The equator runs directly through the center of Gabon, which means it’s tropical with a rainy season. The country has large forests, offshore oil, and valuable minerals especially manganese and gold. The population is small (1.6 million people), so petroleum exporting makes the per capita income seem extremely high, but a closer look at social statistics offers a different story. Agriculture only represents 3.7 percent of the GDP, but occupies 60 percent of the labor force. Over 80 percent of Gabon’s export earnings come from petroleum. There is a wealthy oil and mineral sector of the economy in which a small percent of the population make a lot of money and there is a significant income gap.
Cell Phone Penetration
Gabon’s digital profile is a characteristic of an upper middle income country. There is a 110 percent penetration of cell phone users. Gabon adopted cell phone technology quickly and successfully by fostering competition among cell phone providers. It helps that 86 percent of the population lives in urban areas, which makes it easy for cell phone companies to establish good coverage. Gabon has one of the highest cell phone use percentages in Africa.
Here’s the challenge. Gabon’s petroleum extraction is well past peak and without further big discoveries could be over by 2025. The country has to adapt to a new social-economic profile that will soon no longer be driven by oil. There are other natural resources that will continue to offer export income, but the economy is a state of change. With the decline of petroleum a more successful smallholder agricultural sector of the economy may mean a lot more to the government. At this point almost half of the country’s tax revenues come from the petroleum industry. Building a more diversified and successful economy makes sense and the government is already attempting to make that happen.
Gabon has some real advantages with their digital development. Two international fiber optic cables land in Gabon, which makes global connectivity fast and easy. Also, starting in late 2012, 3G mobile was available, which means internet access is available on cell phones. African smallholder agriculture is changing rapidly as a result of cell phone use. Internet access in Africa lags behind cell phone use -far behind. In Gabon that is not as dramatic as it is elsewhere and internet access helps farmers. Cell phones allow farmers to share weather information, market prices, and micro-insurance schemes. But cell phones with internet access allows for more in depth research about soils, fertilizers, seeds and farming methods.
Gabon’s Agricultural Situation
Eighty five percent of Gabon is forested. Only five percent of the country’s land is used for agriculture and the primary crop is manioc (or cassava root). The best manioc grows in deep, rich, well-drained soils. But with a tropical climate, Gabon has heavy rainfalls and the soils often become waterlogged. Once the soil is too wet, manioc is susceptible to diseases that ruin the crop. Climate change is producing more rainfall and forces farmers to constantly look for better methods of draining their land and finding other methods to help their crops. The government has set up studies to develop these methods, and uses cell phones to disseminate information.
Agro-forestry projects are in place throughout Gabon to study rural soils and increase their fertility. The government is also improving weather stations for observing changes in the climate. Farmers in Gabon are improving their ability to cope with the vagaries of new unpredictable weather patterns. And, agricultural organizations are helping teach smallholder farmers how to restore soils damaged by rain and disease.
Gabon’s traditional crops, other than manioc, are rice, taro, yams, corn and bananas. Ever since oil was discovered off Gabon’s coast in 1963, agriculture has declined. More and more of Gabon’s food is imported from other African countries and Europe. Gabon gained independence from France in 1960 and began to diversify the crops grown even as the number of acres planted were declining. The idea was to make the smallholder farmers more versatile and successful by switching to marketable crops. Gabon now cultivates cocoa, coffee, sugar, palm oil, rubber; cattle; okoume (a tropical softwood) and fish. Now with petroleum revenues declining those efforts may pay off, especially with the digital aide of cell phones.
Gabon’s government is attempting to create a digital economy by 2016. In 2010 the National Agency for Digital Infrastructure and frequencies (ANINF) sought a significant reduction in costs for internet access in Gabon. By reaching out to European companies to bid on becoming internet service providers in Gabon, the government created a competitive telecommunications sector to replace the government owned telecommunications company. So far that strategy has worked.
In 2013, in its effort to become one of the leading IT centers in Africa, the ANINF launched a the “.ga” url extension. It is a 100 percent Gabonese domain name and it’s open to all internet users for free. Since September 2013, Gabonese web users have been encouraged to register their web sites with the .ga extension in the hopes that this free service will help promote Gabon’s digital economy.
Gabon is not in a position to be a digital power player, but there are technical universities in Libreville and Owendo which can support the growth of an internet technology professional core. The university rankings for excellence in Gabon are not very high so fostering an IT sector probably means encouraging outside expertise to grow technology. Several deals between European and U.S. universities have established exchange programs which are a step in the direction of gaining stronger information technology in Gabon.