This is Part Six of a six-part series on Gabon
Gabon?s President Ali Ben Bongo Ondimba has launched an ambitious development program, which, he says, will totally transform the country?s economy and infrastructure to better the lives of all Gabonese.
Administration officials say co-hosting the just ended African Nations cup with neighboring Equatorial Guinea, was one of the many initiatives Mr. Bongo Ondimba undertook to showcase Gabon to the entire world.
?We are proud to have been a co-host of the African Nations Cup. We have invested in an extensive program of infrastructure development in preparation. The tournament has been a huge success and shows that Gabon is focused on moving our country forward, for the people and the region, to be a global player,? said President Bongo Ondimba.
Officials say the goal of Mr. Bongo?s policy reforms is to ensure that Gabon becomes a regional force in such areas as financial services, information and communications technology (ICT), and trade-related services. They will be aligned with efforts to build a green economy and specialized fields within higher education, health and research.
Some analysts predicted a crisis in Gabon, as occurred in neighboring countries, following the death of long-time leader Omar Bongo. They cited for their concerns a possible power struggle and conflicts in neighboring countries that could spill over into Gabon. But the democratic election of President Bongo Ondimba, some observers say, ensured a smooth transfer of power.
Some investors cite the country?s political stability as one of the many attractions that informed their decision to invest in the Central African country.
?Since we have been here, there is only one [lull in our business activity] ?when the former president died, but they did very well to maintain stability in the country to ensure the continuation of the presidency. We see that there is a clear view of the future with Gabon and emerging Gabon,? said Gert Vandermissen, general manager for SIAT, a tropical agricultural investment company.
The government invested about half a billion dollars to improve its infrastructure ahead of the African nations cup. The administration is constructing two new international airports in other parts of the country to support the Leon Mba international airport in the capital, Libreville.
To improve the public health of citizens, officials say the government has built an ultra-modern Cancer Treatment Center, which will complement the work of the International Center for Medical Research of Franceville (CIRMF).
CIRMF is the national reference laboratory for the diagnosis and treatment of ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers as well as infectious diseases including AIDS.
?Gabonese people are benefiting from our research findings. What we find and what we can apply directly to the public health system. We are also training doctors to be the future leaders in medical research here and abroad,? said Doctor Jean Paul Gonzalez, CIRMF director general and infectious diseases specialist.
CIRMF?s initial research focused on improving human fertility and perinatal health. But now, the center?s scientific policy is reoriented towards cutting-edge research on diseases affecting the population of Gabon and neighboring countries. The center, which is located in the southeastern part of the country, is the biggest in Central Africa.
Presidential adviser for education, Gabriel Ntougou said the government has increased the annual education budget from $300 million to $1.26 billion, primarily for the upgrade of old structures and the construction of new ones.
?The program of investment in education, focuses on infrastructure by building facilities for universities and the 12 post-graduate schools which includes conference rooms, teachers? offices, laboratories, students housing and sports facilities,? said Ntougou. ?The president has also developed a program of building nine special high schools across the country that will focus on science, math and physics.?
The U.S.-based firm Bechtel is playing a pivotal role in the government?s ambitious initiatives. The company provides support for L?Agence Nationale De Grands Travaux (National Agency for Major Works), a government agency, which ensures timely completion of Gabon?s infrastructural projects. Bechtel is one of the most highly acclaimed global engineering, project management and construction companies.
To ensure President Bongo Ondimba?s development strategy benefits the people, the administration has launched a new economic initiative and unveiled a number of reforms to sharply reduce graft and create a business-friendly environment necessary to attract foreign direct investments. The government has set up a ?single window clearance? process that expedites the documents investors need to start their operation.
Since the implementation of the president?s initiatives, officials say there has been a dramatic increase in local and international investors who have now begun doing business in Gabon.
Vandersmissen said ?As a private company, we need good infrastructure and a solid judicial system, without corruption so that we can do what we do best. So, far the government is not pushing us and is not working against us so that we can do our job and that is how it should be.?
?It?s stable here and there is liberty,? he added, ?and if this should continue, Gabon could become an economic center for the development of Central and Western Africa.?
Vandersmissen also praised the business-friendly conditions in the country. Tauhid Monif is the general manager of the Abhijeet group, another investment company.
?Business opportunities that are offered by Gabon are excellent,? said Monif. ?And avenues have opened up [for us including the opportunity to set] up one of the biggest plants over here,? said Monif.
Headquartered in India, Monif said the Abhijeet group, which specializes in power generation, mining, ferroalloys, steel and roads will use Gabon as its base to launch operations in the rest of the Africa.
Special Economic Zone (SEZ)
The zone, which covers about 1146 hectares, has already attracted $210,920,491 million in investment, with many companies acquiring plots of land to begin their operation.
The president?s strategy, officials say, is to turn Gabon into a value-added economy that hinges on the local processing of raw materials, including timber, manganese and natural gas. The three main pillars of the plan, officials say, include industry, services and green initiatives.
To achieve those objectives, the administration has partnered with the international company Olam. Together, they are working to promote a competitive economic environment; to develop local processing of the country?s natural resources and to diversify Gabon?s agricultural and industrial sectors.
Theophile Ogandaga, director at the Special Economic Zone said the project was instituted following a ban on the export of logs in order to add value by using the timber to make other products.
Ogandaga says the government offered many benefits to investors.
Some of the benefits, Ogandaga said, include the exemption from Value Added Tax (VAT) for 25 years and from the 35 percent corporate tax for 10 years. The investors will also have a sharp reduction in electricity costs.
To sustain the level of new development projects across the country as well as meet the energy demands of Gabon, and especially industry, the government is constructing a number of new hydroelectric dams after upgrading an older one.
Patrick Rodrigue Yalis Ongala, director of electricity at Gabon?s energy ministry and hydroelectric resources, said the dams are being built in accordance with international standards.
?We are expecting 160 megawatts of energy in which 75 percent will be dedicated to the Mwanda factory and the rest of the 25 percent will be for the population network,? said Ongala. ?We are constructing another dam in the southern region to produce about 84 megawatts, and also in the northern side on the Okano River, which will produce 54 megawatts of electricity.?