left corner left corner
China Daily Website  

An end to non-splendid isolation

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

An end to non-splendid isolation

A rendition of the Port-Gentil-Omboue project, which is expected to break the isolation of the second-largest city in Gabon. Provided to China Daily

An end to non-splendid isolation

For years Gabon's economic capital has been cut off, but soon that will end

For years, Port-Gentil, the second-largest city in Gabon, has been supreme in its isolation. There is no road connecting it and Libreville, the capital, and the only way to reach it is by air or by sea.

The city and its surrounding regions, with rich oil reserves, are also home to a large number of oil companies. Indeed, it is from Port-Gentil that Gabon draws much of its wealth.

But Port-Gentil's isolation is expected to end soon thanks to a road that a Chinese company, China Road and Bridge Corporation, is building from Omboue, 93 kilometers to the south.

In a second phase from Omboue, another 270-km road will be built to link with the national road network.

"For years the country's economic capital has been cut off from the rest of the country, just like an island," says Yang Yi, general manager of China Road and Bridge Corporation's operations in Gabon.

"It is expensive to fly to Port-Gentil, and the boat service is unreliable."

Easy, cheap transport has thus been a dream of Port-Gentil residents for years.

"That will be realized with our project," Yang says.

Construction of the Port-Gentil-Omboue project started in March and is expected to be complete in five years.

The cost is $600 million, and 95 percent of the funding comes from low-interest loans from the Export-Import Bank of China with the rest from the Gabonese government.

The cost is high because of the technical difficulties of the project, Yang says.

"A road of less than 100 km would normally be a lot less expensive, but this project is very different."

An end to non-splendid isolation

The road will pass through vast swamplands, and two bridges will need to be built, he says. Each of these will be more than 5 km long, making them the third and fourth-longest bridges in Africa.

So that shipping is not hampered, the number of piers holding the bridges will need to be limited.

"This will be a huge challenge for us," Yang says.

The base of the road will need to be very solid to cross the swampland, which means deeper foundations and thus higher costs, he says.

Another big problem is the lack of building materials near the construction site.

The nearest quarry is about 300 km away, and since there is no road to transport stone and other materials, the company has brought in 35 barges from China.

"These barges had to be dismantled and then shipped to Gabon and then reassembled," Yang says.

Despite the huge challenges, the route will also pay heed to environmental protection, he says.

Libreville, the capital, lies to the north of Port-Gentil, and it might have seemed natural to build a road directly in that direction.

However, there is a vast natural reserve just north of Port-Gentil, and vast rivers flow to the east of the city.

So the road needs to go south to Omboue first, then to the east to connect with the national road network, Yang says.

Given the difficulties, Yang believes the price is reasonable. Western companies would ask for two to three times as much, he says.

"With this price and loans from the Chinese bank, the Gabonese government can save a lot of money and, more importantly, can really get started on the project."

The road will bring huge benefits to Gabon, Yang says.

It will bring road access to a substantial part of the country, and will help oil companies in Port-Gentil expand their businesses and lower the cost of maintaining pipelines, he says.

It will also open up villages along the route, connecting them with the outside and allowing them to develop.

An end to non-splendid isolation

"Without transport, nothing can happen, so this is going to be a big boost for the local economy."

A big fertilizer plant and an oil refinery will be built in Port-Gentil.

"With the road, the plants can lower their transport costs," he says.

Yang says the best way of doing business in Africa is putting oneself in the customer's shoes.

"We should understand each other and meet the government's requirements," he says.

For the Port-Gentil road project, the Gabonese government is the client.

"That is why we are giving a good price and doing things the way they want, despite the huge challenges."

Established in 1978, China Road and Bridge Corporation is among the earliest state-owned companies in China to explore the international project contracting market.

The company has established a global network with more than 50 branches and offices in more than 50 countries and regions in Asia, Africa, Europe and America.

It has operations spanning many countries in Africa and has built up a good reputation.

During Premier Li Keqiang's visit to Africa in May, he witnessed the signing ceremony of a railway project linking Nairobi, capital of Kenya, and Mombasa, a port city in Kenya.

China Road and Bridge Corporation is the contractor of the 480-km railway at a cost of $3.8 billion.

Contact the writer through lifangchao@chinadaily.com.cn

An end to non-splendid isolation

(China Daily Africa Weekly 07/25/2014 page8)

  • Group a building block for Africa

    An unusually heavy downpour hit Durban for two days before the BRICS summit's debut on African soil, but interest for a better platform for emerging markets were still sparked at the summit.