YAOUNDE (IDN) – “You are welcome back home”, said Cameroon Prime Minister Philemon Yang, setting the tone for a five-day event intended to woo the Cameroonian diaspora to invest in its country of origin.
With eyes set on 2035 as the year Cameroon should attain emergence status, public authorities are doing what they can to fast track the country’s economic growth, constrained as it is by a draining battle against terrorist group Boko Haram and falling oil prices on the international market.
As a result, Cameroon is now turning to its diaspora to help the troubled economy of the Central African country.
Even though this is a diaspora that has been frequently criticised for tarnishing the country’s image abroad, the government is finding it increasingly difficult to raise the money for investments or attract investors, and is calling on Cameroonians living abroad to step in “with the innovations, the ideas and the resources” they have amassed over the years and “help build a better Cameroon”, in the words of the Prime Minister.
He was speaking at the first Cameroon Diaspora Forum organised by the government from June 26 to 30 under the theme of “Cameroon and its Diaspora: Working Together for the Nation’s Development”.
Amid general willingness to find common ground in the country’s development effort, participants came forward with some 300 project proposals in various sectors, including finance, agriculture, food processing, water and energy, and mining.
“I came to this forum with a project to set up a Diaspora Bank,” Dr Mbang Sama, Executive Director ofCoalition Digitale, told IDN.
With remittances from the diaspora estimated at 65 billion dollars annually directed towards Africa, Mbang believes such money could have a bigger impact if it was channelled through such a bank.
“Our approach is to turn this money into an investment fund for development,” said Mbang. “It is a simple principle. If 10,000 Cameroonians from the diaspora each drop 1 dollar in a bank per month that means we are collecting one million dollars a month. In five years, we would have collected an enormous amount of money.
“That can enable the start of several local economic activities at local level, and people in the diaspora will find it easy returning and settling permanently in their countries of African without having to wait for funding from international banks. That alone will create the necessary dynamics between the diaspora and locals in terms of sharing experiences.”
Cameroonian electrical engineering graduate Dr Ernest Simo, who works with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the United States, told IDN he had come with proposals on how to use digital technologies to change the economic dynamics of Cameroon, and perhaps of Africa.
“When you look at the products we import (cars, electrical appliances; smartphones, etc.), they are all made by man,” he said. “But look at what we export (cocoa, coffee, cotton or wood) which are God-given. We can use digital technologies to change from being consumers to being producers.”
But those proposals could still flounder in a climate that is not sufficiently favourable for investment, and many diaspora Cameroonians have already tried and failed.
Killian Mayua, a Nigeria-based IT specialist from Cameroon, recalls how he had a disheartening experience when he tried to set up a business in Cameroon two years ago.
“It took me a little over three months and about 2,000 dollars to incorporate an IT services company. We started off with a major client that required software customised for its use. We worked on it for about eight months and at the end of it all, the client decided we did not deserve to be paid tens of millions of francs because we were too young.
“We went back and forth with them in several forums and sought redress in the courts. As we speak today, no verdict has come out of that. The only resort for me was to pack my bags, count my losses and start all over again.”
Cameroon has frequently figured very poorly when it comes to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Ranking. For 2016, the country was ranked 167th, with procedures for registering businesses, paying taxes or obtaining land certificates identified as particularly constraining factors.
Surrendering is not an option
Despite the challenges, Miranda Oben, CEO of a project titled The Returnees, believes the better option cannot be to leave. Her project seeks to encourage diaspora Africans to return and settle or at least invest in their respective countries.
“Our focus is to highlight and shine the light on the returnees, people who have packed their bags from the diaspora and come back home,” she told IDN, saying it would be an eye-opener for the hesitant diaspora.
“If we shine the light on these Cameroonians; on these Africans; we celebrate and the diaspora sits watching and thinking…wow!, you went back home! Are there challenges? Yes, they will tell you there are challenges. Yes, there is power failure, yes, the roads are bad; yes there is too much heat; yes there are mosquitoes, but you know what? Home is home. I love being here and to every cloud there is a silver lining.”
However, for the diaspora to become fully involved in Cameroon’s development process, a wide range of measures need to be taken.
Participants in the Yaounde forum concluded that it was necessary to create a state secretariat in charge of diaspora affairs; set up up a fund to support investments of Cameroonians in the diaspora; establish a data base of Cameroonians in the diaspora (highlighting their socio-professional categories and various competences); establish a public access information system to strengthen government’s policy on communication and involve the diaspora in the construction of a digital economy for Cameroon to facilitate innovation and youth entrepreneurship.
“These are great recommendations,” said Miranda Oben, “but they will need swift political will to implement.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 13 July 2017]
Photo: Returnees pose for the press at the Cameroon Diaspora Forum organised by the Cameroon government from June 26 to 30. Credit: Ngala Killian Chimtom