Update: Return to the Central African Republic

In the November/December 2006 Ethix, we devoted the entire issue to the Central African Republic (CAR). I had visited there in June 2006, co-leading a team with John Terrill from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We were working with Integrated Community Development International, the only American NGO in the country, to explore the feasibility of micro-enterprise development there. The general conclusion was that the country was not ready. Its broken infrastructure, corruption in government, lack of education and health care, inability to enforce a contract, and the lack of safety made business extremely difficult.

But we found some people who, in spite of the odds, were doing business anyway. Some women in the village of Zako had formed a cooperative to start making soap and tomato paste, and had made enough progress to open a bank account. Mama Zokoe had found an innovative marketing scheme for raising and selling chickens. Theodore had started a business charging batteries and doing metal work, and had hired six employees at his garage. Sylvain Maleko, the minister of planning, the economy, and international cooperation, had laid out a hopeful plan for making improvements in the country. And Faustin Touadera, the leader of the University of Bangui, had promised to develop a course in entrepreneurship, even though there was no money from the government to do this.

Because of these positive signs, we recommended the beginning of a micro-credit program directed toward groups of people who were already doing something; and we recommended the development of relationships that could encourage the work that had started.

In June and July 2007, John Terrill and I co-led another business team to CAR for three weeks, to encourage further development. This is an update on what we learned — some continued struggle and some more encouragement.

Al Erisman

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The Roads

Last year we had not gone more than 50 miles from the capitol city of Bangui, but this year we took a one week road trip to the city of Gamboula on the Cameroon border, to look at an agro-forestry project with potential for business development. Though it is probably only about 250 miles away, our routing took us about 400 miles to gain access to the “better” roads. The trip took over 15 hours, and included 26 checkpoints where we were stopped for formal and informal tolls. Parts of the travel had to be done at the hottest part of the day to avoid bandit activity. On one side trip to a village forestry project, we carried an extra plank to make the bridge crossing possible (see photo). We visited the U.S. Embassy before the trip and were reminded that they had no way to help us when we were away from the capitol city.

Government Update

We met again with Sylvain Maleko, the minister of planning, the economy, and international relations. If anything, security has worsened. The conflict in Darfur has spilled over into the northern regions of CAR. Chad rebels on the border have used CAR refugees as shields. In spite of a signed treaty with the rebels, factions within the rebel groups have challenged the validity of the treaty. He said energy and transportation remain a challenge, and CAR needs the help of the international community. At his request, we took him 50 copies of last year’s Ethix report on CAR. “We have no other document that describes what is going on in our country,” he said, “and I need these for a high-level international meeting in Brussels.” At the conclusion of the meeting, he told us, “We thank you for your concern and involvement in the lives of our people.”

Police Activity

Our team was stopped several times in the neighborhood where we were staying. One time we received a ticket when the driver was not wearing a seatbelt. This happened in spite of other cars passing by with people sitting on the roof. “It is a very difficult time for the police when the first of the month comes and they are not paid,” one of our colleagues from ICDI commented. And it underscored how difficult every step of life is in the country.

UN Food Aid

We met with the director of the United Nations Food Bank program in CAR. They distribute 4,000 metric tons of food per month into the country, and will for some time. All of the food is shipped in from outside of Africa, coming over the difficult roads. We asked why they couldn’t contract with local CAR farmers for the food, since the land in CAR is fertile. His response was they could not depend on a reliable food supply locally, and security compounded the problem.


The Roads

There is good news on the roads as well. According to its July 17 posting, the World Bank has promised a new road across CAR. The road connecting the Douala Port in Cameroon to Bangui in the Central African Republic is “known as one of Africa’s worst for shippers struggling to get their goods to and from international markets, has hampered trade for thousands and is a substantial toll on the price of doing business regionally. The predicament is in sharp contrast to some parts of Africa where infrastructure projects have improved regional transportation.” In response, the World Bank, in partnership with the European Union, The African Development Band, and the French Development agency will put $680 million into Chad, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic. “Part of the funds will finance the paving of 450-kilometer, two-lane highways in Cameroon and the Central African Republic,” according to the article.

It’s another promise, but it could make a huge difference in the potential for business development in the country.

The First MED Seminar

Marie Louise teaches at the first MED seminar.

Based on the recommendation of the team in 2006, a Micro Enterprise Development (MED) program was launched by ICDI and a director was hired. They have given out a few loans, and while we were there, presented the first of a series of seminars. The seminars, delivered by the African team, explained the basics of MED, the requirements to get a loan, and some resources to assist new teams. Marie Louise, the leader of the women of Zako, is the director of the program. She was an excellent, enthusiastic teacher (see picture) who not only understood the theory but had started a business herself with the women of her village. They did this without the support of a loan as reported in Ethix 50. The seminars were very well received by hopeful entrepreneurs, and we hope to see many new businesses next year.

Seminar at University of Bangui

I was invited to do an all-day seminar on ethics and MED for the faculty at the University of Bangui. Faustin Touadera, head of the university, initiated the seminar and gave both an introduction and closing comments on the importance of ethics in CAR (see his essay, p. 19). Since 2006, he had been successful in launching a course on entrepreneurship at the university, and demonstrated the type of leadership needed to continue to move the university forward.

Agroforestry Project

Roy Danforth is a former missionary and an agro-forestry expert. He has created a “Garden of Eden” in Gamboula on the western border of CAR, where they experiment with growing all sorts of fruit trees that could bring nutrition and opportunity to the country. They are also working with date palms, with the potential for cooking oil, fuel, and even exports. Our team visited the farm to brainstorm ways this farm could be the basis for new businesses, including drying and canning fruit, making palm oil, etc.