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Peter Kieran, president and CEO of CPCS, is shown at the company's offices in Abuja, Nigeria. Behind him is a painting showing the notoriously chaotic traffic in Lagos.

Erin Conway-Smith for The Globe and Mail/erin conway-smith The Globe and Mail

For many Lagos motorists, the latest construction project in the heart of their chaotic city is just another chance for bribes and shortcuts. They give money to a security guard and bounce brazenly through the middle of the construction site, evading the traffic jams on the nearby roads.

The lawlessness of the careening motorists is the latest frustration for the Chinese workers who are toiling seven days a week on the site. After all, this is the project that is supposed to tame the traffic chaos: a 27-kilometre light-rail transit line, the first ever to be built in Africa's biggest and most hectic city, where 15 million people are crowded into a vast sprawl of slums and apartments.

There have already been huge challenges for the $1.12-billion project, which will become one of the first modern light-rail systems in sub-Saharan Africa. But if any company can handle the unpredictability of Lagos, it would be CPCS Transcom Ltd., the Ottawa-based company that serves as lead adviser to the project. The low-profile Canadian company has quietly emerged as one of the trouble-shooters of Africa's economic revival. It has experience in 40 African countries, primarily as a consultant in infrastructure development, and Africa accounts for about half of its worldwide business.

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"You need a lot of patience," says Peter Kieran, president and chief executive officer of CPCS. "We almost always get paid, but it's often several years later. It's not something a Canadian bank would easily understand."

The light-rail project, first conceived in the 1970s and finally revived in 2008 after decades of dormancy, aims to build a network of seven transit lines across Nigeria's commercial capital. Yet financing has been difficult, payments are often delayed, and even the first line has been slow to develop.

Only the first six-kilometre stretch is now under construction by a Chinese contractor, and nobody is sure when the full 27 kilometres will be finished, let alone the other six lines, although a target date of 2013 has been set for completing the first line.

But CPCS is handling, or has completed, some of the toughest projects on the continent, including the privatization of the biggest Nigerian and Kenyan ports and an ambitious scheme to reform and privatize Nigeria's crisis-ridden electricity system. Next month it plans to seek bids for 11 of Nigeria's power distribution companies, along with four gas-fired generating plants and two hydro plants.

For the Lagos light-rail project, CPCS provided the conceptual design, business strategy and preliminary engineering, and is now the adviser for the Lagos government in its negotiations with the private company that will operate the transit line. The governor of Lagos is visiting Canada next month to consider buying 15-year-old subway cars from the Toronto Transit Commission to use on the Lagos line.

Until recently, CPCS did most of its African business through World Bank contracts. Now it is expanding into working directly for African governments.

Mr. Kieran, who grew up in Toronto and graduated from the University of Toronto, got his first African experience in 1970 on a summer job in Tanzania while he was an MBA student at Harvard. Inspired by his Tanzania experience, he and other students set up a consulting company to work in developing countries. In 1996, they purchased CPCS International, which had originally been established by Canadian Pacific, and merged it with their own company, Hickling Transcom.

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The company has specialized in railways and ports, seeking to make them more commercial and privately financed. There are "a lot more opportunities" as Africa begins to grow at a much faster rate, Mr. Kieran said. "There's a strong realization in places like Abuja and Nairobi that African governments have not really been able to operate their infrastructure efficiently, and they need private investment and private skills to manage these large organizations."

This has been highly controversial in places such as Mombasa, the biggest Kenyan port, where hundreds of dock workers have clashed with police in protests against the privatization this year. In Lagos, the transit project (and an accompanying expressway) has required the relocation of thousands of impoverished residents.

But the transit project could make a huge difference to the lives of ordinary Nigerians. The traffic chaos in Lagos is legendary. Commuters routinely wake up at 5 am for three-hour journeys to work, often using a series of different danfos - also known as "flying coffins" - the rickety mini-buses that are notoriously unsafe and reckless. People swap stories of six-hour traffic jams where motorists abandon their vehicles to drink tea at nearby shops.

The Lagos transport authority says the new transit system will be the "elixir" to solve this congestion. It estimates that 1.6 million passengers will ride daily on the first two transit lines when they are completed. The trains will travel at speeds up to 100 kilometres an hour, running at five-minute intervals at peak hours.

The project will have a crucial "demonstration impact" in Africa, showing other countries that it is a good strategy for dealing with the rapid urbanization of their societies, Mr. Kieran says.

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