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The Somali Hustle: How locals are trying to rebuild their nation's economy

By Mark HayApril 7, 2016

Mogadishu, Somalia
As business slowly begins anew, a laborer moves goods past Ugandan African Union soldiers in the Bakara market on August 17, 2011 in Mogadishu, Somalia. John Moore/Getty Images

On paper, Somalia is a unified country that after 21 years of quasi-anarchy is clawing its way out of chaos by forming an internationally backed government. But on the ground, this “recognized government” controls only a thin sliver of land. Most of its citizens live under either unrecognized, de facto independent governments or in fear of the constant churn and turmoil of a decades-long conflict that long ago went beyond a simple civil war.

Despite all the chaos though, for many in Somalia life goes on —because it must. Out of the rubble, many locals are trying to rebuild their nation’s economy on their own.

 

Out of the rubble, many locals are trying to rebuild their nation’s economy on their own.

Somaliland is a de facto independent country carved out of Somalia’s northern arm that lacks formal banking services or ties to the international financial system. In the past few years, Adam Dirir has managed to open a car wash, an interior decoration firm and a media fixer service (among other ventures that didn’t pan out as well). Dirir has a unique perspective on doing business in this rough environment, having fled the country as a child and grown up in Europe (mainly Denmark, with a few stints in the United Kingdom) before deciding to return to help rebuild his nation.

Below, he shares his thoughts on what it takes to do business in a world far from ATMs and bank loans. 


I saw a market [in Somaliland] and I thought: Is there anything I can do here? Any way I can make money? Can I bring something new to the table? You see a niche market, and if you have the finance you say, okay let me gamble it. 

It’s a challenge being in this environment. I left this country 35 years ago. When I was living [in Europe], I was a Western boy and educated in that system. So understanding the society, communicating with the community, was a challenge, even though I speak the language, I was a part of the culture, I have brothers and family that were here. 

You can’t drink the water. It’s not clean. You can’t have a hot shower like you’re used to where you come from. It’s a simple life. That’s a challenge. You don’t know what you’re doing tomorrow. That’s a challenge as well. And the timetables—in the West, you work eight-hour shifts. Then you find out that things work differently here. You have to go and socialize with people [when you might be working in the West] to get the markets and to get the people. 

You don’t have finance companies. Nobody can advise you, to tell you to keep your books this way or do it that way. You have to make the calls. You have to do everything by yourself. Your finance is out of the window. You can’t think about it. [But this vagueness has its benefits too.]


You try everything. It gives you the freedom of doing things your way.

When I form a [U.K.-based] business, I have to go to a finance company, or start-up [facilitator]. Then there’s a guy who’s monitoring me. I remember from my first business venture … everything I wanted to do, I had to ask [someone about it]. I was very nervous. It restricted me. 

Here, you gamble. You say: Yes, it works. No, it doesn’t. You try everything. It gives you the freedom of doing things your way. No license, no nothing. In that sense I like it. 

[But] sometimes you don’t want to gamble your money. You want support. You want someone who understands. It goes both ways. But hey, I like it. 

The lifestyle you get is the lifestyle they have here. You’re free of stress. You wake up in the morning and don’t know what your challenge will be. You just say: Hey, let me live my life and see what I can do. I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow or what’s going to be on my desk. 

There’re a lot of people who come here and fail at business [though], for two reasons: 1) There’s no [support system]. 2) The society doesn’t like new things. When I was bringing in [shwarma, a failed venture], it was like: What is this? Nobody could understand [what this food was]. 

[To work in this environment] you have to forget what you know and get to know new things. 

[But] the key factor is patience. To set foot in the system here, in Africa, or anywhere in the developing world, you have to have patience. You won’t see profits the first year. You won’t see profits in the second year. You can’t really analyze and predict it. Maybe to make a profit, it takes eight years. Are you going to wait when you can go to London to [make bank in finance]?