Doing business in Congo: which place for Belgians?

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

Zaventem. 27 people who have been vaccinated against yellow fever are feverishly waiting to board a plane to Kinshasa. A 100% private economic mission initiated by John Bogaerts – founder and CEO of the B19 business circle – who, after a short stay in Congo last year, thought it was a “very good idea” totake Belgian entrepreneurs to Congolese partners to do business “all together”. Especially not “as before” and especially not “between whites”. In the lounge at the airport few people know each other, they all sniff each other and talk to each other again to ask themselves the big question of the day: “So, first time in Congo?

Address Books Wide Open

In general we are “half in half”, the average age is 46 and the core activities are as eclectic as possible: import/export, education, telecommunications, real estate, art, media, culture, law, finance, insurance and business angels† An “economic mission” certainly, “prospecting” especially, but for which, in our opinion, the address books have been opened very wide. Among the delegation we also find the future economic attaché of HUB Brussels (including FIT and Awex) Laurence Heyblom who also comes “prospecting” to settle in Kinshasa in January.

Arrival on the asphalt of Ndjili. An employee immediately challenges a contractor who gets off the plane”How is our king?before moving on to “What’s your favorite? Me, it’s Boudewijn because he gave us independence”. At customs it’s a Belgian-Congolese entrepreneur who fails: passport problem. We learn that quickly in Congo, administrative problems, we call that “hassle”, and that “hassle” always works out on the condition of “never get angry”.

Fortunately for our man, there is also a lawyer in this delegation; he knows the business well, his firm Daldewolf is based in both Brussels and Kinshasa – and it is after an hour of pleading that both climb victoriously into the minibus. An hour’s drive between the airport and the hotel, but “today we are lucky, the bunnies are open”, the driver explains. The hares? In short, bridges built over roads to avoid traffic jams

It’s 10pm, the road is teeming with people, the stalls, markets and churches are in full swing, animals and trucks are standing still in the middle of the road for lack of petrol. Here the horns are a permanent music, and driving, of the gymkhana. Houses have been destroyed, while for rich people or expats, the price of real estate in Kinshasa is closer to Paris than Brussels.

An hour later we arrive in La Gombe, the embassy and business district. In the hotel bar everyone gets to know each other while enjoying a beer. Five days on site, a very tight schedule and a well made canvas that will be repeated day after day. Company visits (Utex, Bralima, Finasucre, Silikin Village, the communication and service company SCS, the high school Prince de Liège, etc.), official lunches, meetings, conferences all about “how and why doing business” in Congo”, aperitifs where 50 to 100 local entrepreneurs are invited every evening and where everyone finds their “match” for the evening before continuing the relationship at the table. And all this, before closing the evening on the roof of the Pullman hotel where we find the gratin of Kinshasa society, an equally striking contrast where the Veuve Clicquot flows into the glasses of starters, men and business women, whites, blacks , mestizos , the diaspora returned with Tshisekedi, but also expats and the famous “moths”, who offer their charms after midnight.

Here we also discover that in Kinshasa talking about Belgians or Congolese is less relevant than “where did you study” – “who are your parents?”, in three minutes all inclusive we more or less know who we are dealing with . Surprisingly, these chieftains we meet by chance in the hub of the hotel and who proudly display a Leopold II medal on their traditional costume. Many also speak to us about the “bounty”, hear the diaspora described as “black on the outside, but white on the inside”, those who are said to “raise the country”, but also many whites who were born here and who challenge us with a Lingala accent 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, we are talking about business, vital forces and the future of the country. If the political situation appears to be stabilizing, what will happen at the next elections scheduled in two years’ time? As a result, it is mainly on the economic fabric that we rely to get out, “the private and especially not the public”, a classic reflex when we know that the salaries of civil servants are sometimes not paid for months. As for the multinationals, bogged down in “compliance”, we don’t count on it too much either. In any case, one thing is very clear: we need “everything” and no matter the field, here the market is “huge”

To put it in perspective, Congo is 80 times Belgium, its median age is 18, its population growth rate 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 the needs of Bas Congo alone, as domestic transport remains problematic: because we will hear a lot about infrastructures such as imported products “made in China”, ” up to three years of lifespan”, some will specify, shrugging, adding that, on the other hand, infrastructures left to independence, many are still standing; there are even crushers that still work.

Inquisitive atmosphere, all members of the delegation reported that they were challenged by “Aaaah Belgians, when are you coming back?”. For many, the past is behind, what matters is the future. Among them are enthusiasts who are nostalgic for pre-independence, “when the Belgians were there, we had work, we had money, we lived better”, but there are also pragmatists who, faced with the gigantic needs of the country, believe that given the close ties, “it is better to do business with each other than with others”.

At the same time, there are others who, before entrusting us with anything, rate us on a scale of 1 to 10 to gauge our degree of “ordinary racism”. An informed observer regrets this, noting that, apart from the common past, one should not underestimate the strong proximity of character between Belgians and Congolese: “The same roundness, the same humor, in a way the Congolese is a bit like the Belgian of Africa

The same story of the entrepreneurs who have been on site for several generations, these families of Belgian origin who have experienced independence, zairization, looting, political transitions and who cling to them despite everything. What they keep repeating is that the Belgians prevent themselves from returning because of the colonial past, while the relationship is no longer the same today.

But where these entrepreneurs fulminate is when they see the overwhelming presence of great powers with little or no democracy taking over the nation’s resources. For them, it’s simple: “Congo is an open bar! They don’t bring anything, while the needs are huge, be it logistics, services or skills.” Education and health care, for example – specialists are as rare as pharmacies or hospitals – while colleges and universities are looking for foreign professors “to invite” because their own professors work in parallel and do not receive a regular salary.

For infrastructure or mines we knew it, but what we also discover is that IT, cybersecurity, digitization and telecommunications are now crucial to the country’s development† at the initiative of Texaf, Silikin Village was founded in 2020, the largest digital hub in Africa for programmers and developers, and until now one of the few opportunities for young people to train in digital technology.

But Congo is also 120 million hectares of arable land, enough to feed 2 billion people, while the water, electricity and insurance sectors have just been liberalized† A cry for air that inevitably has consequences for other ecosystems, such as transport or legal. “Congo is the probability of a blank page in all areas“, notes Valery Safarian, advisor to the board of insurance company SFA.

The big question, of course, remains that of the business environment: “difficult”, “heavy”, “picky”, some players will go so far as to say that “it’s a bit of the Wild West, but the potential is limitless for those who like risk”. Present since 2010, Henry Wazne, CEO of Sofibanque – 3and commercial bank of the DRC – confirms, but adds that while the administrative harassment is constant, it is never “personal”. According to him, “the key is to settle in, be accompanied by the right people, hear professionals on the ground, and at this point, Belgians have an edge 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 opportunity for Belgium, while whispering “for a year, up to a year and a half” due to the launch of the 2023 election campaign that risks “crippling everything upstream”. The “doer” (men and women in the field) dispute their pessimism: “Between the establishment of the process, the election and the installation of the presidency, it can take years.”

Participants encountered on average between 300 and 500 people and will have slept four hours a night. One participant said she was struck by the energy of Kinshasa, “proportionate to what one should do”. Because, in the unanimous opinion, “doing business here is really not easy”† Contacted since their return, half of the participants say they want to take the plunge† Some admit they are “already far” in making deals, others join in studying the business plan, with some easily sending 30 offers upon their return.

For its part, HUB Brussels is delighted not only with the “feasibility” of the projects that have already been told to them, “but above all quickly”. For her future boss, one thing is clear: “The desire is there and on both sides.In the meantime, the B19 also announces the return game, namely welcome to Brussels this time a delegation of Congolese entrepreneurs next spring† Because if the members of this mission from Zaventem see Congo as a potential country of opportunities, seen from Kinshasa, Belgium, then that is the same. And for those who decided to settle there or to return, for them the leitmotif is the same: “I live in Europe, in Congo I feel alive.”

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