A Tribute to Process: The Port of Cotonou

The Port of Cotonou is often described as the lungs of Benin: It breathes in revenue that gives life to Benin’s economy. In fact, 50 percent of Benin’s state income and 85 percent of all customs income originates there.

The port is also a gateway to landlocked West African countries. Ninety percent of all imports arrive through the port, with approximately 54 percent of them destined for hinterland countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. However, high shipping costs, low efficiency, and poor logistical facilities have limited the Port of Cotonou from becoming an even more important trade route, affecting its competitiveness as a springboard to neighboring countries. In 2006, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Government of Benin, in recognition that an efficient port is a driver of GDP growth, embarked on an investment program of $188 million in port improvements. This $188 million project is part of Benin’s $307 million MCC compact.

I was in Benin two weeks ago visiting the port, and was impressed by the size and magnitude of this MCC/MCA-Benin project. To design and implement major infrastructure improvements and tackle institutional reform in Benin’s only port – within MCC’s five-year timeline – is a significant undertaking.

As the project concludes, port improvements will surely be visible, but all the sweat, tears, and hard work behind it may be forgotten.  This is my tribute to process: a behind-the-scenes look at the Port of Cotonou. 


  • According to independent reports from the International Finance Corporation, around 450 people were employed for port reconstruction over the last two years.• 360,000 tons of rocks were hauled in to extend the jetty, a structure used to prevent the build-up of sediment in the port, by 300 meters.  This barrier significantly reduces the amount of sand in the port entrance channel area, reducing maintenance costs for dredging of the port. Construction was completed in December 2010, six months ahead of schedule. 
  • The railway from Cotonou to Parakou, which had been non-functional for six years, was put back to work bringing rocks for construction to the port. This required approximately 30 trips. 
  • Most of the rocks were supplied by truck. Approximately 100 to 120 trucks per day were loaded with rocks, each weighing one to three tons, and made the 150-kilometer trip from the quarry to the port.
  • Three teams of trained divers were brought in to install scour protection at the base of the new quay wall. This protects the sea floor from forming destabilizing holes and ensures that more boats can continue using the port.
  • One and half months of construction took place underwater.
  • Rigorous safety protocols and environmental safeguards were in place—several months of staff time were dedicated to providing educational briefings about construction safety hazards and HIV/AIDS awareness. 
  • Approximately 150,000 tons of concrete were used to build the three-foot-thick quay walls, parking areas, and over five kilometers of roads, including a three-kilometer road around the port.
  • In coordination with the MCC/MCA-Benin project, the Government of Benin successfully negotiated a concession agreement with the French company Bolloré, who will manage a new container terminal at the port’s new quay for 25 years after the compact ends. The agreement includes $200 million in concession fees during the first eight years of operation, and investment in operating equipment and civil works of $256 million over the life of the concession.
  • Dredging the port is almost complete. This project will increase the depth of the port basin from 12 meters to 15 meters, allowing up to 250-meter-long container vessels access to the new quay berth. Bigger boats mean more containers per boat, increasing volume of imports and exports.

MCC always operates with the bottom line in mind: How does this port contribute to economic growth? The answer is that a more efficient, higher capacity, and safer port reduces ships’ waiting time at anchor, waiting time at berth, and customs clearance times, which reduces shipping costs. For imports, this reduces the cost of goods to Benin and its neighbors. For exports, the reduction in shipping costs and time makes Benin – and its neighbors using the port -- more competitive and spurs their growth.

According to Henning Stehli, the port advisor hired by MCA-Benin, approximately 50,000 people earn a living off the port, both directly and indirectly. A few examples include fishermen, truckers, longshoremen, those buying and selling goods, and those involved in insurance and security. For instance, the dockers tend to be responsible not only for their immediate families but also those who live with them: children, parents, siblings, and extended families. Each docker’s income maintains a household of an average of 10 people. Even being conservative with figures, Henning sees at least half a million Beninese depending on the port for survival on a daily basis.
Henning sums it up nicely: “The MCC gift came to the right place... It is having and will have a great impact. However, excellent management is needed – the Government of Benin must gift its people back by making sure they take care and make good use of this investment.”