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Chinese firms help Gabon progress

Updated: 2014-07-25 08:44
By Joseph Catanzaro and Li Fangchao ( China Daily Africa)

 Chinese firms help Gabon progress

Wissu Ipemboussou (right), an engineer with China Harbour Engineering Co, talks about land reclamation with colleagues. Photos by Zhang Wei / China Daily

Chinese firms help Gabon progress

Chinese firms help Gabon progress

The Grand Poubara, a hydroelectric station with a capacity of 160 megawatts, is expected to alleviate the power shortage in Gabon. Provided to China Daily

On the outskirts of Libreville, where women sell fresh fruit beneath palm trees and beach umbrellas, time seems to stand still.

Locals carrying baskets and boxes on their heads amble along in the stifling afternoon heat that blankets the Gabonese capital. Traffic slows to a crawl on narrow streets hemmed in by dilapidated buildings whose architecture reflects the country's French colonial history.

Like the wild-haired children who flop listlessly in the lee of whitewashed walls, it is as if progress has run out of steam here and staggered off to find a patch of shade.

In the decades after the slump in oil prices in the 1980s hit Gabon's petroleum-reliant economy, it was like this everywhere, locals say. National momentum slowed, and the country even began to slide backward under the weight of debt.

Infrastructure that was already inadequate became run down, and plans for new infrastructure and upgrades were delayed and delayed again.

Chinese firms help Gabon progress

The neglected suburbs on the periphery of the city are a reminder of what was once the norm, and what might always have been, if China had not come to Gabon.

In the past decade, Libreville's city center and coastal areas have been rejuvenated, and China's hand in making that happen is everywhere to be seen. The contrast between the old urban areas on the fringes and the city center is profound.

The once static skyline of the central business district is now populated by cranes, each one hanging eagerly over buildings under construction.

The city's foreshore is now a massive construction site, fenced in with billboards that are plastered with images of the swish hotels and marinas and shopping malls and skyscrapers to come.

The developers' logos are displayed in French, but this is merely a courtesy, a translation of the Chinese characters that loom larger still. Names such as China Harbor Engineering and Sinohydro stand out against the collage of faded posters from last century advertising products from Paris.

In a walled compound on the outskirts of the capital, just off a rutted dirt road, Yang Yi pores over a map of the country. He taps Libreville, where more than a third of the country's 1.6 million residents live. His finger moves south, to where Port-Gentil, the second-biggest city, and the country's only deepwater harbor, straddles the coast.

There has never been an overland route that connects the two centers of population and commerce. Hundreds of kilometers of seemingly impassable jungle and marshland stand between them.

Yang, chief business representative in Gabon for the state-owned China Road and Bridge Corporation, says that is about to change.

In March, CRBC began work on the first stage of a road and bridge project that will eventually unify Gabon. Few feats of infrastructure past or present can match its potential impact on the country.

"For years Gabon has dreamed of this," Yang says. "Before, the only way to get to Libreville from Port-Gentil was by boat or by plane. The ships are slow and unreliable. The flight costs almost as much as flying to a neighboring country. Port-Gentil is the center of the oil and gas industry, and the country depends on that industry. This project, our project, is the most important project happening in Gabon right now."

Worth $600 million, 95 percent of the funds needed for the road's construction were financed by a 20-year, Chinese government loan with just 2 percent interest. It is goodwill, but it is not charity, Yang says. His company is making a decent profit.

"Gabon has wanted and looked at this project for 20 years, but they couldn't get it started. Companies from the US and EU did studies, but their prices were higher and they did not offer financing. We came here and offered a reasonable solution."

In the lounge of an upmarket hotel in downtown Libreville, former university lecturer turned investment consultant Ezzel Jebbari meets a procession of clients from all over the world, including some from China.

The word in local business circles is that the Moroccan-born economist has the ear of Gabon's president, Ali Bongo Ondimba, and Jebbari does not deny it.

China has brought much needed change to Gabon, he says, adding that the developing relationship is mutually beneficial.

"I'm an economist. The Chinese are not losing money here, even on a loan with 2 percent interest. Now, a loan with 2 percent interest, you can't get that anywhere in the world. Even If you go to the World Bank and IMF, you can't get this.

"At the same time, this is a big opportunity for them (China). They need new markets and they need to help their companies. It's a good opportunity for China, but also a good opportunity for us."

But despite the clear benefits in employment, infrastructure development and knowledge transfer that Jebbari says Chinese investment has wrought, not everyone is ready to welcome the new players with open arms.

Sinohydro's spokeswoman in Gabon, Li Xiaoteng, is among those who think the relationship needs work. The Chinese state-owned utility giant she works for has completed, or is now working on, projects in Gabon worth about $1 billion; including a hydro power station 700 km outside the capital that came online last year. When construction of the power station was finished, the Chinese handed it over to a French company to run the plant, she says.

"Because of cultural differences, people here don't trust us," Li says. "We build it, and then we hand it over."

Jebbari concedes there have been some concerns about Chinese investment in Gabon, but he argues this attitude is fast fading, from the top down.

More than anything, practicality is trumping prejudice, he says.

"The most important thing about the Chinese is they deliver," he says.

On a construction site that dominates Libreville's foreshore, Wissu Ipemboussou feels the same.

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