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ECONOMY-CENTRAL AFRICA: Profits to Be Had in Becoming a Banana Republic

Antoine Lawson

LIBREVILLE, Jul 18 2006 (IPS) - It’s a tale of two countries, and competing groups of female sellers. The account of the banana trade between Cameroon and Gabon is also an illustration of how difficult regional economic integration can be.

Female traders from the two Central African countries are in dispute over the wholesale trade of bananas in Gabon. At present, sellers from neighbouring Cameroon – where much of the fruit comes from – dominate the wholesale banana trade in Gabon, leaving the less profitable retail aspect of the sector to locals.

“The Cameroonian traders are in a monopoly situation in response to a vacuum created by the passivity of the Gabonese, who…abandoned (their) agricultural sector,” says Simonne Mpenka, a tomato seller from Cameroon.

Banana farming is much more developed in Cameroon than in Gabon, with plantations that produce fruit for export covering some 3,600 hectares in south-western Cameroon. While there are banana plantations in Gabon, notably in the south, they are less extensive – and produce more for local consumption.

The imbalance in commercial relations between Gabon and Cameroon is also reflected in Gabon’s extensive dependence on its northern neighbour for cassava, yams, rice, maize, vegetables, fruit, meat and poultry.

However, Gabonese women now have the wholesale banana trade in their sights. “Once restricted to the retail sales of bananas, the Gabonese traders now wish to buy from the source (Cameroon) to increase their profit margin,” Bertrand Olibou, a price inspector at the Ministry of Trade, told IPS.

With this in mind, the traders have requested government to provide them with trucks so that they can also stock up on bananas in Cameroon and in the interior of Gabon, to compete with the better-organised Cameroonian sellers and transporters.

“We are asking the Gabonese state to provide us with trucks so that we too can go to the interior of the country to buy our agricultural products instead of waiting to buy these third hand,” said Marie-Joséphine Dabany, president of the Co-operative of Traders of Gabonese Markets, during a meeting held Jun. 2.

“In Cameroon, there are no sardines. In Gabon there are, and the Cameroonians come to buy many from us to resell in Cameroon. Today, the Gabonese traders want equally to buy bananas in Cameroon,” she told IPS. The co-operative also aims to have Gabonese invest more in the agricultural sector.

Authorities have not yet responded to the request for transport. “But the hope of the government to see Gabonese sellers play an active part in the wholesale banana trade indicates that it would give them the means (for the request),” Benoît Mezui, advisor to the Ministry of Planning, told IPS.

Last month’s meeting, which brought together Cameroonian and Gabonese traders at the Gabonese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the capital of Libreville, recommended that the monopoly in bulk sales of bananas be reserved for Gabonese women.

Pauline Ndombet, for one, believes that Cameroonian sellers would not welcome a change to the status quo.

“The Cameroonian sellers of bananas, found in most of the markets in Libreville and in the interior of the country, (are) generally wholesalers – (and) do not want the Gabonese traders to come to Cameroon to buy bananas,” the retail seller of bananas at Oloumi market in Libreville told IPS.

Adds Pascal Mandji of the Gabonese Consumers’ Association, “The Cameroonian traders, who have occupied this niche (the wholesale banana trade) for decades,…fear a drop in their turnover should the Gabonese enter bulk sales.”

But Claudine Mba, a Cameroonian wholesaler, is less concerned, saying Cameroonian traders have established a firm footing in the market. The arrival of Gabonese in the bulk sales sector “will not disturb our trade,” she noted.

Bananas play an important part in the Gabonese diet, and can affect a household budget accordingly.

The General Office of Statistics and Economic Studies, a government body, says that the consumer price index of households registered an increase of 1.5 percent between April and May this year, mainly because of rises in food costs. The price of plantain bananas increased by 2.7 percent and now hovers between 83 cents to 1.3 dollars per kilogramme on markets in Libreville, according to the office.

The index measures the average change in prices, over time, for a selection of goods typically bought by consumers. Plantain bananas are a starchy, hard variety of the fruit that serve as a staple food in tropical regions.

The chargé d’affaires of the Cameroonian embassy in Libreville, Jean Luc Ngouambe Wouaga, told IPS that officials were concerned by the challenges facing the banana trade.

“This matter has been dealt with in a common accord with Gabonese authorities in the Ministry of Trade, who went right to the border area of Ambam, on the Cameroonian side, where they met their Cameroonian counterparts.”

Calm prevailed in the course of these meetings, said Wouaga.

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