Abisola OwolawiBy Abisola Owolawi|February 2, 2021|19 Minutes|In Entrepreneur

Entrepreneur

Dubai in Nigeria – a brash new city being eased from the sea.

Ronald Chagoury Jr is working hard on a brave new project that could see a Dubai-style business on the waterfront in Lagos.

Silhouetted against a new, brash, Lagos skyline, off Victoria Island’s racing pulse, are a pair of new lofty condominium-style towers that make architectural nods to post- modernism and neo-futurism.

As part of a multi-billion dollar project that aims to transform one of Africa’s busiest commercial cities into a new economic capital and financial powerhouse, these stylish towers represent a mere microcosm of a wider blueprint.

From his vantage point, fringed by the Atlantic ocean to the south, Ronald Chagoury Jr, knows this blueprint well and can pick out the progress of the pillars of his colossal project, The ‘Eko Atlantic’ city.

As Vice Chairman of Eko Atlantic and South Energyx- the project’s planners and designers, rising towers signal the genesis of a visionary move to embark on one of the continent’s largest infrastructural projects.

An ambitious proposal it may have appeared, to build a brand new city on land clawed back from the ocean floor but Chagoury Jr is no novice in the murky waters of enterprise in Nigeria. South Energyx is a subsidiary of the Chagoury Group, a multinational business conglomerate with activity across multiple industries including manufacturing, construction, hospitality, telecommunications, transportation and international financing amongst others.

Starting out in the milling space with the production of flour and maize in the early 1970s, The Chagoury Group has over time, spread aggressively across the Nigerian market.

Decades later, founding partners, Gilbert and Ronald Chagoury Sir, two Nigerian-born industrialists of Lebanese descent have built a mammoth financial empire.

“Our core country of focus has been Nigeria”, Chagoury Jr says as we settle down for a chat at the Eko Pearl Towers on the emerging city’s site. A strong belief in the potential of the country has always been engrained in driving the group’s vision. We have gone through a lot of ups and downs throughout the history of the group. We have seen boom times, we have seen recessions but ultimately, we have also seen significant progress and today personally, I see immense potential in Nigeria.”

The grand vision for the Eko Atlantic city was born of a need to save Victoria Island – the commercial nerve centre of Lagos -from centuries of battering by the rising ocean.

“We thought of how it could possibly be a private investment that would relieve the financial pressure of such an issue on the government. We also thought of how we could turn the city into a financial centre for the region and ultimately, the continent”. Chagoury Jr says.

Citing the demographics, population size, growth rate and different income segments, the group knew the time was now. A growing middle-income group coupled with a growing population, meant great investment potential which led to a project proposal submission to the the Lagos State government to reclaim land from the Sea, which would, in turn, put a stop to the onslaught of coastal erosion.

To salve Lagos’ deepest recession in 30 years, the project also proposed a plan to create thousands of jobs and address a housing shortage in the face of a surging population.

According to recent U.N reports, Nigeria’s population is projected to cross the two hundred million mark by 2021 with great potential to double this size by 2050.

A seventeen million housing deficit, exacerbated by thin mortgage finance allowances, plagues the country. In Nigeria, the mortgage on the market represents about 0.8% of the country’s GDP in comparison to South Africa’s at about 25% of its GDP.  More government programmes alongside financial institution reviews are tackling the mortgage crisis today.

So, what is on offer? Nigeria’s most sustainable energy-efficient city and Africa’s largest marine engineering project spearheaded by industry behemoth, Royal Haskoning, spread across approximately 10 million square metres of reclaimed land that will combine commercial, residential, financial and touristic accommodations while also serving as a bulwark in the fight against the impacts of climate change at no cost to the taxpayers of Lagos.

“We worked very closely with the Lagos State government and it also became a free zone- a Federal government initiative which helped to enhance the idea of attracting businesses to Nigeria” Chagoury says.

The proposed solution called for the erection of what would become the project’s most challenging phase: ‘The Great Wall of Lagos’ – an 8-kilometre revetment to protect the Eko Atlantic city and low-lying Lagos from the force of the Atlantic Ocean.

The design and testing of a seawall, which could withstand the worst storms in a thousand years, was thus, tested to this effect.

It all began in July 2006.A concession agreement was signed between the Lagos State government and South Energyx Nigeria concretising what would represent one of the country’s biggest Public-private partnerships.  Commencement on The Great Wall of Lagos could begin.

Testing for the planned seawall ended in early 2009 and construction began shortly afterwards. Now about 9 metres above sea level, about 3 stories high, most of the great wall lies on the seabed between 7 and 11 metres under water.

As the great wall rose, so did resistance from some residents who questioned its long-term coastal erosion efficacy fearing adverse effects to wider parts of Lagos.

But in response to this, an international team of highly skilled coastal and marine engineers working with the Danish Hydraulic Institute in Copenhagen see zero cause for alarm citing a collection of huge amounts of data that form the basis for computer-generated and physical models showing nature’s interaction with harbour and coastal reclamation projects.

“2D tests were carried out to find out the most suitable cross section as different revetment cross sections were subjected to waves with significant heights of between 1 and 4 metres. Such wave conditions occur on anything from a monthly basis to once every hundred years. With this information, the team could start constructing the city’s revetment on a scale of 1 to 45. In the final test, the completed revetment survives the type of waves that only occur every hundred years without any sign of damage proving that the Eko Atlantic revetment is a completely safe structure and not even the type of storm we only see once every hundred years can affect the construction” says Fleming Schlutter, who handled physical models at DHI.

On initial challenges of erecting the wall, Chagoury recalls some turbulence “It was very rough fighting the Atlantic Ocean and often the very heavy equipment we had would be taken by the ocean. That was an initial technical bottleneck but we had to find a lot of in-house solutions to be able to deal with this”.

The project is well underway and Chagoury Jr couldn’t see it in better hands.

What we are doing may seem big but we are not building just for today. We are thinking 20, 40 years ahead  Today is the right time to set foothold in Africa and Nigeria because once the country starts roaring forward again, and it will, it will be much harder to play catch up.

“One of our core businesses is infrastructure and we have grown big in this space. The gap in Africa’s infrastructural needs is so big that the potential for players is huge and will possibly be one of the biggest job generators on the continent over the next few decades.

We have been operating here for decades and understand the environment. So, patience and long-term thinking is necessary for high returns. Nigeria is a long-play and by investing on the long-term, we are able to see those kinds of returns. We have seen a few players come in for short-term play and they don’t tend to reap the benefits as much as medium to long-term players in this market”.

On job creation, knowledge transfer and human capital, Chagoury’s enthusiasm is almost palpable citing quality as the group’s first call.

“We operate on a very high standard environment in terms of the quality of our hospitality and construction work. Beyond professional qualifications, we also invest heavily in-house educational trainings across our different companies and that is a very big play too” he says.

In order to streamline a lot of the project’s operations, importation is limited as a bulk of the materials are produced locally.

While we are still a few years away from finishing all the infrastructural work and finalising the reclamation of the land, the city is already operational. We have our first residents; first offices (Alpha One Tower) and even our first restaurant with a few more under plan presently. There are about 20 buildings on the planning, design and financing phase from clients who bought land to build on.”

From stunning waterfront apartments, a scenic ocean promenade, an expansive marina district set to become a major tourism attraction and a world-class business district amongst other attractions, the blueprint passes the litmus test for pedantic urban city planning.

While many liken the emerging city to the “Dubai or Hong Kong of Lagos”, Chagoury Jr prefers to see it as the best of all worlds.

“People say the Miami, Dubai or Singapore of Lagos. We would ideally want others in future, to refer to their overseas projects as the Eko Atlantic ‘of wherever they are”. 

But as the city’s construction ramps up, is it likely that the Eko Atlantic city will make a big enough dent in Nigeria’s housing shortage given the socio-economic realities of locals?

In Cairo, real estate developer, Memmar Al Morshedy’s megaproject, ‘Skyline’, is building the world’s biggest residential building by Guinness world record standards with more than 13,500 apartments. Pea-sized in relation to the Eko Atlantic’s overall project scale, the ‘Skyline’s price-points will cater specifically to middle income and upper middle income households.

In dense Lagos, Africa’s largest city, existing alongside the super and nouveau rich, is a declining employment rate with millions working in a vast, desperate informal economy and these are hardly those that will scoop up square footage in Eko Atlantic’s new high-rises.

Chagoury’s response is unequivocal.

“With the intent of it being a financial centre, we look at corporates and believe that it is going to be mainly a middle – income market in terms of residents. There will be luxury elements in the city, which we welcome but the big chunk of our market will be the growing middle-income group over the next 10-15 years. The numbers are there, that’s where the demand is and it is up to developers as well, to come up with solutions for that. If a developer chooses to go for a luxury apartment building, then that is the price point but if we start re-designing buildings to cater towards more competitively priced apartments, for example, then suddenly, it opens significantly, the segment of the market.”

The project’s target market also includes the overseas market and diasporans looking to relocate home or seeking investment opportunities.

“We have done land sales and are working with various financial institutions in Nigeria and overseas. It has been a significant investment and there is still some room to go in terms of capital expenditure for the project”

On the project’s completion date, 6.5 million square metres of land has been reclaimed with another 3.5 million square meters to go.

Most of the infrastructure on the first 5 million square metres is complete. To complete the other 5 million square metres in terms of infrastructure and reclamation, we are aiming for 2024 but that being said, we do not specify this as a final date as it is largely dependent on a lot of factors. We are also quite happy with our pace and progress as it is. In the meantime, life has started in the city. Says Chagoury Jr.

One of Ronald Jr ‘s biggest thrill from the project is its smart city concept citing the use of technology, energy efficiency and environmentally friendly solutions for city planning.

An aerial view of the city’s landscape reveals a circular design outline using roundabouts as well as concrete LED powered streetlights, which speak to CO2 emission efficiency accomodations.

“Exploring the impact of blockchain and artificial intelligence and seeing what effect they will have on city building on the long-term is really exciting for me. I believe Nigeria is on the verge of a very interesting shift in terms of growth. We are seeing a lot of sophistication in the market and which has increased over the last 10 years and that is great because it means that we are seeing a broader range of potential clients now, we are now seeing a lot more overseas interest in terms of clientele, investment and development”.

On the horizon, Ronald Jr sees huge potential in terms of environmental technology and solutions that could accelerate leapfrogging into renewable energy.

“What we are doing may seem big but we are not building just for today. We are thinking 20, 40 years ahead”.

On doing business globally, Ronald Jr is largely optimistic.

“We are seeing a lot of strong renewed interest.  There is the geographical ease and global players could understand both the potential and challenges that come with this market. Today is the right time to set foothold in Africa and Nigeria because once the country starts roaring forward again, and it will, it will be much harder to play catch up”.