According to Georges Serre, France's ambassador to Yaounde, Cameroon represents a small share of foreign trade with France. It accounts for about 0.14% of French exports worth 563 million Euros in 2007. In investment terms, Cameroon is also small with 0.1% of French Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). It is, however, a major regional link for French companies and is seen as a stable economic destination in Africa.
The story of Franco-Cameroonian trade shows that the presence of French companies in Cameroon is traditional and well-rooted. Even during times of crisis, the French companies have not left, thus allowing their presence to solidify the economic and political relations between the two countries.
Maintaining confidence in the potential of Cameroon is an effective strategy that has paid off in the long term for the French companies, which have benefitted greatly in the last 10 years from Cameroon's privatisation programme.
For example, in 1998 Somdiaa acquired the Cameroon Sugar Company (Camsuco). In 1999, the Bollore Group took over Regifercam which became Camrail; while in banking, the Bicic group of banks passed into French hands and became known as as BICEC (International Bank for Trade, Savings and Credit).
In telecoms, France's Cable Radio launched its Cameroon subsidiary SCM in 2000. The same year, Bollore joined together with Palmcam to create SOCAPALM.
Even now, French companies still have the wind in their sails. Over 80% of oil production in Cameroon is in the hands of Total and Perenco, the latter being the main distributor.
Cash crops and food are dominated by Vilgrain/Somdiaa--the only sugar producer in the country, which also owns the main mill SGMC. The Compagnie Fruitiere and the Union Fruitiere Africaine (two French entities) account for more than half of the banana production in Cameroon.
In the brewing industry, the French company Castel is at the top of the ranking via the Societe Anonyme des Brasseries du Cameroun.
Elsewhere, Bollore, directly or in association with the Belgian group Fabri, has interests in palm oil and rubber. France is also dominant in the wood industry with Rougier et Pasquet providing a strong French presence alongside the Italians, Chinese and Dutch. Sepbc, another French company, is a major exporter of timber logs.
In cement, Lafarge is dominant through CIMENCAM--the only foreign producer in the region. In civil engineering, France is present in the construction industry with companies such as Vinci and Bouygues which are among the top three in the sector. The third, Razel is a subsidiary of the German group, Bilfinger Berger.
In telecoms, although Orange arrived in Cameroon before any other operators, it has not kept its leadership. Today, it shares the mobile phone market with the South African company, MTN.
In automobiles, France is also well positioned with CFAO, the leader in auto distribution in the country which also ensures, with Ucpharm, 90% of the supply of medicines in Cameroon.
Transport and logistics are masterfully controlled by the Bollore group, especially the management of the container terminal at Douala, which is shared with Maersk and its forwarders SDV and Saga.
In air transport, Air France is currently the only company providing a daily service direct to Paris from Yaounde and Douala.
In banking, BICEC, Societe Generale de Banque au Cameroun (SGBC), and Credit Agricole (all subsidiaries of French banks) dominate the Cameroon market, with 55% of deposits.
Georges Serre recognises that French companies, although well established in Cameroon, face enormous difficulties. "The main handicap," he says, "is the business environment which remains difficult despite the efforts of the authorities to improve both taxation and the legal climate in which unfortunately there is corruption at many levels. …