As the countries of sub-Saharan Africa struggle with endemic poverty and chronic under- and unemployment, it will be necessary to find methods of sustainable development and job creation to deal with increasingly young populations. One route to development that plays to the continent’s strength is creation of a vibrant tourism sector, with a focus on eco-tourism. This creates jobs, fosters economic security, and encourages protection of the environment, all necessary elements for solid economic growth, and essential if the countries of Africa are ever to pull themselves out of poverty and aid-dependency.
In Cameroon, there is some modest effort to develop environmentally sound tourism, and the tourism village of Ebogo, located 60 km south of the capital city of Yaounde on the Yaounde-Ebolowa highway is just one example of what can be achieved when government works with local communities to institute sound economic development programs.
Eco-tourism creates jobs and protects the environment
Ebogo, supported by the Cameroonian Ministry of Tourism and the UN’s World Tourism Organization (WTO), is one of the country’s most visited eco-tourism sites. Located on the banks of the Nyong River, the second longest river in the country, Ebogo’s 600 residents have developed an attraction that contributes to the preservation of the area’s natural heritage, as well as their own economic self-sufficiency. In addition, the site supports the economies of Akoumbeguesi and Soasi, two nearby villages.
The Ebogo site includes several modern, electrified bungalows, a restaurant and meeting room, and a concrete dock where guides keep pirogues (canoes) for tours of the Nyong and the surrounding equatorial forest. Fees for a pirogue ride on the Nyong and a guided tour of the forest, where one can see a 1,175 year-old tree, are modest. Guides keep 20% of their fees and deposit the rest into a fund for community development. Under the government’s Sustainable Tourism for Eliminating Poverty (STEP) Program, the government provides 70% of the funds for infrastructure development, while the community funds the balance. When I visited Ebogo in May, 2013, Tobie Abah, president of the Ebogo Community Development Organization, said that there are plans this year to pave five kilometers of the eight kilometer road into Ebogo from the main highway. “We plan to leave the last three kilometers unpaved to give visitors a taste of the bush experience,” Abah said in his sing-song French.
A government-private sector partnership
Except for the government infrastructure subsidy, Ebogo is relatively self-contained and self-sufficient. Villagers, typical of West Africans, grow a lot of their own food, and the Nyong provides a rich source of protein. The river also provides the signature dishes on the restaurant menu, including poisson du fer, or viper fish, a local delicacy.
In 2003, Ebogo had just 300 visitors. Abah said that in 2012, the village hosted 5,300 tourists. Typical activity includes a lazy pirogue up the Nyong, followed by a guided tour of the equatorial forest which is home to a rich variety of plants unique in the world, including the thousand-year-old tree which has a diameter of more than 20 feet. After being regaled by the guide’s stories of the various trees and plants, you ride back down river to the dock and enjoy a light lunch, washed down with ice cold ’33’ beer in the garden restaurant.
At the end of the day, riding over the bumpy dirt road back to the Yaounde-Ebolowa highway for the trip back to Yaounde, one can’t help but think that this is the key to survival for most of the continent. With the majority of its population under 35, Africa needs to grow jobs in order to grow and prosper. Eco-tourism along the Ebogo model ensures that the environment will grow as well.