Could Angola’s first banana exports in 40 years save its economy?

A welcome change.
A welcome change.
Image: Reuters/Herculano Coroado
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Seventeen tons of bananas set sail from the Angolan port of Lobito on Monday (May 23), headed for Portugal. It’s the first time in more than 40 years that Angola has exported fruit to Europe, and a hopeful sign that Angola’s precarious economy could be diversifying.

Angolans, dismayed by weakening oil prices, are looking to bananas as an alternative for growth. This year Angola became Africa’s largest oil producer, but the roughly $50 billion a year in revenue has come at the expense of other sectors. Angola imports 90% of its food at a cost of $5 billion each year, according to Reuters.

Diamonds are Angola’s second largest export, and the industry is growing at a healthy clip. But accusations of blood diamonds, mined in violence and corruption, weigh on its future. Banana and other agricultural exports could broaden the country’s sources of income.

Angola’s agricultural sector grew by only 0.2% last year, and only about a third of Angola’s arable land has been cultivated. But thanks to an influx of credit from the Chinese government, the Angolan government launched an agricultural revival program in 2005 to spur rural growth. In Caxito, about 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) from the capital Luanda, new banana plantations have created thousands of jobs since the program’s launch.

“It was very difficult before the bananas returned. No one had jobs, we struggled to eat,” Santa Rodrigo, a 34-year-old mother of five who works in the banana fields of the Caxito Rega plantation, told Reuters.“It can’t just be oil in Angola. It has only helped the rich people get richer.”

Before independence in 1975, Angola was the world’s third largest coffee producer (pdf) and exported sugar, cotton, sisal, rubber and bananas. But its 27-year civil war turned farmland across the country into minefields.

When war ended in 2002, Angola emerged as a major oil producer gunning to become Africa’s Dubai. But the recent slump in oil prices slowed the country’s economic growth.

Angola’s government badly needs to make up the lost income. Volatile oil prices have forced the country to slash public spending, which has raised health and economic risks for the already vulnerable poor. (Meanwhile, the country’s defense budget remains intact as the largest military spender in sub-Saharan Africa.)

A robust agricultural sector isn’t likely to come fast. Reforms are being held up by a corrupt political system run by the country’s 36-year president, Jose Eduardo dos Santos. Roughly 95% of foreign exchange revenues come from oil production, and much of the oil industry is controlled by the political elite through state-owned companies.