Examining Cameroon’s unique business environment

Following independence, many sub-Saharan African countries adopted the language of their colonisers as the official national language. English, French and Portuguese are therefore still widely spoken across the continent.

Ousmanou Kouotou

Ousmanou Kouotou

The Central African country of Cameroon is, however, unique in that it has both English and French as official languages. This is a result of its colonial past where one part of the country was under French control and the other under British rule.

Although language has been a divisive factor in Cameroon, and despite the fact that a large part of the population only speaks indigenous languages, bilingualism is positive for business in the country, says Ousmanou Kouotou, manager for logistics company DHL in Cameroon. He says both English and French-speaking business people will find it relatively easy to operate in the country.

Kouotou has much business experience in West and Central Africa, having worked as country manager for DHL across eight countries in the region.

He says another unique aspect of Cameroon, which has a population of just over 20 million, is that economic activity is distributed across a number of cities. This is different from many African countries where most commerce is centralised in the capital.

Cameroon’s commercial and industrial hub is the port city of Douala, with over three million people. Doula’s port also serves the region’s landlocked countries such as Chad and the Central African Republic. The nation’s capital is Yaoundé – also a sizeable urban centre with a population of more than two million. In addition to these cities, most of the capitals of Cameroon’s 10 administrative regions are important cities from a business perspective.

In many African countries it is common to pay over US$300 per night for an average hotel room, while the bill for a decent restaurant meal will make you wish you didn’t invite the entire office. According to Kouotou, business travellers will find more bang for their buck in Cameroon, compared to its neighbouring countries. “Cameroon is not that pricey, if you compare it with Libreville (Gabon), N’Djamena (Chad) and Kinshasa (Democratic Republic of Congo) – it is less expensive than those countries.”

Business potential

Kouotou says Cameroon’s economy is moving in the right direction, with improvements in infrastructure such as roads and electricity.

According to the African Development Bank, Cameroon’s economy grew by around 4.9% in 2012, stimulated by the recovery in the oil sector and strong domestic demand, which was in turn driven by investments in infrastructure. This trend should continue in 2013 and 2014, with projected growth of around 5% per annum.

While corruption is still a problem, Kouotou says the authorities have put measures in place to address the issue. “One of the most common misconceptions about Cameroon held by foreigners is the high level of corruption. I’m not saying that there is no corruption, but I’m very impressed to see that the government has taken a strong stand against corruption.”

He says the local business community is very active and that Cameroon is one of the few countries in the region where most of the economic activity is controlled by locals.

Despite this, Cameroon has seen a number of foreign investors enter the country. Last year Reuters reported on Chinese automobile manufacturer Futian Automobile’s plans to build a $500m utility vehicle assembly plant in Cameroon. The country’s mining sector has also attracted interest from foreign entities, such as Australia’s Legend Mining that focuses on the discovery of iron ore, base metal and precious metal deposits.

When it comes to DHL’s business in Cameroon, Kouotou says the company’s main clients are in the telecommunications, oil and gas, and financial services industries. Local traders also contribute to the business.

Kouotou says the quality of human resources in Cameroon is relatively good, compared to the rest of the continent. Due to high unemployment, talent is also not expensive.

So, which industries hold good prospects for further investment? According to Kouotou, business people can find lucrative opportunities in the renewable energy, private hospitals, social housing, human transport and agricultural industries.