Turkish builders thrive in Africa

SELIM BORA had quite a run. In March, his company, Summa, won a contract to rebuild and operate Guinea-Bissau’s new international airport. A few months earlier, he had completed a 50,000-seat national stadium in Senegal, after less than 18 months of work, a sprint pace for such projects. The company’s resume also includes convention centers in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Equatorial Guinea, a sports arena in Rwanda and airports in Niger, Senegal and Sierra Leone. “Ten years ago we had no projects in Africa outside of Libya,” Bora recalls, admiring the view from his office in Istanbul. “Today, 99% of our work is done in Africa. »

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The Turkish construction industry is an international heavyweight. Of the top 250 global entrepreneurs, 40 are Turkish, behind only China and America. Many have long had a large footprint in North Africa. Lately, they have started making inroads into the south of the continent. Last year alone, the value of projects undertaken by Turkish builders in sub-Saharan Africa amounted to $5 billion, or 17% of all Turkish construction projects abroad, compared to a meager 0.3% before 2008. The region has overtaken Europe (10%) and the Middle East (13%) and is only second after the countries of the former Soviet Union. In parts of Africa, the Turks are even giving a hard time to Chinese builders, who continue to dominate construction in Africa.

Many Turkish construction companies made their African debut in Libya in the 2000s, where they blocked billions of dollars in contracts. The overthrow of the country’s dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, in 2011 and the ensuing civil war forced them to flee. They found new opportunities south of the Sahara, where their reputations regularly preceded them: many African leaders who had visited Libya and admired Turkish projects there were eager to work with the companies responsible for them.

Part of the aid for Turkish projects comes from the Turkish Export Credit Bank and official lenders from Japan. Both countries are, for their own strategic reasons, keen to control Chinese interests in Africa. Still, the Turks admit they can rarely compete with Chinese rivals on price. “We cannot compete with the Chinese, because they come with their own financing and we have to go to the markets,” says Basar Arioglu, chairman of Yapi Merkezi, another major construction company.

Turkish firms therefore place more emphasis on other selling points. They tend to work faster than their Chinese rivals and offer higher quality. After completing a major railway project in Ethiopia a few years ago, Yapi Merkezi more recently outstripped Chinese rivals to build the first section of a Tanzanian railway linking Dar es Salaam to Lake Victoria. In December, he signed a $1.9 billion deal to build the third section.

The Turks are also happy to comply with demands from African governments to hire local contractors and workers, which the Chinese have been more reluctant to do. Much of this comes down to making a virtue of necessity: while Chinese companies can afford to bring their own skilled workers, including engineers, to Africa, Turkish companies often cannot. Since Turkey lacks China’s resources to be everywhere at once, Arioglu observes, “the only way to survive in the long term is to go local in all the countries we work in.” When Summa started working in Senegal in the 2010s, its workforce was 70% Turkish, Bora recalls. This figure has now fallen to 30%.

Some Africans still complain about the Turkish presence in their country. Like the Chinese, “they come and go,” grumbles a manager, creating only temporary jobs. Another complains that the Turks (and other newcomers) are investing in construction, mining and ports rather than further up the value chain, which would do more for the wider economic development of the country. Africa. And they could launch more joint ventures with African companies.

These reproaches are, however, counterbalanced by a final consideration that is increasingly valued by African governments. “We came at a lucky time,” Mr. Arioglu recalls, “when Ethiopia and Tanzania were looking for alternatives to Chinese companies.” As more sub-Saharan countries follow suit, being non-Chinese is a Turkish trait that Chinese automakers cannot match.

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