The Kenyan Ambassador to DRC George Masafu spoke with Jackson Mutinda on why East Africans should not fear investing in Congo.
You are one of the optimists about the Congolese market and its viability. What fuels that optimism?
First, the numbers. People invest where the numbers are. DRC has 100 million-plus people, which tells you there's consumption. Once you have the numbers, then you connect them to your services and products.
Number two, DRC is a growing democracy. We seem to remember the worst times without looking at the times ahead. Mobutu (Sese Seko) ruled this country for 32 years, and then he was followed by the Kabila family, who ruled for 22 years. And now Tshisekedi.
Now, President (Felix) Tshisekedi cannot legally rule for more than 10 years. That brings stability in the country. There'll be new people every 10 years; having a new person brings new ideas to develop the country.
So, we see a rapidly growing democratic country. The future is not informed by the past, but the trend shows that we've reached a point of take-off. It's the right time to come and invest.
Three, the world economy. When you look at the energy transition -- moving from fossil oils to green energy -- DRC offers the solution. It has one of the largest forests in the world and, in terms of biodiversity, again, it's going to be a solution. DRC is the lungs of the world.
Again, the strategic minerals needed for the energy transition are all here: lithium, cobalt, copper… They're going to give DRC another advantage over the developed countries.
It's not for nothing that the Chinese are here. In 1885 we had the scramble for Africa, now we have the scramble for the Congo, a country with 96 million acres of arable land, which can feed the whole world.
Talking about green energy, again, River Congo presents the opportunity for the DRC to supply power to Africa. The Inga dam has the capacity to produce power for the Horn of Africa, with a surplus for export elsewhere. That's the other investment area. You know, the minerals from this country are sent overseas for refining but, with enough electricity, we'd do value addition.
Anybody can invest in DRC. You hear about the guerrilla war. The rebels are far away from Kinshasa and government and the East African Community are making efforts to control the rebellion to make that area economically viable.
In the scramble for Congo, Kenya has made it to the frontline. Equity is a leading bank here, and KCB is also here. So, Kenya is already in the financial sector. Less than 10 percent of Congolese are banked, so there's a lot of room for more banks to come. They are profitable, are well managed and your money is safe. And they're able to help you with investment. International trade depends on banks. Previously, the financial sector was very problematic, and traders were relying on cash because they couldn't trust the banks. Now, there's more trust in the Kenyan banks.
Again, we have daily flights from Nairobi to Kinshasa, five flights of Jambojet from Nairobi to Goma and Lubumbashi. So, Kenyan businessmen can travel to DRC as many times as they want, and they are not required to have visas.
Restrictions to travel and business have now been removed, because visas are barriers to market access. Customs are also softening.
As the ambassador of Kenya in DRC for the past nine years, I can say East Africa’s economy is one of the most viable in Africa. As we look forward to the African Continental Free Trade Area, East Africa is going to be a region to reckon with.
How do you rate the ease of doing business — the policies that would facilitate investment in the country — considering its history and governance challenges?
DRC is a victim of its own history. But since 2018, state authority is being put in place. The president with this government and the devolved units are now taking up governance. When you hear about the civil war, it exists because of the absence of government on the ground.
But the Congolese are overcoming that. They're now training policemen, the army… Sovereignty is the inviolability of borders. With that, you're able to govern. And this is what President Tshisekedi and his team are doing.
There were difficulties of doing business because of the nature of the history of the country, but now, institutions are being put in place. Immigration, Customs, the army, police are being modernised, even Parliament. So, legislation is being done properly to attract investors.
Previously, DRC was averse to immigrants. The fear was that the neighbouring countries would flood the country and take their land.
DRC imports 95 percent of its food. So now they are welcoming outsiders like Kenyans to come in and do agriculture. Parliament is enacting laws that will enable Kenyans to come and lease land for agriculture.
The private sector is the engine of economic development. And it is developing, introducing technology in financial transactions and the ease of doing business, so some of the barriers are not there anymore. The government is also getting strict. If you want to open a bank account, or to register your company, now there is a one-stop desk. You don't need to know somebody. The difficulties that existed because of the war are being forgotten.
Elections are being held in the next few weeks and everybody is excited because, for once, the president in power now is contesting to go for the second and final term.
And there's no violence. All these developments point to the fact that the ease of doing business in DRC is getting better.
But since Tshisekedi is going for the final term, don’t you think it’s a do-or-die situation for him and therefore he will do anything to win this election?
Previously, we never knew how long a president was going to be in power. But now because of the predictability of the electoral cycle opponents know that they have another chance, and this is what brings stability. There is no need to fight now, because you have a fighting chance in five years. Political issues were weaponised but now we're moving from weaponisation to politicisation.
There is a feeling that the east has been disenfranchised by the electoral commission in terms of registration of voters. Wouldn't that say something about the legality and perhaps the legitimacy of the final result?
The situation in the east is not due to a decision by the electoral commission or by the president. Well, that situation is over 30 years old. And anyone who wants to be president must promise that he is going to fight that war. It's not something to point out as a weakness. No, that's part of the DRC history, and they are trying to heal it. So that will not invalidate the legitimacy of the election.
The east has most of the resources that need to be tapped for the energy transition and therefore it is critical to pacify them.
Have you seen any concrete domestic efforts to actually pacify that region?
We have to put in place the Nairobi peace process. There are two channels: Channel one is political, channel two is military. That's where the East African Community Regional Force comes in. We have the political wing, which is led by our former president, Uhuru Kenyatta, to try and bring intra-Congolese talks.
The East African force is there as a deterrent.
Would you say this is the best effort?
Yes. For the first time the whole of East Africa is here. So, in a way, the Congolese affair has united East Africa, who have found a common purpose to liberate one of their own from the menace of the rebels. I'm sure if we continue with this regional process, it's going to be a primary goal to defeat the rebels.
What have you seen as major investments in infrastructure to facilitate trade?
Infrastructure is regional and continental. We look at infrastructure for trade across borders. Right now, we need electricity. That's infrastructure that you need to be able to smelt minerals. You need roads to transport goods, you need railways for bulk materials like minerals. Rivers are natural transport channel. Look at the Rhine River in Europe and the Mississippi in the US, but in Africa, rivers are not exploited as transport routes.
The DRC is connected to the Indian Ocean by the Northern Corridor running from Mombasa through Nairobi, Kampala, Kigali and, in DRC, Kisangani.
Kisangani is where the River Congo starts. That river runs 4,000 kilometres from Kisangani to Kinshasa. That is a navigable part, ships can come down that river to this city.
Then you need security. You cannot do trade without security infrastructure. The regional force is part of that infrastructure. The government of DRC has approached neighbouring countries such as Uganda, with whom they’re constructing a road and bridges.
Kenya’s SGR was to get to DRC through Uganda. Another SGR is coming very fast from Dar es Salaam to Burundi and DRC. So, you see efforts to create new routes. There's a corridor coming from South Africa through Namibia into DRC. From Angola, there's another corridor.
DRC is also modernising its infrastructure to make trade possible within its towns.
In which sectors would you advise Kenyan investors to put their money?
Investment is a personal decision. So, we cannot talk about what's the best investment. It depends on one’s preferences and ability.
What would you say about the so-called language barrier?
We have talked about the success story of Kenyan banks. The language of banking is business, and this is universal. It doesn't matter how good Lingala you speak, if you're offering a rubbish product, nobody will take it. Sometimes we tend to over-emphasise certain barriers, which are not barriers at all.
Now let's talk about borderless Africa. Is the time right to bring down the borders?
Africa has a population of 1.4 billion people, but they're not connected. Borders have been barriers, so the 1.4 billion Africans just ended up being numbers, but not a market. You might find maize in a neighbouring country rotting because they don't have people to eat it, yet, across the river, people are starving because there is no connection. So, borders have been a big impediment to trade in Africa.
Africa has the numbers, and we must have the infrastructure to connect. First and foremost, we must have internet to hook the supply chain across the continent.
We need the roads. The Northern Corridor was supposed to come through Kenya, Uganda to DRC, then coming to Cameroon and on to the Atlantic. By linking populations, you are able to carry what you produce to the populations who don't. Where there's no road, you can use an airline.
Crashing borders so that we become one Africa is going to convert these 1.4 billion numbers into a market. We need to facilitate travel rather than block it. People must move, goods must move, money must move, labour must move. This is what constitutes an economy.
Is there a risk of the poor countries suffering brain drain, when we open up the borders and people from poorer countries move to more developed ones?
They are poor, they need to move out to go and see how the rich people make money, so they can make and bring the riches back home.
Since President William Ruto announced that he was going to allow all Africans to visit Kenya visa-free, there has been a continuing debate about reciprocity. We are opening our borders, but we are still blocked by our African brothers…
In diplomacy, the principle of reciprocity says do unto others as you need them do unto you. But page two says that you don't learn bad manners from a neighbour. You do what is right. So, when you want to provide leadership, you have to pave the way for others. We need a leader to trigger good behaviour within the region. The criticism has been based on narrow interests, where we think that our country is so special. You cannot sell to yourself, you must sell to the neighbours, and you cannot go to the neighbour if the borders are closed.
Kenya is going to be a preferred destination for tourism and investment. Of course, we will address issues of crime and so forth. We have a security system that can manage that, including cybercrimes.
What became of the African passport project?
We are getting there. The regions -- EAC, Ecowas, SADC -- are ready. That's the easiest way of ending up with the African passport.
Would it really help if we crash borders when we don’t have a functional open skies programme?
Until our capitals are connected by roads and railways, air remains the fastest and available route. I know there is an open skies programme, only that it is taking off quite slowly.