As evidenced by its participation in the Economic and Monetary Community of Central African States (Communauté Économique et Monétaire de l’Afrique Centrale, CEMAC), Gabon has long sought to cultivate strong business and trade ties within Africa (see analysis). As the continent’s GDP and economic clout have risen over the past decade, those efforts have intensified, yielding some notable success in terms of inbound investment and technical assistance.
In recent years, Gabon has benefitted from the broader trend within Africa to strengthen intraregional ties, the result of not just African economies’ robust performance but also the slowdown in their traditional trade and investment partners, such as Europe, the US and, more recently, China. Intraregional integration on the whole is fairly limited – trade volumes for Africa lag those of Asia and Europe, and exports within the CEMAC zone are less than one-tenth of overall volumes. Yet there have been some notable developments.
Firms such as South Africa’s Legacy Resorts have taken a foothold in the tourism sector, while Mauritius-based Ireland Blyth has invested in local fisheries. Some of the clearest evidence of this pan-African presence is in financial services. Togo-based pan-African lender Ecobank, present in 34 markets, entered Gabon in 2009 and expanded swiftly to 10 branches by 2014. Orabank, a Beninois lender established in 1988 and incorporated in Togo, holds what was once Financial Bank Gabon as part of its network of 20 African markets. Nigeria’s UBA, the last foreign entrant (in November 2009) and smallest privately held bank, has yet to achieve scale in Gabon but is expanding its presence, being the only bank to open a new branch – its third – in the first half of 2014.
Perhaps the most visible African investor in the country is Morocco, which has emerged as a key partner for developing South-South ties in Africa, bringing critical resources and experience to bear in areas like agriculture, tourism, industry, vocational training and local governance.
Collaboration between Morocco and Gabon spans many sectors. In agriculture, Gabon’s Programme Graine, a wide-ranging reform that aims to strengthen production and revenues among smallholder farmers, as well as open doors for agroindustrial ventures downstream – in line with its Emerging Gabon diversification strategy – benefits from Morocco’s experience in implementing its own agricultural strategy, the Green Morocco Plan, and follows the signing of agricultural cooperation agreements between the governments of both countries. In health and education, Morocco is the main destination for Gabonese students studying abroad after Europe and provides technical assistance in health care training to Gabonese institutions. In trade matters, five new accords signed in 2013 strengthened cooperation on Customs and administration, including agreements that pave the way for streamlined Customs processing for bilateral trade, establish reciprocal recognition of drivers licences and waive visa requirements between the two countries for visitors with ordinary passports. Such ties continue to strengthen: a Moroccan state visit to Gabon in 2014 saw 24 new agreements signed, with a heavy emphasis on joint ventures – most notably, Morocco’s state-owned OCP agreed to develop two fertiliser plants in partnership with Gabon, which will export fertilisers adapted to African soils throughout the continent.
These partnerships will open up new markets for Moroccan businesses, which are already working to expand their footprint on the continent. Moroccan companies in telecoms, mining, banking and insurance have seen strong growth in West and Central Africa – indeed, it is possible to fly to Gabon on Royal Air Maroc, withdraw money in Libreville at an ATM owned by an Attijariwafa subsidiary and make a phone call on a network owned by Maroc Telecom.
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