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West Africa Rising: Can big infrastructure projects help Sierra Leone lure investors?

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West Africa Rising is a weekly look at business, investment, and development trends.

In a bid to lure investors to this poor but growing West African nation, the president of Sierra Leone has vowed to rehabilitate one of the country’s greatest economic weaknesses: its flimsy infrastructure.

At an investment conference in the capital city of Freetown last week, President Ernest Bai Koroma described his hopes to build a massive new bridge, new airport, and new city in Lungi, a sleepy village that’s separated from Freetown by a nine-mile-wide bay.

Sierra Leone’s only international airport – an aging structure that includes the country’s lone paved runway – is already located in Lungi. But to get there from the capital, visitors must travel either by boat or helicopter. To go by car involves a bumpy ride of four or five hours.

“This country must no longer allow the state of our airport to deter investors and visitors,” Mr. Koroma told an investors conference in Freetown last week. “We must no longer allow ourselves to be offering apologies to our visitors for the difficult time they have crossing over from Lungi.”

Off-the-cuff estimates of the cost of such a mammoth project range from $900 million to $5 billion, but no one knows for sure. Koroma told the conference on Thursday that “a number of conglomerates” had expressed interest in the investment, but so far no contracts have been signed.

“It’s all pretty speculative,” says one diplomatic official, who notes that there have long been separate rumors that the government would abandon the airport in Lungi and build one in Hastings, which is on the Freetown side of the bay. “For now it’s all talk, but we’ll see what happens,” he says.

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