In this Sept. 2, 2019 photo, a silverback mountain gorilla named Segasira walks in the Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
INTERNATIONAL - Gorillas and sugar could be key to tapping the natural resources of Gabon, the world’s second-most forested nation after Suriname.

SFM Africa, a Johannesburg-based company that focuses on sustainable forest projects, plans to open a luxury safari lodge in Gabon next year and spend about $190 million on a sugar project in the central African country, said Alan Bernstein, SFM’s chairman and chief executive officer. The company has an 892,000 hectare (1.97-million acre) land and marine concession in southern Gabon known as Grande Mayumba.

Larger than the U.K., Gabon is mostly covered by tropical rain forest, has no highways and only two million people. It has avoided the degradation that’s afflicted most countries spanning the Congo Basin, the world’s second-biggest rain forest after the Amazon. While it hosts large populations of forest elephants, lowland gorillas and chimpanzees, its tourism industry is almost non-existent.

“Gabon is the last refuge of all the species in the Congo Basin,” said Bernstein, who is also a founder of Conservation Corp. Africa, a sustainable lodge company with camps on three continents known as &Beyond. “The question we asked ourselves was: could we deliver an experience for the Africa safari scene? The conclusion that we drew was absolutely, emphatically yes.”

At Phinda private Game Reserve in South Africa, one of &Beyond’s most established lodges, a week’s stay costs about $8,800 per person.

Heat, Humidity

The company’s lodge business, which will ultimately have about six properties, is expected to cost about $30 million. The first lodge, in a coastal area in the Loango National Park that can only be reached by plane, is due to open in the third quarter of next year.

Gabon has about 50,000 forest elephants and 25,000 lowland gorillas, according to the environment ministry. The government has set aside a fifth of the country’s landmass for conservation, probably eyeing the success of other African nations. Rwanda, which hosts a few hundred mountain gorillas, earns more than $300 million a year from tourism.

In Gabon, the tropical heat, humidity and rain make game viewing more challenging than in traditional safari venues such as South Africa. The lack of infrastructure poses huge challenges. Dutch businessman Rombout Swanborn closed down his eco-lodges and regional airline after a tax dispute with the civil aviation authorities.

Gabon’s politics -- the country has been ruled by the same family since 1967 and the most recent presidential elections were violently disputed -- could also prove a deterrent to other investors. 

Additional investments will follow the safari lodges, Bernstein said. The sugar project, which will be set up on an about 23,000 hectare (56,833-acre) plantation and may produce 250,000 tons annually, will be rolled out over the next three to five years. The company is expecting to be partnered by development finance institutions and “established African sugar groups,” Bernstein said, without giving further details. Forestry development will also be considered.

BLOOMBERG