Developing the agriculture sector in Gabon

Guest blog by Dadja Tabo

My background and goals

As a leader of audit and advisory assignments working in a Big 4 consulting firm, I have developed an expertise in accompanying public sector clients (ministries, central administrations, states owned companies) in different fields of public policy making, policy evaluation (SMEs & private sector, investment promotion strategy, development of agricultural sector).

While attending HKS programs, I expected to enhance my capabilities in economic development and public policy matters such as: (i) understanding key concepts of economic growth, (ii) acquiring tools to design, implement and assess public policies in the perspective of growth, (iii) sharing best practices with other executives. Finally, my ultimate goal was to acquire new skills to impact on the economic development of African countries.

My policy challenge

Gabon is a central African country rich in natural resources, rich in arable land, forests and minerals. The country is the fifth largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, the second African producer of wood, and the first world producer of manganese. The country faces a significant economic challenge relating to the dependence on oil production. As the fifth largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa, Gabon is fully dependent on oil. The oil sector’s contribution is substantial, forming 80% of government revenue, 50% of GDP over the last five years (Source: Ministry of Finance).

Despite considerable potential, more than 5 million hectares of cultivable land and a favorable tropical climate, the agricultural sector’s contribution to GDP has been less than 5% for the last 15 years. In 2019, the industry sector contributed to 51.1% of GDP, while the services sector contributed to 44.2% of GDP.

Gabon is very dependent on food imports with a very significant weight (80%) of imports in food consumption. Imports are increasing sharply at an average of + 11% per year. Particularly high bill are spent on certain key foods (meats, cereals, fruits and vegetables). No agricultural product is exported by the country.

My implementation challenge relates to developing agricultural contribution in Gabon’s economy. In fact, despite a high potential for agriculture, Gabon faces a food security challenge and hardly exports any agricultural products. Thus, agriculture has: (i) very few contributions in the country’s GDP still dominated by Oil & Gas, (ii) with very little job creation.

Unique learning techniques with HKS

As the courses progressed, I discovered a multitude of techniques for deconstructing the problem, analyzing it, and building an effective and efficient organization to carry out policy implementation. Attending implementing public policy program helped me to acquire some practical tools and key lessons in policy implementation:

  • Approach to public policy implementation with PDIA, iterative process of action learning experiments
  • Fishbone diagram and change space analysis
  • Exercising leadership when dealing with complex policy challenges (Strategy in persuading people: Inquiry versus advocacy, 4P model of strategic leadership, Delegation and time management, etc)

I particularly appreciate the PDIA approach in tackling complex challenges. It contrasts with conventional approach with a set of prepackaged solutions and standard reforms. With PDIA, we adopt a step by step approach for solving the problem. PDIA is not given a prepackage solution or standard policy. With this approach, the growth challenge is deconstructed by teams with various skills. The problem is broken down into causes, which are also broken down into root causes. Stakeholders can carry out in-depth studies in order to identify entry points and quickly take actions. As long as reflexions are going on, the team adapts solutions and find good ideas naturally.

Problem diagnosis

I engaged in the construction of my fishbone diagram which, as we progressed through the program, became more detailed and more analytical.

Using principles of Differential Diagnosis, I could identify human capital as the main binding constraint and entry point for Gabon agricultural growth challenge. In fact, with a low population (less than 2 million inhabitants), Gabon has a scarcity of qualified human capital.

Immigration policy is also very strict in Gabon. The main objective of this immigration policy is to preserve the work of nationals, with a risk of populist excesses. Practically, companies are not allowed to have more than 10% foreign employees. Furthermore, the processing of work permit applications is very selective and is carried out by a national commission and foreign employees are subject to a 2- year employment authorization renewable once. As a result, companies in need of skilled labor often find themselves with a deficit since they cannot find skilled labor in Gabon, nor can they have massive recourse to foreigners. This situation is further complicated by the fact that with a very small population of 2 million, there is a high ratio of civil servant. That really penalizes the sectors of activities that need abundant manpower.

Iteration and key areas of attention

With the PDIA technique, I have met a multitude of stakeholders with whom I have continued the deconstruction of the problem of human capital and I have analyzed solution attempts. They were from different levels of commitment in the agricultural value chain: members of government, senior civil servants, senior managers of multinational firms, consultants, economists, field workers, etc.

These interviews allowed me to understand key initiatives already undertaken by the Gabonese State: specialization and targeting of sectors, creation of a special agency dedicated to the development of agriculture (ADAG), deployment of a One-Stop-Shop for Agriculture and a special agricultural center within the Nkok Special Economic Zone. These steps contributed to accelerating skills development and transfer, innovation and research in the sector.

However, the strategy is not as clear and effective as it seems. The iteration process allowed me to explore practical solutions to tackle the human capital as a binding factor in the development of agriculture in Gabon.

To build knowhow in the agricultural challenge in Gabon, some key steps can be explored and will be subject to next iterations that I will undertake with ministry of agriculture and ministry of labor.

Visits and training of young farmers in the pilot centers: Young farmers could be selected from across the country and from several sub-sectors of agriculture. Some could also come from agricultural training schools. These young people could be sent on training courses or internships lasting several months in foreign countries. Some of them could be sent to comparable countries such as Cameroon or Cote d’Ivoire which, with the same economic and geographical conditions, are able to meet the needs of their populations and export agricultural products. Others could be sent to selected countries such as Israel which have developed special techniques and know-how in agriculture despite extreme climatic conditions.

Targeted immigration: Consideration could be given to a pilot immigration experiment of successful agricultural cooperatives in replicable sectors in Gabon. These cooperatives could come with farming communities.

Softening of the immigration policy: The government should create some derogations of immigration rules for strategic sectors such as agriculture, oil & gas, mining, etc. Those sectors are essential for the national economy and need skilled workers that cannot be found locally. For those sectors, it is important to issue a less restrictive policy that can boost innovation.

Conclusion and way forward

Agriculture is a key driver that Gabon could use to boost economic development and meet the challenge of diversification of its economy. To succeed in this challenge, it is necessary to avoid reproducing standard reforms that are not adapted to the country’s particular situation.

During my learning journey with HKS, I have experienced an interesting iterative process of action learning experiments to address my policy challenge, and it was useful. Each iteration helped me gradually improve the business process and fix problems. During the journey, stakeholders experienced new discoveries that allowed the emergence of skills and solutions, building capabilities by delivering results.

The success of this challenge requires leadership to unite talents, energies and skills around a vision and an efficient organization. Finally, one should keep in mind this quotation of President Dwight David Eisenhower: “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”.

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 6-month online learning course in December 2020. These are their learning journey stories.

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