Seeds of growth: Developing subsistence farming and cash crops should boost non-oil expansion and improve food security

Dependent on international markets for agricultural imports worth CFA250bn (€375m) in 2012, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Fisheries and Rural Development (Ministre de l’Agriculture, de l’ Elevage, de la Pêche et du Développement Rural, MAEPDR), Gabon aims to significantly increase its domestic food security by 2020, while also working to expand its cash crop exports. An integral part of efforts to diversify the economy away from dependence on oil exports, successful implementation of its agricultural strategy will have a major impact on its balance of payments and generate significant employment growth. With 5.2m ha of arable land, only 1% of which is cultivated, extensive inland waterways covering some 10,000 sq km and an equatorial climate, Gabon’s goal of cutting its food import bill fourfold by 2020 seems attainable. It will, however, need to overcome challenges in the availability of qualified labour and bridge a significant transport infrastructure gap that has hindered the creation of a vibrant domestic market.

The country’s sizable timber industry – one of the largest in the world – provides an excellent case study for the potential growth of specific segments, particularly following the move three years ago to ban unprocessed logging exports and boost downstream activity. The move, while abrupt, has significantly increased domestic processing, providing a foundation for greater revenues and employment.

LAGGING POTENTIAL: Despite steady non-oil growth over the past five years, agriculture’s economic contribution has seen a long-term decline, dropping from around 15% of GDP in the 1960s to less than 3% of GDP in 2013, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Despite some marginal production of banana (plantain), cassava and small quantities of maize – totalling around 33,000 tonnes a year according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) – Gabon imports some 85% of its food requirements, sourcing 177,000 tonnes of cereal and rice and 72,500 tonnes of meat (about 95% of its meat consumption) from abroad in 2013 according to data from the FAO. Meanwhile, poor transport links to the interior cause major variations in food inflation between coastal ports and inland provincial markets. “There are significant differences in basic food prices province by province, reflecting the absence of a national market for agricultural products,” Christian Renardet, director-general of the Gabon Institute to Support Development (Institut Gabonais d'Appui au Développement, IGAD), told OBG.

Faced with volatile global prices that saw wheat inflation reach 10% in the year to March 2012 according to FAO, the government was prompted to reduce value-added tax (VAT), suspend import duties and set price controls on 65 basic food staples in August 2012, expanding the basket to 166 in March 2013.

FOCUS ON FOOD SECURITY: Beyond such short-term price control measures, the government has initiated a wide-ranging development policy for agriculture as part of its Emerging Gabon vision, aimed at boosting the sector’s weight to 15% of GDP, reducing food imports by three-quarters by 2020, and attaining self-sufficiency in subsistence crops, fisheries and meat. “We are now talking about food security rather than total food self-sufficiency,” Mirabeau Edou Nkogo, the director of research at MAEPDR, told OBG.

Building on the five-year New Agricultural Development Policy issued in 2008 (which originally aimed to reach self-sufficiency by 2015), Gabon’s government is implementing the New Partnership for Africa’s Development’s Detailed Programme for the Development of Agriculture in Africa. Stemming from the 2003 Maputo Declaration, already ratified by 29 African countries, the programme’s aim is to boost spending on agriculture to 10% of the annual budget, up from roughly 1% in 2013, and attain annual growth of 6% for the sector.

GREENER GABON: In addition, the Green Gabon policy, a key portion of the Emerging Gabon diversification strategy, aims to establish suburban agricultural supply chains for all of the country’s urban centres, create mechanised farms to meet domestic consumption needs and expand cash crop plantations for export in a sustainable manner. A Blue Gabon policy is also being prepared and is expected to be published by 2014. The policy is aimed at developing a sustainable local fisheries industry with domestic processing alongside expanded maritime conservation efforts.

MAEPDR signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in June 2013 with France’s Valliance Consulting, which advised on a similar green strategy in Morocco, to develop sustainable agriculture in Gabon. Central to its ambitions has been to reposition the MAEPDR as a policymaking and regulatory organisation, and to devolve operational piloting of agricultural projects to a range of agencies led by the National Rural Development Agency and the IGAD.

ENTREPRENEUR CLASS: Cognisant of its small population and its abundant arable land resources, Gabon is placing a priority on mechanised agriculture, cash crops and the development of an agro-industrial entrepreneur class. The ministry estimates some 1m ha of arable land is available for immediate use and has extended a package of 10-year tax holidays and land leases of between 25 and 85 years to induce more private investment. The state offers import duties exemptions for machinery imports as an incentive for local processing. With the last agricultural census dating back to 1975 and a unified land mapping project still under development, the state will need to establish new data gathering methods and expedite the mapping project (due in 2014) to enable clear tracking of progress towards its goals (see analysis).

INVESTMENTS: While major investments in oil palm, rubber, sugar, coffee, cocoa, maize and soya will boost exports and meet domestic demand in the next seven years (see analysis), smaller-scale decentralised initiatives to develop subsistence farming will have the greatest impact on food security.

This will establish domestic supply chains for key staple foods such as plantain, cassava, peanuts, and fruits such as tomatoes and African pears (atanga). These initiatives are supported by traditional donors like the French Development Agency (Agence Française de Développement, AFD) and the FAO, as well as private investors. The Project for Agricultural and Rural Development, supported by a $3.8m loan from the International Fund for Agricultural Development, is a five-year plan to 2014 to support small farmers in producing plantain, cassava and peanuts. Moreover, the project aims to establish nurseries and training centres for small-scale farmers in peri-urban areas.

The AFD-funded Agricultural Development and Investment Project in Gabon (Projet de Développement et d’Investissement Agricole au Gabon, PRODIAG), which builds on the IGAD’s past five-year Peri-Urban Agriculture Development Support Project (Projet d’Appui au Développement de l’Agriculture Périurbaine, PADAP), has recorded more tangible progress. Expanding from one pilot farm in the outskirts of Libreville in 2004, the project, funded by a €16m loan from AFD and running for five years from 2011, is developing peri-urban farms in all of Gabon’s nine provinces. By 2016 the aim is to reduce food imports to 44% of domestic consumption by supporting the creation of 1030 small farms, overseen by nine nursery farms and generating some CFA7bn (€10.5m) in annual turnover.

The farms will consist of 140 larger-scale market gardening farms (maraîchage), 851 smaller staple-food farms (vivrier), and 39 poultry and pig herding farms. The project is also aiming to follow larger investors inland, like Olam in its oil palm plantations in Mouila. “We are establishing small-scale agricultural supply chains near provincial markets to decentralise the supply of food, as there is disposable income inland, near towns and around major projects developed by investors like Olam,” IGAD’s Renardet told OBG.

STAPLES: The main crops supported will be staples such as plantain, cassava and greenhouse crops like tomatoes, as well as associated processing units. This will create 2200 new direct jobs and 1000 indirect jobs, in addition to the 5000 created by PADAP – a total of 10% of agricultural employment earning above the monthly minimum wage of CFA150,000 (€225). PRODIAG farms, ranging from 1 ha to 3 ha in size, are developed near urban consumption centres on land awarded by the ministry – near all the main provincial towns as well as along the main RN1 from Libreville. By the end of 2012, IGAD had identified 284 farms covering a total of 823 ha, and had started works on many of these, beginning with Estuaire province. The project is acquiring tractors and equipment to improve productivity. “While there is no model for mechanised agriculture in Africa, we can start building one via decentralised farms and generalising this model to all of Gabon to achieve our food security goals,” Renardet told OBG.

MEAT & POULTRY: A number of initiatives are also aiming to increase local production of beef, poultry and eggs. The Belgian group Société d’Investissement pour l’Agriculture Tropicale (SIAT), the largest investor in rubber and oil palm and the first firm to have listed on the regional bourse, currently meets 5% of Gabon’s beef demand with its 100,000-ha ranch, which currently herds 5000 cattle. The Akournam slaughterhouse, run by the Owendo municipality, produces only sporadically. Amidst an artificial insemination drive in 2013, SIAT Gabon expects to expand to 15,000 heads by 2016 and 25,000 by 2018. Investing €1.5m in order to expand its existing 20-cattle-a-week slaughterhouse to reach 125 heads, the company expects to meet some 20% of domestic consumption by 2016. “We are significantly expanding capacity in beef production by 2016 and are considering diversifying into pigs as well,” Gert Vandersmissen, the director-general of SIAT Gabon, told OBG. “For poultry, however, it is very challenging to compete against frozen chicken imports from the US.”

The ministry says some 200,000 ha of savannah are available for further ranch developments. South African group SFM, already active in timber, created a joint venture with the government, the Grande Mayumba Development Company, to develop a mixed-use project on 631,100 ha of land and 260,900 ha of marine area covering ecotourism, sugar-cane, rubber and cattle herding. The feasibility study is still ongoing in 2013, but is likely to involve partnering with SIAT’s adjacent rubber plantation. The only major local producer of poultry and eggs is Société Meunière et Avicole du Gabon, a subsidiary of French Castel Group’s Somdiaa, which also operates the Grands Moulins de Paris. Primarily focused on flour production, using 106,000 tonnes of imported pounded wheat to make 85,000 tonnes of flour a year, as well as 16,000 tonnes of cattle feed, the firm also produces 40m eggs and 127.75m chicks a year. This accounts for roughly 70% of egg consumption, but only a small share of poultry consumption given its sales of chickens past rearing age. The firm hopes to sell a growing share of its chicks to local poultry farmers.

OUTLOOK: Gabon’s plans to develop subsistence farming alongside cash crops will be an important driver of non-oil growth in the coming decade. Leveraging its natural resources for light industrialisation will be crucial, as will be the judicious use of mechanisation and the liberalisation of labour laws. These will ease key sectoral constraints as the government’s ambitious infrastructure development programme starts to bear fruit.

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