As dusk falls on Addis Ababa, it is easy to spot the shadows of the giant cranes that are busy laying the rails for Ethiopia's ambitious light-rail transit system.
The $475 million project, being executed by China Railway Engineering Corp, will soon have Chinese-made trams ferrying passengers across the length and breadth of the Ethiopian capital.
The tramcar order won by China CNR Changchun Railway Vehicles, a division of China CNR Corp, in November, however, is much more than just the supply of 41 trams. It marks a major milestone in the shipping of products with real, embedded technology to Africa, sources say.
"It is a milestone for us as it gives us a breakthrough in the dynamic African market," says Liu Gang, general manager of the international division at CNR Changchun Railway.
According to Liu, the first batch of trams will be delivered in August for test operations of the light train system, which is scheduled to commence by the end of this year. "It is also our first major order from Africa," he says.
CNR Changchun is one of the two major tram manufacturers in China along with CSR. Both the companies were part of the erstwhile China National Railway Locomotive & Rolling Stock Industry Corp and created as separate entities in 2000.
The company started exporting trams in 1995 and now has clients spread across Australia, Brazil, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.
Liu says international trade was not that significant before 2004. "Until then, our overseas business was less than $500 million."
Last year the company bagged overseas orders worth $900 million and had exported more than 100 trams with an accumulated value of more than $4.5 billion.
"Africa contributed $100 million in the first year of our business on the continent," Liu says.
Talking about the tramcar order, Liu says, the first big order came from China Railway Engineering Corporation, the main contractor of the Addis Ababa light train project. The project, designed as a cross, with horizontal and vertical railway lines passing through Addis Ababa, is expected to reduce the serious traffic congestion in the city.
"It was an important order for us because it was also the first big order that we got from a Chinese construction company for an overseas project." The scope of the agreement covers not only the supply of tramcars but also includes maintenance services, he says.
The cooperation between the two Chinese companies goes back to the 1970s, when some of the locomotives built by CNR were used in the Tanzania Zambia Railway project.
At the same time, the Chinese company is also banking on winning more tramcar orders in Africa through direct bidding. The Ethiopian order, however, is a challenging task because it calls for trams that come with a lot of additional built-in features.
"Addis Ababa is located 2,400 meters above seas level so the carriages need to be able to withstand the harsh effects of ultra-violet rays. Moreover, Ethiopia has a long rainy season, which makes it imperative for the carriages to be extremely water and lightning proof," Liu says.
"We also have to do tests to make sure that these trams operate normally even during the worst flood days."
Wang Yi from the company's technology department says the technology used for the Ethiopia train project is different from that in China. "Here they are low-floor trams, which means the floor of the trams is about 0.33 meters above the ground, while the high-floor trams are about 1.1 meters," Wang says.
"By using low-floor trains, we can eliminate the need for platforms and also ensure that trains can travel side by side with buses. Such an approach will also significantly lower the overall project costs."
Most of the trams used around the world are low-floor, because they are cheaper and more convenient, Liu says. "The big drawback is that they carry fewer passengers than high-floor tramcars. So for crowded cities with dense populations, they are not suitable."
After the light train project is finished, CNR will keep 50 Chinese technicians in Addis Ababa to offer training and support services.
The Chinese company is also supplying 30 tramcars that will run on the new Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway line. The rail project is expected to connect the Ethiopian capital to its major port and spur economic activity. The existing line, built by the French in 1917, is no longer used and has been abandoned because of wear and tear.
The CRN order includes the supply of 20 hard-seat trams with designed speed of 120 km/h, eight sleeping trams and two dining cars.
The Ethiopian government recently announced that it plans to expand its railway network to 2,600 km, which translates into demand for 130 to 260 trams, the company says.
With an eye on future orders, the company has already teamed up with a local factory in Ethiopia, which used to make military products, to jointly develop trams.
"If there are suitable opportunities, we will consider setting up a unit that is solely funded by CNR," Liu says.
The company is also using the Ethiopia project as a spring-board to central and northern Africa. "Nigeria, Egypt, Algeria, Kenya and Tanzania are all major destinations for us," Liu says.
As a company that is closely related to infrastructure projects, CNR finds potential clients through two ways. It scouts for projects in African countries that are witnessing strong growth and are in need of large-scale infrastructure, such as Egypt and South Africa. It also looks to work as a sub-contractor for projects undertaken by Chinese construction companies in central African countries.
"We have to admit that we did not pay enough attention to Africa earlier," Liu says, adding that the company was focusing on Southeast Asia, the Middle East and South America.
"These regions have big populations, and the local economy is developed enough to trigger more demand for machinery and construction materials. It is also a good opportunity to establish our brand."
Now, the company has realized that establishing the brand name in Africa is equally important. "The drawbacks we mention, such as lack of technicians and local manufacturers, turn out to be big opportunities for us," Liu says. In fact, the multinationals have detected the opportunities as well.
"Hyundai Group, Alstom, Siemens AG, and Bombardier Inc have already got some physical presence, but not as deep as in other developed markets," Liu says. "Only when the market is primitive can we seize the opportunities before our traditional competitors do."