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Rebuilding a nation from the ground up: massive resources poured into basic infrastructure

Article - May 14, 2015

The Central African country has been ramping up infrastructure investments, with the General Delegation for Major Works responsible for the procurement and execution of many public contracts

The Republic of the Congo has undergone huge transformations over the past two decades as it has emerged from conflict to offer more opportunities to its population and foreign investors than almost any other country in the Central African region.

Despite such efforts to rebuild and rebrand the country, however, there are still challenges ahead, such as providing clean water, electricity, and basic infrastructure – projects that President Denis Sassou Nguesso has put at the center of his strategy for the country.

A series of ambitious programs have been put in motion by President Sassou Nguesso who, soon after taking office again in 1997, launched his first initiative with New Hope, under which he identified 12 key projects that would help get the country back on its feet. The New Hope plan lasted for the first five years of the president’s tenure during the late 1990s and spelt out in the simplest of terms his aim to ensure all citizens would be involved in the plan to reinvigorate the country. The initiative was also key to cementing the importance of building the basic infrastructure that would eventually lead the country to the more prosperous situation it currently enjoys.

The second phase of the plan, The Path to the Future, was more focused on industrialization and on harnessing the republic’s natural resources to use them as a means of taking the country forward.

A four-pronged approach: Power, water, transport and telecoms

According to President Sassou Nguesso, the government is now taking a four-pronged approach to ensure that its efforts with regard to infrastructure development are as comprehensive as possible.

First, the government is placing an emphasis on the development of new sources of energy, such as the hydroelectric plant that was built in Liouesso. Schemes have also been launched to rehabilitate and modernize the hydroelectric power plant in Djoué. Other potential sources of hydroelectricity such as the Sholey Dam are being explored, and a high-voltage electricity network to power the entire country is currently in the works, thanks in no small part to a hydroelectric dam already operating in Imboulou, just 120 kilometers from Brazzaville.

Since 2002, various programs have been implemented to boost electricity production, transport and distribution capacity. As a result, available power has increased to 600MW, although challenges do still remain. Of particular concern is bringing electricity to more rural areas of the country – a project that the government is currently carrying out in partnership with the African Development Bank.

The president notes that in most cases, difficulties in supplying electricity are linked not to a shortage of viable energy sources, but with the lack of reliable means of distributing power. As such, he has pledged to focus on updating and upgrading the Republic of the Congo’s electricity distribution networks.

Secondly, a greater emphasis is being made to ensure that citizens of the country have access to clean water, as this is still not yet standard, especially in more rural areas of the country. As a result, the Eau Pour Tous or Water for Everyone program has become a top priority, and will ensure the construction of 4,000 water pumps in rural areas across the country.

As part of this project, solar panels will also be installed for heating water, and reservoirs with a capacity of up to 9,000 liters will be constructed to ensure that there is always a backup supply, especially in times when rain levels fall short. Launched in the city of Bouenza, within three years it is expected that the Water for Everyone initiative will have reached people in more than 2,000 villages across the country.

As far as the provision of water in urban areas is concerned, a newly refurbished factory in Djiri is purifying more than 5,000 cubic meters of water per hour, and with the impending addition of a second factory, it is expected that production will double and yield a large enough purified water supply to cover the projected needs of the entire city of Brazzaville until 2030.

The third big issue on the president’s agenda is the continued push toward developing the country’s infrastructure. Key projects include further expansion of the seaport of Pointe-Noire, and a huge effort to improve conditions at the country’s many airports.

The Maya-Maya airport in Brazzaville, for instance, which currently handles around 800,000 passengers a year, is becoming an international airport, following the addition of a new terminal and second runway. Likewise, to accommodate the 700,000 or so passengers who use Pointe-Noire’s Antonio Agostinho Neto Airport, the terminal and runway have been modernized, refurbished, and extended.

In addition to Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire airports, a new airport has been built at Ollombo, and secondary airports such as Dolisie, Ouesso, Impfondo and Owando have been rehabilitated and brought into line with international standards.

Finally, the government has also updated the country’s telecommunication system and believes such work is integral to ensuring that the groundwork for all of the physical infrastructure currently being built across the country will translate into a more wired, more globally connected country.

Since May 2012, the country has been connected to the information superhighway via the Matombi West Africa Cable System (WACS) station in the Kouilou department, and an aerial fiber-optic backbone has been installed between Pointe-Noire, Brazzaville and Owando.

Rebuilding the national psyche

“The coming months are critical,” says Jean Jacques Bouya, a former pilot who works closely with President Sassou Nguesso as the delegate-general in charge of the General Delegation for Major Projects. Firmly committed to the rebuilding of the Republic of the Congo, he insists that as much as his job is about ensuring infrastructure projects are successfully proposed and implemented, there is also an important emotional component to his work.

“After a country is subject to so much violence and destruction, we realized that it is not uncommon for citizens to lose their soul – that sense of unity that links them to their country,” he explains. “We had to rebuild that national psyche, to ensure that each person is reunited with the one thing that now binds us all: our national independence.”

Mr. Bouya recalls that when brainstorming for ways to celebrate the country’s independence, he was momentarily stumped. The republic did not even have a boulevard on which to host a parade. There were many areas without running water, electricity, or even basic infrastructure – how and where would he muster the cause for celebration?

Fortunately, inspiration struck in the form of using the celebration as a reason for breathing new life into some of the most impoverished areas of the country. It was decided that festivities would be held on a regional level, year by year. The department of Likouala – one of the poorest regions in the country – was chosen as one of the first places for celebrations, an honor that came with the added bonus of a complete infrastructural makeover.

The department of Niari was the site of the celebrations for the following year. Landmark projects there include the general hospital in Dolisie and Mbounda’s lycée d’excellence, an upper-secondary school designed to provide ideal learning conditions for Congo’s student elite.

A futuristic-looking central market was also built, which is now home to over 1,000 stalls, 82 shops, and other installations. It has nearly 8,000 square meters (26,000 square feet) of floor space and is the biggest covered market ever constructed in the country. To boost tourism, Dolisie’s Grand Hôtel and the building of the Niari departmental council headquarters were also renovated.

Following the work in Niari, the Cuvette region in the northern part of the country also acquired a brand new hotel and state-of-the-art sports facilities, which will be used, amongst other things, for the 2015 All Africa Games in September. New roads, small power stations, drinking water supplies, public buildings, a modern covered market, and hospitals have all been part of the rejuvenation of the Cuvette department.

To date, seven different departments of Congo have undergone similar-scale celebratory reforms, and all of these departments now have airports with small cities springing up around them. As a result, instead of migrating to Brazzaville or Pointe-Noire, residents have stayed in their native areas.

Beyond black gold: Diversifying the national economy

“Our country is lucky to enjoy a generous supply of oil,” says Mr. Bouya. Indeed, with a daily output of roughly 350,000 barrels a day, the Republic of the Congo is the fourth-biggest oil-producing country in sub-Saharan Africa. It represents more than two-thirds of the country’s GDP, around 80% of state revenue, and 90% of export income. “But it is not easy to stand on one foot and get very far,” he adds, stressing the importance of diversifying the local economy.

Geographically speaking, the country is favorably placed to become a trading partner with the rest of Central Africa, and the world. It is at the center of a continent that is in the midst of significant transformation. And thanks in no small part to the groundwork laid by the president’s development plans, it now has the infrastructural resources to sustain expansion and interconnectivity.

The port of Pointe-Noire, for example, the only deepwater port in the Gulf of Guinea, has undergone €300 million-worth ($322 million) of renovations, which have equipped it with nearly 300 meters of extra docks. Its loading zones have also been completely renovated, allowing large volumes of goods to be handled.

Prior to renovations, this port could only accommodate 50,000 containers per year. At that time, there were already ports in Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, which could receive up to 500,000 containers per year, making the Pointe-Noire port far from competitively placed to become a major trade hub. However, it is now capable of receiving more than 700,000 containers per year, and within the next three years, following the dredging of another area that will serve as a second terminal, it is expected that Pointe-Noire will boost its annual container capacity into the millions.

Another complex development project that is already under way is the construction of a mining terminal that will help extract the country’s abundant mineral resources, which include iron, phosphate, and potassium. A railway for transporting the extracted minerals is also being considered, although this project is still in its mapping phase, with potential routes and partners still being considered.

President Sassou Nguesso has been establishing the country’s presence as an intellectual center, in addition to constructing the infrastructure and transport networks necessary to make Brazzaville an international hub of trade, travel, and commerce.

The government has secured plans to build the Université Denis Sassou Nguesso in Kintélé, an emerging suburb to the north of Brazzaville, which will be spread over nearly 600,000 square feet. The university will have a state-of-the-art campus with more than 22 buildings and the capacity to accommodate 30,000 students. It is expected to draw the attention of ambitious youths from all corners of the country, as well as neighboring Central African countries.

Also under construction in Kintélé, a massive sports complex planned for the 11th African Games, designed to provide sports teams with adequate facilities. Its construction will be directly funded by the state, and in a bid to cement the country’s commitment to become an emerging breeding ground of elite athletes, a variety of sports complexes including the multi-purpose Marien Ngouabi Stadium in Owando (Cuvette) will be built in the next few years. Also in Kintélé, there are plans to build a Cité de la Culture – a cultural venue customized to accommodate the famous Pan-African Music Festival (Fespam).

As far as tourism goes, the country has a variety of breathtaking natural landscapes that it is preparing to showcase to the world, including Mbamou Island. Located in the heart of Pool Malebo, it has a huge inland sea formed by the Congo River near Brazzaville, and will be home to a 4,000-acre urban and tourist development.

While the country is putting an emphasis on constructing the types of monuments and venues that will help restore a sense of culture and unity to its people, it is also taking great pains to ensure that its most fundamental elements of infrastructure are securely in place. In fact, the Republic of the Congo will soon be the only African country to have a hospital of international standing in each of its administrative regions. Twelve hospitals with 200 beds each are slated for construction under an ambitious project being organized in conjunction with Asperbras Congo, a subsidiary of the Brazilian infrastructure giant that already has a long history of working in the Central African nation.

Pumping life into the heart of Central Africa

Geographically speaking, the country is favorably positioned as an entry portal to the rest of Central Africa. It straddles the equator and share borders with Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Cameroon, and Gabon, putting it at the heart of a market of 200 million people. It also has an enviable 170 kilometers of coastline and more than 5.5 billion acres of primary, largely untapped forest with valuable timber species.

These advantages, when combined with the nation’s recent political and economic stability, give it a natural edge when it comes to beating out neighboring countries and becoming Africa’s next big trade and transportation hub.

However, there are still some logistics challenges to overcome, as it is a very elongated country – 150 kilometers wide versus 1,200 kilometers long – and it is covered with dense forest and rivers. The population is also largely concentrated in the southern part of the country, which makes uniformly exporting the country’s resources a greater challenge.

Nonetheless, wise to its potential and keen to capitalize on what it has to offer, government leaders have attempted to kick-start Congo’s future as a thriving logistics center. As part of their efforts to transform the country, in 2004 the government launched its municipalité accélérée, or accelerated municipalization, program. The idea behind the scheme is to fast-track the construction of basic infrastructure, such as roads, hospitals, and administrative buildings that had been destroyed by the war in an attempt to re-infuse the republic with its own national identity.

Now, just over 10 years after this program was launched, there is a palpable sense of emerging pride surrounding these accelerated municipilaziation projects that have improved the day-to-day lives of Congolese citizens on an important and fundamental level.

As far as roads go, the government has overseen projects to link different cities across the country’s 12 administrative zones. Today, there are already nearly 5,000 kilometers of paved highways, and nearly 8,000 kilometers of roads in the process of being paved. By the end of this year, the Pointe-Noire–Brazzaville route is expected to be completed. As soon as the country is more domestically connected across regions, linking it regionally with neighboring countries will be the next priority.

It is not only by land that efforts are being made. In under 10 years, a dozen airports have been built in the republic, and all of the country’s airports can accommodate, at minimum, a Boeing 737.

“Building airports in every department of Congo was of paramount importance,” explains Mr. Bouya. “If you want to attract investment activity to your country, you have to make it possible for investors to reach you.”

Special economic zones capitalize on regional strengths

In addition to tax incentives for investors, to support the economic development of the country, the government has also created special economic zones in line with the natural competitive advantages of each region in order to further increase GDP and generate jobs across a broader range of industries. For example, the special economic zone of Pointe-Noire is focused on the transformation of mineral products, as the Pointe-Noire port can serve as a key arsenal for maximizing the export of these goods.

Brazzaville will be more focused on construction materials, given its proximity to the industrial zone of Maloukou, which will soon be home to 15 new factories producing construction materials. The idea is to first be able to produce sufficient construction materials to satisfy national demand. At present, a large number of materials are still imported, but the plan is to explore opportunities for export.

Another special economic zone, Oyo, is blessed with a lush natural landscape, and has therefore become the zone that will emphasize agriculture and all things green. Foreign planes heavily frequent its international airport, so in collaboration with an aeronautics academy, there have been talks of creating a maintenance center for the repair of plane parts and components.

The fourth zone, located in Ouesso, is centralized around the transformation of mineral resources and forestry.

With these four special economic zones spread evenly across the country, the government hopes to draw the attention of European investors much like its African neighbors to the north – Morocco and Algeria – have successfully done in the past.

Beyond benefits for the Republic of the Congo and its local population, Mr. Bouya details how the development of the country, given its location at the center of Africa, is actually critical for the continued development of the rest of the continent.

“We are focused on creating possibilities to make Congo a transportation gateway for other countries,” says Mr. Bouya, explaining that more streamlined transportation links between Congo, Angola, Gabon and the D.R.C. would be a tremendous boost to intra-African commerce. And this is critical, he insists, “because before trading with Europe and Asia, Africans must first learn how to trade between their respective countries.”

The DDGT: Laying the groundwork for great changes

Given the grand scale of economic and infrastructural reform planned for the country, it was necessary to create an organization that could coordinate and ensure the proper management of each project, ensuring a certain cohesion and order across various departments of the country. As a result, the Délégation Générale aux Grands Travaux (DGGT), or General Delegation for Major Projects, was created.

Essentially, DGGT is an administrative and technical body that receives its orders directly from the Presidency and oversees the procurement and execution of all types of works in the public interest that cost more than CFA1 billion ($1.06 million), including projects carried out under the accelerated municipalization program.

These initiatives have to be approved by the Ministry of Economic Planning and are funded out of the investment budgets of the various ministries and institutions that will own and benefit from the projects.

From roads, bridges, airports, and seaports, the DGGT is charged with ensuring that all projects are carried out efficiently, soundly, and in accordance with imposed quality standards. It has already been involved with numerous projects including supervising the Maya-Maya airport in Brazzaville, and the road linking Pointe-Noire and Brazzaville.

Acting in close cooperation with the National Committee for Acceptance of Completed Works (CNOF), the DGGT is responsible for drawing up and implementing procurement schedules. Before works can begin, competitive tenders are held in which companies seeking public procurement projects must submit bids. The DGGT opens and studies the bids, comparing the technical and financial information contained in each offer for each contract.

Once a contractor has been appointed, the DGGT is charged with monitoring the progress of work. The division has a staff of just over 200 people, half of which are civil servants, and the other half of which are contractual employees and consultants.

Over the past 10 years, increasingly larger amounts of projects have been undertaken. In 2005, for example, CFA70 billion was spent on projects, as compared to CFA380 billion in 2011.

Pursuant to a strategic partnership between the Republic of the Congo and China, most of the firms that carry out major works are from the Asian giant, though bids from all countries are considered and encouraged. As the delegate-general in charge of the DGGT, Mr. Bouya explains that the organization is critical to ensuring that proposed infrastructural projects see the light.

“Imagine that the Minister of Construction sends us a proposal for a real estate project,” he explains. “But it turns out that he has proposed the project in an area that the Minister of Forestry wants to preserve. Then, you might have the Minister of Agriculture who would like to farm that land, which the Minister of the Mines reports finding large reserves of mineral resources on, and would also like to exploit.”

It is situations such as that which see the DGGT become involved, deciding on projects based on how they might benefit the greater good, and how they might complement other initiatives that are already under way, including developments related to education and healthcare.

Seeing things through to a brighter future

Having recently been granted a B+ rating by Fitch Ratings and named one of the top 10 performing economies in Africa, the Republic of the Congo is poised now, more than ever, to broaden its industrial horizons.

Attracting foreign investment is among the top priorities for the Congolese government, which hopes to rely less on foreign aid and genuinely develop and nourish its own private sector. This has all been possible since the country has returned to stability – something which the government believes is vital to ensuring the country’s future development.

“I was recently in Italy,” says Mr. Bouya, who was impressed by the country of 60 million inhabitants living in just over 300,000 square kilometers of land. The Republic of the Congo, at nearly 342,000 square kilometers is just slightly larger, but only has a population of 4 million people.

“We have so much to develop,” he says. “Our lands are rich and fertile, and we have huge potential to create jobs and new opportunities for our people. But, with globalization, it is impossible to create an island of good fortune in an ocean of misery. If we staunchly hold ourselves responsible for ensuring peace, security, development and industrialization in our own country, our neighbors must do the same.”

And by developing its own infrastructure, Mr. Bouya believes that the republic can grow not just its own economy but also improve the lots of the people living in the Republic of the Congo and across the Central African region.