Projects pipeline ready for big pitch
Kgosientso Ramokgopa, the head of infrastructure and investment in President Cyril Ramaphosa's office, says the Sustainable Infrastructure Development Symposium that Ramaphosa will launch on Tuesday will not be another talk shop leading nowhere.A pipeline of 92 bankable infrastructure projects will be pitched to private sector funders, who have been involved in the process earlier and more closely than ever before."We have not invited all and sundry, only the project sponsors, commercial banks and funding institutions who won't be seeing them for the first time," says Ramokgopa."So we're expecting firm commitments." Though only 92 projects will be pitched at the symposium, there are 272 bankable projects for the private sector to choose from.Previous government infrastructure initiatives have failed because of a dearth of investible projects, he says.A civil engineer by training, a former mayor of Tshwane and one-time Gauteng MEC for economic development, Ramokgopa has been addressing this since he was appointed to head the infrastructure and investment office in November 2019.He says his office is driven by an acute realisation that public infrastructure development is critical to any chance of economic revival, and that full-on engagement with the private sector is non-negotiable.His brief from the president was to put together a project pipeline "that must seek to crowd in private sector investment". He decided the only way to do this was to bring the private sector in at ground level and involve it in every step of the process."We found confirmation of anecdotal evidence that the financial and technical engineering capacity of the state to do project preparation had been decimated, and the state was in no position to produce a coherent, credible and robust project pipeline."For us to produce something in the shortest possible time we needed to engage with the private sector. They know how to prepare projects for bankability and take them to the debt capital market."He began meeting with multilateral development banks, commercial banks and company CEOs, who made it clear that without a credible project pipeline there would be no meaningful private sector buy-in."I was told the private sector thrives on the existence of a credible project pipeline. If it is state-led, coherent and supports a developmental objective, then that's a bonus for them to support it."They made resources available and identified experts in various sectors. After examining their CVs "we chose who was right to help us with project preparation in the sectors we agreed to prioritise". These are in the network industries of water, energy, transport and information & communications technology, chosen because of their multiplier effect and employment absorption capacity.Agriculture was added "because we think the agriculture economy remains untapped. There is huge unrealised potential given that a significant proportion of provinces are rural and agriculture-based."And human settlements."Low-income housing relies on the fiscus alone. We think it can work with the private sector if properly incentivised. It can be of better quality without undermining the commercial case for private development."Technical working groups in the chosen sectors have "mined" projects from state-owned enterprises (SOE) and local government that have a cost-recovery component, a revenue stream attractive to the private sector and are close to financial closure."They've been working with experts from the private sector to analyse these projects, who know what funding institutions are looking for, and to get them to bankability."In May his office had "pitching sessions". "We took 92 projects we were confident about and had 60 funding institutions, including all the commercial banks, present, as well as local fund managers from SA and overseas. We produced a project prospectus with help from the private sector, and showcased the projects and their areas of interest for potential funders."This process is now "institutionalised" so it won't just be a one-off, he says.It provides a "platform" for the government to work with the private sector on project preparation and packaging, while improving its own in-house skills with help from the private sector.The cabinet now says the same methodology must be used to package social infrastructure projects such as National Health Insurance, says Ramokgopa."The department of health wants a very aggressive build programme for health infrastructure, such as hospitals on the build, operate, transfer model."Meanwhile, the regulatory hurdles and bottlenecks that have been undermining private sector involvement remain a big problem."Until we resolve them it is unlikely we'll realise the full investment potential of infrastructure development projects for the country," he says."We are collating a set of proposals for cabinet on how to resolve them."Approvals from municipalities still take far too long.He hopes the absence of co-ordination and alignment between different government sectors, identified as another reason so many infrastructure projects fail, will be remedied by his office.Having bankable projects is all very well, but somebody has to build them.Ramokgopa concedes that a major obstacle to delivery is a local construction sector that has been almost wiped out by the government's failure over many years to deliver the infrastructure spend it promised."One of the risks we identified to the delivery of this build programme was the private construction sector," he says.He has been meeting with the construction industry and his sense is that "as long as we're able to commit to a bankable project pipeline, they'll be able to make investments that will resuscitate the industry". Meanwhile, the National Planning Commission has produced a scathing report about the government's lack of capacity to deliver infrastructure on its own.Ramokgopa says his office is using it as a reference point as it tries to remedy the situation.He points out that the private sector "has been at the table" in every one of the 272 projects his office has generated from SOEs and local government."The state is building its capacity but we can't wait. The private sector is working with us until the state is fully capacitated."