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Cameroon’s Economic Capital is One of Africa’s Most Expensive Cities

A recent survey says Cameroon's economic hub, Douala, is Africa's second most expensive city. Last year the same survey had it as the most expensive. From Cameroon's economic capital, Douala, Voice of America English to Africa Service reporter Ntaryike Divine, Jr., says Douala, the center of Cameroon's trade and industry, is plagued by rundown infrastructure, chaotic urbanization and a soaring population.

The Canadian group, Mercer Human Resources Consulting, based its ranking on the cost of housing, transportation, food, clothing and entertainment. It covers 144 cities around the world. The survey is used to guide multinational companies and governments in compensating employees serving abroad.

Most of Doula's estimated three million inhabitants say they're not surprised. Last February, unrest over soaring living costs erupted in the city and then swept across the country. The government put the death toll at 40 but human rights watchdogs say it was more than one hundred. The riots forced the government to provide a 15 percent salary increase and a 20 percent rise in housing allowance for civil servants. It also suspended customs duties on imported basic commodities.

But economists say the measures have had little impact in boosting purchasing power. Many people in the street say the situation is fast getting out of hand. The following comments from a number of different people are examples:

"Yes, we're affected by poverty. It's a general phenomenon. I'm not an exception."

"There's actually poverty in Cameroon, you don't only see it but you feel it. The economy is actually on a backward trend."

"I was moving around the streets one evening with my dad and I saw so many people sleeping with their children and small babies on the road and begging for money. They did not have something to eat, so many of them. I don't know what's happening in different areas around Cameroon. It was so painful."

"Cameroon is a hungry nation. If you move along the streets of Douala, you see, people don't eat. People say there's food in the country. There's food, but if you don't have money, you cannot buy the food. People are hungry and you see, when there's any misunderstanding they take to the streets protesting their hunger. People are hungry in this country; I cannot tell you a lie."

More and more people are cramming into single-room shacks in Douala. Even families above the poverty line are eating less. The streets are swarming with children hawking everything from fruits and biscuits to clothing items and cigarettes.

Expatriates generally earn more than average Cameroonians, but they too are complaining.

Alan Shepherd is the branch manager for the British Council in Douala. He arrived two years ago from Caracas, Venezuela, and says he's been forced to heavily trim his personal expenses.

"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."

Economists say Cameroon should move quickly to improve living standards by easing transportation and fuel costs and by boosting and diversifying agricultural production. They say the government should make it easier for investment in Cameroon. They say these moves would help make goods and services more affordable.