By Daisy Carrington and Dianne McCarthy*
Kinshasa hasn’t had an easy time of it. A decade ago, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo was a broken city, ravaged by years of war and infighting. Of late, however, Kinshasa has witnessed a resurgence, with many expatriated Congolese returning to build a new city.
“When I came back, people thought I was crazy. “[They would ask], ‘why would you go into a country where there is war? Where nothing is working? Why not stay in the States and make your life?’” says Joss Ilunga Dijimba, who returned to Kinshasa in 1996 after studying in America. Today, Dijimba runs his own eponymous business, manufacturing plastic bottles for the pharmaceutical industry.
“In the USA, everything has been done — everything. In Congo, there is still a way to make things right. I am a Congolese. If I’m not going to make it, who’s going to?”
In agreement is Olivier Ndombasi, who always planned on building his fortune in his homeland. Like his elder brothers, he studied abroad in the hope of bringing back knowledge that could improve the family business: groceries. His father’s small store has now turned into a supermarket franchise called Peloustore, with four locations and more on the way.
“It’s very exciting to be able to do things in a new environment, and do things you didn’t think you’d be able to do,” says Ndombasi.
“The challenge is great, but it’s very exciting.”
Many agree that there are obstacles, but returnees often cite the exhilaration of starting with a clean slate.
“Come to Kinshasa, you unlearn what you thought you knew. You take your MBA book, your business plan, put it in your pocket and start from scratch,” says Alain Yav, who 12 years ago founded Pygma Group, a holding company that has interests in communication and construction. Pygma also produces one of the country’s most popular television shows: Beauty Queen.
Though the journey has been long, and there are still large portions of the country’s population living below the poverty line (70.5% in 2011, according African Economic Outlook), Yav says Kinshasa is starting to reap economic benefits.
“When you are working really hard, at some time, you stop believing. But I think we are lucky, because we are seeing it’s progressing. Not just us, not just our company, not just our industry, but we are seeing things move forward in every direction,” he says.
To prove the point, Kinshasa also seems to be experiencing a construction boom. Buildings are going up at a ferocious rate. One of the largest — and most controversial — projects is La Cite du Fleuve (River City), a floating-island complex that is expected to include thousands of flats, hotels and shopping centers.
“Everywhere [you look], you can see new buildings and lots of construction,” says Didier M’Pambia, who set up Optimum, one of the larger PR firms in the city. M’Pambia also publishes Optimum Magazine, a glossy pan-African business quarterly aimed at giving the Congolese diaspora information about their home country.
“It’s not a Congolese magazine; it’s a magazine at the same level of other magazines produced in the United States, Europe or South Africa,” says M’Pambia.
“We don’t have to be ashamed that we are in Africa. You have to be proud to be Africa and to show your personality. As Congolese, we have to be the first people involved in our development,” he says.