19 December 2012

Gabon Agriculture - 15 Percent of GDP By 2020

In an interview with This is Africa, Gabon's agriculture minister explains how the government is developing its cash crop sector through international investment.

Gabon aims to increase the contribution of agriculture to its economy to 15 percent, from current levels of 1 percent by 2020, as part of its strategy to become an emerging country by 2025, according to the country's agriculture minister.

The West African nation is looking to develop its cash crop sector, with the aim of creating domestic food security and exporting into regional and international markets, Julien Nkoghe Bekale tells This is Africa.

"We want to develop intensive agriculture next to subsistence agriculture. We are going to develop agro-industry and cash crops: palm oil, sugar, rubber, coffee and cocoa, maize and soya, with the objective of reducing our food imports by 2020," he says.

Gabon imports the majority of its food, spending 250bn CFA ($504m) annually on goods from Asia, South America, the USA and Europe, but it wants to cut that figure by a factor of four by 2020.

The country's population is small - around 1.5 million - meaning it should be able to service its domestic market relatively easily, before looking to build on its limited current exports of rubber and palm oil, the minister argues: "Initially we will be looking at the home market, but then the sub-regional market, because we are very well aware that we have a tiny market. The aim after that is to export internationally."

Production has been boosted by Olam International, which is investing heavily in cash crops in the sparsely populated country. The Singapore-based company has entered an $800m public private partnership with the Gabonese government to develop 50,000 ha for palm oil production. It is also developing rubber plantations and ammonia and urea manufacturing facilities for the production of agricultural fertilisers. Belgium's SIAT has also invested in rubber and palm oil production since it took over a set of state owned enterprises in 2004.

Buoyed by those inflows, Gabon aims to produce 250,000 t/y of palm oil by 2020, up from current levels of 50,000 t/y.

Courting investors

The development of the agriculture sector is aimed to diversify Gabon's economy, which is heavily reliant on oil. The country is Africa's fifth biggest oil producer and hydrocarbons accounted for around 52 percent of GDP in 2011. With structural reforms - including privatisation - on track, the government is keen to promote further foreign direct investment in the agriculture sector.

"We have the potential to move from a mining and oil-based economy to becoming an agricultural economy," Mr Bekale says. "We have the land available; we have an attractive business environment; so we have all of the means available to develop sustainable agriculture, modern agriculture, and competitive agriculture."

Gabon has 1m ha of land available for immediate arable use. "There are also tax breaks; there's a very good tax regime; and there is security in land acquisition, you can lease land from 25-85 years," the minister outlines.

Weak labour force

Gabon's small population means that, unlike other African countries, it lacks agricultural workers, and is therefore less preoccupied with smallholder-led production.

"The government's objective is to provide food security and to do that we need to increase production, which must happen by encouraging the development of intensive agriculture and cash crops," he says.

"We have a weak labour force in terms of the number of workers available for agricultural labour. We are top heavy; we have well trained people right at the top but we don't have agricultural workers or technicians."

As part of broader education initiative, the country is developing agricultural colleges. "Our ambition is to create a class of agriculture entrepreneurs, to make the farmers into businessmen," the minister explains.

The Olam palm oil project will have a significant impact on employment, he says: "A project like Olam is already having positive effects on employment, society and on growth. We expect 7,000-14,000 jobs created from that project."

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