Gabon’s startup scene is looking for English-language investment

Gabon isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when we think of startups in Africa.

A small central African country with a population of no more than 2 million people, it is known for its vast rainforests and an oil industry that has been dormant since the late 1990s.

It also has a reputation for being tied to France, hosting a number of French companies and businesses.

But officials in the sleepy capital Libreville have long expressed a desire to open up the country to a more diverse set of partners and investors.

That goal was achieved last month when Gabon joined the Commonwealth, an international association made up almost entirely of former British colonies, with the United Kingdom’s Queen Elizabeth II as its ceremonial leader.

While Commonwealth membership does not come with any specific bilateral or multilateral free trade benefits, it raises Gabon’s image among the club’s other 55 members.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) and Gabon’s President Ali Bongo Ondimba. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/POOL/AFP)

The move has boosted hopes among the country’s small startup scene that British and American funds may soon start paying attention to Gabon.

“Entrepreneurs in Gabon are very excited,” said Nima Youssef, senior project manager at ESP, a fund investing in Gabon entrepreneurs.

“They are looking to expand into countries in the sub-region that are English-speaking. With the Commonwealth it will probably be a bit easier in terms of trade and making connections.

Most of the startups in Gabon are still very early stage – so far there have been no big ticket raises or serious venture capital investment in the ecosystem.

Almost all capital used for leverage in the local ecosystem comes from domestic funds.

Okoumé Capital, a subsidiary of Gabon’s sovereign wealth fund, has 20 billion CFA ($31 million) to invest in startups and early-stage entrepreneurs.

It launched its incubation program La Fabrique des Champions (‘Champion Builder’) in November last year to provide training and seed capital to SMEs for a period of four to 12 months.

The startups operate in sectors including health tech, education tech, fintech and agritech.

Opportunities in the timber value chain

Sustainable logging is Gabon’s largest industry after the oil and gas sector.

The government wants to replace hydrocarbon revenue with logging revenue, aiming to build a $10 billion logging industry over the next 10 years that will create around 300,000 jobs.

Gabon is 88% rainforest – it has introduced a range of climate-positive laws to ensure it preserves trees in the Congo River Basin, while also kick-starting a thriving logging industry.

There are opportunities for start-ups throughout the timber value chain in Gabon, from data collection platforms for the timber cutting process to construction and furniture supply.

One of the most prominent startups is Ntchina, an app that connects people looking for blood with blood donors.

The startup won the Moov Africa Gabon Telecom Startup Challenge this year, receiving $15,000 to grow its presence in Gabon.

As always, the newly created nature of the sector means the only way is up!

Additional reporting by Charles Dietz.

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