Challenging perceptions about Somalia

The general perception of Somalia is often that of a ‘failed’ state – a country where lawlessness reigns and where its citizens go hungry with little hope. A new book by long-time BBC correspondent Mary Harper, titled ‘Getting Somalia Wrong? Faith, War and Hope in a Shattered State’, however, challenges this view.

A branch of Somali money transfer service Dahabshiil.

Harper writes that although Somalia’s troubles cannot be ignored, there have been more positive developments than the country gets credit for. She also points out how many businesses have continued to thrive, in spite of over two decades without an effective central government.

How we made it in Africa has earlier reported that although security has been a big issue in Somalia, the situation has improved. Since Kenyan forces launched an onslaught on al-Shabaab in retaliation to the kidnapping of tourists on Kenyan soil, the militant group has lost its stronghold in the capital Mogadishu and the town of Afmadow. Reports indicate that Kenyan troops and the African Union force in Somalia, known as AMISOM, are also close to recapturing the strategic port of Kismayo.

Mogadishu is losing the dreaded “world’s most dangerous city” tag and embassies are reopening as countries mend diplomatic ties severed almost 20 years ago.

Entrepreneurial spirit

“Urban businessmen, international corporations, and rural pastoralists have all functioned in stateless Somalia, achieving standards of living for the country that are equal or superior to many other African nations,” says the US-based Independent Institute in a report.

According to Harper, Somalis are highly entrepreneurial and risk takers. One Nairobi-based Somali businessman gave the following explanation for the success of many Somali businesses:

“I think you need to be a Somali to understand this! One thing that is unique about Somalis is the issue of trust. People will come to you, they will give you their money without signing a document, they will say, ‘Here is my money, help me’, and five or six people will come together entirely due to trust. This is one of the main assets we have. If someone wants to open a shop somewhere, he will call his cousins in London, South Africa, Mogadishu or Mombasa, and they will contribute. They will enable him to open the shop, and he will do the same thing for others. Trust is the secret of the success of the Somalis. Also, Somalis are amazingly energetic and dynamic. Because of the war in Somalia, there is no central government, there are no institutions to help people, so everybody has to do their own thing, you have to depend on yourself. Everybody has relatives who are suffering, so everyone feels responsible for doing things for other people. The war is one of the main reasons behind all this energy and entrepreneurial activity.”

In Somaliland, the self-declared independent state, many people from the diaspora have returned to set up businesses.

Harper gives the example of Abdullah Farah, a Somalilander who returned from Canada to start the first ever dairy farm in the region. When Farah first told Harper about the farm, she did not believe him.

“He offered to take me to the farm, so we set off early the next day, driving at great speed over uneven sandy terrain, rushing past camels, anthills and thorn trees. Suddenly, like a mirage in the desert, there appeared a patch of brilliant green. This was the ‘Green Valley Dairy Farm’, where a modern irrigation system has enabled Abdullah Farah to grow different varieties of grass, legumes and other food for his dairy cows, experimenting with seeds he has bought from Kenya and Sudan … When I asked Abdullah Farah, who had no previous experience of farming, how he knew how to irrigate the land, dig wells, make silage and run a dairy farm, he roared with laughter, saying he had learnt most of it from the internet. His response embodied the wild pioneering spirit of the Somalilanders.”

Telecommunications – leapfrogging old technology

Harper writes that the absence of a central government has brought with it various economic freedoms and opportunities. One example is the telecommunications sector. Somalia was an early adopter of mobile phone technology.

Ironically, the lack of government regulation of telecommunications led to the rapid development of the industry. “At a time when much of Mogadishu’s infrastructure was disintegrating, with roads falling into disrepair, buildings shattered by bullets and shells, power lines looted and water supplies drying up, mobile phone masts started to spring up in the city,” says Harper.

Mobile phone services in Somalia are reliable and better than those in many other countries on the continent. There is also a great variety of handsets available in the country.

“The government post and telecommunications company used to have a monopoly but after the regime was toppled we were free to set up our own businesses. We saw a huge gap in the market, as all the previous services had been destroyed. There was a massive demand,” commented Abdullahi Mohamed Hussein, a manager at Telcom Somalia.

Money transfer

Another success story is Somalia’s money transfer industry. The war has scattered Somalis to all corners of the world and created a need to channel money to support families and friends back home. According to the United Nations, more than $1.5 billion worth of remittances are sent to Somalia and Somaliland annually.

One of the country’s most successful money transfer companies is Dahabshiil, a business with 24,000 agent locations and branches globally.

This is how Harper describes Dahabshiil’s operations centre in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland:

“In the main computer room, giant machines whir and spin, lights flashing on and off, as money is electronically transferred across the world. On another floor, the room is split up into different geographical regions. The man on the ‘South Asia desk’ was busy sending a text message to someone in a remote village in Somaliland, informing him that he could go to his local agent to collect the $200 he had been sent by a relative in Bangladesh. Money is transferred in a matter of minutes; the company operates twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.”

Harper doesn’t claim that everything is well and fine in Somalia. Her book does, however, offer a fresh perspective on the country.

Commenting on the book, Michael Moran, editor-in-chief of Renaissance Insights, says: “Will you line up to invest in a Mogadishu fund … I don’t think so. But in 10 years, who knows? The slow but very real re-stabilisation of Somalia, and the surprising story of economic vitality in many parts of this strategically placed, Italy-sized land, is of a piece with so much in sub-Saharan Africa today.”