Port Gentil and the Torpor of doing business in West Africa

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May 2nd 2018
Published: May 2nd 2018
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At the beginning of the of the last oil boom in 2007, I read a Time Magazine article entitled ”The World's Most Expensive City” about the town Port Gentil located on the coast of Gabon. (http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1599163,00.html). It painted a vivid picture of a latter-day mineral boom town suffering a severe inflationary bubble and consequently awash and drowning in petro dollars with all the associated vice-y excesses.

The resource curse is, however, double-edged. When the oil price tanked in 2014, the effects soon followed and three years from the 2014 crash Port Gentil presented a very different type of “ville petrolier” than it had in 2007. Arriving at the small airport from Libreville you notice oil company charters are still going strong ferrying oil workers to the fields. One consequence of the down turn was the flight schedule to the capital had been slashed to two flights a day. We had two meetings and ten hours to spend in Port Gentil.

The town presents a much sadder picture than described by Time Magazine and looks like it has hunkered down and prepared itself for hurricane weather. The strip of cheap bars and eateries on the road into town were battened down with boarding across windows and doors. Vegetation was beginning to sprout or take hold on verandas, roofs and vacant parking lots. In the part of town dominated by pipe yards and oil service companies, the gravelly streets were enormously wide and the shadows were long. This area remained well-maintained but little was stirring and movement was minimal.

With a couple of hours to wait, our rep went through the options with the taxi driver. The response was a mantra of closed, closed, closed and even our one hope, the Meridien hotel, was closed. We eventually found a small coffee house and bar to prepare for our first meeting. So many business trips in West Africa follow the pattern of lethargic stoppages in coffee houses, reception rooms and ante-rooms. Meetings are preceded by the low energy, listless re-reading of marketing materials and mental rehearsal. After an hour I was restless, moving between the humid warmth of the outside seating and humid and very cold AC of the bar. The AC was as effective as a Grand Banks fog.

Later, after a leisurely meal by the waterside we ventured further. Outside the town any development is hemmed in by dense forest and confined to a thin coastal strip. A long strand a beach runs all the way to Cap Lopez with the road to one side. Various oil subcontractor beach huts are dotted all the way – all showing little signs of life on a weekday, the only movement being faded corporate banners moving languidly in the breeze. There was a quick stop for a photo of the Cap Lopez lighthouse. This 30 m high rusty remnant from 1911 shows a heavy patina near the lantern, the old steel panels have been aggressively nibbled at the edges. The structure seems somehow displaced from its true position as if washed up with the other flotsam. A little further on, Cap Lopez is at the end of the peninsula. Geographically speaking this separates the Gulf of Guinea from the South Atlantic. The end of the road is marked by a huge tank farm. Fittingly, the restaurant nearby is called Le Petrolier; it was again closed perhaps awaiting the weekend surge of ex-pats and locals.

The trip back into town for the afternoon meeting took us a past a near-deserted golf club, two cars parked diagonally in the lot hinted at a round being played. Later again, we located a small pool resort. Incongruously, suited and booted we reclined on sun loungers and waited club sandwiches to be delivered. There was a long slow wait for the evening flight and gentle rumination over a paperback novel as dusk snuck into the edges of the pool garden.

Time Magazine is correct, Port Gentil is a town built on sand. Its lack of foundation is the oil industry that seeded it. The place is either flooded to excess or stripped and denuded of its wealth and activity. It all depends on the capricious price direction of the only commodity that matters here.


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