Did you know that the port of Antwerp is fully in charge of port management in Cotonou (Benin)? Where does this interest in Africa come from? Glo.be interviewed Kristof Waterschoot, managing director of Port of Antwerp International.
Since May 2018, the port of Antwerp has officially been the 'port authority' of the port of Cotonou (Benin). For 9 years, a team of 9 people will be responsible for the management of this West African port. This includes the maintenance and renovation of the port sites and infrastructure, invoicing and so on.
The port of Antwerp will also negotiate concessions with companies that are allowed to use the port for loading and unloading goods. The port of Cotonou, as well as other African ports, are confronted with a distressing lack of experience when it comes to port management. The idea, however, is that the management will gradually be transferred to a local team. After nine years, the port of Cotonou will again be entirely in local hands.
The port of Antwerp cooperates with Enabel, the Belgian Development Agency that, together with the local authorities, wants to improve the port's competitiveness and entrepreneurship.
Is charity the main motivation of the port of Antwerp? ‘No’, says Kristof Waterschoot. As managing director of Port of Antwerp International, he is responsible for the port's foreign activities. ‘We simply responded to a call for tender issued by the Benin government. The president was tired of the port's poor performance. So we are paid for the management of the port.’
Yet there is definitely a development cooperation component attached to Cotonou’s port management. After all, the port of Antwerp cooperates with Enabel, the Belgian Development Agency that, together with the local authorities, wants to improve the port's competitiveness and entrepreneurship. This will be done through studies, training, advice and so on.
The cooperation with Enabel fits within a large-scale renovation programme of the port of Cotonou with a budget of 450 million euros for 2 to 3 years. ‘It is the largest port project in Africa’, says Waterschoot. ‘The government is determined to open up the country to the outside world and balance imports and exports. As in most African countries, exports in Benin are very limited.’
Ports are crucial for the development of a country. Just like an airport, a port provides a connection to the international economic system.
Economic growth engine
Ports are crucial for the development of a country. ‘Just like an airport, a port provides a connection to the international economic system’, explains Waterschoot. ‘It is all about the goods handled in the port.’ Ports are an engine of economic growth because they allow for imports and exports.
Furthermore, a port has a major impact on daily life. Waterschoot: ‘Africa imports enormous volumes of food, which is very expensive there, more expensive than in Europe. This is due to the inefficient logistics: the entire chain of port, customs, transport and so on. Better logistics would make the food much cheaper. Moreover, in some fragile countries, ports are involved in 30-50 percent of GDP, which makes their impact very large.’
Real win-win situation
The port of Antwerp is also active in many other African countries: Ivory Coast, Guinea Conakry, Angola, Mozambique, Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, you name it. It often carries out projects obtained through public tenders. ‘Africa is important to Antwerp’, says Waterschoot. ‘Do you know that we realise 13% of our trade in Africa? That is as much as in the Middle East and the Far East, including China. In addition, we expect strong growth there. In Europe, we are the market leader for Africa.’
‘Strengthening the African ports will benefit us too. After all, they are not competitors, but partners. The stronger our partners, the better for us. This is a real win-win situation: a better port stimulates economic development in African countries, and we too benefit from it. Besides, through our activities, we learn how trade flows in Africa work exactly. From Mali, for example, goods not only go to Cotonou, but also to Dakar. These insights are useful to us.’
Do you know that we realise 13% of our trade in Africa? That is as much as in the Middle East and the Far East, including China. In addition, we expect strong growth there. In Europe, we are the market leader for Africa.
Doesn't the port of Antwerp take a lot of risks by being active in Africa? ‘That is certainly not our experience. We work in a highly regulated sector where reputation is everything. We have no problem with payments, nor with corruption. In Africa, ports are under the direct supervision of the president. If people ask for money 'on behalf of the president', we simply make a phone call to check.’
In other words, Belgian companies should not be afraid to conduct business with Africa? ‘There is, of course, a political risk, but you can insure against that risk in Belgium via Credendo. It is indeed necessary to pay attention to taxation, but the same goes for Brazil. Moreover, in West Africa, it is easy to convert exchange rates to CFA... In short, I do not necessarily see greater risks in Africa than on other continents.’
Development cooperation no longer revolves around pure aid and charity.
‘Profit is not a dirty word’
Kristof Waterschoot is also head of APEC, the Antwerp Port Training Center, a non-profit organisation that organises two-week training courses for foreigners. The themes vary from dredging techniques, management of a container terminal to environmental policy. Every year, 800 people of 150 nationalities come to study there, at the reasonable price of 3500 euros, all included except the plane ticket. ‘We do not aim to make a profit on the training courses. What we want is to strengthen partner ports and develop a network in order to strengthen our market position.’
The activities of the port of Antwerp are in line with a trend that has been building for some time: development cooperation no longer revolves around pure aid and charity. At a conference organised by BIO - the Belgian Investment Company for Developing Countries - in March 2019, Minister of Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo put it this way: ‘As a minister, I tried to remove the dividers between development cooperation and the private sector. After all, progress in a society stems from economic growth. The aim is not to privatise development cooperation, but to improve its cooperation with the private sector. Profit should no longer be a dirty word, on the contrary. A healthy, reasonable profit - without tax evasion or exploitation - is precisely a prerequisite for sustainability.’