“A cappuccino here is more expensive than any other coffee in the world,” said Mohamed Ali as he addressed the audience of the second TEDx conference held in Somalia's capital.
“An espresso machine uses a lot of electricity and Mogadishu is the most expensive city in the world by kilowatt/hour,” he said, introducing the story of Ahmed, a returning diaspora member who partnered with local engineer Isse to create a coal-powered coffee machine prototype. “Ahmed now has the cheapest espresso in Mogadishu and Isse has 100 machines that he rents for $100 dollars a month.”
On August 31 a TEDx conference - the ‘ideas worth spreading’ event - was held in Mogadishu, the capital of a country that is still considered by some a ‘failed state’. Despite this, spirits were high as the speakers, mostly returning diaspora members, articulated their hopeful visions of a new Somalia.
But this time optimism was accompanied by concrete examples of change in the wake of the installation of the country's first permanent government in over two decades. There is a definite feeling that something has changed or is changing and this is bringing back some of the 1.5 million Somalis living abroad, like Ahmed, or like Ali, a US-trained human rights lawyers returning to help aspirant business men and women, especially young Somalis.
“I'm passionate about entrepreneurship as a tool to fight poverty and unemployment,” Ali told Think Africa Press. Somalia's unemployment rate is estimated to be 54%, up from 47% in 2002, according to a 2012 Somalia Human Development Report. The situation is worse for young people, as unemployment for 14- to 29-year-olds reaches 67% - one of the highest in the world.
Alongside speaking at the TEDx event, Ali inaugurated the first ‘Youth Entrepreneurship Summit’ in Mogadishu as director of the leadership and entrepreneurship organisation Iftiin Foundation with Generation Change, a US-sponsored initiative active in several developing countries.
“Each new event is usually launched by the US embassy in each respective country,” he explains. “However, because there is no US embassy in Somalia, my organisation Iftiin Foundation launched the programme in Mogadishu.”
84 young Somalis joined the summit. All coming from different backgrounds, they had one thing in common: business ideas. Many had identified a service gap to fill. Ali is full of enthusiasm for the innovation of the group: “One young woman was telling me how she wanted to create an ambulance service. Another has a project for a microcredit group for women,” he says.
As part of the youth leadership programme, young Somalis will receive mentoring and will be supported in finding investors for their projects. Lack of capital and technical ability, such as forecasting and managing financial risks, are the main obstacles to young entrepreneurship. The diaspora can take care of the former, as in Ahmed and Isse's case, and programmes like his can do the rest, said Ali.
It has been almost a year since Hassan Sheikh Mohamud was sworn in as the president of the Federal Government of Somalia, the first permanent authority since the collapse of all formal institutions in 1991.
“In the last year the environment has really changed,” argues Ali. “Since the establishment of the permanent government there is greater security and a greater recognition of Somalia among the international community. This has the potential to attract more international investments.”
One of the clearest signs of increased international recognition and improved perception of security has been the reopening of foreign embassies, such as those of Turkey, UK, Kenya, Iran and Uganda, with other countries having announced plans to do so, including the US, UAE, and China.
On August 27 Fowsia Yusuf Haji Adan, Somalia's foreign minister, met Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on an official visit to China. Wang Yi said that his country was willing to gradually restore “high-level exchanges” with Somalia, including economic and trade cooperation and active participation in Somalia's reconstruction.
“Somalia is the first East African country that established diplomatic relationship with China…the friendship between the two peoples has never changed,” he said.
Somalia's strengthening of international ties prompted the International Monetary Fund to recognise the Federal Government of Somalia in April 2013, paving the way to resumed relations after a 22-year break. “The decision is consistent with broad international support and recognition of the Federal Government, which allows the IMF to offer Somalia technical assistance and policy advice,” said Ralph Chami, division chief at the IMF’s Middle East department.
Increased international cooperation has also led to the improvement in one of the areas that has traditionally been in the focus of the international community: piracy. Adjoa Anyimadu, research associate for the Africa Programme at Chatham House, noted a dramatic reduction in the number of piracy attacks emanating from the coast of Somalia in the last two years.
“The has not only been a reduction in successful hijackings, but also in the number of attempts that pirates are making, demonstrating that piracy has become a less attractive means of revenue generation for many young Somalis,” she said. In 2011 there were 199 incidents, but by the end of 2012 this figure had dropped by almost two thirds to 70. In the first eight months of this year there have only been ten incidents, according to the ICC International Marine Bureau.
Security might have improved, but Al Shabaab, the Al Quaeda affiliated rebel group, remains an active threat, as testified by a recent ambush on the presidential convoy and a suicide attack on the UN office in Mogadishu in June, in which 15 people were killed, among other incidents.
The reduction in piracy attacks was also questioned by Anyimadu, who noted that the improvement was the result of “short-term” solutions such as increased international patrolling of the waters, more vessels following best practices to avoid attacks and increased presence and acceptance of private armed guards on board.
And whilst some return to Mogadishu, others leave. Médecins sans Frontiers (MSF) was forced to exit the country in August after working continuously in Somalia since 1991. The organisation cited increasing violence against MSF staff and the apparent complacency of Somali authorities.
“Ultimately, civilians in Somalia will pay the highest cost,” said Dr Unni Karunakara, MSF international president. “Much of the Somali population has never known the country without war or famine. Already receiving far less assistance than is needed, the armed groups’ targeting of humanitarian aid and civilians leaders’ tolerance of these abuses has effectively taken away what little access to medical care is available to the Somali people.”
In 2012 MSF provided more than 624,000 medical consultations, admitted 41,100 patients to hospitals, cared for 30,090 malnourished children, vaccinated 58,620 people, and delivered 7,300 babies. Those services will not be replaced by funding from the IMF at least, as the fund is unable to support the country financially due to $352m arrears.
Collaboration between returning diaspora and locals may not be as natural as it might seem. Mogadishu-based journalist Hamza Mohamed reported increasing intolerance of locals towards retuning diaspora members occupying positions of leadership or heading business activities.
Ali acknowledges the tension. “That understandably happens, when you have lived for 20 years of civil war, stayed in Somalia despite it, and then someone comes in and opens his own business,” he said. However, he argues that this change is more of an opportunity than an obstacle. His initiative received plenty of support from local businesses and associations, including Jazeera Palace Hotel, the Somali Tourism Association and the Somali Student Union.
“I was educated in the West, and I’m coming back to help out my fellow Somalis,” said Ali. “I know they have been here all their lives, they know the challenges, they know the problems. I want to be their partner and give them access to the resources and networks that I developed in the US.”
And with him, many others return, such as Zainab Hassan, former fellow at the University of Minnesota, who is now leading the restoration of Somalia’s national library, with the vision of giving young Somalis a place to hang out other than the street.
Zahra Mustaf, an Australian architect, has gone back with two daughters to help rebuild Somalia’s education infrastructure, with the aim of sending 1 million children to school in three years. 21-year-old Canadian Iman Elman has taken the return a step further by becoming the first female commander in the Somali Army. "[After that] I was no longer a Canadian in Somalia. I was a soldier serving my country,” she says.
Amendment 17/9/13: The original article neglected to mention Turkey's embassy, which was the first to be opened by a country from outside the region. Turkey has now been included in the list.
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For further reading around the subject see:
|Somalia: New Friends, Old Debts, and the Road to Recovery||US Recognises Somali Government||"Post-2015: It's Time to Harness Diaspora Power|