Seeing Abidjan with Freetown eyes

I’ve written a couple of blog posts in the past comparing Abidjan and Freetown (post1, post2). Travelling between two such cities would be an effective antidote for anyone who thinks you can treat African countries and cities as being basically the same. For a start, the respective countries, near neighbours, are at the extreme ends of global economic growth in 2015.

Let me pick out a few further observations that occurred to me on last month’s trip:

  • You immediately notice that Ivorians just love to eat out, and there are so many possibilities to do so. I don’t know whether it’s the result of having a significant middle class, or a difference of culture (or a mix of the two) but as you drive through the streets, there is an abundance of options to eat out. In the space of a hundred metres in most parts of the city you’ll have a few maquis options with grilled food, single item sellers like chokuya, meat skewers, grilled bananas, French stick sandwiches, (itinerant) coffee, alloco, kiosks, African donuts, etc. This is on top of the variety of regular restaurants. It’s no surprise to see the runway success of the annual Festival des Grillades (Festival of Grilled food), and its numerous copy-cats. In Freetown, it took me several months to work out where I could buy prepared food in the city.
  • While not wanting to over-emphasize the new sense of prosperity (Plateau’s skyline for instance has yet to register a significant new building, aside perhaps from the new Ecobank office), you can really see that the place is on the up. From overseas, we read about the major infrastructure developments, but driving around the city, you notice the lower-scale investments where businesses and people are investing. New branches of banks and insurance companies, new malls and apartment blocks. I was also struck how institutions of one type or the other almost all look cleaned up and functional. In Freetown, you don’t see this sort of public or private investment.
  • In the last week or so, the Sierra Leone government has announced a range of emergency measures to cut government expenditure. Reading the 2017 government budget (worth around $11bn) couldn’t give more of a contrast – indicators are up across the board, infrastructure projects (new roads, bridges, schools, universities) and tax reductions. In fact in September, the Ivorian government made a slight positive adjustment to the 2016 budget for which the adjustment was about the same value as the entire annual budget in Sierra Leone. The latter has a budget at 5% of the former although the population is a quarter.
  • Freetown is a naturally beautiful city, with multiple vistas across the hills, bay and the ocean. Abidjan is in the main not an especially attractive city. The pollution levels in particular felt extremely high – and as far as I could see the worst culprits were the public buses. Improvements are on the way though. The investment plans for Cocody bay should create an impressive postcard scene that puts a glitz marina in front of the already impressive view across the bay to the cathedral and the towers of Plateau. It’s a big project, and you can already see the work progressing on phase one. The 2017 budget dedicates around $50m to the project – no small amount for a prestige scheme in a country with continuing high levels of poverty. But it will add a visual reinforcement of the ‘growth miracle’ narrative.
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