Cameroon: Meet Kate Fotso, cocoa revolutionary

By Georges Dougueli
Posted on Tuesday, 19 April 2022 18:34, updated on Wednesday, 20 April 2022 09:57

Kate Kanyi-Tometi Fotso doesn’t like to talk about herself, but her business dealings give a sense of her personality. Bruno Levy for Jeune Afrique
Kate Kanyi-Tometi Fotso doesn’t like to talk about herself, but her business dealings give a sense of her personality. Bruno Levy for Jeune Afrique

Located in Bonabéri, in the heart of Douala’s industrial zone, the offices of Telcar Cocoa Ltd are as sober and discreet as their hostess. From the moment you enter the premises, you get a sense for this imposing woman’s personality – and not without subtlety. Visitors greeting the security guards in French receive a response in English.

This is a way of reminding us of the origins of Kate Kanyi-Tometi, wife of Fotso, an English-speaker from the south-west, in a country where the decision to use one or the other of the country’s two official languages is a question of identity and social representation.

English is therefore de rigueur in these handsome offices, where white and wood are the dominant themes and the delicate aroma of cocoa is artificially maintained so that no one forgets the raison d’être of Telcar Cocoa Ltd, the company that has made her the richest woman in Cameroon.

The moment she is settled in her huge office decorated with sculptures and paintings, Kate Fotso warns us without hesitating: “I will not talk about myself. I don’t give interviews. I never wanted to be in the spotlight. You are free to write your article, but I won’t help you do it.”

She even refuses to tell us the name of the country where she completed her higher education and then launches into a long indictment of youth emigration to Europe or elsewhere. According to her, biographies citing the names of prestigious European or American universities contribute to provoking young people into leaving the continent.

Secretive yet in good company

The truth is that Kate Fotso is not only discreet. She is secretive. But if she is reluctant to confide in anyone, her world speaks for her. A slender young woman in casual clothes opens the office door. She enters the room without knocking, as if she is at home, and whispers in the ear of Telcar Cocoa’s boss before slipping out again.

Itaka is Kate Fotso’s only daughter and close collaborator, in her 40s, a member of the Cameroonian agribusiness queen’s inner circle. She’s her mother’s right-hand woman even as she simultaneously develops her own event-planning company.

Itaka married lawyer Paul Jing, 56, founder of Jing & Partners, one of the country’s largest business firms. Having graduated from Harvard with a degree in business law after a stint at the University of Yaoundé and the Nigerian Law School in Lagos, Kate Fotso’s son-in-law is also one of her advisers.

His firm is working with Dian Wang and Erica Jiang of Allen & Overy to advise the Bank of China on the financing of the Song Dong hydroelectric power plant in central Cameroon. The plant will have a capacity of 270 MW at a cost of $637m.

Also close to Kate Fotso is Hope Sona Ebai, a former director general of the National Cocoa and Coffee Board (NCCB), where she worked. This senior official – more like a mentor – was in 2021 appointed chairman of the board of directors of the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC), the country’s largest agribusiness and second largest employer after the state.

According to a story that has been circulating since the 1990s, it was he who introduced the young woman to commodities trading. They’ve been close ever since. Indeed, “Kate” returned the favour by training her friend’s son, Hope Sona Ebai Jr., now the spirited deputy director in charge of sustainable development at Telcar Cocoa Ltd.

The other familiar name in her close entourage is that of Cameroonian Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute, a cousin with whom she is very close. Both are natives of the volcanic region, where the locals rise early to work on cocoa and coffee plantations. While this area was Cameroon’s main cocoa producer for at least two decades, it lost its leader status in 2018 to the central region. This is partly due to the Anglophone crisis, which caused a sharp decline in the marketing of cocoa from the south-west.

‘Formidable’ in business

One man in her life is missing, however: André Fotso, her husband, the former president of the Interpatronal Group of Cameroon (Gicam) who died in August 2016 in Paris. “She is a woman anchored in her time, who deeply loved her husband, is a caring mother and grandmother, but who is also formidable in business,” a Douala business leader says about her.

After her time at NCCB, Kate Fotso worked for the American global food corporation Cargill for five years before resigning to start her own business. In 1997, the young woman founded her own company, rolled up her sleeves and went down to meet the producers – in a world almost exclusively masculine and built for men.

READ MORE Life after Cameroon’s Paul Biya?

Possessed with determination, foresight and a keen sense of negotiation, she managed to unite more than 20,000 producers and get Cameroonian cocoa certified. She also created Coop Academy to encourage farmers to improve the quality of their product, followed by the launch of a logistics company, Bridge Logistic Ltd., which specialises in product transportation. This company manages a container park at the port of Douala.

As for the project register, Telcar is planning the construction of a cocoa bean processing plant in Kribi, which is expected to be operational in the medium term. This is a strategic investment because Kate Fotso believes the future lies in the local processing of raw materials.

Indeed, according to data from CIRAD (The French agricultural research and international cooperation organisation working for the sustainable development of tropical and Mediterranean regions), companies exporting beans have a net profit rate of 5%, which increases to 12% when the beans are certified. Production operators who transform beans into cocoa mass exported to Europe see their net profit rate jump to 30%.

Sitting on a mountain of cash

As soon as Telcar had garnered its first success stories, Cargill bet on the potential of the young company and bought a 49% stake. For more than 10 years, Telcar has been the Cameroonian leader in the exportation of cocoa beans. During the 2020-2021 season, it purchased 67,835 tons (22.1% of global volume), ahead of Singapore’s Olam (19.94% of global volume).

And here we have the young Cameroonian born in Buea, at the foot of Mount Cameroon, sitting on a mountain of cash. Her influence in the Cameroonian business world extends to several areas.

President of the board of directors at Ecobank Cameroon she also sits on the board of directors of the Port Authority of Kribi and many other companies. Today, she is considered one of the richest businesswomen in French-speaking Africa. In 2016, Forbes Africa magazine estimated her assets at some 150bn CFA francs (about $247m).

Of course, Kate Fotso is careful not to confirm or deny these estimates. Her taste for secrecy may stem from her companionship with the Cargill family.

The photos hanging on her office walls testify that the businesswoman has become an intimate of the powerful American merchant family that created its unlisted company in 1865 and then waited more than a century – until 1978 – before it published any information about itself.

In any case, Telcar Cocoa Ltd now has 600 employees, including about 50 women. Its founder, who has shown herself to be sensitive to gender-related questions, proudly announces that four of the company’s 12 directors are women.

However, she does not believe that parity should be pursued at the expense of efficiency. That would be a violation of the moral integrity she says is her most important value.

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options