Saturday, September 26, 2015

First Trip to Kinshasa, DR Congo (August 2015)

I serve the board of Opportunity International DR Congo, a micro finance institution. I have been serving it from January 2015 but this is my first physical attendance. In February, I had prior arrangement before I was appointed to the board so I could not make it. In May, I bought the airplane ticket, but I was denied the boarding the airplane in Nairobi because I did not have the proper visa. So I had to return to Rwanda.

Finally, I received the visa and I have purchased the airplane ticket. The visa cost me $400 for a six month visa for multiple entries. It is one of the most expensive visa fees that I have experienced. Nonetheless, I was happy to have the visa.

Kinshasa city
DR Congo, formerly known as Zaire, is the second largest country in Africa with the land size of 2.3 million square kilometers, which is larger than the combination of Spain, Germany, France, Sweden and Norway. It has a population of 75 million, marking as the most populist francophone nation in the world, the fourth most populist nation in Africa and the nineteenth in the world. Moreover, its natural resources are so rich that they can feed the entire population of Africa, only if they are properly used and distributed.
DR Congo in perspective

Nonetheless, DR Congo is so behind all other nations in the world in human development, ranking almost at the bottom. This country is also notorious about child labor for military recruitment and mining. All this phenomenon centers around inefficient and irresponsible government. Some media reports indicate that the government troops rape women in villages, like the rebels rampant in the eastern region. In the midst of all this strife and civil wars, women and children suffer most.

DR Congo is a country that has abundant natural resources, yet suffers from poverty, hunger and wars. Millions of people have died during the civil wars and another millions of people have been displaced because of the civil wars.

"Who is responsible for all this mess?" was in the back of my mind before my first trip to DR Congo.

A mini bus
My first impression of Kinshasa, DR Congo's capital city, was gained on the road from the airport to the hotel I stayed. The road was quite wide, but the small merchants lined up along the road were pretty shabby and people who crossed the road freely without traffic lights and crossings seemed careless. The so-called Matatus, small mini buses used for public transportation, looked old, overused and overloaded with passengers. Nonetheless, people seemed happy and pleasant.
Children doing hard labor
Refugee camp
People fleeing the area of conflict
The hotel looked quite large, but the quality of services was slow. I had to wait for more than 30 minutes just because a couple in front of me kept talking to the only reception personnel at the 4-star hotel. A few people in uniform, who I believe were the hotel staff, did not seem to care whether clients are waiting or not. While I was waiting, a few people showed up and went to the counter while I was waiting. But one of them seemed to notice that I was waiting so he yielded the turn to me. But the reception personnel took his passport and mine together and started processing them together. Well, this would be only a small incident, but everything I was experiencing was my first impression of the city and the hotel.

The office of OI DRC was in a building that did not look like an office building or a bank building. I did not see the sign either. Everything looked quite unusual and odd.

Honestly, I had a negative impression about DR Congo to begin with. It was unfair to DR Congo. But, I learned that the tax authority of DR Congo sent a tax bill of $100,000 even before the micro finance institution was open for business. OI DRC had to hire a lawyer to prove that OI DRC does not owe any tax because it did not earn a penny. Another cost before earning anything. We learned later that the tax authority personnel is being paid a 10-15% commission based on the amount of tax revenue that each staff generates. No wonder they want to issue a tax bill without any base or justification. This irresponsible false practice has been worsened by the country's judicial system that is based on civil law where every suspect is guilty until proven to be innocent. This contrasts directly against the juris prudence (You are innocent until proven to be guilty), which is the foundation for common law. Wow...

After I interacted with the board members and the management, I found that many people are eager to learn to do things properly and to make changes if necessary. My negative preoccupation about DR Congo was diminished quite a bit, but the country remains a challenge to many foreign investors. I am not sure how this may be overcome. Chronic and rampant corruption, lack of infrastructure, geographical spread and weak government combined with lack of discipline seem to more than offset the abundance of natural resources that the country has. Perhaps, these natural resources may have done more harm to this country and its people than benefits.

My unfavorable impression of the country gets one more twist because of the complicated process of departing the country at the airport. I learned that the number of check points for the departure was 22 if you want to go through the process normally. At every counter, you face a delay and are expected to pay a bribe if you want to proceed faster. So we paid a fee in advance legitimately so that we could go through a VIP lounge where you could board the airplane directly. Whew... I was glad that we used the VIP lounge and avoided all the hassle... legitimately.

My next trip will be in November. I suppose I will be better prepared and I hope I will get to see brighter side of Kinshasa and DR Congo. - Jeffrey