A recent worldwide survey ranks Douala, Cameroon, as the most expensive city in Africa. Douala is the seat of most of the country’s trade and industry but suffers from poor infrastructure, chaotic growth and a soaring population, estimated at three million inhabitants. It contributes more than 80 percent to Cameroon’s national earnings.
Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter Ntaryike Divine in Douala, says many might be surprised to see Douala ranked as Africa’s most expensive city, rather than Lagos or Johannesburg. But the Canadian group, Mercer Human Resources Consulting, named Douala in its 2007 worldwide cost of living survey.
It’s not the most expensive worldwide. That would be Moscow, named for the second year in a row. Selections are based on the cost of housing, transportation, food, clothing and entertainment.
Douala comes in a distant 24th after the likes of Moscow and London but still tops the African list of the world’s 50 most expensive cities. Others are Dakar, Senegal, and Abidjan, Ivory Coast.
The survey covers 143 cities across six continents. It’s intended to guide multinational companies, diplomatic services, foreign missions, and governments in the allocation of salaries and compensation allowances to protect the purchasing power of their employees serving abroad.
Alan Shepherd is the branch manager of the British Council in Douala. He says he had to make deep cuts in his personal spending after moving here a year ago.
“This is the first time I’ve been in Africa. So all I can say is that the actual cost of living in Douala surprised me. It was higher than I had thought it was going to be, to be honest. If you take what we call an economic basket of goods, if you include in that supermarket prices, restaurant prices, things like taxes, then they’re all considerably high.”
Reactions to the survey have been varied here. Many residents call the city a “ramshackle” and wonder how it could be ranked the most expensive in Africa. Others agree with Mercer Human Resources Consulting. They say the cost of everything from bread to fuel has increased steadily over the years.
Gordon Harry Bristol is Nigeria’s consul general in Douala. He says the city is expensive because it’s the country’s economic hub.
“If you take all the indices for measuring costs of living, I think that Douala ranks very high on every one of them [including] the cost of housing, the cost of transportation, even food that is supposed to be plentiful here in Cameroon. You find that if you want to dine out in a decent restaurant, you pay much more in Douala than you would in some African cities. Compared to Lagos, which by Nigerian standards is very expensive, I think that Douala is more expensive because I’ve had the privilege of taking people out to dinner, and by the time I converted the expenses, I was shocked.”
Other expatriates note that it’s commonplace to spend about 500 dollars for an evening’s entertainment – and that if they go out once a week, they have virtually nothing left at the end of the month. They say they can’t save much while living in Douala.
Housing is also expensive, at least for an ordinary citizen. An apartment with bedroom and living room costs up to 100.000 FCFA – or 200 dollars – a month.
Taxi fares go beyond the set rate. Commuters competing for taxis during rush hour have given rise to higher prices. Cab drivers also say they are charging higher rates to cover the soaring cost of fuel.
Consul General Gordon Harry Bristol says merchants raise their prices to take advantage of Western expatriates, who are often seen as spendthrifts, “most of the expatriates are paid in foreign exchange, in hard currency, and when they convert it to local currency, these expenses amount to nothing.”
Bristol says the high price of living might go down if some of the industries and their expatriate employees were moved outside the city. Others say that in order to make prices drop, Cameroon must supply consumers with cheaper forms of electricity, fuel, public transportation and housing. A government commission is at work suggesting reforms aimed at cutting costs. Politicians are also proposing tax cuts that could help attract investors and increase competition among businesses in the city. Elsewhere, if feasibility studies for a new hydro-electricity dam are accepted, electricity costs could drop. In the meantime, the government is helping reduce the cost of homes with a project to build low-cost houses on the outskirts of Douala.