By Carlos Lopes
Cameroon has the resources for its industrialization and agricultural transformation. The economy’s current annual growth of 4.9% does not reflect the full potential that lies in the transformation of the riches of the country. The economy is relatively diversified with the exploitation of vast agricultural resources, forestry, mining and energy. Exports have been dominated by oil, cocoa, wood, rubber and cotton. This diversification in resources lends itself to economic transformation through industrialization.
I have witnessed firsthand the potential for economic transformation which can improve the social condition of Cameroonians. The young and dynamic youth have a role to play in converting this cheetah’s raw assets into the industrial products that will make the country proud. It is possible to transform agricultural products, wood, rubber and cotton for the local, regional and international market. The regional potential is particularly acute. Given its geographical position and its ample access to the sea, the country can easily place itself as a provider of goods and services between central and west Africa.
Cameroon needs to work on the value chains to maximize its economic base. If one just takes into account the potential of cotton, it is possible to develop strong linkages between the farmers and the nascent fashion industry by factoring the quality demanded by consumers into the development of a textile industry. The opportunity to gain market share is so blatant. Only 1% of the clothing industry is controlled by locals. With entrepreneurs demanding locally sourced quality inputs, the proceeds from the clothing industry can be distributed to reduce the share of imports of new and second hand clothes. The clothing industry is one area where the 64% of the under 25 could redirect their energy, boosting economic growth. To achieve it, Cameroon has to devise and implement policy measures that support local enterprises in their endeavor to reap the benefits of their creativity in local and regional value chains. Their competitiveness will be enhanced when barriers to innovation and doing business are no more. Fortunately, for Cameroon, there are other sectors with equal potential. Young entrepreneurs are making inroads into the lucrative market of applications for smartphones and tablets. They have understood the space for frugal innovation. AppsTech is a company founded by Rebecca Enonchong which specializes in the management software for enterprises. It is Oracle certified. Rebecca has entered the lucrative software solutions market at a time the demand for these services is rising all over Africa. Another example is Tony Smith who founded Limitless specialized in tablet, smartphone and flat screen’s conceptions. He is aware he will have to face stiff competition. But one has to start somewhere. Such entrepreneurship can accelerate the changes required in a stagnant workforce. By demonstrating once jobs are not available we should strive to create them ourselves.
It is crucial that Cameroon’s socio-economic policies reflect the needs of the 75% jobless young population. The government will obviously not be able to absorb the unemployed through civil service jobs. However, it has a real opportunity to address the mismatch between job seekers’ skills and employers’ needs. Solving this problem will prepare youth to the jobs that come with economic transformation.
Jobs exist in the oil and gas sector. Its diversification could contribute to increase the local content. The need for technical skills is real, but companies should be made responsible for re-sourcing them locally. If they are not available the companies will then have to contribute to train and foster new skills. Currently, hydrocarbons represent 8% of GDP. They are set to expand, given the natural gas reserves of 135 billion cubic meters, against the country needs of about 30 billion. The production and export of minerals, energy and petrochemicals will diversify the skills that Cameroon attracts as well as the training that will be offered to the youth. Since 2012, production increases required investment, technological upgrade and trained human resources.
The construction of a deep sea port with an extensive industrial zone for heavy, medium and light industry is a positive step in increasing employment. Electricity supply will expand thanks to the Kribi Power Project as well as hydroelectric dams in Lom Pagar and Memve’ele. In about 5 years, Cameroon should have completed the expansion and modernization of the entire infrastructure its industrial transformation depends on. For Cameroon to show its full strength, it needs also to improve entrepreneurs access to financing, by developing innovative banking credit products. Currently, the way export revenues are used is not linked to a vast industrialization drive. The role of small and medium scale entrepreneurs is crucial to shift to a more labor-intensive model. Mining employs only 10% of the workforce, which is very little.
If one looks at the trade patterns of the country, the three first import categories are oil, rice and frozen fish. These are all categories Cameroon can produce and even export. The country is blessed with amazingly fertile land, vast sea and marine resources apart from mining. One should not underestimate the amount of effort and energy needed for beneficiation in the three areas. But the gain will be significant if Cameroon manages to place itself in more aggressive development path. I am convinced Cameroon can do much better economically. Its strengths, as described, are solid. They require, nevertheless, robust policies and leadership. Attaining 7% should be the magic goal. It is possible for this cheetah to roar.
Magic because it is the growth rate that would allow the country to double its economy within a decade and create the conditions for a drastic poverty reduction. Cameron legitimate aspirations to emerge will be compromised otherwise.
Dr. Carlos Lopes is the Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, headquartered in Addis Abeba, Ethiopia.