Malabo Means Business

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Equatorial Guinea’s capital, Malabo, most definitely means business. Whether it’s the corporate hotels – Sofitel and Hilton – doing a roaring trade in the city centre and close to the airport or the skyscrapers being built further east, there is no escaping the fact that the city is drawing in foreign investment and global corporate names in an impressive manner.

The investments pouring in to this small, little known corner of Africa are most clearly visible in the development on either side of the newly constructed six-lane highway that links the towns of Ela Nguema, Sipopo and Baney and ushers the money men from the airport to the capital’s most thrusting district, Malabo II.

It is here that the headquarters are being erected for the French, US, Egyptian, Swiss, Chinese and African energy and construction giants as well as new administrative buildings for international bodies like the United Nations and CEMAC – the parliament for the Central African States.

At the centre of this aspiring, modern wing of the capital is a statue dedicated to the country’s progress. It sits at the centre of a powerful cluster of buildings housing the Prime Minister’s office, the country’s most important private bank, CCEI, the Central African parliament building, CEMAC and the source of nearly all of the country’s newfound wealth, GE Petrol.

Spreading out from this nucleus of influential edifices are a range of government ministries and annexes held up as a symbol of the country’s efforts to strengthen its fledgling institutions.

A pristine Ibis Hotel and social housing blocks completed recently by the Chinese construction company China Dalian flank the banks and offices.

Further towards the airport, the illuminated twin towers of Sonagas, the state-owned gas company with a participation in the country’s Liquefied Natural Gas train, act as a beacon to foreign investors looking to get involved in the construction of a second $2.2bn LNG train.

Large tracts of land in this satellite city have been allocated to the construction of head quarters for the country’s largest foreign investors as well as a towering new Malabo HQ for the Bank of Central African States. Rococo palaces and steel clad contemporary architecture vie to establish itself as the dominant vernacular in this youthful stretch of the city.

Amongst the companies still to add their HQ to the growing list of towers are oil companies, Mobil Corporation, the largest producer of Equatoguinean oil, and Noble Energy, the energy group that is due to begin exploring for oil with Swiss trading house Glencore and GE Petrol later this year on its Block ‘O” later this year.

Their offices will sit close to a new headquarters designed by Portuguese architects, Saraiva Associados for the Ministry of Energy and Mines and being constructed, once again, by China Dalian.

Directly in front of the energy ministry will be the offices of China Gezhouba (Group) Corporation, a Beijing-based company carrying out one of the biggest projects in Malabo – the construction of a waste water, drainage and sewage treatment system in Malabo, Ela Nguema and the communities that surround the capital.

There’s no question this is where Malabo’s money men mingle with the country’s most important authorities to shape the city’s exciting future.

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Some Good Hope

It’s not just presidential palaces and five-star tourism resorts shifting the reality further away from some of the ill-conceived perceptions of life on the island of Bioko.

As well as the important investments being made in Malabo II, the emerging business district being developed close to the airport, there are thousands of affordable homes being built by the government as part of its Horizons 2020 program – a scheme to transform the country over the next ten years.

Perhaps the most concrete example of this is the barrio Buena Esperanza, which now boasts more than a thousand homes built for the rapidly expanding population of Malabo.

The three-bedroom prefabricated houses – 75 sq m in size – are being constructed by Arab Contractors and paid for by the Equatorial Guinean government.

Sloping up the hill with a view down on Malabo’s harbour and the thick African rainforest to its back, “Good Hope” district represents the emergence of a new middle class in the Equatorial Guinean capital.

Land titles were offered to local residents on favourable financing terms as part of the Equatorial Guinean government’s investments of USD$173.6m in its social housing program in 2009.

Delivered fully furnished and judging by the number of four-wheel drive vehicles parked outside the houses, these new barrios are far removed from the outdated picture of extreme poverty often used to portray life for the majority of the Equatoguinean population.

The ambitious construction program is part of the African dream being pursued by president Teodoro Obiang to build a house for every Equatoguinean.

Chinese construction group, China Dalian, building with financing from the China export-import bank has built another 4,800 homes in 33 blocks in Bata II, the country’s second largest city on the continental mainland. It has also delivered the first 2,000 homes in high-rise units in the heart of the new Malabo II business district and is about to begin construction of more on the road out towards Sipopo.

In total president Obiang says he plans to build 150,000 social houses in the next 10 years as an integral part of the country’s social development program and has promised to buy all the houses constructed by international contractors for his people.

First Impressions

On arrival in Equatorial Guinea it is hard to square the reality with preconceived perceptions of the place. After more than a decade working in the UK, Europe and in particular Spain, it is hard to remember any positive coverage of the country to carry with you on the six-hour flight from Madrid.

Hollywood’s recent efforts (Wall Street II) to portray the country as a meeting point for complex global interests have not been much more favourable and if it hadn’t been for some revealing Wikileaks diplomatic cables leaked from the US embassy a couple of months before my decision to base myself in Malabo, the leap of faith would have been a far more daunting one.

Yet on arrival in the island of Bioko, formerly known as Fernando Pó and now home to Equatorial Guinea’s capital Malabo, it is hard not to be impressed by the scope of the country’s oil-fuelled ambitions.

First impressions last, they say, and it has to be said this small country is determined to leave an immediate and lasting impression on the increasing number of visitors passing through Malabo’s International Airport.

Nowhere is the progress being made in this overly ignored corner of Africa more apparent than the African Union’s City of Sipopo.

Sipopo is a 3,003,320 sq m, complex comprised of 21 infrastructure projects built by 10 different companies reflecting those countries with interests in shaping a new Equatorial Guinea.

Companies from China, Turkey, Russia, Spain, France and Equatorial Guinea were all involved in carving this remarkable complex from the island’s virgin rainforest.

Its very multi-cultural nature stems from the vision of Hassan Hachem, a French-trained architect born in Senegal to a family of Lebanese immigrants. He has become the mastermind behind much of the country’s recent transformation and is a good example of the can do attitude at the heart of the country’s decision-making process.

The complex was built in record time to leave an impression on leaders from Africa at the recent Summit of the African Union.

President Teodoro Obiang’s government ploughed €580m into the tourism complex, which has been held up as part of a plan to diversify the country’s income streams away from petroleum towards other industries. The oil business today accounts for 95% of the country’s gross domestic product and the government is keen to reduce its reliance on petroleum.

It is a formula being deployed in other oil-rich countries like the United Arab Emirates on an even larger scale. At the heart of the Sipopo complex are two world-class conference centres. The newer, Turkish-built conference centre, a kind of square bird’s nest shaped from steel and cement was built in just six months by the Istanbul-based construction company, Summa.

A 300-room golf and beach resort operated by the French chain Sofitel was also constructed by French group Bouygues to coincide with the meeting of the African Union in Malabo.

Its 1 km of beach and 18-hole golf course will no doubt prove popular with the international business executives pouring into the country in search of new opportunities.

It is a bold proposition to embark on such an ambitious project in such a short period of time but it seems symbolic of the country’s commitment and confident desire to transform its international image and project itself in the international arena.

The conference centre is due to host another summit between African and Latin American leaders in November and the Africa Cup of Nations football competition will also attract visitors to the island and the continental mainland in January.

They are important pillars of the government’s strategy to open the world’s eyes to the changes taking place in this intriguing and little known enclave of Africa.