Shop shelves in Bangui filled with imports

At least 17 people were killed in weekend clashes between rebels and residents of the capital Bangui. (Reuters)

At least 17 people were killed in weekend clashes between rebels and residents of the capital Bangui. (Reuters)

At least 17 people were killed in weekend clashes between rebels and residents of the capital Bangui. The coup and the ongoing fighting has also laid waste the West African country’s already weak economy.

Princesse Tatie sugar – a brand of the large agribusiness Sucaf – is one of a small handful of local products to be found on the shelves of shops in Bangui. Café Gbako is another.
In both cases, once existing stock has been sold anybody who wants their morning coffee with sugar will have to turn to imported products.

The director of Sucaf, until recently one of the few operating industries in the CAR, told the Mail & Guardian that there wasn’t much motivation to invest in a new sugar mill to replace what Seleka rebels had destroyed. Sucaf had been producing 12 000 tonnes of sugar a year at its facilities in Ngakabo, 460km from Bangui.

Bruno Lardit is a young French national who took up his position as head of an industrial success story in the CAR only a few months ago. The sugar mill was privatised in 2003, the same year former president François Bozizé ousted his former boss, Ange-Félix Patassé.

Lardit doesn’t know when, if ever, another sugar cane crop will be planted. The rebels, he says, destroyed everything, and the appetite for investment in the CAR, given the present instability, is almost zero.

To say that very little is produced in the CAR on an industrial basis is an understatement. With one of the weakest transportation infrastructures on the planet, it’s not surprising that there are almost no factories to be found. Apart from sugar, two other heavy losses to the small pool of salaried jobs available are in the coffee and cotton sectors.

Rural country
Before arriving in Bangui last month, Seleka rebels laid waste to much of what they found as they crossed the predominantly rural country. Only four months ago, local radio station Ndeke Luka ran a story on how cotton production was likely to rise significantly, accompanied by new job opportunities.

The combination of continued insecurity and an uncertain relationship between new leader Michel Djotodia and the Chinese does not bode well for any hope of reconstructing recently destroyed facilities. Officially, the biggest employer in the CAR is the state. Roughly 23 000 people rely on the government for their pay cheque, a cheque that sometimes doesn’t turn up for months or even years. That’s one of the reasons why few tears were shed when Bozizé fled the country. The same was true for his predecessors and chances are the trend won’t be changing very quickly. The second biggest employer, with 19 000 staff on its books, is the Kamach Group.

If there is such a thing as royalty in the Central African Republic, the title goes to the Kamach family. The M&G met Yvon Kamach in his Bangui office. In a sanctuary of air-conditioned calm amid the chaos that is the capital city these days, Yvon sits framed by portraits of his father and grandfather, the first Kamach to arrive in the country from his native Syria in 1944.

The Kamach Group is to the CAR a bit like what Anglo American is to South Africa – there are few people it doesn’t touch with its interests in forestry, mining, agriculture, industry and property. The family maintains good relations with whoever is in power, but stays out of politics.

It’s difficult for an observer to understand two things – how a business manages to be consistently successful for more than four decades in a country with so little stability, and why the family carries on. Kamach smiles; he has probably been asked this question many times. This time, however, he appears slightly shaken by the knowledge that, only metres from where we are sitting, rebels continue their reign of terror in the city through looting and killing.

“Opportunities for business here are among the highest in the world, and everything is interdependent …” he says. “I know that there will be democracy here because world politics and governance will ultimately have a bigger effect on us than what’s happening locally.”

Optimism has to be a strong trait of the Kamach family – and the know-ledge that the current troubles can’t last forever. But they may last for a long time. “We have a population of 4.5-million – two million are very young and one million are unemployed – this is a time bomb … imagine what the state of our economy would be if the population was productive!”

Although stressing that his company is in the CAR for the long haul, Kamach says he’s diversifying and moving some assets to neighbouring countries including Cameroon, where infrastructure such as railways and the port of Douala favour growth.

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