutton says his company has been invited in by the government it doesn’t have a problem with bureaucracy.
“If Bechtel was to have a strap line it would be safety and ethical standards in the way it does business,” he says.
Not to miss a chance to enthuse about the country itself, Dutton adds: “Even the most cynical recognise that there has been a complete change in Gabon.”
He adds that the country is also pretty secure despite the huge divide between rich and poor. “It’s surprising how safe it is - if you wandered down a back street and got in the wrong cab you might get your wallet nicked,” says Dutton. But then, he adds, “I used to live in Battersea and petty theft can happen anywhere.”
Drawing up a masterplan is all well and good but the country needs an organisation to oversee and plan infrastructure well into the future. Hand in hand with drawing up a master plan, Bechtel has helped establish the National Agency of Major Works - a government agency to manage new infrastructure projects.
The idea was for the agency to be made up of a mix of expat westerners and Gabonese but currently 125 out of 180 total employees are Bechtel secondees.
Dutton explains that due to the shortage of university places in the country there is a lack of qualified Gabonese engineers. Although, says Dutton, those Gabonese coming to work for the agency are of a “high quality” - some with degrees from French or American universities - and they are usually bilingual. Going forward, the plan is to recruit more Gabonese.
“The Transgabonais is a mixed use single line taking manganese and passengers”
One essential area that the agency will be looking at is roads. The masterplan has identified development corridors crossing highly populated areas close to natural resources that have the potential for industrial development.
Developing these is seen as a priority under plans to grow the Gabonese economy.
“Most of the country is jungle so communications are along roads which are in very poor condition,” says Dutton.
The country’s only rail link, the Transgabonais, connects Libreville to Franceville in the South East.
“But,” says Dutton, “you wouldn’t want to use it. It’s a mixed use, single line taking manganese and passengers. It can take up to 16 hours to do the 400km.”
The plan is to upgrade and double the capacity of the Transgabonais, and introduce two new lines. The first will link Belinga, in the north where the country’s iron ore deposits are situated and where a mine is being developed, and Booue further north. The Transgabonais road corridor from Libreville to Franceville needs completion and a number of improvements are planned over the next four years.
Another priority is the development of a deep water port. This would help the president realise his aims of having Gabon serve as a trade hub for surrounding countries.
There is an existing port facility at Port-Gentil that could be developed, and the area could be designated a free trade zone to encourage business.
But Port-Gentil is connected to the mainland by swamp so a road is needed to link it to Nkok, about 20km east of Libreville and where the Gabon Special Economic Zone (an industrial park to encourage the development of the timber processing industry) is based, linking it to Lambarene further south.
Other priorities include reducing congestion at the Libreville airport and producing a study for a new airport in the capital.
Housing is also a priority. Since May last year, Bechtel has been working with the government to develop a mixed use housing project in the Angondje zone in Libreville, next to the central football stadium. Some houses have already been built and 5,000 will be constructed in total.
The development has been designed in grids so that residents can be close to transport, schools and shops.
As a significant aside, Dutton adds that Bechtel’s involvement in this and the football tournament project has been instrumental in raising safety standards. “People used to wander round construction sites wearing flip flops or bare feet - wearing a helmet and high vis - but not the one piece of safety equipment that was most crucial,” says Dutton.
Another key area of concern is education. “There is a shortage of classrooms, and schools tend to run from seven in the morning to one and then run a second shift from one to seven like a lot of African countries - to double up because of the lack of capacity,” says Dutton.
“Sometimes they don’t have indoor toilets and in some cases no toilets.” Bechtel is collating all the studies previously carried out into education to come up with a coherent plan to improve facilities.
More immediately there is a plan to double the number of students at the main university in Libreville and expand the intake at some of the other universities. This should improve the number of engineering graduates coming through to work at the new infrastructure agency.
The company has been constructing quick build classrooms and toilet blocks to increase university capacity.
Two prestigious projects currently under development are the City of Democracy - a series of government buildings outside Libreville - and the refurbishment of the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene.
Founded by Nobel Peace prize winner, Schweitzer, in 1913, the hospital is a world leader in the fight against malaria. But the building needs refurbishment.
“It’s now a very tired hospital so there’s a lot of work associated with it. It needs a road to connect it to Libreville and the work needs to be done in the style of the surrounding buildings,” says Dutton.
This work must be done before the hospital’s one hundred year anniversary celebrations next year. And with the African Union Summit being hosted in Libreville in 2014, the City of Democracy redevelopment also needs to be done and dusted.
The outlook looks pretty bright for Gabon, and Dutton argues that in the future no one should be surprised to see the West African country on a tourist hot list of top places to visit.