Olam helping Gabon to foster young farmers

A oil palm plantation in Malaysia. As part of a Gabon government plan to develop cash crops, Olam is offering to send aspiring Gabonese farmers on training courses in countries including Malaysia. The global agri-business has partnered with Gabon to
A oil palm plantation in Malaysia. As part of a Gabon government plan to develop cash crops, Olam is offering to send aspiring Gabonese farmers on training courses in countries including Malaysia. The global agri-business has partnered with Gabon to develop 100,000ha of oil palm plantations in the nation.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

JOHANNESBURG • Gabon and Singapore-listed Olam International are trying to persuade young people to take up farming in a nation that faces dwindling crude revenue and imports almost all of its food.

As part of a government plan to develop cash crops, Olam, a global agri-business, is offering to send aspiring Gabonese farmers on training courses in countries from Morocco to Malaysia.

"We need to foster the development of an agro-industry here," Mr Gagan Gupta, country head at the company's Gabon unit, said in a phone interview from the capital, Libreville. "It's about creating human capital."

At least 2,500 people will be able to observe cocoa farming in Ivory Coast, train as bulldozer operators in Morocco or learn modern farming techniques at a palm oil plantation in Asia, Mr Gupta said. Olam has partnered with Gabon to develop 100,000ha of oil palm plantations in the nation, which has a population of under two million.

Large-scale investments in the agricultural sector, especially in cash crops such as palm oil and rubber, may reverse Gabon's slowdown in growth, the International Monetary Fund has said.

The country's economic growth is expected to be around 3.2 per cent this year, from 4 per cent in 2015, because of declining crude production, the Washington-based lender added.

President Ali Bongo, 57, who will run for a second term in August, has said he wants to boost agricultural output to as much as 20 per cent of gross domestic product by 2020, from about 5 per cent now. Under the government's agriculture programme, which began in 2014 and is known as Graine, people who complete a training course or are seen as eligible to farm can obtain land titles in less than a year.

Graine aims to "turn farmers into entrepreneurs", Mr Gupta said.

Oil accounts for 85 per cent of Gabon's exports and about 50 per cent of revenue, according to the government. Production peaked at 370,000 barrels a day in 1997, after which it gradually declined to about 215,000 barrels a day last year. Gabon, an oil producer since 1957, is the African country with the lowest population density.

The government has also fast- tracked the process of issuing land titles to cooperatives and individuals to boost agriculture, Mr Gupta said. About 4,000 people have already registered for the programme in the hope of obtaining land, he said.

Olam is developing 50,000ha of arable land into an industrial oil palm plantation in north Gabon, Mr Gupta said. Once the plantation is completed, an extra 30,000ha will be laid out for small-scale palm oil farmers.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2016, with the headline 'Olam helping Gabon to foster young farmers'. Print Edition | Subscribe