8 February 2017

Can Gabon become Africa’s entrepreneurial hub?

By Joshua Neicho

The 31st Africa Cup of Nations ended in memorable fashion last Sunday, as declining powerhouse Cameroon scored an 89th-minute decider against seven-time winners Egypt in front of huge, delirious crowds.

This should have been a moment in the sun for hosts Gabon. But right up until the last game, the story had been of lines of empty seats in the spectacular Chinese-built stadia, of opposition boycotts and widespread public cynicism, and an underwhelming performance from the home team, who dropped out after the group stage having drawn all their matches.

It would appear to be a similar story with Gabon’s business scene. The former French colony, independent since 1960, has a GDP per capita of $11,500, almost four times higher than Nigeria’s, and is rich in resources – oil, manganese and tropical hardwoods. Yet indicators of economic fundamentals suggest Gabon is massively underperforming.

The Legatum Institute’s 2016 Prosperity Index places it in the bottom 30 of 149 nations – 128th for economic quality and 132nd for governance, in the shadow of a bitter election last August followed by violence.

Legatum notes widespread corruption, a lack of progress with diversification given the degree of dependence on oil, and a mismatch between a workforce with the highest level of tertiary education in sub-Saharan Africa, and the country’s economic needs.

It is widely held that a flair for business is not well-rooted among the Gabonese. Shopkeepers and taxi drivers are often West African migrants, while big business management tend to be French or Lebanese.

In the heyday of Gabon’s oil wealth, the economy was set up in such a way that there were enough jobs for everyone; those who wanted to set up their own business were looked at as a little crazy. Traditionally, aspirational Gabonese had their hearts set on a good role in the civil service.

In Gabon, I hear similar views from almost everyone I talk to about this subject. A paper at a 2015 South African education conference quotes a Gabonese education official saying, “Entrepreneurship is not yet taught in school simply because it’s not yet in our culture”.

Much of this is changing, however. Gabon embraced 4G connectivity early, investing in optical fibreoptics throughout its territory, which has spurred start-ups in the mobile money space. A number of state- and private-backed incubators have appeared, and prizes instituted by President Ali Bongo and oil giant Total to recognise entrepreneurial élan.

At Espace PME last Friday, the recently appointed minister for SMEs and entrepreneurship, Biendi Maganga-Moussavou, announced a programme of regulatory reform, tax cuts and other incentives for entrepreneurs. From Dubai, Gabonese national Mark Doumba is offering support to hundreds of Gabonese SMEs through e-commerce site CLIKAfrica.

Now a study of World Bank data has placed Gabon fourth in a ranking of countries with the most determined entrepreneurs, in terms of places with the most start-ups per head of population and the most difficult environment to launch.

Vanessa Adande-Daouda, who returned to Gabon to set up a specialist SME accountancy firm in Libreville in 2014 told me that after a slow first six months, they have been inundated with requests. “Most of our targets don’t understand the basics of financial management. We’re still at a stage in Gabon where you find information on the internet, go to the tax administration and find out it isn’t what it’s supposed to be.”

Management consultant Yannick Ebibié started his ONE Gabon online network with three friends while studying in the US. They leveraged their professional knowledge and contacts to offer advice to Gabonese SMEs, and went on to build the country’s first crowdfunding platform.

“In the past, the focus was on which sector you wanted to go in, and how much you could pay back for the loan. Nobody really cared about the viability of the activity. And the training in accountancy and business law was so boring.”

However, obstacles to entrepreneurship still remain daunting. Getting seed finance is a headache, banks
will only lend to start-ups who can stump up 75% of what they want to borrow and  lots of projects are dying because of the difficulties of accessing cash.

Ernest Tewelyo Akendengué, who started a mobile banking platform, eDoleyCash, suggests there are good reasons for distrusting African entrepreneurs, adding they sometimes  aren’t serious and need to do the homework to meet the standards of Western counterparts.

Pascal Ango, founder of creative agency Agence CW, also reckons the greatest difficulty for Gabonese entrepreneurs is access to practical, relevant training which introduces them to potential business partners.

“To train in Gabon you need to be extremely well off, and the courses aren’t suited to entrepreneurs’ hours,” he says. “There is often a huge gulf between Western theory taught in local business schools and reality on the ground.”

Visiting the country during the Cup of Nations highlights some obvious barriers to entrepreneurship.

With the small crowds, lack of fan zones in Libreville and limited transport laid on between Libreville and the far-flung provincial stadiums, how many entrepreneurial opportunities around tourism and hospitality have been squandered?

The political dimension is also never far away. Mostly people I talked to have decided to co-exist with the current regime, but even among them the disillusionment and discontent is clear.

Corruption looms over the business world. “Sometimes bureaucratic delays are created in a bid to force companies to pay facilitation payments to speed processes,” says Roddy Barclay of consultancy Africa Practice.

“Larger companies with robust anti-corruption policies and a degree of institutional clout can overcome some of these challenges whereas start-up entrepreneurs tend to be particularly exposed to opportunism and interference”.

I get a hint of the difficulties faced when I ring Jean-Jacques Mané, “Jacky Cochon” – for some 30 years Central Africa’s only charcutier, producing bacon, sausages, black pudding and pâtés and running an acclaimed restaurant.

He would seem a perfect exponent of President Ali Bongo’s “Gabon Vert”, making the most of the country’s neglected agricultural potential. Yet he says that in 2011 the depradations of big companies “broke my leg”, in the French idiom: “I was a pioneer – now I’m a victim”.

Do political or economic factors weigh more heavily on entrepreneurs? “Both. It’s the current system that’s killing us”.

Yannick Ebibié takes a cool view of the country’s tensions. He’s no political activist, he says, and notes the official opposition are people who used to be part of the regime who want power back. When society becomes more entrepreneurial, the politicians “won’t have the same power”, since entrepreneurs don’t rely on handouts.

In the absence of venture capital and investment banks in Gabon, Ebibié says “we need to dream big… but start small”, following a business model that operates on the basis of very small amounts of capital. Separately, he is working on an app, which he hopes to launch in 2018.

Vanessa Adande-Daouda, an accountant, believes there is so much to do inside Gabon, “the possibilities are amazing” – even before thinking about the country’s import dependence.

Yet she notes that most of the company founders using her firm’s services are already thinking of the opportunities of wider Central and West African markets as they start their business.

Mobile banking entrepreneur Ernest Tewelyo Akendengué is certainly of this philosophy. “I’m of Gabonese origin but I want to be an African entrepreneur. Africa is Eldorado, the place to be – the only Continent to grow during the crisis.”

In a few years, he says, “Africa will be as important as India and [East] Asia for digital. “There are Western investors, business angels interested in us, they approach us… [Western enterprises] can improve us, they have technology we don’t. But we know the terrain, we can manage it”.

For our part, we in the post-Brexit Anglophone world can open our eyes to Gabon. Before the French established a protectorate in 1839, the British traded here too – one old district of Libreville is called London.

While a move to make the country bilingual has been shelved, there is a major push for English language teaching, with a spokesman for the President recognising in 2012 that in the world beyond French Africa, “if you don’t know English you are almost handicapped”.

There’s a steep slope to climb for developing new business in Gabon, but a rich land of opportunity at the end of it. Whether or not the stadiums resound to the sound of a capacity crowd in future tournaments, it could well be a whole new ball game.

Joshua Neicho is a freelance journalist