Friday, May 1, 2009


I liked Yaoundé overall. It is not as hectic as other major African cities I have known like Dakar and I hear that Douala (country’s economic capital) is much more painful to navigate than Yaoundé is. There are plenty of hills and mountains around, a lot of green and brown / red because of the climate. The city feels safe and folks are nice. Those are broad generalizations of course but it is interesting how after 3 days one can develop that feeling of safety or not when one move or walk around. I have taken collective taxis, which did not even cross my mind when I got here (not something someone from a Western nation traveling to a poor country would think of doing) and today I can tell that I would move around that way if I lived here. It is very convenient, there are lots of small yellow taxis. Before getting into the cab, people suggest a price and tell their destination (e.g. “300 Carrefour Bastos”) and the driver says yeah or nay…

Also, it is interesting to see how the economy is geared towards consumption in small quantities. For those not having a cell phone (which was my case and I could not call local numbers from my hotel – go figure…), they just find someone on the street who sell SIM cards and phone cards for cell phones but also lend cell phones for anyone to call – rate is 20 cents a minute… By the same token, my hotel did not have wireless, so guests could either use desktops and pay 500 Francs CFA an hour (less than a buck) or use their own computers, get connected to the hotel’s local network and pay 1000 Francs CFA… You have your own laptop – it costs you more. Supposedly, the connection is faster. That is how they justified the price difference when I asked…

The folks I ran into were all very polite (same with each other) and willing to help. Almost no hustling even though there are few non-African travelers or business folks around – so, one gets spotted quickly. It is just nice to be able to go around one’s business freely and concern-free. There is a certain nonchalance also – did not see a lot of people who seemed to run around and rush from one place to the next and be stressed out. That contributes to the ambiance of fine and calm pace, which I liked.

Ministry of Fauna

I wrote this waiting for a guy working for the German cooperation agency GTZ at the Ministry of Forestry and Fauna in Yaoundé, Cameroon, last week. Our friend is actually based in the Ministry per se which itself is housed in a big government office tower. I went up to the 7th floor with 7-8 other folks in the elevator and a guy pressing on the corresponding buttons in the elevator. I am not good at descriptions, so I am not sure that you will be able to visualize the picture, but basically the whole thing looks a bit old and shabby. Stained carpet, old office furniture, some folks sitting in the hallways here and there. A number of offices with closed doors. The office of the guy I am to meet with is under renovation, so there is a nice strident noise less than 10 feet (3 meters) away from me… I forgot to mention that the building entrance is all marble – tower must have been built in the 70s and must have looked quite nice for a while.

I did not get the full picture of what happens in the forestry and fauna sectors in Cameroon, so I won’t claim to say anything thorough and even exactly accurate. One quick thing right away: it is interesting (and not uncommon) to see forestry and fauna under the same ministry’s umbrella. Sustainable forestry is a growing trend but standard practices in forestry still dominate the landscape and are not particularly good for the fauna or flora… But considering the glass half-full, there seem to be signs of hope in the forestry sector as several major operators are moving towards certification under the pressure of demand in their countries (largely in Europe) and small-sized operators may be able to carve a niche, operate sustainably, and make some money.

Investing and Africa

Alright, that interesting project I alluded to is the review of a venture fund that makes loans to businesses that produce not only economic benefits but also social and environmental ones (the so-called “triple bottom line”). This fund, Verde Ventures, affiliated to big-time NGO Conservation International is thinking of expanding its activities to new sectors and new geographies (most of its work has centered on coffee and ecotourism in Latin America so far). A potential new investor asked to conduct a review of their operations and assess the potential of VV’s expansion into Africa. Hence, the somewhat (understatement…) busy time in the past few weeks and current trip to Africa….

Madrid, Madrid

I have been off line for a while because I started a new interesting project that I will have a chance to write more about. Not that my readership missed me that much and demanded to read an update – but hey, who knows? Who do we write blogs for? For others first? But who are they? Or for ourselves? Anyway, I will revisit this topic at a later point I am sure. Alright then, in mid-March I spent a wonderful long weekend in Madrid – weather was gorgeous and warm for that time of year, in the lower 70’s (over 20 degrees Celsius), exactly when we needed after the long Boston winter.

What struck me in Madrid is the money that has been poured into infrastructure and public spaces. The subway has undergone a vast improvement / expansion plan – absolutely modern and efficient today, a lot of trains throughout the day and at night, a lot of new stations that have made the network pretty dense. There are good bus connections from what I could tell in the outer subway stations to reach suburbs where the subway does not get yet - and there is also a brand-new light rail system that I did not have a chance to experiment.

The real estate boom that has characterized Spain in the last several years before the meltdown has been accompanied by the construction of new monuments or public spaces all across town. I am certainly biased with respect to the place and importance of culture in society, having grown up in France, but the myriad of monuments and public areas, old and new (the Prado garden which dates back to the 17th century is wonderful) make Madrid so livable and just great.

So, the 64-thousand-dollar question to which I don’t have an answer is who foots the bill (and how…). Obviously, it is a big one. In America we would say, “well, that’s why they pay higher taxes in Europe”. Why is it such a bad thing anyway? At least, everyone gets something concrete (a much improved public transportation system) and, granted this is a bit more subjective, a better quality of life thanks to the presence of art in more and more public spaces (free and accessible).

I am not sure Americans realize that so many cities around the world have gone through those beautification processes which have often entailed the integration of more art accessible to everyone. Several US cities have done a good job of revamping parts of their downtown areas, for instance with the construction of ballparks (baseball stadium) that triggered the resurgence of the area around them, especially through the arrival of retail stores and restaurants. Denver, San Diego, and Baltimore are just a couple of examples. But - and this is where it goes back to the subjective part – don’t we need more than just sport, food and shopping?