Eye on West Africa

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There’s a lot going on out there these days. By out there, I mean outside of the big cities.

The likes of Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire), Accra (Ghana), Lagos and Abuja (Nigeria) are the cities that come up regularly when discussing West Africa. Those unfamiliar with the region often won’t be able to name any other cities in these countries, because names like Ikot Ekpene and Tamale don’t often crop up in conversation!

These big cities, often the capitals of their countries, will continue to be the main focus of attention. These are places where the action is, the places where visitors enter the county, the places where business deals are signed, where infrastructure is at its best. With huge divergence between regions and urban conurbations, a major city isn’t always a true reflection of the country as a whole. In the same way that you cannot generalise about Africa, with its 54 countries, so you cannot generalise about a country like Nigeria, or Ghana.

In these two countries, there is a growing interest from serious developers, as well as regional and international chains, to have a presence in the secondary cities. Nigeria’s three biggest cities are Lagos, the commercial capital of the country; Abuja the political capital; and Port Harcourt the oil capital. But when you think that the country is a federation of 36 states plus the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), so really 37 in all, these three cities represent a very small portion of the country.

Already, several of these state capitals and other major cities have internationally-branded hotels, with Best Western, Swiss International and Protea leading the way. Golden Tulip recently opened in Warri, and Park Inn is due to open soon in Abeokuta, a complete renovation of the former Gateway hotel. A Four Points by Sheraton is under construction in Ikot Ekpene, one of the oil cities in the south east. Protea has a presence in Benin City and Warri.

Over in Ghana, the former Atlantic Hotel in Takoradi is now the Best Western Plus Atlantic, and the chain is said to be moving into Tamale soon. Golden Tulip has a hotel in Kumasi, the former City Hotel.

Conversely, there are several small countries, such as Benin, Togo, Guinea Bissau, which have few, if any, major cities outside of their capitals. No wonder the major chains are focusing so much of their effort on Nigeria.

Cameroon has been slow to adopt international brands – Hilton in Yaoundé, and Ibis and Meridien in Douala are all quite old hotels, but Best Western is talking about a deal in multiple cities throughout the country, including Kribi and Limbe.

Not all secondary cities are suitable for hotel development, though. Prerequisites for raising interest in an area are a growing economy, good air and/or road access, and an environment conducive to private sector investment and operations. The trouble is, this information for many of the cities and towns in Africa is lacking, so it’s hard to accurately assess a location’s suitability. Whilst this lack of information may be an indicator that there is little opportunity, it’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion. I’m a firm believer that a modern, well-managed, well-presented and well-located hotel product, with facilities for the MICE sector, can create demand – if you build it, they will come. 

The main opportunities in these less popular areas are for mid-market and budget hotels, typically with a maximum of 150 rooms, which can cater to three main markets – business visitors and residential conferences during the week, weekend leisure traffic, and social events. There are several cities in Nigeria which have ‘reverse seasonality’, enjoying their highest occupancies and average daily rates on weekends when the locals return home. But however high the demand, there’s always a cap on what people are prepared to pay for hotel accommodation, and you just cannot charge as much in Ikot or Ibadan as you can in Libreville or Lagos.

Those from the UK or South Africa have long enjoyed finding a branded, good quality hotel when travelling. Increasingly, visitors to West Africa will hopefully soon enjoy the same.