What do you see as Gabon’s biggest achievements over the past seven years?
BONGO ONDIMBA: I look at our achievements in terms of how much progress Gabon has made overall. We have to ensure we do not simply improve in certain areas but that we improve in all areas.
Of course, there are certainly some specific projects that should be mentioned. For example, we have completed half of the planned road connection projects. For the first time in 50 years, Port-Gentil – a major economic city and vital to our economy – will be fully connected by road to the rest of Gabon. This is a major economic achievement. We could not talk about transforming Gabon without first linking the rest of the country to Port-Gentil.
Ultimately, while I think there are grounds for being satisfied with our economic progress, there is still plenty of work to do. We can no longer live by the sale of raw commodities – that era is over. We need to work harder and be more ambitious in creating a strong middle class and a class of entrepreneurs.
That means, for example, working to reform our public administration. Government officials need to understand that we serve the economic development of the country rather than the other way around. Revenues from commodities have led to high salaries, but that creates the image of a good life without investment. It is not sustainable and the government can no longer be the primary investor.
It also means reviewing key legislative instruments, like the forest code and the mining code. Over the next two years we will be looking at reforming these instruments to improve our competitiveness.
How successful has diversification been?
BONGO ONDIMBA: I see Gabon as being in a football game at half time: we are about to start the second half and my main objective is to win the game. We want to avoid going into extra time and we certainly want to avoid a penalty shootout, but to do that we need to move faster.
Based on the experience of the past seven years, we now know how to do that. We know how to move up the value chain and how to improve infrastructure.
The areas where we can accelerate include creating a good middle class, cultivating entrepreneurs and reducing the size of the bureaucracy. To support this, we are rolling out new programmes which will incentivise people to leave the administration and join the private sector in fields like agriculture, where there is so much that can be done.
Let us take a look at palm oil. Ten years from now, our objective is to have the same amount of revenue from palm oil as we currently have from crude oil. To achieve this, we have sent 2000 people to Malaysia – one of the world’s largest palm oil producers – to learn how to run industrial plantations. These people will come back and help train others, and so far this is working pretty well.
However, to maintain this sort of momentum you need to ensure everybody has an equal opportunity. In many countries, oil has created a class of wealthy people, leading to inequality and exclusion. If we want to create a strong economy, we need to ensure that everybody’s condition is improved.
This is what we’ve been trying to do with the Gabonese Initiative for Achieving Agricultural
Outcomes with Engaged Citizenry programme. People in rural areas have been given new opportunities, such as land grants, and are better off. We want the economy to allow for greater social mobility so we need to ensure people understand that opportunities to succeed do exist.
Ultimately, we want to build a strong economy that does not solely rely on oil. This is not going to be easy. Oil prices are down and our economy is hurting as a result. This has given a new urgency to our diversification programme.
What can be done to boost job creation?
BONGO ONDIMBA: We still have notable pockets of poverty that must be erased. To do that, we have to accelerate the implementation of our government reforms, with job creation chief among them. About one-third of the young population is unemployed so we need to move fast. This means creating an attractive market, and increasing funding for education and training programmes. After all, you can be aggressive about reaching out to investors, but they have to be able to find qualified manpower here.
The private sector is where future jobs will be created, so they need to tell us what skills they need and what experience they are looking for. The new apprentice programme is an excellent example of this. We recently began working with the private sector to ensure that every company with more than 50 employees takes at least one apprentice. Therefore, graduates will not only have diplomas but also the skills they need for the job market.
What are the main misconceptions investors have about Gabon?
BONGO ONDIMBA: While French investors tend to be very familiar with the opportunities in Gabon, I find it is different for other international firms. Many think they will never land a contract or sign a partnership in Gabon because French companies take all of the business.
However, it is different now. There are other groups, companies and countries that have invested successfully. We are always open to new French firms but we are looking for more partners to join them, from places like South Africa or Nigeria. Singaporean firm Olam, for example, is a great example of how we are bringing in new companies from around the world.
More importantly, our relationship with Olam is a partnership rather than a contract. We are not looking for that sort of arrangement anymore. The time when investment was fully reliant on the government is now over.
Now, Gabon wants investors who can invest and share part of the risk, not because they need to but because they believe in the opportunities here. Gabon is open for business and there are great opportunities. All investors need to do is come and see that potential for themselves.