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Special Report: Central African Republic

Overview: Central African Republic

The Central African Republic (CAR) is a country the size of Texas located where its name implies: in the center of Africa. It is home to about 4,000,000 people, though accurate statistics are difficult there. Its capitol city, Bangui, is located on the southern border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and has about 800,000 people.

When we went to the Central African Republic, our goal was to do a feasibility study for micro-economic development (MED) there. We concluded that CAR is not a great place to do MED. So we raised a different question: If you were going to do MED in CAR, how would you approach it? Answering this question led us to look for signs of hope that could be encouraged. We found David and Alexandrine Zokoé, Theodore at the garage, the women from Zako, and some others. There are also some signs of change in the government.

Building from the signs of hope seems the only opportunity for change in the Central African Republic.

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Opportunity

CAR has fertile land, and cotton is the primary crop. It has natural resources, including diamonds and oil. Formerly under French rule, CAR received its independence in 1960. It has a democratically elected government.

Corruption

In spite of its potential, CAR has many challenges. On the international government-corruption scale, CAR is rated “very bad.” Most of the economy is “informal,” which leaves little tax revenue. As a result, government workers have not received full wages for 40 months.

Security

CAR has significant security problems. The previous president was removed in a coup in 2003, and the country was under military rule for two years until the present government was elected. We were advised that it would be unsafe to travel far from the capitol city of Bangui without a military escort.

Healthcare

CAR is ranked 171 out of 175 countries on the UNDP Human Development index. AIDS has ravaged the people of CAR, leaving an estimated 100,000 AIDS orphans in Bangui. According to the World Health Organization,

“Described by the United Nations as ‘the world’s most silent crisis,’ CAR remains one of the least assisted countries of the world as well as one of the poorest. CAR ranks 171 on the UNDP Human Development Index as two-thirds of its population live on less than $1 a day.”

Life expectancy in CAR is 42.5 years.

Infrastructure

Fundamental infrastructure is also missing. Less than 1,000 miles of paved roads span the country. There are no railroads in CAR. Air travel is limited — one flight per week arrives in Bangui from Europe. Banking and insurance are available only to the wealthy.

Education

CAR is ranked 168 our of 175 countries on the Human Development Education index. Basic fees make education inaccessible to many in the city. Village schools may serve children up to age 13, though many villages have no schools at all. A senior government official said he would be surprised if half of the school-aged children were in school.

Business

It is not surprising that it is difficult to start and run a business in CAR. One Web site ranks 155 countries of the world in terms of doing business. Here are some of its statistics:

CAR Ranking
Ease of doing business 153
Employing workers 143
Paying taxes 150
Enforcing contracts 153
Closing a business 14

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PROFILE: A Village Chief — The Plight of a Remote Village

We traveled down an almost hidden road off a small highway, 75 kilometers from Bangui, to a remote village. There we met with the chief and a few elders. This is the story told by the village chief through an interpreter.

Thank you for visiting our village. We are a very poor village. We do farming by hand, as we have almost no tools. We cannot buy soap to wash clothes. We have no schools, no medical clinics, and no medicine.

The previous government destroyed our village and many people from here have left. They moved some people from here and took our crops. Then bandits came through the area stealing and destroying things. The government did nothing to protect us. The electricity is also gone, destroyed by the bandits, and we have no resources. The bandits also broke our well, so we carry water from the springs 1 kilometer away. The quality of the water is not good compared with the well.

We had a great harvest last year, but we sold none of it. No one passes this way to exchange money for food. We eat what we have, but that is all. The rest rots on the ground.

We have no transportation and no means to get the food to the city and sell it. Our gardens are small in spite of the lush soil here because we do our gardening by hand. There is no commercial activity here. There is a trading center 25 kilometers from here, but we have no means to get there. So we have no money to buy even basic things.

At one time, there were 389 people in this village, but today there are only 270. We are waiting for God to help us figure out what to do, so we appreciate your coming here to meet with us. Your visit so far from Bangui (75 kilometers) is such an encouragement to me.

We don’t know what to do.

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PROFILE: Theodore at the Garage

This team summary was compiled from the notes we gained through our interpreter.

One afternoon, we visited Theodore in his garage along the main road. A young man probably in his early to mid-30s, Theodore was nicely dressed and spoke with enthusiasm about his business. (He apologized for being “dressed up” for our meeting; usually he is dressed to work.)

He started by repairing tires. Then he acquired a broken compressor from a friend. He repaired it and provided services with it and continued to grow his business. Today he has six people plus a guard working for him. They fix tires, charge batteries, do welding and metal work, and have started a car wash. They generally keep very busy in their business.Theodore demonstrated counter-cultural thinking in how he dealt with family members and with his customer service orientation. He has so far built his business without drawing any credit.

Sometimes there is a preference to hire family, or give money to family. We are not being critical of the community spirit of many we both read about and met in Africa. Rather, we recognize when business always gives way to family matters, it is difficult to develop and sustain a business. We asked Theodore how he dealt with the pressure to hire family members. He said he expects that his employees will be able to do the work. Since he, himself, is working, how could he accept someone who can’t do the work? So if a family member can do the work, fine, but otherwise he hires only those who can do the work.

When asked how he avoids handouts to his family before he can reinvest in his business, he indicated that he has a set order of where his earnings go: first to pay his employees (labor), then maintenance of his equipment and business growth, then for taking care of his family. He doesn’t make so much that there is a lot of excess money left.

He negotiates the bids with his customers to make sure he can make a reasonable profit. Then after doing the work, he visits them to make sure they are pleased with what he has done for them. Much of his business comes by referral.

He is not sure what he would do if he were starting over, because he spends all of his time thinking about how he can grow his existing business.

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PROFILE: David and Alexandrine Zokoé
Creating Jobs Where None Are Available

David “Baba” Zokoé was educated in France, and taught mathematics and biology there. Later, he worked in the Institute of Research there. He came back to the Central African Republic (CAR) as a part of the government, rising to minister of education and later chief of the region (like a governor position). He retired from the government in 2002, and today he has “on the ground” responsibility for Integrated Community Development International (ICDI), an NGO drilling wells, caring for orphans, providing AIDS awareness training, and bringing radio and the beginnings of micro-economic development.

Alexandrine “Mama” Zokoé, David’s wife, is responsible for midwives in a birthing center in Bangui. But low pay and needs in the family caused her to create a job raising chickens. She continues with the midwife responsibility.

These are their perspectives.

David Zokoé’s Country Perspective

The economy in CAR has been destroyed by military needs. Many homes and businesses have been destroyed; about 400 businesses have been lost. The country is at a low point now. The officials are in discussion with the World Bank and IMF, but there are great concerns about the ability of CAR to pay back loans. Currently, the “private sector” doesn’t exist.

Even the banks have financial problems. The economy is so low here that it is very difficult to get loans. Some government workers have direct-deposit savings, but this requires a minimum salary of 200,000 CFA (about $400 per year), so very few people can participate. Mainly ministers and above can, but even those at director level cannot. There is one bank, Credit Mutuel, which operates only in the capitol city. Loans are based on savings, so it is difficult to get started.

There is a level of education that is lacking in the general populace here. Stealing is an indication that there is no respect for property. The country cannot develop when foreigners run the commerce. Bribery is a significant problem here.

It would be hard, but not impossible, for a multinational corporation to set up business in CAR. The barriers are the costs of building materials (e.g., concrete), because everything must be imported. The country is very rich in natural resources such as diamonds, iron, uranium, and oil. Unfortunately, these resources are not exploited, but stolen. Business people from other countries come to mine (essentially, steal) the resources and leave without being stopped or prosecuted by the CAR government. Every minister pledges to get control of the diamond business, but by the end of the term, they are discouraged. Businesses have come in from West Africa to use Central Africans for low-cost labor. But the border is so porous, they simply move out when there is the first sign of trouble.

To be an entrepreneur, you must have seed capital, and there is none because of the fear that it will not be paid back. Banks would demand a guarantee that could not be met.

Changing the Mindset

The first thing that is needed to change CAR is to change the people’s mentality. What is missing is succeeding by your own efforts. You will visit many successful people here, but not necessarily because of what they have done. Instead of encouraging those who do well, “the system” will try to pull them down to get everyone to the same level.

It is true, people work hard to collect firewood and walk with it back into the city. You must go far out of town to get firewood. But there is a need to work hard at the bigger problems. Creating a system to get wood into the city more easily might be a good business. Reforestation enabling the gathering of wood closer to the city would be good. Since the forests have been cut down and no nearby wood is available, those gathering wood have to continue to go farther and farther away.

It had always been our desire to come back and serve this country. The director of education in France asked us to stay and work for them there, but because the CAR government had paid for my education, I didn’t think it would be right to stay. My choice might be different today.

Money is a big issue in CAR. I get no pension for the years of work for the government even though I had 17 percent of my salary withheld over the years. But money doesn’t explain it all. If there was solidarity, more could be done. But even now there is a fear of working with others — what will they do with the money? Confidence is an issue. With the previous president, they worked hard to build an economic capability, but the project failed. Women have developed small solidarity groups who pool resources to make loans and do economic development.

The opportunities to create businesses are primarily in farming, growing things, and raising animals. This is a rich land. People have experience with these things, and there is a need for the product. There is a need for “seed” capital. Housing, food, medicine are needed to raise chickens, for example. Everything depends on the mindset of the Central African. You wouldn’t survive the waiting period for a long-term business. People have tried. But there are lots of short-term things that can be done, but they must be accompanied by education.

Alexandrine Zokoé’s Work

Because of the needs in the family, I decided to get another job in addition to my role with the birthing center. But since there are few jobs available, I decided to create a job. The first attempt was to raise food at a family plot of land about 75 kilometers from the city. But transportation costs ate up much of the profit, and thieves stole much of the produce because the available land was too far away to watch over.

So I decided to raise chickens. After doing some research, I discovered the best place to order the chicks is from France. They are healthy and of a good stock. Then I learned there is a lot more to do in raising chickens than simply feed them. We built the coop, purchased food and medicine, and installed warming lights to make sure they could survive chilly nights. All of this came from research, since I had no experience raising chickens.

Then came the marketing plan. Most people sell chickens at the market, where the sales are done one at a time through the vendors. While this can be effective, the market is uncertain, and it can drag out the sales over time. So I got the idea to go around to hotels and restaurants and sell all of the chickens before they were raised. They were raised in the minimum time (about 75 days) and the lot was sold at our predetermined price, turning a reasonable profit after expenses. Now we are preparing to double the size of our chicken business.

The important parts of her story are the thorough research she did in raising chickens, and the innovative marketing approach to selling them. We talked with many people raising chickens, and few had fully grasped the things that must be done in raising them, or the idea of selling them in mass. She has determined that the market is far from saturated, based on her discussions with people who buy in bulk, and her plan is to continue to develop this business.

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PROFILE: The Women of Zako

These women were wise beyond their education. They were imaginative in their product plan and in their marketing plan. They were not waiting for a handout, but moving ahead to do something with the resources they could generate. They acknowledged that life is hard, and that dealing with many orphans adds to the burden. But they are determined, and they inspired us.

This team summary was compiled from the notes we gained through our interpreter.

The village of Zako, about 13 kilometers from Bangui, has about 9,000 people in three sectors under the responsibility of three chiefs. Six women from “Zako 2” heard about the research study we were doing and wanted to meet with us to tell us the story of the business they had started. They had heard about us through the AIDs awareness training in their village put on by Integrated Community Development International (ICDI). Lacking transportation, they walked to see us. Each one was beautifully outfitted with a colorful African dress. Marie Louise, an articulate business woman, led the presentation.

The group of women in the village recognized that they needed to help meet the financial needs of their families, as the salaries of the men were not enough. They taxed themselves to generate the money to get started. They meet twice per month to plan what they will do. Their initial products are tomato paste, soap, and handbags. They have developed a one-year plan, which they have written down. They have coordinated with similar groups in the other two parts of their village to create complementary products.

They have addressed the problem of transporting their goods by developing a plan to sell most of their products in their own village. They have protected the business money by opening a savings account with Credit Mutuel. When an emergency arises in the village, they do a personal assessment rather than tap into the business money, since they consider the business vital to the future of their village. This is very counter-cultural, as family assistance and obligations come first for many Africans we met, and is a broad tendency as reported in the book, African Friends and Money Matters.

After telling us what they had already done and plan to do, they made the case for a micro loan that could accelerate the growth of their business. They thanked us for coming, and left to walk home.

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A Young Man in a Village

We visited a remote village about 50 kilometer outside of Bangu, where they had started to raise chickens. The village chief was present as were a number of village elders. Some younger people and children stood on the outside as we conducted our discussion. The village was requesting money to grow its chicken business.

As the meeting concluded, one of the young men (perhaps 15-17 years old) spoke to us. He explained that he was only a young person, but he wanted to thank us for coming. Then he said that he worked at farming, but that did not take his full time all year. He had no other skills. He asked if there was any way we could help connect him to some education so he could acquire some skills.

This seemed very counter-cultural. In no other village did any of the young people speak in front of the more senior leaders. His desire to further his education, and his articulate speech, said a great deal to us.

The Children

We encountered children everywhere we went. In addition to children in large families, many AIDS orphans live in CAR, with an estimated 100,000 in Bangui. They flocked around us and called out “Bojo,” an expression meaning “white person.” Often they had the expression of excitement and joy that was gone from many adults because of their hard life. Generally, the children were not begging, but simply wanted to shake hands, to connect. We taught them the American “high five.”

Child labor is a serious problem in many parts of the world. But to change the work ethic in the country and give people a hope and a future, it is necessary to provide work skills and training for the next generation. We have to learn to separate child labor from skill and character development.

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