The first words that pop into most people's mind when
thinking about Africa are poverty, war, disease and biodiversity. For
many, Africa is seen as one big country, equally flawed and equally vulnerable,
equally poor and equally breathtaking -- one of the last bastions of untainted
However, it's high time Western readers realize that Africa is much more than a picture postcard with bleak undertones of starvation and hardship. Indeed, many Africans enjoy living standards comparable to those of middle-income Western societies. African cities are sprawling urban metropolises, with glass and concrete skylines that will make even New Yorkers squint. While the continent is still beset by multiple challenges, over the past decade Africa has progressed across the board, from human development to economic development and political rights.
Take Gabon for example. This small Central African nation of 1.8 million is set to leave a larger footprint on the map than its size suggests. Despite being known as one of the biggest oil producing countries in Africa, with 80% of Gabon's export revenues coming from crude, the country has recently been making strides to diversify its economy with aiming to achieve emerging economic market status by 2025. While the goal is definitely an ambitious one, since 30% of the population is still impoverished according to international standards, steady economic growth has led to a tripling of GDP over the last 15 years, buoyed by booming commodity prices and a relatively stable political climate. And unlike other growing nations (read, China), Gabon is mindful of the need to balance the objectives of GDP growth with the fight against climate change. Indeed, on March 31 Gabon was the first African nation to submit its pledges ahead of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in December.
President Ali Bongo Ondimba, son of the country's first president, Omar Bongo Ondimba, who ruled the country for 41 years, has embarked on a series of ambitious reforms meant to raise Gabon above the "African backwater" stereotype. Alongside Maixent Accrombessi, his influential chief of staff, Ali Bongo has been focused on diversifying the economy to sectors such as tourism, infrastructure and telecommunications.
In late August, Gabon launched a Pan-African low-cost airline, FlyAfrica.com, to increase air connectivity across the continent and encourage trade between nations at a cheaper cost, thereby spurring economic growth. According to Bongo, "one of the biggest obstacles to Africa's growth and development is the cost of doing business in Africa. Enhancing air connectivity can help raise productivity and create jobs by encouraging investment and innovation, improving business operations and efficiency". Already launched in Mozambique, Nambia and Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, with the help of a strategic partnership with Ivor Ichikowitz, an African industrialist, the project has been described as a "game changer to Africa's aviation industry" and is seeking to expand to East and West Africa.
According to the IMF, the country's economic potential is heavily constrained by subpar infrastructure and human capital. However, the Fund has estimated that Gabon has used its revenue windfalls from high oil prices, inproving transport and energy infrastructure, and offsetting its disadvantages by establishing joint ventures with foreign companies in non-oil sectors such as natural resource processing.
Counting on World Bank financing, Gabon recently began preparations for a new $56 million project called eGabon, which will focus on the development of an "innovative digital ecosystem". While the initial project will be predominately focused on the eHealth sector, the idea is to attract entrepreneurial minds to take advantage of the new digital infrastructure in all major sectors of the economy.
While Gabon has had largely underwhelming coverage in international media in the past, these recent developments and commitments to diversifying the economy, along with its emphasis on providing its citizens with vital access to the Internet, is bound to place Gabon in a strong regional position. With the price of crude oil falling, President Ali Bongo's focus on investing in other industries and promoting business opportunities on a regional level, means Gabon will have many opportunities for growth and investment in the years to come and will serve to change the image the West has of African countries.