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Friday, 21 January, 2000, 17:06 GMT
Nothing for free in Libreville

Hotel in Libreville Nice life if you're an expat

Gabon's capital, Libreville, is once again high on the list of the world's most expensive cities.

The annual report published this week by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) names Libreville as the world's fourth most expensive city - up from seventh place last year.

It is also the most expensive city outside of Asia, with only Tokyo, Osaka and Hong Kong reckoned to be pricier than the Gabonese capital.

Wealthy European cities such as Oslo, Zurich, London and Paris are judged as cheap by comparison.

However, not everyone in Libreville forks out $12 for 1kg of chicken, or $20 for a drink in a bar.

Dual economy

Todd Moss of the EIU explains that the survey looks at the cost to expatriates of living in particular cities, and is based on the prices of goods of a quality comparable to that found in Western shops.

Expat prices
1kg bacon $25-50
1kg fish fingers $33-56
1kg tomatoes $6
Drink in hotel bar $5-20
Hotel meal for two $135-190
1 litre orange juice $5-7
CD album $30+
Television $1,000+
4-room flat monthly rental $800-1,000
Source: EIU
Gabon, as a major oil producer that maintains strong links with former colonial power France, has a substantial population of high-salaried expatriates.

Almost no consumer goods are produced in the country, and virtually everything needed by Western staff is flown in.

The expatriates generally do not deign to shop in local markets, and lack of competition pushes the prices up further.

Mr Moss makes the distinction between an "elite and a non-elite economy".

The wealthy - including some Gabonese professionals as well as foreigners - patronise the pricey Western-style shops. The poor - who include many migrant workers from other African countries - buy basic goods in markets as happens elsewhere in Africa.

The report hints at the level of working-class earnings when it points out that a full-time housemaid can be employed for $239 a month - a better salary than she would earn in some other African countries, but nowhere near a living wage in London or Tokyo.

Strong currency

The strength of the CFA franc, tied to the French franc, is another reason for the inflated prices at a time when many other African countries have been forced to devalue their currencies.

Meat and poultry range from $12 to more than $40 for a kilogram. A kilo of fish fingers can cost more than $50.

Soap is a bargain at $0.65, but a packet of five razor blades fetches $7.

A pair of jeans costs upwards of $75, and the cheapest child's dress will not leave you much change from $100.

Costly cuppa

Homesick Britons in this Francophone country will have to squeeze out $6-$8 for 25 tea bags.

And expatriates obeying the old colonial dictum of "don't drink the water" can be hit for more than $4 for a litre of mineral water.

Beer, on the other hand, is one item where expatriates do have a choice between local and foreign brands.

The price distinction - $2.55 for 300ml of an imported beer as opposed to $0.80 a litre for the local brew - hints how much cheaper life might be if Westerners were not so heavily dependent on imports.

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20 Jan 00 |  Europe
London 'costliest EU city'
13 Jan 00 |  World
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