Interview: Madeleine Berre
How do special economic zones (SEZs) help support economic growth?
MADELEINE BERRE: The main impact associated with SEZs is the diversification and development of a country’s offerings and products for export. In the forestry sector, which is now supported by the creation of a SEZ at Nkok, primary and secondary transformation generate real added value compared to the export of raw logs. For example, in 2013 Gabon processed a total of 671,000 cu metres of wood compared to 318,000 cu metres in 2009, and production was even higher in 2014 and 2015.
In addition to adding more value to wood products, processing also involves a requirement to standardise exports. Normalisation of processes allows us to aim for larger, more complex markets, thus driving the expansion of export opportunities favourable to our trade balance. In relation to possible synergies between SEZs and small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), we must note that local SMEs need backing and support on organisational, structural and technical matters. The aim is to allow them to confront new requirements imposed by the national market and contemplate exporting to international ones. It is in this regard that SEZs remain a growth and support opportunity for the structuring of activities by local SMEs.
In February 2016 the Council of Ministers established the SME furniture cluster at the heart of the Nkok SEZ, which will allow local SMEs to set up next to existing establishments in the zone. By integrating SMEs within the value chain of larger industrial companies, they will benefit substantially from technology transfer and will be able to forge relevant partnerships. This will allow SMEs to upgrade their capabilities and specialisations and, at the same time, acquire the standards demanded by multinationals, thus making it possible for SMEs to export under established international norms.
What role do SMEs play in the national economy, and what reforms could be introduced to help them develop further?
BERRE: Historically, the Gabonese state has played a leading role in the development of new national projects. However, the drop in treasury levels — driven primarily by the sharp drop in oil revenues — has negatively impacted the fragile health of our SMEs, which play an important role in job creation and diversification. In an effort to boost their development, the state must provide adapted solutions to the challenges faced by SMEs, by implementing capacity-building and support programmes, facilitating the process for establishing a company, improving their daily environment, and helping them diversify their sources of revenues away from public procurement contracts.
Given the current structure of our economy, it is crucial to establish these support mechanisms and build communication channels between majors and SMEs. To better understand their needs and better identify the pool of entrepreneurs in Gabon, we have embarked on an identification campaign, in an effort to create a reliable database of all market operators. This classification will need to be done through the use of specific criteria, such as their turnover, amount of investment, employees, accounting methods and so on. This data will provide us with the information needed to judge their level of development and identify their actual needs and obligations, thus allowing us to provide them with a legal and fiscal regime, adapted to their current status. We have identified major factors affecting their development, including: tax overlaps, the omnipresence of the informal sector, the dependence of SMEs on the public procurement process – which makes them vulnerable in the case of government budget shortfalls, – and the lack of support mechanisms for SMEs.
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