Hours after arriving in Abidjan yesterday, French President Francois Hollande took a boat ride on the lagoon of the Ivory Coast’s capital city.
Under alternating hazy sun and tropical downpours, accompanied by his host President Alassane Ouattara, he cruised under a mile-long bridge being built by France’s Bouygues SA and drew alongside a coast guard frigate that’s just been delivered by a French shipyard.
Hollande could also see the dilapidated state of the existing two bridges over the lagoon, garbage floating on the murky water, and snarled traffic ashore in every direction, signs of the infrastructure needs of one of Africa’s fastest growing economies that have attracted interested bidders from across the world. For French companies that once enjoyed privileged access in the former colony, it’s just as well that Ivory Coast has so much work to be done.
“We are perhaps losing market share but in an expanding pie,” said Philippe Delleur, international director for Alstom SA, which failed to win a contract to expand a power plant and is now planning to bid for some of the 15 hydro-electric dams Ivory Coast plans to build. “As long as our revenue is growing, I’m happy.”
Ivory Coast has a 1,500 megawatt generating capacity, but could use as much as 2,500 megawatts given demand at home and from neighboring countries, the trade mission at the French embassy says.
While Hollande uses his trips abroad to push French trade - - he brought 50 business leaders with him to Abidjan -- he has also sought to end France’s cozy ties with former colonies and has warned French companies not to expect special treatment.
“It’s not because you are French you are going to win contracts,” Hollande told an audience of French and Ivory Coast businesspeople yesterday in Abidjan. “I came here with French companies that are already on the ground here and are aware that the Ivory Coast is taking off. But French companies have to be ready to show they are the best.”
Ivory Coast’s economy, which contracted in 2011 during unrest following an electoral crisis that ended with French military intervention, expanded 9.8 percent in 2012, 7.8 percent in 2013, and will grow another 7.8 percent this year, according to IHS Global Insights.
The $31 billion economy is the third largest in West Africa after Nigeria and Ghana. The country is the world’s largest cocoa producer, and is also a major grower of coffee and tropical fruit, and France’s largest oil company, Total SA, recently discovered new offshore reserves.
Bollore Africa Logistics runs Abidjan port, the national phone company Ivory Coast Telecom is part of Paris-based Orange SA, and Societe Generale SA controls the country’s largest bank.
But Alstom in 2012 lost out to Korea’s Hyundai Engineering & Construction Co. Ltd. and Britain’s Globeleq to expand the Azito power plant near Abidjan, and Chinese companies are building projects ranging from a highway along the coast to a 29-story commercial and conference center in the Plateau neighborhood of Abidjan.
Smaller projects, such as apartment buildings, city roads, and shopping centers, have gone to Moroccan, Egyptian, and Turkish companies, said Francois Sacco, project manager for Bouygues’ 200 million-euro ($271 million) lagoon bridge.
“It’s a country coming out of a crisis, with a growing economy and enormous needs so it’s natural everyone is here,” said Yves-Thibault de Silguy, vice-chairman of the board of Bouygues rival Vinci SA and a former European Union commissioner. “French companies may not have the exclusive role they once had, but we are still very well ingrained in the local economy.”
Vinci is bidding to renovate a rail and traffic bridge across Abidjan’s lagoon built in the 1950s. “It’s in such bad shape it would have been shut down in Europe,” de Silguy said.
Abidjan has grown to 6 million inhabitants from about 1 million in the mid-1970s, with the resulting need for housing, roads, transport, energy, water and waste treatment. It’s the third-largest French speaking city after Paris and Kinshasa.
Felix Houphouet-Boigny, the president from independence in 1960 until his death in 1993, favored close ties with France and French companies. Then followed a period of political instability that ended just three years ago when few public works were commissioned, said Jean-Francois Bijon, head of the trade mission at the French embassy.
“African economies are continuing to grow faster than those of much of the rest of the world and Hollande sees real opportunities for France to build mutually beneficial economic partnerships with Africa,” said Tony Chafer, a professor at the University of Portsmouth who has written several books about French relations with Africa.