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A straight line to prosperity.

Benguela, in the west of Angola, forms a dynamic littoral with Lobito and Catumbela. The revival of its 100-year-old railway line and the modernisation of the port of Lobito should generate rapid new growth to this historic province. It is also the seat of a vast new set of centralities for its rapidly increasing, young and upwardly mobile population. Anver Versi and his team paid a visit.

Benguela, the capital of the province with the same name, overlooks the Atlantic Ocean on Angola's western seaboard. It was founded in 1617 by a Portuguese governor, Manuel Cerveira Pereira, who called it Sao Filipe de Benguela. He believed, correctly as it turned, out that the hinterland behind Benguela would be a source of great wealth.

Although the Portuguese failed to find the gold and silver they had hoped for, the port of Benguela soon became busy shipping out streams of slaves to their dominions in Latin America. Other produce, over the centuries, included various grains, rubber, sisal, vegetable oils, ivory, rhino horns and hides, and cattle. The volume of trade along the corridors to the interior gave rise to several towns in the near vicinity and provided Benguela with its reputation as 'The Mother of all Cities'.

However, the lack of a natural deep harbour meant that ships had to anchor well outside, and cargo and people had to be carried in boats. When a naturally sheltered and deep harbour was discovered further north, shipping traffic began to abandon Benguela in favour of Lobito.

Lobito is the archetypical sea-city, although the ancient, romantic buildings from previous generations are difficult to find.

Today, it has a workaday look that does not exactly inspire tales of high adventure on dangerous seas as it once did, but the maritime atmosphere does envelope the city and the attitudes.

Lobito port has been undergoing a great deal of expansion and modernisation. It now has dedicated wharfs for containers and a specially built facility that is designed to transport minerals not only from Angola but also from neighbouring countries.

The Benguela railway has had a colourful history of more than 100 years. It now enters a new phase with the line completely relaid by Chinese railway contactors. The 1,344km line will ply the rich and vast Lobito corridor to Luau, on the eastern border with DR Congo. It is expected that this opening up of the interior will greatly stimulate agriculture along the corridor and encourage diversification.

Extensions will take the line to Katanga in DR Congo and a 300km line will extend it to the rich copper belt of Zambia. An 18km line connects the eastern end of the railway at Benguela to Lobito port. The total cost of the project has been put at around $i,5bn.

Refurbishing of the railway, which was virtually totally destroyed during the war, began in 2008, although the line to the DR Congo border has now been completely relaid by Chinese railway contractors.

Given the varied terrain over which the line has to traverse, there are only four trips per week and the maximum speed was 50 kph. The engineers we met told us that the line has to 'settle' before the frequency of trips and speeds can be increased.

When all parts of this very-advanced integrated rail and port transport system mesh together, it will be easily the most modern and efficient such system in subSaharan Africa. The savings, in terms of freight costs, especially for bulk cargo, will be tremendous and this, it is expected, will help generate a virtuous cycle of economic growth all along the line, including for exporters from neighbouring countries.

Due to communication misunderstandings, the governor of the province who we were scheduled to meet was away on other duties, but we were still very warmly welcomed by, among other community leaders, the chief of police, who told us that with all the developments taking place on the Benguela railway, and the expansion and modernisation of Lobito port, which was very near, the province was gearing up for a period of sustained growth.

As an example of the province's new-found economic dynamism, we landed at a brand-new airport at Catumbela, one of Banguela's 10 municipalities. We were told of grand plans to combine the three adjacent cities of Lobito, Catumbela and Benguela, as well as an area called Elephant Bay, into one mega-urban sprawl with high-end malls, entertainment and sporting centres, luxury hotels and world-class restaurants.

Wild West landscape

Despite the snarl-up in arrangements, an obliging site manager took us to see the three massive housing projects under construction. Thus far, we had either seen completed projects such as in Kilamba or Uige; now it was our opportunity to see these new 'centralities' rising from the ground up.

When we neared the vast construction site, we drove through a landscape that properly belonged to a Wild West movie. It looked as if giant hands had scooped out the earth and flung it about in all sorts of shapes and forms. You expected a band of outlaws to come galloping around the bend, brandishing six-shooters, at any moment.

However, the dramatic landscape brought home the fact that all construction work begins with shaping the land--levelling it and forming it as required by the needs of building. Only then can the vital infrastructure of pipes, cables, and other equipment be laid under the foundations of the new cities.

Virtually all the construction work was being carried out by CITIC, one of the world's largest construction companies. When we reached the operations headquarters of the company we were treated to a panoramic view of newly built residential blocks seemingly growing straight out of the ground.

For the first time during our trip, we were able to talk to some of the Chinese running the projects. They told us that everything they used had come straight from China and they were comfortable with that as they knew exactly what to expect. They said they got on very well with their Angolan co-workers although language was a barrier. Once they had arrived in Angola, they tended to stay on and move from one project when it was finished to another. "But this way, we learn how to operate in the conditions so it becomes easier and we can work faster."

From our vantage point of view, it was impossible to gauge what the finished centralities would look like so they showed us master plans for three projects: Luhongo Red (2,000 houses); Baia Farta Red (1,000 houses) and Lobito Red (3,000 houses), [check names]

Each plan detailed the position of the buildings, the roads, lots of green areas, kindergartens, primary and secondary schools, commercial areas, community buildings, municipal buildings, religious centres, open markets, electricity transformers and distribution substations, waste transfer stations, sewage treatment plants and water purification plants.

For the first time during our visit to Angola, we were able to see the whole project unfolding--from raw land that had been dug up and shaped to finished cities that would soon buzz with life. It was quite a humbling experience, and you had to take off your hat both to Angola for having the courage to dream up and undertake such a vast programme and all the various actors, including the final tenants, who were making it all happen.
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Title Annotation:THE PROVINCES
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:6ANGO
Date:Mar 1, 2015
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