From corporate America to the Horn of Africa, money makes the world go around

The Times of London
Hargeisa, Somalia

The dusty, potholed streets of Hargeisa in Somaliland are filled with battered cars and ambling pedestrians. The tangled birds’ nests of wires that cling to every telegraph pole are testament to a boom in telephony, informal stalls line the roads, selling imported goods and Ethiopia-grown khat, a plant chewed as a stimulant – and behind bricks of local currency sit the money changers.

It is a long way from Western Union’s pristine headquarters in Colorado or Moneygram’s in Minnesota, but not quite a different world. Here, in a perhaps unlikely northwestern corner of Somalia, is the home of a multimillion-dollar financial services company. One, indeed, that almost single-handedly keeps the East African country afloat.

Dahabshiil’s office in Hargeisa has the relaxed charm of many a family-run African business. As I arrived, Mohamed Saïd Duale, Dahabshiil’s founder and chairman, shuffled by in his sandals, a length of printed material wrapped around his waist and a short, traditional walking stick tucked under his arm. He made his way to a private office on the roof, where he sat cross-legged on the floor in front of a computer.

His company began as a small, informal organisation, helping Somalis to get money to their relatives in refugee camps in Ethiopia, charging a commission as it did so. Now it is an economic linchpin, connecting the wealthy Somali diaspora with the impoverished population at home.

“Remittances are a lifeline to Somalis,” Abdirashid Duale, the company’s chief executive (and son of the founder), said. “They are the main income people here receive.” The World Bank estimates that remittance worth about $1 billion (£610 million) a year reached Somalia from ?migr?s in Britain, the United States, Sweden and the Gulf. Industry experts reckon that Dahabshiil may be responsible for handling two thirds of that and as much as half may reach the semi-autonomous region of Somaliland.Predictably, Dahabshiil has grown with the Somali diaspora.

The money transfer, or hawaala, business is rooted in traditional networks of kinship and trust, using clan allegiances to guarantee the near-instant transfers. Identifying information still includes details of clan membership, but the traditional networks have been updated with modern technology, including online money transfers and SMS notification.

Dahabshiil’s growth accelerated after the September 11 terror attacks in 2001, when the US Government shut down its biggest competitor, the Mogadishu-based al-Barakat, amid suspicions that it had helped to fund terrorism. The company now has 1,000 agents in 40 countries (including 160 in the UK, where it is registered) and is the largest private sector employer in Somalia, with 2,000 workers in more than 200 offices.

The younger Mr Duale, who lives in London and Hargeisa, admits that the collapsing world economy has hit remittances from the West. “People from Britain and America are sending less, just the basic amount, say, to pay school fees, not the amounts that they used to send, to build houses or to invest in businesses.”

Nevertheless, he intends to make Dahabshiil’s foreign exchange, banking and mobile phone businesses as popular among Somalis as the money transfer business. His ambitions are seen clearly in downtown Hargeisa, where a huge new Dahabshiil bank is under construction.

“Very soon people will be able to go to a Dahabshiil ATM in Hargeisa and withdraw money,” Mr Duale said. “Very soon, we will offer a lot of the products you can get in London here in Hargeisa. Why not?”

http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/world/africa/article2594273.ece