Michel Lemagnen is a seasoned FDI professional working with countries, regions and cities around the world. He is currently supporting Gabon’s ANPI, working with its dynamic CEO, Mrs Nina Alida Abouna. He speaks to both Mrs Abouna and Mr Yannick Ebibié, Strategy & Marketing Director, ANPI.

Let’s be honest, all locations claim to be a gateway to somewhere and it’s a very over-used term in inward investment and corporate location marketing. So, you may be surprised to learn about an African gateway – Gabon. And, be honest again, most of you have no idea where Gabon is!

Some key facts first. Gabon has a population of about 2 million and is a former French colony which gained its independence in 1961. About 800,000 people live in the capital, Libreville, with a further 148,000 in Port Gentil area, home to the petrochemical cluster and the country’s main industrial centre.

Located on the Atlantic coast of Western Central Africa, with the equator in the south of the country, it’s a tropical paradise which has the second largest virgin rainforest in the world (88% of the country is forest). President Ali Bongo Ondimba is a true African champion of sustainability and environmental responsibility, so the rainforest - and indeed the country as a whole - is being developed carefully, following the vision of ‘Green Gabon’ set out in the President’s ‘Emerging Gabon Plan’. With 800 km of coastline and unspoiled beaches, spectacular inland scenery, incredible biodiversity (gorillas, elephants, hippos to name but a few) and a hot but pleasant climate, Gabon is a great place to visit. But what about doing business there?

Be up and running in 24 hours

There’s no point denying it – if you look at the Doing Business rankings, Gabon is near the bottom of the pack. But the country has a clear vision and there is complete commitment to reforms along with major infrastructural and societal investments. ANPI Gabon (the national investment promotion agency) is a critical stakeholder in the realization of this vision. Established in 2014, ANPI is a tri-merger of earlier bodies and it has three core functions – inward investment promotion, business start-up and entrepreneurship support, and export trade development.  Policy advocacy is another critical role, representing a voice between business and the state. As Mrs Nina Abouna, Director General of ANPI says: “Our agency’s objective is very clear: to accompany, guide and facilitate the creation of value in our country.”

In January 2018, ANPI opened the doors of its new headquarters where it provides a one-stop shop service for its clients, greatly simplifying the somewhat complex processes and paperwork, allowing investors to get up and running in 24 hours. “We are here to make life easy, for example, in 24-48 hours we can obtain all the required authorizations and information you need to get started. We’re here to guide you and to hold your hand, and to be your partner for years to come in Gabon,” says Yannick Ebibié, Strategy & Marketing Director at ANPI. Gabon is making a major drive to promote entrepreneurship and ANPI Gabon is a key player in this, along with the JA Gabon startup incubator program. In 2017 there were almost 5,000 new companies created.

A very important step in making it easier to do business in Gabon

President Ondimba cut the tape to open the doors to ANPI’s new building and was very candid about the opportunity: “I am really pleased that we at last have this really important instrument. As the saying goes, time is money, and we want to accelerate our country’s development. This new facility enables us to take care of all the procedures that investors need to invest in our country.”

An abundance of natural resources

Gabon is blessed with a great richness of natural resources, notably its offshore oil fields, but it is also the world’s second largest source of manganese as well as having other minerals and metals (e.g. gold, iron, uranium and rare earths). Of course, wood is an enormous resource, but this is very carefully managed, and the President considers it imperative to avoid the ecological deforestation disasters that have happened in many other developing countries. To that end, raw timber exports have been banned, and this has driven the growth of downstream wood processing industries such as furniture and laminates.  In particular, these segments are based in the NKOK Special Economic Zone which offers some very attractive business incentives for investors.

Agriculture and food processing is one of the priority sectors for the country, both for food and non-food. “This is very important for the country because for a long time now, Gabon has been too heavily dependent on food imports, yet we have a climate which is really favourable for crop cultivation. In alignment with the ‘Green Gabon’ strategy it is critical that we do this sustainably for both farming and downstream food processing. We have the land and the climate, and this will create many jobs,” says Mr Ebibié. Opportunities that have been identified for cultivation and processing include cocoa, coffee, rice, maize, rubber, palm oil and tropical fruit. There’s an opportunity for beef cattle farming and beef products processing. And with 800 km of coast line and many large rivers, Gabon also has opportunities in fish and seafood, but the fish processing industry is still very under-developed. 

Investment in physical and digital infrastructure

Gabon has invested heavily in its physical and digital infrastructure in recent years and much of this development has been facilitated by public private partnership (PPP) programs with foreign investors. There are many civil engineering projects in the pipeline, such as new hydroelectric schemes requiring major capital investment. In Port Gentil, for example, the flagship Île Mandji ‘Cybercity’ and Special Economic Zone is seeking investors. Housing too is a very significant opportunity as there remains a shortage and backlog in new development projects.

Singaporean agro-products company Olam Corporation has invested in 58,000 ha for palm oil cultivation: “This is the largest palm oil cultivation area in Africa” says Mr Ebibié. He adds that: “Siat Group, the Belgian owned agro-industrial company, is another important foreign investor with activities in rubber plantations and beef cattle rearing.” The new port expansion at Owendo, south of Libreville, was completed in 2017 and this has increased the port’s capacity four-fold.

The digital economy is a priority target for Gabon. Digital currently accounts for about 5% of GDP but the goal is to grow it to 10-15% by 2025.  Mr Ebibié says the government is firmly committed to this aim: “We’re rolling out a fibre backbone across the country. We were one of the first African countries to get 4G. Mobile phone penetration is 162% – why? – because its common here for people to have two phones – we love them! Because of that, we also have very high internet penetration – it’s around 75% of the population.” Bharti Airtel, the Indian owned global telecoms giant, is the leading mobile network provider, with a 61% market share. 

Undiscovered tourist destination

Gabon has a very under-developed tourism sector yet it’s one of the world’s most beautiful countries, so there is a lot of opportunity for foreign investors in this area. Mr Ebibié says: “We are looking to develop tourism in two ways: firstly, ecotourism, aimed at those wishing to explore Gabon’s scenery and wildlife, and, secondly, professional and sports events. Right now, 69% of visitors come for business. There are a range of investment opportunities across the tourism spectrum, from property development to leisure complexes, hotels and catering.”

Central African gateway for inward investment

For inward investment, there is a portfolio of major capital investment projects which are open for direct investment and for PPPs. Examples of projects include hydro-electric schemes, housing, business parks and tourism infrastructure. Gabon is looking to develop itself as a services and supply hub to central Africa by leveraging its free trade and currency union relationship with five neighbouring countries: Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo and Equatorial Guinea – the Central African Economic and Monetary Community (CEMAC). The CEMAC zone has a combined population of around 51 million and Gabon is keen to position itself as a hub for central and west Africa. The new port at Owendo has already been a major benefit for the country. International air links are reasonably good, but this is another area of great development opportunity for both business and tourism.

Global trading and investment partner countries

France is still a very strong partner for Gabon – it retains its army base here and you’ll find delicious baguettes and croissants pretty much everywhere, even in remote villages. However, the country has actively sought to diversify its global reach and has been forging strong diplomatic and business relationships, particularly with China. Gabon is getting better – between 2006 and 2016 the stock of foreign direct investment has grown by 1,045% and was equivalent to 52% of GDP.

Bilateral ties will be critical in creating the right conditions to enable trade and investment and Gabon is looking globally. China has overtaken France as Gabon’s leading trading partner and the relationship with Belgium is important too, “but there are also African countries such as Cameroon and Morocco and we are seeing growing interest from the Middle East and Asia,” says Mr Ebibié.  He adds: “There is of course the EU itself and other countries within it such as Germany and Italy, as well as non-EU in the case of Switzerland and, of course the UK with whom we wish to develop further ties, especially in the area of sustainable development, where we have a strong common interest.”

Why invest in Gabon?

So how do ANPI frame the key reasons to invest in their country? Yannick recognizes that they have to be realistic: “Gabon, right now, is not the right place for everyone – we know that. Companies that invest in Africa naturally have to have a higher tolerance of risk. But, from this perspective, Gabon ticks a lot of boxes as it has a long record of stability, familiar legal systems to those in Western Europe. For one thing, we’re fortunate to be one of very few African countries that have not suffered any civil wars and terrorism is pretty much non-existent here.” There are more than 15,000 French expats living here with their families in Gabon, proof alone of its quality of life.

But what about the other factors business needs? “We’ve got a population that is youthful and has the highest rates of literacy and educational participation in Africa. Our tax system is one the most straight forward in sub-Saharan Africa and we’ve cut corporate income tax from 35% to 30% in the last two years. It’s also very important to know that there are very attractive investment incentives in Gabon, for example with 10-year tax exemptions. We also have the NKOK Special Economic Zone (about an hour’s drive from Libreville) and a new one being developed in Port Gentil. And, of course, it’s the richness of our natural resources with oil, gas, manganese, gold, iron and uranium as well as the wonderful rainforest, the coast and the land set aside for farming.”

Gabon: getting ahead quickly

Gabon is open for business, investment, partners, trade and new ideas. Its comparative economic and political stability coupled with one of the highest levels of literacy and education make it one of the up-and-coming places for business in Africa. 

Gabon Key Facts

  • Population: 1.98M
  • GDP (2017 estimate): $14.3B
  • Exports value (2015): $4.3B
  • Top export products (2015): Crude oil (70%); Manganese (13%); Wood products (10%)
  • Top export markets (2015): China (23%); Italy (11%); Spain (9%); Australia (9%); South Korea (8%); USA (7%)
  • Imports value (2015): $2.7B
  • Top import products (2015): Machinery (24%); food (17%); transport equipment (16%); metals (8%)
  • Top import markets (2015): China (25%); France (22%); Other Europe (21%); Other Asia (14%); Africa (8%); USA (7.5%)