Gabon’s sole train a lifeline for its economy

Gabonese gather in 1983 during the inauguration of the second phase of Transgabonais project. Today, about 320,000 people travel on the train per year. (AFP)
Updated 16 September 2019

Gabon’s sole train a lifeline for its economy

FRANCEVILLE: The sky turns from indigo to ebony as the tropical night falls, and the train patiently thrusts through the jungle toward its destination, still hundreds of km away.

The trek has the hallmarks of one of the world’s Great Forgotten Train Journeys — a voyage through 648 km of lush equatorial forest.

The train is the brainchild of Gabon’s former President Omar Bongo who ruled for 42 years until his death in 2009.

In the 1970s, he dreamed of linking the central African state’s resource-rich interior to the Atlantic coast — and he saw it through, despite being rebuffed by the World Bank, which refused to fund it on the grounds that it was not economically viable.

Today, the “Bongo Train,” as it is affectionately known, remains the country’s sole railway line, linking 23 stations from the coastal capital Libreville to distant Franceville, the country’s third most populous city.

“The Transgabonais binds Gabonese society,” declares Christian Antchouet Roux, the stationmaster at Franceville.

About 320,000 people take the train every year, a sign of its affordability for the average Gabonese.

Ticket prices depend on the time of year and class — the train has a VIP carriage, as well as first and second classes. Passengers travel only at nighttime but in air-conditioned comfort — a rarity in the world’s poorest continent — and the blue and yellow compartments are modern.

One of them is Miyha Koumba, a young student in Libreville who uses it to visit her family at the other end of the line.

“I take the train at least four times a year. I can visit my parents regularly,” she said, arriving in Libreville at 7 a.m. bleary-eyed, having departed Franceville at 5:30 p.m. the day before.

During the day, the train hauls manganese — a key export after oil — from the interior to the oceanside capital. Touting the train as a symbol of national unity and modernization, Bongo doggedly pressed on with the plan, saying: “If we need to have a pact with the Devil, we’ll do that.”

Fortune smiled on Gabon’s leader in 1973 when the OPEC cartel of oil producing nations raised prices dramatically, filling the country’s coffers and enabling him to start construction with the additional help of Western aid, notably from former colonial ruler France.

Bongo flagged off the project — the largest in Africa at the time — on Dec. 30, 1973. It cost $1.65 billion, and millions of trees were felled to cut the swathe through the jungle for the track, which is unelectrified.

In 1986, the last stretch was inaugurated in the presence of then French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. Critics of the project have long pointed to its cost, to its use as a political tool for Bongo, whose partisan stronghold was centered in the region where Franceville is located, and to French involvement.

“Since its creation, the Transgabonais has been closely linked to France and its interests,” US law professor Douglas Yates, author of “The Rentier State in Africa: Oil Rent Dependency & Neocolonialism in the Republic of Gabon,” told AFP.

Its champions view it as a critical piece of infrastructure for Gabon’s development.

There is a road running parallel to the tracks. But it is riddled with potholes, making the journey much longer, far less comfortable, and dangerous too.


India probes Flipkart, Amazon discounts after retailers complain

Updated 15 October 2019

India probes Flipkart, Amazon discounts after retailers complain

  • Products on Amazon, Flipkart listed at steep discounts in sale
  • Trader groups allege firms violating foreign investment rules

NEW DELHI: The Indian government is looking into whether hefty discounts offered on Walmart-owned Flipkart and Amazon.com during their online festive sales violate foreign investment rules, a commerce ministry official told Reuters.
India introduced new rules in February aimed at protecting the 130 million people dependent on small-scale retail by deterring big online discounts. The rules forced e-commerce firms to tweak their business structures and drew criticism from the United States, straining trade ties between New Delhi and Washington.
While Amazon and Flipkart say they’ve complied with the federal rules, local trader groups say the two companies are violating them by burning money to offer discounts — of more than 50 percent in some cases — during the ongoing festive sales.
Reuters reviewed emails and internal training material from Flipkart showing the company is in some cases offering to reduce, or forfeit, its sales commission from sellers that offer discounts.
The commerce ministry official said the government was reviewing complaints and evidence filed by the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT), a group representing some 70 million brick-and-mortar retailers, alleging Amazon and Flipkart were violating the foreign investment rules.
The official declined to comment on possible action, but executives from Amazon and Flipkart were summoned to meet commerce ministry officials last week to discuss the matter.
Flipkart in a statement said it had a “good meeting” with government officials and it was “deeply committed to doing business the right way in India.”
Amazon said it had an “open & transparent discussion” with officials and has a high bar for compliance.
Seeking to attract shoppers around the key Hindu festival of Diwali, both retailers have placed full-page advertisements in top national daily the Times of India to showcase discount offerings stretching from Samsung and Apple phones to clothing and diapers.
“Customers are going online because of the unbelievable discounts. Because of this sales at offline businesses are down 30 percent to 40 percent this month,” CAIT’s secretary general Praveen Khandelwal said.
Two emails received by Flipkart sellers in September, just days ahead of the inaugural phase of the festive sales, showed it offering to partly fund discounts.
The company would “burn” 3 percent of the discount if a seller lowered a product price by 15 percent, or 9 percent if the seller discounted by 30 percent, said one of the emails.
In training material posted on Flipkart’s restricted website for its sellers, seen by Reuters, the company asks them to prepare for the festive season by saying “nothing is bigger than this” and explaining how they can benefit by discounting products for Flipkart’s premium customers.
“We want to ensure that you fetch as much profit from it as possible ... whatever the discount you are offering, half of that will be reimbursed to you by Flipkart,” a post said.
A Flipkart source said the incentives were compliant with Indian regulations and were aimed at promoting sellers’ earnings by effectively reducing the commission they pay.
All India Online Vendors Association, whose 3,500 members sell products on various online platforms including Flipkart, in a statement said fewer than 100 of its members benefitted from Flipkart’s partial discount funding, giving some sellers an unfair advantage.