YAOUNDE - Customers who want to sweeten their coffee may be out of luck at Kum Jeanette's restaurant in Yaounde.
Sugar is in short supply these days in Cameroon, as the government cracks down on illegal imports to protect and promote local industry.
"For several weeks now, I have been going round looking for sugar,” Kum said. “It is scarce in town and, when you see it, the price is high. We used to buy for 700 [CFA, or $1.20] but now that we do not even see it, when you manage to see it you buy for 1,000 francs [$1.71] per packet."
Cameroon produces less than 120,000 tons of sugar each year. Local demand stands at 200,000 tons.
Cameroonian producers are also exporting some of their supply, illegally, to neighboring countries. But the government is cracking down on that trade. Authorities have also been seizing large shipments of sugar imported from the European Union.
Sugar — like many foreign goods sold in Cameroonian markets — is contraband, says Valentin Mbarga Bihina of Cameroon's Ministry of Trade. It is imported by smugglers under unhealthy conditions and without respect for packaging and conservation norms, he says, adding that Cameroonians should consume locally made goods because it is safer.
Valentin says Cameroon's lone sugar company employs 8,000 people who could lose their jobs if the industry is not protected.
The government took similar action on vegetable oil last year. It stopped the importation of cooking oil from Indonesia and Malaysia after four local companies closed. The government said 50,000 jobs were at stake, but critics say the ban has only driven more smuggling.
Plus, locally made goods are often more expensive.
University of Yaounde economist Ariel Ngnitedem says such protectionist strategies can backfire.
"It is economically unwise for a country to close its market when its production is not even sufficient for its population,” Ngnitedem said. “If other countries also react by closing their markets, where will Cameroon get the goods it does not produce? Where will it sell the ones it produces to export? I think these protectionist measures are more harmful."
Cameroon is not alone in pursuing this strategy. Countries in East Africa, for example, have been considering a ban on used clothing and vehicles to spur industry there.
Proponents say improvements will not happen overnight, but it is a question of short-term pain for long-term gain.