Business / Economy

Building momentum in Gabon

By JOSEPH CATANZARO/LI FANGCHAO (China Daily) Updated: 2014-08-04 07:12

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 deep-water harbor, straddles the coast.

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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 Corp, 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 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, human resources or a lack of skilled worker is a big challenge to Chinese companies.

Aviation Industry Corp of China is a company that is trying to tackle the skills shortage in Gabon. It has signed an agreement to establish three trade schools that will provide about 4,000 locals a year with qualifications to operate manufacturing, construction and agricultural machinery.

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