LOME (Reuters) - The scale of Togo’s ambition is clear as you fly into the capital, Lome.
Rising above a sandy coastline just 90 miles (145 km) long, is the giant, glass-fronted headquarters of Ecobank, expanding out of the nation of seven million across a continent of more than a billion.
Nearby, rows of cranes soar into the sky above containers stacked in the region’s deepest port, a would-be transhipment hub for the world’s largest vessels.
At the airport, workers are finishing a glistening terminal to ease overcrowding as fast-growing Togolese airline ASKY ferries passengers across West and Central Africa.
President Faure Gnassingbe, scion of a dynasty that has ruled Togo for nearly half a century, is modeling his country on Singapore or Dubai. Its progress goes beyond the superficial, but there is much further to go and regional competition is stiff.
For Gervais Djondo, the 81-year-old founder of both Ecobank and ASKY, business-friendly infrastructure and services are the key to transcending west Africa’s patchwork of colonial-era borders.
“Pan Africanism and integration starts with people moving,” Djondo said in the garden of his home in Djondo Kope, a village built by, and named after, him near the Benin border.
“If we want to make business...we have to create the appropriate means to make things move,” he told Reuters, sipping coconut juice and dressed in a traditional white robe.
On paper, reforms look to be kicking in: the World Bank’s 2015 Doing Business ranking showed Togo rose 15 places from last year to 149, one of the top 10 risers. This puts it well above regional heavyweight Nigeria and on a par with Ivory Coast and Benin, although neighbor Ghana remains far ahead.
Economic growth in Togo, 5.5 percent last year, is expected to rise towards 6 percent over the next two years.
Better security has lured some shipping away from Benin and Nigeria, whose shores are threatened by pirates, and in the capital, new roads, neat lines of lamp posts and mushrooming buildings are signs of investment. The road linking Togo to Ghana to the west and Benin to the east, is smooth and bustling.
Away from main arteries, however, roads are eaten up by potholes and residents sell food at stalls next to piles of rubbish. The World Bank says around 72 percent of people in Togo live off less than $2 per day.
Teachers and nurses demanding pay rises paralyzed public services ahead of April’s presidential election, while young people complain that spending has brought few jobs. A resurgent Ivory Coast, where port expansion is underway, looms as a rival.
“If you are a very small country, you have to have something to stand out,” said a diplomat based in the region. “Gnassingbe thinks he can do for Togo what (former prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew did for Singapore.”
“It is a long shot,” he added.
Despite a recent row over alleged mismanagement, Ecobank has become one of Africa’s biggest banks since it was set up in 1985 by Djondo and Adeyemi Lawson, a Nigerian who shared his vision.
It has around $24 billion in assets and reported $2.3 billion in net revenues last year, equivalent to more than half Togo’s estimated $4.3 billion 2013 GDP.
ASKY, meanwhile, operating in partnership with Ethiopian Airlines [ETHA.UL], launched in 2010 and now carries just under 10,000 passengers per week around the region and is looking to expand. Ivory Coast’s Air Cote d’Ivoire, ASKY’s main regional competitor, plans a similar number this year.
“You have to approach this regionally and play to your strengths. They are doing this,” a second diplomat said, referring to the Togolese government as well as Djondo.
“The airport will help. It will generate revenues and jobs. But Lome’s port is its ace card.”
Togo sees the port serving not only its own needs and those of landlocked Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso but also the rest of the Gulf of Guinea; at 15.5 meters deep, it has the capacity to berth ships carrying as many as 7,000 containers.
Last year, it opened a new container terminal, a joint venture between Terminal Investment Limited (TIL) and China Merchants Holdings International. Bollore is upgrading a separate terminal in Lome.
That means Lome is working towards a targeted capacity of 3 million containers per year by 2017, putting it at the head of a new wave of port expansions in the region. Ivory Coast’s Abidjan port and the Nigerian ports of Lekki and Badagry have similar plans, but they will take several years to implement.
The Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC), one of the biggest in the business, has started channeling all its trade from the Far East to West Africa through Lome, from where smaller vessels will take goods to other ports along the coast.
Drewry Maritime Research believes developments in Lome and nearby ports could dampen fast growth in transhipment hubs in the Western Mediterranean like Morocco’s Tanger Med.
The dozens of ships whose lights glitter at night in the seas off Lome are bringing fuel to Benin and Nigeria, drawn to Togo’s port by better transfer facilities and lower insurance premiums than in pirate-infested waters to the east.
“The Togolese run some pretty effective patrols, with good radar and some great boats that can go quite far out,” said an international security source, citing support from the United States.
Jessica Moody, an analyst at Protection Group International, said Lome had handled 58 more ships by mid-April than it did in all 2014.
Gnassingbe’s re-election in April lent heavily on these developments. Billboards showed a smiling president inside the new airport terminal or superimposed in front of new cranes.
In an effort to boost revenues and cut corruption, authorities have appointed a foreigner — a Rwandan-Canadian — to handle tax and customs revenues. But challenges remain.
Moody warned Lome port would likely face more theft and smuggling as traffic grew. Plans to connect Lome to a regional rail network now under construction may take years to complete.
Djondo says the lack of a railway for goods that come ashore is a major bottleneck: “We need to have the railways. We will not go anywhere with trucks.”
Post-election violence after Gnassingbe succeeded his father with military backing killed hundreds in 2005. His second term saw the large-scale infrastructure projects. Strikes underscore pressure to deliver social change in his third.
The World Bank said the new container terminal would help provide economies of scale and create more than 2,500 jobs.
This optimism is yet to reach the rows of wooden benches where young men, some asleep while others play chequers, wait for a slot on an eight hour shift to earn 2,500 CFA francs ($4.23) working in the port.
“We have seen people who retire after 35 years part time work. It is depressing,” said Yacynthe, a docker. “I see people going on the TV to talk about the port, but us dockers sit here with empty pockets. We don’t feel the investments on the ground.”
Additional reporting by John Zodzi and Noel Tadegnon; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Philippa Fletcher