Interview: Julien Nkoghe Bekale

To what extent can Gabon engage in import substitution for foodstuffs and agricultural products?

JULIEN NKOGHE BEKALE: Under the Emerging Gabon strategy, the objective for the agriculture, fishing and animal husbandry sectors is to reduce food imports by up to fourfold. As to how to do this, the answer is simple: We have to increase agricultural production. The first way to do this is to encourage small-scale family agriculture. The second is to foster intensive industrial agriculture through the development of agribusiness. In our case, we cannot exclusively count on family agriculture because of our ageing population. We have to focus on developing agricultural entrepreneurship, and pursue agri-business and intensive industrial agriculture. In this way we can achieve agricultural independence.

What sort of reforms are needed to pave the way for the growth of agro-industry?

NKOGHE BEKALE: For some time, large-scale agribusiness projects have been on the table for Gabon. We want to develop intensive agriculture with small and medium-sized outfits run by nationals, in addition to family agriculture. The government has to make a priority of ensuring the necessary technical and regulatory frameworks are in place to support this development, in order to encourage the population to adopt modern agricultural methods and to provide investors with zones that are equipped with associated infrastructure. Private partners can also help increase the utility of land for agricultural use, either by creating local, private companies or in partnership with the government, and subsequently rent out the land to other investors for use. This is a business opportunity that can also have the added benefit of creating many jobs.

How much scope is there to shift local small-scale production towards larger plots?

NKOGHE BEKALE: The Agricultural Development and Investment Project (Le Projet de Développement et d’Investissement Agricole au Gabon, PRODIAG) is run in concert with the Gabonese Institute for Development Support, which supports agriculture on urban peripheries. The PRODIAG represents a new phase and will substantially contribute to increasing food production. We would like this project to go further and for the French Development Agency to streamline financing. We cannot continue to plant on small parcels; this is too prevalent now and limits production increases.

There is a tendency to want to apply pre-fabricated solutions from the outside, whereas the agricultural challenges in Gabon are different from elsewhere in Africa. In our case, this programme could have also targeted villages, as opposed to individuals, as this would have the benefit of spreading rural development more evenly across the country. Furthermore, the focus should be on the cultivation of Gabonese dietary staples such as manioc, rice, chicken and fish, rather than vegetables that are not as popular amongst Gabonese. It is important to note that there is already a 5-km area reserved for agriculture around villages.

How can fishing and aquaculture production be encouraged, given the current low levels of output?

NKOGHE BEKALE: It is a real paradox that despite a 200-km maritime exclusive economic zone that is richly endowed with fish, we still rely on imports. Gabonese consume on average 25-30 kg of fish per year. As such, the national fishing plan aims to boost the total catch from 40,000 tonnes per year to 100,000 by 2016.

The problem is that most of the boats that fish in our waters do not unload in Gabon due to the lack of infrastructure. The first solution is to ensure ports have the capability to accommodate fishing in our waters. Secondly, with our rich fishing grounds, we do not need to develop aquaculture, but we do encourage it because populations in the interior consume fish and fishing resources there should be preserved.

There is currently a national programme under way, which is financed by the African Development Bank, to set up basins on agro-pastoral farms in each province.