France's Bollore Group has submitted an offer to develop Gambia's main port as part of a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars, three sources familiar with the matter said, as competition for contracts heats up after a change in government.
Foreign investors are vying for business in riverine Gambia, which has a population of just 2 million and a GDP of around $900 million, following 22 years of autocratic rule.
Yahya Jammeh was eventually driven into exile from the West African country through a combination of pleas and military threats after losing an election.
The Banjul port at the mouth of the Gambia River -- a key transport lane for shipping peanuts -- has been run for decades by a government agency.
Industry sources say activities were limited by the port's size and the heavy involvement of the army.
But they say trade has the potential to boom, given its proximity to a major Atlantic sea lane and improved relations with neighbouring Senegal, which surrounds it on three sides.
Senegal is also working with its neighbour to complete a long-awaited bridge that will help link Dakar and Lagos via a coastal road.
French billionaire Vincent Bollore's firm, which already has a sprawling African business empire, signalled its interest in the project shortly after President Adama Barrow was sworn in in February and was part of a French investment delegation in May, according to the industry, banking and diplomatic sources who asked not to be named as talks continue.
One of them said Bollore planned to invest more than $200 million in the port concession, although two other sources say there are in discussions with partners to boost the total Gambian investment package to around $1 billion.
It was not clear what the larger investment package would include and the sources stressed that it was not finalised.
Bollore declined to give an official comment.
The African Export-Import Bank is also considering offering financing for the upgrade and expansion of ports in Gambia and related logistics infrastructure, although it could not be established that this was linked to the Bollore offer.
Yankuba Saidy, permanent secretary for investments at the president's office, told Reuters that Gambia had received "lots" of offers for the port, including from Bollore, and that a partner had not yet been chosen.
Bollore's subsidiary, Bollore Africa Logistics, operates container ports in more than a dozen African countries, including a roll-on, roll-off terminal in Dakar which, like Banjul, affords access to landlocked Mali and Burkina Faso.
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(By Emma Farge and Mathieu Rosemain; Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris)