Bank of African Togo Lome
By David Lewis
LOME (Reuters) - The scale of Togo's ambition is clear as you fly into the capital, Lome.
Rising above a sandy coastline just 90 miles (145 km) long, is the giant, glass-fronted headquarters of Ecobank, expanding out of the nation of seven million across a continent of more than a billion.
Nearby, rows of cranes soar into the sky above containers stacked in the region's deepest port, a would-be transhipment hub for the world's largest vessels.
At the airport, workers are finishing a glistening terminal to ease overcrowding as fast-growing Togolese airline ASKY ferries passengers across West and Central Africa.
President Faure Gnassingbe, scion of a dynasty that has ruled Togo for nearly half a century, is modelling his country on Singapore or Dubai. Its progress goes beyond the superficial, but there is much further to go and regional competition is stiff.
For Gervais Djondo, the 81-year-old founder of both Ecobank and ASKY, business-friendly infrastructure and services are the key to transcending west Africa's patchwork of colonial-era borders.
"Pan Africanism and integration starts with people moving, " Djondo said in the garden of his home in Djondo Kope, a village built by, and named after, him near the Benin border.
"If we want to make business...we have to create the appropriate means to make things move, " he told Reuters, sipping coconut juice and dressed in a traditional white robe.
On paper, reforms look to be kicking in: the World Bank's 2015 Doing Business ranking showed Togo rose 15 places from last year to 149, one of the top 10 risers. This puts it well above regional heavyweight Nigeria and on a par with Ivory Coast and Benin, although neighbour Ghana remains far ahead.
Economic growth in Togo, 5.5 percent last year, is expected to rise towards 6 percent over the next two years.
Better security has lured some shipping away from Benin and Nigeria, whose shores are threatened by pirates, and in the capital, new roads, neat lines of lamp posts and mushrooming buildings are signs of investment. The road linking Togo to Ghana to the west and Benin to the east, is smooth and bustling.
Away from main arteries, however, roads are eaten up by potholes and residents sell food at stalls next to piles of rubbish. The World Bank says around 72 percent of people in Togo live off less than $2 per day.
Teachers and nurses demanding pay rises paralysed public services ahead of April's presidential election, while young people complain that spending has brought few jobs. A resurgent Ivory Coast, where port expansion is underway, looms as a rival.
"If you are a very small country, you have to have something to stand out, " said a diplomat based in the region. "Gnassingbe thinks he can do for Togo what (former prime minister) Lee Kuan Yew did for Singapore."
"It is a long shot, " he added.
PORT IS THE "ACE CARD"
Despite a recent row over alleged mismanagement, Ecobank has become one of Africa's biggest banks since it was set up in 1985 by Djondo and Adeyemi Lawson, a Nigerian who shared his vision.