Gabon is not exactly the first place that comes to mind when thinking about startups in Africa.
A tiny Central African country of no more than 2m people, it is known for its huge rainforests and an oil industry that has been winding down since the late 1990s.
It also has a reputation for being tied to France, playing host to a range of French companies and businesses.
But officials in the sleepy capital of Libreville have long expressed a wish to open the country up to a more diverse set of partners and investors.
This aim was achieved last month when Gabon joined the Commonwealth – an international association formed almost entirely of former British colonies, with the UK’s Queen Elizabeth II as its ceremonial leader.
While Commonwealth membership doesn’t come with any specific bilateral or multilateral free trade benefits, it elevates Gabon’s image among the club’s 55 other members.
The move has bolstered hopes among the country’s tiny startup scene that English and American funds may soon start to take notice of Gabon.
“Gabon’s entrepreneurs are very excited,” said Nima Yussuf, senior project manager at ESP, a fund investing in Gabonese entrepreneurs.
“They are looking to expand into countries in the sub-region that are Anglophone. With the Commonwealth it will probably be a little bit easier in terms of trade and making connections.”
Most of Gabon’s startups are still in the very early stages – there have been no big ticket raises or serious venture capital investment in the ecosystem so far.
Nearly all of the capital being leveraged in the local ecosystem comes from domestic funds.
Okoumé Capital, a subsidiary of Gabon’s sovereign wealth fund, has CFA20bn ($31m) at its disposal to invest in early-stage startups and entrepreneurs.
It launched its La Fabrique des Champions (“Champion Builder”) incubation programme in November last year to provide training and seed capital to SMEs for a period of between four to 12 months.
The startups work in sectors including healthtech, edutech, fintech and agritech.
Opportunities in the timber value chain
Sustainable logging is by far Gabon’s biggest industry, after the oil and gas sector.
The government wants to replace hydrocarbon revenues with logging proceeds, aiming to build a $10bn timber industry in the next 10 years that will create around 300,000 jobs.
Gabon is 88% tropical rainforest – it has introduced a raft of climate-positive legislation to ensure it preserves the trees in the Congo Basin while also giving rise to a thriving logging industry.
There are opportunities for startups across Gabon’s timber value chain, from platforms to collect data on the timber cutting process to construction and delivery of furniture.
One of the most well-known startups is Ntchina, an application that connects people that are looking for blood with blood donors.
The startup won the Moov Africa Gabon Telecom Startup Challenge this year, receiving $15,000 to grow its footprint in Gabon.
As always, the fledgling nature of the sector means that the only way is up!
La Francophonie comes to do business in Gabon
Meanwhile, the international association of French-speaking countries, the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF), has not been ignoring Gabon.
A trade mission organised by the OIF visited Gabon from 6 to 8 July before continuing to Rwanda, reports Jeune Afrique (in French).
Led by OIF secretary general Louise Mushikiwabo, the mission brought together French-speaking economic players, including ministers, bankers, young entrepreneurs, business lawyers and investors to discuss possible common projects.
As part of the mission, the Gabon Digital Incubation Company (SING) signed three agreements in Kigali to support the local startup ecosystem.
Additional reporting by Charles Dietz.