Business in Congo: what place for Belgians?

In November, the business community B19 organized its first economic mission to Kinshasa, a private initiative that took 25 entrepreneurs to discover the market.

Zaventem. 27 people vaccinated against yellow fever are frantically waiting to get on the plane to Kinshasa. A 100% private finance mission launched by John Bogaerts – founder and CEO of the B19 business community – who after a short stay in Congo last year thought it would be a “really good idea” totake Belgian entrepreneurs to meet Congolese partners to do business “all”. Especially not “as before” and especially not “between whites”. In the lounge at the airport, few people know each other, everyone sniffs at each other and turns again to ask themselves the big question of the day: “So first time in Congo?

Address books wide open

Overall, we are at “half in half”, the average age is 46 and the core stores are as eclectic as possible: import / export, education, telecommunications, real estate, art, media, culture, law, finance, insurance and business angels. An “economic mission” determined, “prospecting” above all, but for which we feel the address books have been opened very wide. Among the delegation we also find the future financial attaché for HUB Brussels (FIT and Awex included) Laurence Heyblom, who is also coming to “prospect” with a view to settling in Kinshasa next January.

Arrival at Ndjili Asphalt. An employee immediately challenges a contractor to get off the plane “So how is our king?“before you continue” Which is your favorite? Me, it’s Baudouin because he gave us independence. “In customs, it is a Belgian-Congolese entrepreneur who fails: passport problem. We quickly learn that in the Congo, administrative problems, we call it” trouble “and that” trouble “always works out on the condition of” never getting upset “.

Fortunately for our husband, there is also a lawyer in this delegation; he knows the work well, his company Daldewolf is based in Brussels as well as in Kinshasa – and it is after an hour of palaver that both get up victoriously in the minibus. An hour’s journey between the airport and the hotel, but “today we are lucky, the frogs are open”, the driver explains. The jumps? Basically, bridges are built over roads to bypass traffic jams.

It is 22.00, the road is crowded with people, the stalls, markets and churches are in full swing, there are animals and trucks immobilized in the middle of the road due to lack of petrol. Here the horns are a permanent music and driving gymkhana. Homes are ruined, while for wealthy people or foreigners, the price of real estate in Kinshasa is closer to Paris than Brussels.

An hour later we arrive at La Gombe, the embassy and business district. In the hotel bar, everyone is familiar with each other while drinking a beer. Five days on site, a very tight schedule and a well-crafted canvas that will be repeated day after day. Company visits (Utex, Bralima, Finasucre, Silikin Village, the communications and service company SCS, Prince de Liège Gymnasium, etc.), official lunches, meetings, conferences all revolving around “how and why do business in the Congo”, aperitifs where 50 to 100 local entrepreneurs are invited every night and where everyone finds their “match” for the evening before continuing the relationship at the table. And all this before we close the evening on the roof of the Pullman Hotel, where we find the Kinshasa community’s gratin, an equally striking contrast, where Veuve Clicquot flows into the glasses of startups, men and businesswomen, whites, blacks, mestizos, the diaspora returned with Tshisekedi but also expatriates and the famous “moths” who offer their charm after midnight.

It is also here that we discover that in Kinshasa it is less relevant to talk about Belgians or Congolese than “where did you study” – “who are your parents?”, In three minutes all inclusive we know more or less who we have with to do. . Also surprising are these tribal chiefs, whom we stumble upon in the hotel center and who proudly display a Leopold II medal on their traditional outfit. Many also talk to us about “bounty”, hear the diaspora which is described as “black on the outside but white on the inside”, those about whom it is said “that they want to travel the country”, but also lots of whites born here, and who with lingala accent challenges us with “You, the Belgians!”.

Here we are not talking about colonialism, we are not talking about “restitution”, and no one has ever heard the word “wokism”. No, here we are talking about business, vital forces and the future of the country. If the political situation seems to be stabilizing, then what will happen at the next election, which is scheduled for two years? As a result, it is above all on the economic substance we count to get out of it, “the private and especially not the public”, a classic reflex, if we know that the salaries of civil servants are sometimes not paid in more months. As for the multinational companies, bound by “compliance”, we do not expect that much either. In any case, one thing is very clear: we need “everything” and whatever the market here is “huge“.

To put it in perspective, Congo is 80 times Belgium, the average age is 18, population growth is 4.5% per year and the question of “market potential”, despite its land and wealth, the country imports food, drink and even sugar. To date, Finasucre is the only producer in the country, but only covers two thirds of Bas Congo’s needs alone, as domestic transport remains problematic: this is because in terms of infrastructures such as imported products, we will hear a lot of talk about “made in China”, “maximum life expectancy of three years”, some would specify while shrugging, adding that on the other hand, infrastructures left to independence, many still stand; there are even crushers that still work.

Question mood, all members of the delegation reported having been challenged by “Aaaah Belgians, when are you coming back?”. For many, the past is behind, the crucial thing is the future. Among them are aficionados nostalgic after pre-independence, “when the Belgians were there, we had work, we had money, we lived better”, but there are also pragmatists who, in the face of the country’s gigantic needs, believe that given close ties, “it is better to trade with each other than with others “.

At the same time, there are others who, before trusting themselves, rate us on a scale of 1 to 10 to measure our degree of “ordinary racism”. An informed observer regrets this and notes that, in addition to the common past, one should not underestimate the strong closeness of character between Belgians and Congolese readers: “The same roundness, the same humor, in a way, the Congolese is a bit like the Belgians of Africa. ”

The same story about the entrepreneurs who have been present for several generations on the spot, these families of Belgian origin, who have undergone independence, Zaireization, looting, political transitions, and who, after all, cling to. What they keep repeating is that the Belgians are preventing themselves from returning because of the colonial past, whereas the situation today is no longer the same.

But where these entrepreneurs are flourishing is when they see the overwhelming presence of great powers with little or no democracy taking over the country’s resources. For them, it’s simple: “Congo is open bar! They bring nothing with them, while the needs are huge, whether it’s logistics, services or skills.” Education and health care, for example – specialists are as rare as pharmacies or hospitals – while colleges and universities hunt for foreign professors “to invite”, as their own professors work side by side and do not receive a regular salary.

As for infrastructure or mines, we knew, but what we also discover is that IT, cyber security, digitization and telecommunications are now crucial to the country’s development; at the initiative of Texaf, Silikin Village was created in 2020, the largest digital hub in Africa for programmers and developers, and one of the only opportunities for young people to train in digital technology to date.

But so is the Congo 120 million hectares of arable land, enough to feed 2 billion people, while the water, electricity and insurance sectors have just been liberalized. A call for air that inevitably affects other ecosystems, such as transportation or legal. “Congo is the chance for an empty side in all areas“, Notes Valery Safarian, consultant to the board of directors of the insurance company SFA.

The big question, of course, remains the one about the business climate: “difficult”, “heavy”, “flashy”, some players will go so far as to say that “it is a bit of the wild west, but the potential is unlimited for those who have a taste for risk ”. Present since 2010, Henry Wazne, CEO of Sofibanque – 3and commercial bank in the DRC – confirms, but adds that although the administrative harassment is constant, it is never “personal”. According to him, “the key to establishing oneself is to be accompanied by the right people, consult professionals on the spot, and at this point, Belgians have an advantage over everyone else because you already have the network!“(Belgians or Belgian-Congolese settled in the DRC, editor’s note).

Sources close to diplomatic circles confirm a real window of opportunity for Belgium, whispering “for a year, at most a year and a half” due to the launch of the 2023 election campaign, which risks “paralyzing everything upstream”. The “doer” (men and women in the field) disputes their pessimism: “Between the constitution of the process, the election and the inauguration of the presidency, years can pass.”

On average, participants will have encountered between 300 and 500 people and will have slept four hours a night. One participant explained that she was struck by Kinshasa’s energy, “proportional to what one has to take on”. Because, according to the unanimous opinion, “Doing business here is really not easy”. Contacted since their return, half of the participants say they will take the plunge. Among these, some admit to being “already far” in making deals, others add to studying the business plan, with some easily sending 30 offers on return.

For its part, HUB Brussels welcomes not only the “feasibility” of the projects they have already been told, “but above all, speed”. For her future boss, one thing is clear: “The desire is there and on both sides.“B19 meanwhile also announces the return match, viz welcome to Brussels this time a delegation of Congolese entrepreneurs next spring. For if the members of this mission from Zaventem regarded Congo as a potential land of opportunity, seen from Kinshasa in Belgium, it is the same. And for those who decided to settle there or return there, the leitmotif is the same: “I live in Europe, in the Congo, I feel alive.”

Leave a Comment