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Congo's investment in an African logistics hub: air, sea and land

Article - May 12, 2015

As opposed to some of its neighbors, the Republic of the Congo – often referred to as Congo-Brazzaville – is rarely making headlines. This is likely to change in the future, and for all the right reasons: the government is determined to turn the country into a regional logistical and infrastructural hub of significance, and an important economic player

During the 1990’s, the news around the Republic of the Congo was far from positive. The culprit was a civil war that had erupted ahead of the presidential elections in July 1997, and was fought between supporters of the then President Pascal Lissouba and his predecessor Denis Sassou Nguesso.

The conflict, locally referred to as the War of 5 June, lasted little over a year and came to an end when the Lissouba administration tumbled in October 1998. Soon afterwards, Mr. Nguesso was sworn in as president and he has been head of state ever since.

“Peace and stability were able to return to our country as a result of our own efforts, and without the need for any external intervention, for instance from a United Nations peacekeeping force,” explains Minister of State for Transport, Civil Aviation, and Merchant Marine Rodolphe Adada, referring to the peacekeeping operations in some neighboring countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“This is quite remarkable,” he continues. “I must add that the current head of state has been the main architect for the restoration and maintenance of peace in our country.”

Post-war stability

Since the hostilities came to an end, the Republic of the Congo has made some significant strides across its economic activity. First and foremost, the country has been politically stable and conflict-free for more than a decade and a half. This – fueled by the successful extraction of large deposits of natural resources including oil, natural gas, iron ore, and copper – has fostered economic growth. Statistics by the African Development Bank (AfDB) for instance show that the republic’s GDP has expanded by 5.4% per year on average since 2010, a considerable feat given the challenges it faced in the previous decade.

 While the oil industry makes up the bulk of the national economy, other sectors have become increasingly important over time. These include manufacturing, transport, storage and communication, and construction.

“There is a real political stability here, which fosters investment – particularly from an infrastructure point of view. I am impressed with the speed and quality of development in the Congo,” says Alain Berquez, General Manager at AERCO, a private airport association company that enjoys state support. The company currently manages various airports across the Republic of the Congo, including Maya-Maya International Airport at Brazzaville, and sister operations at Pointe-Noire and Oyo Ollombo.

Mr. Berquez is not alone with his optimism. Jean Jacques Banuanina Dia Ngoma, currently the General Manager of the National Shippers Council (Conseil Congolais des Chargeurs, or CCC), is equally positive about where his country is and about the future that lies ahead.

“The current administration deserves all the credit for this,” he says. “The growth we are experiencing has been a direct result of the regained political stability after the War of 5 June; a situation which could have only been established and maintained because of how our government is managing the country. Since President Sassou Nguesso came into power, the style of governance has changed. It has become more enlightened and dynamic. This has helped the Congo Republic become a more modern country, even on a global scale.”

Geographical location

Despite the fact that the Republic of the Congo is enjoying a situation of economic and political stability, numerous stakeholders are keen to stress that the country’s administration is not sitting on its laurels. This is reflected in various studies and surveys, including the 2014 edition of the African Economic Outlook report. Published by the AfDB as well as the OECD Development Center and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the document intends to give an overview of the progress the Republic of the Congo has made from an economic and social development point of view. In addition, it also predicts where the country is expected to go in the next few years.

While the authors of the report agree that the country’s performance and economic outlook remain generally satisfactory, they have highlighted a couple of challenges that its government is now attempting to tackle, with several related to ageing infrastructure.

“Real GPD growth fell to 3.4% in 2013, compared to 3.8% in 2012, as a result of falling oil production due to ageing oil wells,” the report says, reflecting the reasons why the government is so keen to attract foreign investment and diversify away from waning oil resources.

Despite this, the authors agree that the outlook is generally good for the republic, with the main driver of growth a solid fiscal policy as well as increased government-led investments in the modernization, extension and expansion of the country’s infrastructure – from road and rail to maritime and aviation.

“This underperformance [of the GDP] was compensated for, up to a point, by the good performance of the non-oil sector, driven by activity in the building and public works sector, telecommunications, agriculture and fisheries,” the report says, adding that this all took place against a background where inflation was under control.

“Thanks to a prudent monetary policy implemented by the Bank of Central African States (BEAC), inflation was brought down from 4.7% in 2012 to 2.9% in 2013.”

The expected GDP growth rate for 2015 is therefore set at 6.5%, the data reveals and the Republic of the Congo is now ensuring that products created can be transported and service companies can access remote locations and neighboring territories. Infrastructure has become key and the report outlines just why the government wants to develop itself into an African gateway.

“This macroeconomic outlook rests on a continued program of public investment in order to improve the country’s economic infrastructure, through increased building, public works,” it says.

The potential of aviation

The African Economic Outlook statements with regards to increased government-led infrastructure investment have been well received by officials and Mr. Adada is particularly happy about the drive to expand and modernize the country’s aviation sector. This is needed to keep up with the rest of the world, he says. “In order to foster faster economic growth and trade, we need to further develop our aviation infrastructure.”

Much has happened in this regard, both in terms of hard and soft infrastructure development – from the construction of new airports and the modernization of existing ones, as well as the expansion of the country’s national carrier’s footprint. Various reports have shown that the Republic of the Congo, a country roughly the size of Germany, currently has some 27 airports, of which 10 were built in the past decade. Over and above those, the airports at Pointe-Noire and Brazzaville have developed into world-class international operations that can drive foreign investment.

The Maya Maya airport in Brazzaville, the country’s capital, has particularly improved over the past years, with the construction of a second landing strip and the complete overhaul of the airport’s terminals. As a result of this, Maya Maya is currently ranked as one of the busiest and most sophisticated international airports in the Central African region.

“The airport at Brazzaville can undoubtedly be considered the international gateway to the rest of Republic of Congo. It truly has an international dimension,” AERCO’s Mr. Berquez confirms, noting that he is generally optimistic about the ongoing government drive to invest in the country’s aviation infrastructure. “We are quite impressed by the quality and importance of investments implemented by the Congolese government in this regard.”

It has to be noted that aviation investments led by the government go beyond the modernization of the country’s hard infrastructure. The aerial footprint of the national carrier, Equatorial Congo Airlines, has for instance expanded significantly over the past recent years. As a result ECAir – as the airline is known locally – no longer just connects Pointe-Noire and Brazzaville to various domestic destinations. These days, the fleet flies to various cities further afield including Douala in Cameroon, and even Dubai and Paris. Since February this year, the airline has been servicing routes to Gabon’s capital of Libreville. In March, ECAir launched a new route between Brazzaville and Senegal’s capital of Dakar, via Bamako in Mali.

The idea behind expanding ECAir’s footprint is not just to improve the country’s domestic connectivity. With a fairly small population of just 4.4 million people, the domestic aviation market is limited, but the main priority is to fast-track regional integration, fostering trade and, ultimately, grow the economy.

This is exactly what his ministerial department was assigned to do, says Mr. Adada. “Our objective is to manage transport and logistics in the country, and from our country to other destinations... the objective is to promote economic stability and growth. So no, we don’t just want to focus on transport and logistics domestically,” he explains.

“These new routes are the fulfillment of our efforts to connect Africa’s economic capitals to one another, and to the rest of the world,” said Fatima Beyina-Moussa, ECAir’s Managing Director, in a media statement. “All of this is possible because of Maya-Maya, currently one of the most modern airports in Africa... and because of the vision demonstrated by President Sassou Nguesso for the significant investments in the construction and modernization of the country’s airport infrastructure.”

The plan is eventually to open up the Republic of the Congo to the rest of the world, says Mr. Berquez, and essentially “turn ECAir into an international carrier, servicing not only domestic and regional routes, but also medium and long-haul journeys. Ultra-long routes are also on the cards, for instance the Far East and the United States. We at AERCO support this commitment from the government.”

Whilst ECAir is one of the most dominant airlines in the Republic of the Congo, the skies are serviced by more companies, including Trans Air Congo (TAC). This privately owned firm operates between Pointe-Noire, Brazzaville and Dolisie. The airline also services a number of African routes between Republic of the Congo and Gabon, Cameroon and Benin. There are also various smaller companies servicing Congo’s skies, including SN Air Congo. With a fleet of five planes, this company flies between Pointe-Noire and Gabon’s coastal city of Port Gentil.

Overhauling the port of Pointe-Noire

Besides revamping and expanding the Republic of the Congo’s aviation infrastructure, the national government is putting time, resources and funds into the modernization of its maritime and road infrastructure. The idea is to transform the republic into a regional logistical and transport hub of significance.

“Just look at the map of the Gulf of Guinea,” Mr. Adada says. “You will find that we are indeed the gateway to Central Africa. We are not only situated in the heart of the Congo River Basin, but we also have around 170 kilometers of Atlantic coastline, of which our port at Pointe-Noire is very important.”

This particular port – the only deepwater port in the whole of the Gulf of Guinea – can in many aspects be considered the beating heart of the Congolese economy. Its construction started in July 1934, following the official inauguration of the Congo-Ocean Railway that connects Pointe-Noire to Brazzaville. Situated 150 kilometers north of the Congo River mouth, the port boasts 4,830 meters of quay space for general cargo and bulk berthing, as well as space for ore, timber and other goods. The 250-meter container berth has a 200-ton per hour loading capacity.

This makes the port, which is professionally managed by a dynamic and experienced team, vitally important to the country’s economy, points out harbor manager Pascal Ngotene.

“The services we have on offer are vast, and range from pilotage, towage, and mooring to refueling, vessel maintenance and small repair, stevedoring, and more,” he says. “However, to move along with the times while making our operations more respectful towards the environment, and increasing profits, it is our priority to optimize and modernize the quality of services the port at Pointe-Noire has on offer,” stresses Mr. Ngotene, who took the reigns from his predecessor in October last year.

Therefore, the Republic of the Congo’s largest port will be subjected to an extensive facelift. The construction of a new 270 meter-long quay is in the pipeline, a project that on its own has been valued at some €300 million. The port will also be deepened, to allow for visits from the world’s largest ships.

“This will give us a huge advantage in the region,” says Mr. Adada, explaining that there won’t be any adaptations in terms of the storage of fuels like crude oil. “We already have a storage facility, the Djéno Oil Terminal,” he explains, referring to the facility that is situated some 15 kilometers south of the port, near the village of Djéno. Operated by Total E&P Congo, the oil terminal has facilities for the processing and storage of crude oil and liquid effluents.

Building secondary and dry ports

When it comes to the Republic of the Congo’s maritime infrastructure investment drive, the modernization and expansion of the port of Pointe-Noire is just the beginning. “The government is also exploring the option of building secondary ports, including one in Brazzaville,” says Jean-Jacques Banuanina Dia Ngoma, General Manager of the National Shippers Council (CCC). 

Established in February 2000, this government-led organization has the task of fostering trade and investment inflows; regulating foreign trade mechanisms; creating optimal conditions for investment; and shaping and promoting a coherent national maritime transport policy. Other goals include the promotion of freight policy and defending the interests of Congolese shippers while negotiating maritime cargo rates and conditions with international ship-owners and port authorities.

Over the past years, the CCC has initiated various major projects to help it fulfill its mandate, such as the Electronic Cargo Tracking (CGS) initiative, which monitors international sea traffic at the same time it identifies the goods and products that come into and leave the country, and improves the overall traceability of cargo. Then there is the Maritime Single Window, locally referred to as GUMAR. This is a digital tool that accelerates and simplifies communication between shipping companies and port authorities.

Recently, the organization conducted a study into building a dry port in Dolisie, a town situated inland and some 186 kilometers from the coast.

“The objective of this dry port is to relieve some of the pressure at Pointe-Noire, and it will serve as cargo trans-shipment port catering for the sub-region as well as a storage point for goods coming from the coast,” explains Mr. Banuanina Dia Ngoma.

The dry port will not only be used to reduce the bottleneck around the country’s main port at Pointe-Noire, he says, but also to help fulfill the AfDB’s mission of creating infrastructure that serves the entire sub-region.

“The bank’s plan is to give way to a regional transport corridor, which facilitates the shipment of cargo into the entire region,” says the general manager. “This dry port will exercise all the activities of a normal port, except for typically maritime activities.”

Some of this expansion has been assisted by funding from the African Development Fund. Managed by the AfDB, this particular fund provides financial and non-financial assistance to projects across Africa, with the overall objective to reduce poverty and foster socio-economic development.

Upgrading old roads and building highways

While a portion of this funding will be spent on expanding the CCC’s study on the construction of a Dolisie dry port, the remainder will be used to construct a road to connect Dolisie to other parts of the country and the Gabonese towns of Ndendé and Doussala. The facilitation of transport and logistics on the Libreville-Brazzaville-Pointe-Noire corridor is also on the agenda.

In an attempt to open up the country’s interior even more, particularly in relation to the port of Pointe-Noire, the possibility for a ring road is also being studied. “The objective of such a road is to allow for better accessibility and improved fluidity,” Mr. Banuanina Dia Ngoma says.

In the meantime, other roads elsewhere in the country are expected to receive a thorough facelift. One of these is the stretch between Pointe-Noire and Brazzaville, a project expected to be completed by the end of this year.

A second key highway that will be modernized is the N2, which links Brazzaville to the northern city of Ouesso, situated on the border with Cameroon. “Looking at the map of our country, this national road represents the backbone of our transport and logistics network and thus our economy,” says Mr. Adada. “It is important that it functions properly.”

He notes that improving the nation’s domestic road connections is as important as modernizing the links between the Republic of the Congo and its neighboring countries. The objective is once again facilitating and accelerating the sub-regional integration process from a trade point of view, in order to then foster economic growth. 

Mr. Banuanina Dia Ngoma agrees with the minister of state for transport, and adds that the construction of new roads and revamping existing ones is a priority for the government. “It is true that our president has been working very hard to build roads, for instance from the north to the south of the country and elsewhere,” he says.

One of the biggest success stories in terms of road construction, Mr. Banuanina Dia Ngoma says, is the highway between Pointe-Noire and Dolisie, which goes straight through the Mayombe rainforest and along mountain passes. “It is one of the longest stretches of road without any tunnels,” he explains. “Maintaining tunnels is extremely expensive and we also wanted to avoid the risk.”

Investing in railroad infrastructure

Besides aviation, maritime and road infrastructure, the administration of the Republic of the Congo also has plans to subject the country’s railroad network to an extensive overhaul.

Currently, the country has 886 kilometers of railroads, which might seem significant, but a lack of investment over the past decades has led to a deterioration of the network. This is set to change, says Mr. Banuanina Dia Ngoma. “It is true that our ageing rail system has not benefited much from recent investments. Rail is very, very expensive to build but the government of the Republic of the Congo has however committed to the network’s rehabilitation and modernization.”

The reason is simple, explains Mr. Banuanina Dia Ngoma. “Railways might be expensive to build, but they remain the only real mass medium which allows one to transport large quantities of the heaviest load efficiently, from the one side of the country to the other – and at a much lower cost compared to transporting these goods via roads,” he says. “Railways play an important role in connecting our oceans and ports to the hinterland and rivers, from where goods can be transported further afield.”

One line that has become a priority is the Congo Ocean Railway, which links Pointe-Noire to Brazzaville over a distance of 502 kilometers. Although the line is operating freight and passenger services, the tracks are in need of substantial renewal.

“We will improve the services on this line thanks to the new locomotives and rail equipment acquired,” Mr. Adada says. The United States has played an important role in this, he notes. “We have bought new locomotives from them. The deal is in its final stage at the moment and the locomotives will be delivered from a factory in Chicago.”

Mr. Adada adds that the ties between the U.S. and the Republic of the Congo are seen as very important and valuable. “America is one of the most important economies in the world. We have therefore everything to gain from them,” he says. “We are pleased with the performance of the various American companies that are operating in Congo, and we are looking forward to the promised assistance with regards to our energy infrastructure.”

Mr. Adada refers to Washington’s Power Africa program, which was announced by President Barack Obama in Cape Town, South Africa in June 2013. The initiative has the objective of increasing the overall access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. By joining hands with African governments, the private sector, and other stakeholders, Power Africa wants to add over 30,000MW of cleaner electricity capacity to Africa’s energy grids, and in turn create 60 million new home and business connections throughout the sub-Saharan region.

Mr. Adada says his government is holding Washington to this promise, and adds: “The Republic of the Congo expects its fair share of these American visions.”

Public-private partnerships

When it comes to rolling out new projects and revamping existing infrastructure for the purpose of fostering economic development, public-private partnerships (PPPs) are key, says Mr. Berquez. “This is in the interest of the State, as these structures allow the authorities to be in control of these projects while the management and maintenance is delegated to external, reputable private partners – companies that have the necessary knowledge, expertise and capacity,” he says.  

“Private companies from outside can provide world-class expertise that meets international standards. This is key when one wants to create and maintain a level of confidence,” Mr. Berquez explains, adding that local civil aviation companies for instance, are often blacklisted because they don’t meet international criteria. “This black-listing remains a critical challenge for the Republic of the Congo in achieving international recognition in this regard.”

Despite these and other constraints that exist in his country, Mr. Adada remains convinced that his nation is a land of opportunity and vast potential. “We have great ambitions for the future,” he says. “We are a country of collaboration, not aid – and we are at peace.”