Sunday, 2 November 2008

Hawala is the Bank of the Somali Business Woman

NAIROBI, Nov 1 (IPS) - On the fifth day of every month a group of women entrepreneurs gather to share their experiences and discuss matters of trade. What makes this exceptional is that the women are from south-central Somalia and they meet in Mogadishu, one of the world’s most devastated and dangerous cities.

With 780 registered members, most of them from the Banadir region, the Banadir Businesswomen’s Association the association is headed by a veteran businesswoman, Shamso Abdulle. Banadir is of the eight administrative units in south-central Somalia which includes the capital Mogadishu.

A mother of nine, covered in a fashionable head-to-toe Islamic veil or hijaab, and insistent on speaking only in her mother tongue Somali, Abdulle is an unlikely business success story. The east African country where she lives has not had a central government for over 17 years.

The city where she lives has been ravaged by an unending internecine war between clannish warlords and by foreign military interventions.

‘‘When I started my business of importing furniture and other goods from India in 1984, Somalia was a different country,” Abdulle told IPS in Nairobi last week where she was attending a two seminar on the war economy of Somalia’s capital, organised by the Norwegian Institute for Urban and Regional Research.

‘‘For six years I was able to do normal trade and earn enough to be independent and expand my business to other places like Dubai.”

Then, in 1991, the civil war erupted. The state collapsed and the era of the warlords began. Like most other businesspeople, Abdulle had to abandon her business and flee the city.

‘‘I had to leave Mogadishu and live with my family in the bush for months. My savings were disappearing fast. As soon as the fighting receded a bit, with the intervention of a UN mission, I returned to the capital to explore the possibility of resuming trade,” she recalls.

On her return she found that the rules and norms of business had completely changed. The Mogadishu port was closed and would not open again until 2006, which forced businesses to other distant ports like El Ma’an, Merka and Kismayo.

Instead of government regulations and institutions, traders had to negotiate safe passage for their goodsùand for themselvesùwith an assortment of militias. Money transfers through banks had been replaced by the informal hawala, or hundi, system.

It was difficult for women to get loans from the big businessmen who saw no assurance of repayment or getting a return. The public’s purchasing power was down; the violence and insecurity was high, as it remains to this day.

But there was also a unique opportunity for women to step into business.

‘‘One of the main reasons why there are so many women traders in Mogadishu is because so many men died in the conflict or lost their government jobs. Also, working as street vendors or shopkeepers is considered beneath the dignity of men who before the war were working as doctors, lecturers and bureaucrats in Mogadishu,” explains Abdulle.

The Rest @ Global Intelligence

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