A future beyond oil. Banker weighs in on Equatorial Guinea’s opportunities to diversify

Relaxing next to the beach at Sipopo, situated on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. The country's tourism potential has to date remained largely untapped.

Relaxing next to the beach at Sipopo, situated on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea. The country’s tourism potential has to date remained largely untapped.

Like most African oil producers, Equatorial Guinea has been hurt by the drop in the price of crude – from over $100 a barrel two years ago, to less than $50 at current levels. According to the IMF, the country’s near-term outlook is challenging, given that energy prices remain depressed and hydrocarbon production will continue to decline. Gross domestic product is anticipated to decrease by over 7% this year.

The oil woes have been felt throughout the economy, including the financial industry. “As a player in the banking sector, we are experiencing the effects on the value chain,” says Alfred Kasongo, managing director of Ecobank in Equatorial Guinea. “I don’t see the oil price recovering to its previous peak in the short term.”

He suggests that diversifying the economy is critical for the country’s development, highlighting opportunities in tourism and agriculture, among others. Although Equatorial Guinea recently announced a new oil and gas blocks licensing round, the government too seems aware of the importance of rebalancing the economy.

“The drop in the oil price is both a good and a bad thing. It is a bad thing because it means less revenue for the country. But it is a good thing because it is a wake-up call for countries like Equatorial Guinea to understand that we need to diversify our economy. We need to think of other resources that can allow us to move forward. The country needs to focus on sectors such as hospitality, agriculture, services and telecoms,” said Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima, minister of mines, industry and energy, in an earlier interview.

Equatorial Guinea’s tourism industry is currently under-developed, with a lack of tourist infrastructure and difficulties for visitors to obtain visas. However, the industry’s potential is clear, with year-round high temperatures, tropical rain forests and untouched beaches. Its location in the middle of the West and Central Africa region also creates opportunities for conferences and events.

In addition, the islands of Annobón and Corisco are ripe for development, with aeroplane runways already in place. It has been suggested that Equatorial Guinea should be promoted as a high-profile destination, leveraging off its “undiscovered” nature.

Similarly, the agriculture sector also remains unexploited, with raw timber the only major soft commodity. There is potential for commercial operators to get involved in industries such as palm oil, sugarcane, tropical fruits and fishing. With adequate electricity generation, agri-processing is another potentially lucrative area – especially to supply Equatorial Guinea’s neighbouring countries with processed food.

Kasongo sees opportunities for Ecobank to finance these future projects. “The diversification programme launched by the government as part of the Horizon 2020 development plan has created potential in tourism and agriculture, so we are very keen on looking at financing some projects in those areas.”

“These sectors should drive the economy forward. It is going to take time, but if we start now and implement these projects, the returns could be very good. We have to seek ways to sustain the economy going forward. Fishery, agriculture and tourism – these are some of the areas we should be looking at,” he adds.