Jean-Yves Brethes: Cameroon can be the leading ACP banana producer
The CEO of Spm announces his company’s objectives after obtaining financing from the African Export Import Bank.
Your company has recently obtained financing of almost 2.5 billion FCFA from the African Export Import Bank (Afreximbank). What do you intend to do with this money?
We are very pleased that this bank, which is important in the development of import-export trade, has demonstrated its confidence in us. As an operator in the banana sector, and in relation to the international challenges, we are in the process of trying to boost our competitiveness, while consolidating and restructuring our company, the Société des Plantations de Mbanga (Spm), which was buffeted for several years, in particular between 2002 and 2005, by very heavy taxes on banana exports to Europe. We have implemented not only a financial restructuring programme, but also a development programme.
How important is Spm in the banana sector in Cameroon in terms of its production and the number of people it employees, and how do you view the future after the Afreximbank financing?
We produce almost 40,000 tonnes of bananas a year. We are the third largest operator in the sector after Cdc and the fruit company Php. We want to grow our company by improving its quality and profitability and by increasing production to 60,000 tonnes a year. We have a total workforce of 2,000 staff and our aim, as part of the company’s growth, is to increase that number to 3,000. We have also developed, in partnership with two other operators, our activities in the area of consultancy and management services for the development of new projects or project extensions. We have a technical assistance contract with the Cdc to develop 1,750 hectares of bananas, as part of a large-scale operation on behalf of the Cdc and the national sector.
We are also involved in another operation with private Cameroonian companies that want to develop 1,500 hectares of bananas. Broadly speaking, Spm, which as a company is restructuring its finances and production, is also participating in the development of the national strategy for the banana sector. The target of the national strategy is to increase production to 500,000 tonnes. Such a level of production, which would be close to those of certain Central American countries, would make Cameroon by far the biggest ACP banana producer.
This leads to the question of the competition between ACP bananas and the so-called dollar bananas on the European market. How are you succeeding in withstanding this competition?
We are fully focused on this at the current time. Our aim today is to reduce our production costs in absolute terms, improve production and modernise our facilities. Leverage in the banana sector is based on tonnage. If the national sector’s tonnage increases from 280,000 to 500,000 tonnes, production costs will fall. Moreover, freight charges account for 35 to 40% of banana production costs on the European market. We can reduce these freight charges by pooling operations. This will enable Cameroon to consolidate its presence on the European market. Cameroon has considerable wealth and a huge production potential. All that is needed is additional financing. To this end, the European Union is supporting us and has launched a support programme for the banana sector, namely the BAM (Banana Accompanying Measures).
Cameroon expects to receive a substantial amount of money under this programme. Moreover, Trade Ministers from Ghana, the Ivory Coast and Cameroon met on Monday 26 July to discuss this question. The African countries have been forthright in their declarations on the question of ACP bananas versus American bananas and the European Union has in fact promised adjustment and support assistance to enable us to be competitive in the future on the European market. With this support, the Cameroonian banana sector could, within 5 years, be the country’s leading agricultural export sector.