With large areas of uncultivated arable land and unexploited mineral deposits, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is arguably the country in Africa that holds the most untapped potential. A population of close to 70 million also provides a sizeable market for companies.
However, for many foreign business people, the DRC is still a no-go area. This is largely because of insecurity in the eastern part of the country due to rebel militias operating in the region.
The problems in the east, however, shouldn’t deter business people from operating in the rest of the country, says Bernard Malaba, DRC country manager for logistics company DHL. The DRC is more than three times the size of France. Malaba notes that the distance between Goma, the main city in eastern DRC, and the capital Kinshasa is the same as that between Belgium and Romania. “Would you be afraid to do business in Belgium when there is trouble in Romania? Certainly not.”
“This is one of the misconceptions. People abroad think that because there is trouble in the eastern side of the country, they cannot come to the DRC. The area where the trouble is taking place is very far from the other main business hubs,” he adds.
Despite this, Malaba is hoping for peace across the country. “Peace is compulsory for development. This war needs to stop.”
Important business centres
Kinshasa is not the DRC’s only important business centre. The city of Lubumbashi, situated close to the border with Zambia, is the hub for the area’s copper mining industry. Another key city is Matadi, the main port serving the DRC, which is situated on the bank of the Congo River.
According to Malaba, even the eastern city of Goma is an important business destination with many traders dealing with Dubai and China.
Travelling around in the DRC is, however, anything but cheap and easy. The DRC’s road network is severely underveloped and flights are incredibly expensive.
Malaba notes that companies that want a national footprint in the DRC, should make sure that they have a very good knowledge of the country, as the market can differ widely from one region to another. “The people in the country are so different. For example, what applies in the south of the country, does not necessarily apply in the east.”
Significant opportunities, but many challenges remain
The DRC’s lack of infrastructure is just one of the challenges of operating in the country. When it comes to the ease of doing business, the DRC continually features close to the bottom in the annual ranking published by the World Bank and IFC.
According to Malaba, Kinshasa can be a very expensive city for foreign business people. He was born in the DRC, but left the country for Belgium at the age of four. After studying and working in Europe, he returned to the DRC a number of years ago. He says it is very costly to maintain the same standard of living that he was used to in Europe. “If you want to eat the same food, the same fruits, the same meat – it is very expensive. An average three-star hotel can cost US$300 per night.”
Despite these challenges, Malaba is optimistic about the DRC’s future. He says the country is making progress, citing new roads and transport initiatives in Kinshasa as examples. “Things are improving, not fast enough for my liking, but things are improving.”
He notes that the DRC offers significant business opportunities, especially in the area of agriculture. “We need to have people investing massively in agriculture, and to come with the necessary equipment because the farming sector is not developed. The DRC imports everything – from flour to chickens – which is not normal considering the country’s size and potential.”
The Inga dam hydropower scheme – when it eventually gets built – also has the potential to dramatically change the country’s electricity supply situation. The site for the proposed dam, which could be much bigger than China’s Three Gorges dam, is at the Inga Falls on the River Congo.
For Malaba, the best thing about living in the DRC is the people and the country’s natural beauty. “The people are so friendly in the DRC. The Congo River next to Kinshasa is also nice. The natural environment is unbelievable – we have beautiful lakes and waterfalls.”