On an African scale, Cameroon is economically a relatively developed country, with significant natural resources, a complex industry, sustained economic growth and a relatively high average income. Until the latter half of the 1980s Cameroon had steady high economic growth, and was considered one of Africa’s economic success stories. Thereafter, the country entered a period of relative decline, both for external and internal reasons – including a sharp decline in the price of the two key export products oil and coffee in the international markets, but also local political conditions. Following a financial crisis, a structural adjustment program was implemented from the end of the 1980s, and in 1994 the country’s currency, CFA franc, devalued by 50 percent. From the mid-1990s, Cameroon has had renewed economic growth, higher than the population growth.
Cameroon is traditionally an agricultural country, but from around 1980 the country’s economy was largely characterized by oil exports, as well as the extraction of other minerals. From independence in 1960, the country has followed a policy of broad investment in business development and economic growth, not least with industrial travel and therefore has a wider industrial base than most African countries. As oil sector growth slowed down in the 1990s and industry to some extent was hit by a decline, exports of agricultural products have become increasingly important.
Cameroon also has revenue from transit trade with neighboring countries without access to the sea; since 2003 also from the Chad oil pipeline that goes to the Cameroonian port at Kribi. At the turn of the millennium, the country was in conflict with Nigeria over the rights to a potential oil-rich land area on the Bakassi Peninsula, which the International Court of Justice in The Hague decided in 2002 to Cameroon – with opportunities for renewed oil recovery.
Despite the continuation of new infrastructure projects (see below), there is a continuing lack of political change at the top political level in Cameroon, with President Paul Biya sitting in power for 35 years, preventing a better investment climate in the country.
Corruption is still extremely widespread, and the lack of predictability about the further political development in the country hinders the necessary belief in innovation in business, among both local and foreign investors.
Although many have benefited from recent economic developments, many still fall outside the organized business world, and without a welfare network and without the right contacts, many are living in poverty. With increasing urbanization and more widespread unemployment and crime in urban areas, an increased focus on rural development is crucial.
Agriculture and fishing
The agricultural sector represents, despite oil recovery and industrial growth, the foundation of Cameroon’s economy, and stood at the entrance of the 2000s to nearly 60 percent of the country’s employment, over 40 per cent of GDP and about 1 / 3 of export earnings. Around 15 per cent of the land area is cultivated, while another five per cent is used for grazing, mainly in the highlands and other areas without tsetse flies. Much of agriculture is driven in the traditional manner of small farmers, with a large part of the production for own consumption, including cassava, melbanan, corn, yams, beans, sugar cane, banana and sorghum (sorghum). Potatoes are also grown (especially sweet potato ), tomatoes, peanuts (often used in dishes), pineapple, rice, pumpkin, millet, onion, avocado, and melon. Some plantation operations exist, where trees are mainly grown for the production of rubber and palm oil, as well as cocoa and bananas. In the 1990s a lot of effort was put into increasing the yield in the agricultural sector – partly by giving farmers better payment for the products.
Agricultural production is broadly composed, both for local consumption and export, and reflects Cameroon’s compound ecology. The most important export growth is cocoa, coffee, cotton and bananas, which are widely grown in different parts of the country, and mainly on small farms. Most of the field is in the south, in the north there is a predominance of animal husbandry; cattle are especially kept on the Adamaoua Plateau. Cattle are exported regionally, to Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Congo-Brazzaville. Coffee is mostly grown in the south and west, cocoa in the south, cotton in the north. The production of coffee and cocoa has varied greatly, both due to price fluctuations in the international markets and the lack of new planting. While cocoa has traditionally been the dominant export crop with a total production of 190,000 tonnes (2009), in 2003 bananas were the most important export product from agriculture. Cameroon is normally self-supplied with food, in addition to growing agricultural products for export.
Forests cover just under 50 per cent of the country’s land, and the forests contain many valuable species of wood, some of which were banned exported through new legislation in 1999. Forestry is, after oil, the most important source of export revenue. However, large parts of the forest areas are not commercially exploited, mostly due to a lack of transport networks. The felling takes place mainly along the railway between Douala and Yaoundé.
The development of fisheries has been hampered by restricted areas available for fishing due to a border dispute with Equatorial Guinea, but the occurrences are also not large. Most of the activity in the sector is fishing, both at sea, in the rivers and in the Chad Sea.
Mining, energy and industry
Cameroon was one of the largest oil producers in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1980s and 1990s. Oil was first discovered outside Rio del Rey on the northeast side of the Bakassi Peninsula in 1973, with production from four fields in 1977–1978. New discoveries were later made both offshore and onshore in the Douala / Kribi-Camp basins – as well as onshore in the Logone-Birni basin north of the country. Crude oil production increased from 800,000 tonnes in 1978 to 9.2 million tonnes in 1985, but declined during the 1990s, even further in the early 2000s. Without new findings of significance, the country’s deposits will be depleted around 2010. In 2002, proven deposits were 400 million barrels. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in a ruling in 2002 granted Cameroon the claim on the Bakassi Peninsula, which also Nigeria claimed; Nigeria initially did not accept the ruling, but in 2008 agreed to an official transfer of the authority over Bakassi to Cameroon. It is believed that there are significant oil deposits in the area, which may help revitalize oil recovery. Significant gas deposits have been identified, which were not yet put into production in the early 2000s, but were planned to be utilized, among other things, as an energy source for the country’s industry. The natural gas reserves are estimated at about 3.9 trillion cubic feet. Cameroon’s oil is exported in its entirety and the country meets its own needs through imports. The country’s only oil refinery is located at the port city of Limbe. In 2003, the 1070 kilometer long pipeline opened from the new oil fields at Doba in Chad to the Atlantic coast at Kribi in southern Cameroon. The pipeline has a capacity of 225,000 barrels per day, and around 85 percent of it goes through Cameroon, which is estimated to receive revenues in the amount of $ 550 million over a 28-year period.
Cameroon also has significant deposits of bauxite, uranium, tin, iron ore, nickel and limestone, but also of gold, cassiterite and cyanite. The majority of the deposits are not put into production, much because of inadequate infrastructure, partly because of low prices on the world market. Cameroon thus imports bauxite from Guinea to the aluminum plant in Edéa.
In 2016, the consumption of electrical energy was 6.6 TWh. This corresponds to a per capita consumption of 281 kWh, but power to the heavy industry constitutes a significant part of the consumption. Only 54 percent of the population has access to electrical energy.
Hydroelectric power accounted for 57 per cent of power generation, while the rest came from heat power plants, based on oil and natural gas. However, many companies and individuals are not connected to the electricity grid and therefore produce their own power, often with the use of diesel generators. Taking this into account, the hydroelectric share is estimated to be only around 45 per cent.
The country’s developed power plant in 2017 had a total installed capacity of 1.6 GW. The two largest hydropower plants are located on the Sanaga River. The Edéa hydroelectric power station has a capacity of 263 MW, while the Song-Loulou power plant has a capacity of 384 MW. There is still considerable untapped hydropower potential, not least from Sanaga, which is estimated at around 20,000 MW. Developing this potential could make Cameroon a significant exporter of power. It is also considered to utilize the country’s large reserves of natural gas for power generation. Currently, only one large gas power plant in Kribi, with a capacity of 216 MW, is utilizing this mine.
The industry has gradually evolved since independence, when Cameroon had little industry. The sector was built up mainly based on the production of consumer goods and the processing of agricultural products – which still constitutes the main bulk of industrial production. Subsequently, petroleum refining, aluminum smelting and cement production, as well as the composition of products based on imported parts, have been added. An integrated pulp and paper mill closed after a few years due to heavy losses. Refining crude oil, as well as other industries, is suffering from competition from smuggled goods from Nigeria. At the beginning of the 2000s, the industry accounted for around eleven percent of GNI, employing about seven percent of the working population.
Thanks to oil exports, Cameroon has had a trade balance surplus, which was maintained even with the fall in crude oil prices in the second half of the 1980s. Oil revenues have led Cameroon to a lesser extent than many other countries in Africa, relying on foreign aid; Nor has the country taken out large loans from abroad to the same extent as many others. Exports include crude oil and refined petroleum, especially bananas, while exports of cocoa and coffee have fallen as a result of lower production. Timber is another important export product. Some industrial products are also exported regionally. There is some smuggling from Nigeria. Imports include machinery and transport equipment, electronics, fertilizers, alumina and textiles. France is the country’s most important trading partner; other important trade relations are other EU countries as well as the US and Japan.
Transport and Communications
The transport network is relatively well developed by African scale, but does not reach all parts of the country, which prevents commercial exploitation of both mineral deposits and forest resources. There are, among other things, faulty connections in the south due to difficult terrain and heavy rainfall. The railways, with a total length of 1104 kilometers, make up a significant part of the transport network, and were expanded by more than doubling the rail routes between 1965 and 1985. The main line is the 885 kilometer long TransCam track from Douala to Ngaoundéré. Plans have been drawn up for new routes, including from Kribi to the Central African Republic.
The road network is around 34,000 kilometers, of which approximately 4300 kilometers have a fixed tire (2000). During the rainy season, part of the road network is completely or partially impassable. Poor road connections have contributed to local air traffic, and there are eight regular traffic airports as well as a number of airstrips, and aviation plays an important role in connecting the remote areas to the rest of the country. International airports can be found at Douala, Yaoundé and Garoua. The most important port city is Douala-Bonabéri, at the end of the Wourielven, which accounts for 95 per cent of all sea transport, and is considered among the best equipped in West Africa; there are also ports at Kribi, Limbe and Tiko as well as a river port at Garoua that handles freight services to and from Nigeria. Douala also handles most of the freight traffic to and from Chad and the Central African Republic.
In the last couple of years, the transport sector has received a boost, including improved road from Enugu in Nigeria to Bamenda in Cameroon. This road is part of the trans-African highway from Cairo to Mombasa via the coast of North Africa and West Africa, and then at the junction of Central Africa to East Africa. The improvement will continue southeast to Yaoundé and then east towards Bangui in the neighboring Central African Republic. There are also plans for a new deep harbor south of Kribi and at Tiko near Limbe. In connection with the new port at Kribi there are also plans for a new rail connection from Kribi to Edéa where it will meet the railway line between Yaoundé and Douala, also the planned upgraded. There are also plans for a new railway from Kribi eastwards via Ebolowa and Sangmelima towards Mbalam on the border with Congo in the south, where large deposits of iron ore have been identified. The road link between Douala and Yaoundé is also being improved.