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Anything is possible

Joe Bates takes a closer look at ambitious plans to create Africa’s first airport city in Nigeria’s Niger state.

Nigerians are acutely aware that their country has a reputation as an often-unsafe place with underdeveloped infrastructure, and there is a growing desire from the country’s people to address the situation. The Federal Government’s ‘7-Point Agenda’ will certainly help matters, as it aims to transform Nigeria into one of the world’s top 20 economies by 2020 through a series of initiatives and reforms designed to decrease the country’s dependency on oil.

Aviation appears to have led the way so far in terms of new infrastructure, with Lagos-Murtala Muhammed International Airport’s new $250 million domestic terminal being the only Public Private Partnership (PPP) project to be successfully completed in Nigeria to date.

More are needed and nowhere is the determination stronger to create pioneering new infrastructure than Niger state, where the local government is seeking private investors to help create Africa’s first airport city.

Niger is the largest of Nigeria’s 36 states, but despite its size and population base – four million people live across a 77,000 square kilometre area – today’s Minna Airport is little more than a 3.4 kilometre long concrete runway.

However, if the governor of Niger state is successful, within six years Minna could be boasting a gateway capable of handling more than one million passengers yearly and form the heart of a fledgling airport city.

Sound like a tall order? Not according to Tunde Fagbemi, partner at Abuja-based Maevis, the Nigerian arm of UK company Cortis Capital LLP. Cortis Capital is the lead private partner working with the state government on the Minna Airport City (MAC) project.

“You only need to look at what has happened to Dubai over the last 30 years to see that almost anything is possible with the right vision and leadership,” says Fagbemi.

“Dubai was little more than desert 30 years ago, but now look at it. Through regeneration it has reinvented itself and is now one of the world’s leading centres for commerce and trade and a tourist destination in its own right. I firmly believe that we have the ability to do something similar in Niger state.”

The comparison with Dubai is also pertinent because Fagbemi admits that after years of depending on oil to bankroll the economy, Nigeria is looking to follow the UAE’s example and reinvent itself as a nation and place to do business.

His opinion is shared by secretary of state for Niger, Dr Muhammed Yahaya, who is determined to transform the region into a major centre for commerce and trade.

“Nigeria has been dependent on petroleum for too long and this has led to a precarious national economy for a number of years. It has also not translated into the social and economic development of the country as it should have done,” states Yahaya.

“It is time for change as a continued reliance on oil is not enough to take the country forward. The President wants each state to set up new economic zones to help transform the Nigerian economy and make us one of the world’s top 20 countries in the world for GDP by 2020, and Niger state is determined to lead the way.

“We believe that the Minna Airport City project will prove the catalyst for economic development across the state and the entire region. The project has been conceptualised, a masterplan developed, and potential investors and stakeholders across the world mobilised.

“It will become the main driving force of Nigeria’s socio-economic transformation after petroleum because the areas of investment being looked into include agriculture, an as yet under-developed industry where Nigeria, and Niger state in particular, have significant natural advantages over other countries.”

Niger state is working closely with Cortis Capital LLP and Maevis on the MAC project. On behalf of Niger state, Cortis Capital has appointed Sheppard Robson as architect and masterplanner to lead a design team that includes Arup and Davis Langdon.

The group are particularly impressed by the airport city plans of Dubai, Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW), Guangzhou Baiyun, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore Changi, and claim to have learnt a lot from fact finding visits to the latter two gateways.

Minna Airport is principally a general aviation airport today, although the 3.4 kilometre length of its runway means that it is capable of handling aircraft up to the size of the B747, which it actually does once a year during the Hajj pilgrimage.

Under plans on the drawing board, it is envisaged that the gateway will get a state-of-the-art one-kilometre long passenger terminal powered by wind-turbines and solar energy.

The terminal could boast its own hotel, tax-free shopping mall, theatre and MICE facilities that Fagbemi hopes will provide “a showcase for the entire African continent”.

Tim Evans, creative director of Sheppard Robson, says: “We are excited about the opportunity of working on such a complex and ground-breaking project and believe that the ability to create a 20-year outlook for the state, with clear short-term building opportunities focused around the airport itself, will help support the overall plan for Cortis Capital’s plan for an economic re-generation programme designed to help create a long-term sustainable shift for the entire country and to support the President’s plans for Nigeria in 2020.

“We are looking forward to using our skills and experience to help the governor achieve his vision for Niger state and Nigeria.” Other planned facilities include dedicated zones for light manufacturing, cargo buildings and a logistics centre that will specialise in the handling and export of the newly focused agri-business produce.

It is hoped that the logistics centre will encourage some of the world’s major fruit suppliers to begin growing produce in Nigeria to ensure that they are able to provide fresh produce year-round, due to the different seasons across the globe.

Around 80% of Niger state’s landmass is reported to be arable and the statistic is certainly beginning to win the attention of an increasing number of South African and Zimbabwean farmers.

Niger’s fertile soil means that it is currently the largest rice producing state in Nigeria and exports yams and other fruit across the globe.

Goods already being earmarked for light-manufacture at MAC include products and services in support of the ‘roll-back malaria’ campaign and high-value, low-volume items such as flatscreen TVs, mobile phones, PDAs and computers. In order to ensure that there is a sustainable manufacturing programme in place, it will be important to focus early on assembly rather than manufacturing, growing into full scale manufacturing once the capabilities have been transferred into the local population.

Yahaya believes that in addition to light manufacture and ‘agri-business’, Niger state’s very own airport city could become a centre for health services and real-estate development, ranging from office blocks to residential housing.

Without giving away any details, he also mentions proposals to create ‘leisure’ and ‘entertainment’ zones’ at MAC that are designed to transform the region into a tourist attraction in its own right.

Niger’s airport city plan is also like no other in existence, for if it comes to fruition, it could cover an incredible 1,700 square kilometre area that stretches almost all the way to the capital, Abuja.

Minna has its own deepwater port and Yahaya believes that the region’s multi-modal links – its road infrastructure is already among the best in Nigeria – and location just 117 kilometres from Abuja ensures that Minna has the potential to become a major aviation hub and Nigeria’s “one-stop shop for transportation”.

Graham Norton-Standen, managing partner of consultants and developers Cortis Capital, is confident that MAC will show the world that Nigeria is “a good country to do business with”.

“If we can prove that Nigeria is changing, and changing for the better, I firmly believe in the old adage that if we build it, they will come,” says Norton-Standen, who is quick to point out that Nigeria has enjoyed a stable democracy for more than a decade.

“Nobody questions the location of iconic buildings in Dubai, Malaysia, Shanghai and even Beijing anymore because of the perception of these cities as dynamic destinations. We need to change people’s perceptions of Nigeria, and building MAC and creating a safe and secure environment where international companies are happy to do business, will be a huge step forward.”

Yahaya insists that it is too early to categorically state how much MAC will cost to build, but claims that the state will do all that it can to fund its development through making land available, tax breaks and other investor incentives.

Niger state and MAC partners Cortis Capital LLP with Maevis are already in discussions with The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and African Development Bank about helping fund the project.

They also admit to talking to a number of key investors that already have interests in China and India and, closer to home, have been in touch with potential Nigerian investors.

Norton-Standen believes that having well known international names such as Arup and Sheppard Robson associated with the project from the outset will help ensure that by applying international standards around design, corporate governance and execution it will strengthen the opportunity of finding and gaining commitment from the various investment groups involved.

“There’s a lot of interest in MAC but these are early days in what is essentially a long-term project, so we do not expect too many companies to make big commitments now, especially in today’s economic climate,” comments Norton-Standen. “However, it will be a different story a few years down the line when they will be able to see what we have done.”

Having said that, Norton-Standen does actually believe that the global economic downturn will work in Nigeria’s favour by making it more appealing to foreign investors.

“Companies are looking for new markets to locate manufacturing plants and businesses to save money and find new sources of materials and good quality labour. Why can’t that new market be Nigeria?” he muses. “Nigeria after all has a large, educated workforce and its labour costs are comparable or cheaper than China and India.”

His optimism for the future certainly appears to be shared by Goldman Sachs, which has identified Nigeria as one of the ‘next generation’ of countries most likely to follow in the footsteps of BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) in terms of experiencing rapid economic development.

“MAC is essentially a transformation and regeneration programme focused around education,” says Norton-Standen. “The first phase of which will be completed in six years time. It will be followed by a 10-year development programme and a third phase beyond 2025.

“Working to such a timeframe gives us the opportunity to set some basic expectations for not only ourselves but the local community and potential investors coming on board. It is a hugely ambitious project that will have a positive impact on Niger state, Nigeria and the whole of Africa if we get it right.”

In a country that owes much of its wealth to oil, the backers of the Minna Airport City project are absolutely insistent that this is no pipe dream. Nigerians everywhere will be hoping that they are right.

Airport World 2009 - Issue5

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