After years of war, Goma, DRC, is open for business

New entrepreneurs are bucking the city's reputation as a dangerous backwater

The city of Goma lies at the foot of Mount Nyiragongo (seen at left), an active volcano situated around 20km from the city.
Phil Moore

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo — Like many in this sprawling lakeside city, Abraham Kazadi has built himself a life out of rubble.

In 2002, Kazadi and his family were among the tens of thousands of Goma residents who lost their homes to Nyiragongo, the fiery volcano that looms 12 miles north of town. Its eruption that year leveled a fifth of the city. Ever since, and despite nearly 20 years of simmering conflict in the eastern DRC and the certainty that Nyiragongo will one day blow again, Kazadi has bucked Goma’s reputation as a dangerous, restive backwater and focused on building a business.

Today, atop a layer of petrified lava that once reduced his home to ashes, the 53-year-old operates an expanding factory that’s helped make him one of the DRC’s leading health-food entrepreneurs. His product, a fermented, medicinal tea known as kombucha, has become a hit in town and across the country — with rising demand that keeps Kazadi and his 15 staff members on the move 24 hours a day. In the city at the nexus of the DRC’s 20-year humanitarian crisis, Kazadi is one of several local businessmen who are implementing bold ideas despite a host of risks — and bringing about a renewal of their town in the process.

“Everyone knows Goma as a place where there are bandits and rebels, where the volcano can just come and destroy you,” said Kazadi on a recent afternoon, sitting amid large plastic vats of his pungent brew.

“But there are people in this town with a lot of knowledge. We’re scientists. We’re entrepreneurs.”

A land of hazards

Despite the ever-present threat of Nyiragongo, the Goma of Kazadi’s youth was a far less perilous place than the city is today. Until the early 1990s, Goma — which derives its name from the Swahili word for “drum” due to the rumbling of the volcano — was a pleasant lakeside border town and hub of small-scale trade with neighboring Rwanda. Yet following the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when more than a million refugees crossed into the DRC, then known as Zaire, in less than a week, security began to deteriorate. Among the Rwandan arrivals, interspersed among women, children and the elderly were thousands of armed militiamen and members of the defeated Rwandan army. In an effort to feed their families, many turned to banditry, stealing livestock, uprooting farmer’s crops and killing anyone who tried to stop them.

Two years later, after the new government in Kigali launched an invasion to disperse the camps along its borders — and eventually, with the help of local rebels, overthrew longtime Zairean President Mobutu Sese Seko — insecurity gave way to full-scale war. By the late 1990s, much of the eastern DRC had become a theater of regional conflict that drew in nine African national armies and dozens of rebel militias. Some were backed by outsiders, while others were formed in resistance to external threats. Although the war officially ended in 2003, scores of rebel outfits are still active today, and large swaths of Congo’s east remain beyond the control of state authority. By some measures, the country’s web of intermingled conflicts has been responsible for the deadliest humanitarian crisis since World War II. According to one study by the International Rescue Committee, an estimated 5.4 million people died as a result of conflict and the related humanitarian crisis between 1998 and 2007 alone, mostly due to nonviolent causes like diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria and malnutrition.

Goma, which was occupied by Rwanda-backed Congolese Rally for Democracy rebels from 1998 until a 2003 peace agreement that integrated them into the national government, has seldom been the epicenter of violence, serving instead as a frequent place of refuge for residents of the region’s more embattled towns and rural areas. Still, awash with weapons and patrolled by corrupt, underpaid and often predatory security forces, the city of 1 million is anything but safe. According to Danny Kayeye, a local historian and radio host, security has actually gotten worse since late 2012, when another Rwanda-backed rebellion, the March 23 Movement, occupied and then abandoned the city. A major source of the problem, he says, are the more than 1,000 former inmates who escaped from Goma’s squalid Muzenze Prison when their overseers, fleeing the rebels, abandoned their posts.

“These prisoners went back to being bandits,” Kayeye said. “Sometimes soldiers even let them use their weapons to rob people, and then they share the spoils.”

Then there are Goma’s threats of nature. The presence of Nyiragongo, which is characterized by unusually fluid magma, with fissures that extend directly beneath the city, has led some to call Goma an African Pompeii in the making — a place that will one day be wiped out entirely. According to Mathieu Yalire, chief geochemist at the Goma Volcano Observatory, a government body that monitors Nyiragongo and its sister volcano, Nyamuragira, Goma has grown far too big to be destroyed by a single eruption. Still, he says, much of the city remains highly vulnerable — not only to future lava flows, but to the effect that an eruption could have on the large quantities of methane and carbon-dioxide gases present in the waters of Lake Kivu.

Since 1986, when Cameroon’s small, gas-rich Lake Nyos experienced a sudden release of carbon dioxide, asphyxiating more than 1,700 people, scientists from around the world have closely monitored the unique biochemistry of Kivu. Although most believe it will take at least a century for gas quantities in the main body of the lake to reach a point of saturation — and therefore imminent risk of catastrophic release, known as a limnic eruption — a lava flow interacting with the lake’s gas-rich deep waters could trigger such an event much sooner. Moreover, in the Gulf of Kabuno, a shallower, semidetached embayment at the lake’s northwest, recent measurements have shown concentrations of CO2 that are approaching saturation just 13 yards below the surface. Although scientific opinion is divided on the extent of the Kabuno risk, Yalire believes a disaster greater in scale than Nyos is within the realm of possibility. Should the gas in Kabuno erupt, he says, the effect on Goma — 15 miles to the east — will depend on how much is released, as well as the prevailing winds.

“If the wind is blowing toward Goma, it could kill very many people,” Yalire said. “Kabuno is a big risk.”

A man walks over a pedestrian overpass across one of Goma's main roads.
Phil Moore

Signs of renewal

Bandits and caustic geochemistry notwithstanding, Goma, in some ways, is undergoing a revival. Its main boulevards, trash-strewn and rutted just a few years back, are now smoothly paved and bisected by neatly manicured, pedestrian-friendly roundabouts. The runway of Goma’s airport, which was partially destroyed by lava in 2002, is in the final stages of renovation and, as of this month, is accommodating the city’s first international commercial fight, to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, via Entebbe on Ethiopian Airlines. In recent months, the city has hosted multiple cultural festivals organized to promote peace in the region, including a concert last September that drew the American R&B star Akon, and this weekend’s second-annual Amani Peace Festival, featuring artists from across the African continent. Driven by demand from the town’s large number of foreign-aid workers and the presence of MONUSCO, the United Nations’ 15-year-old, $1.4 billion-a-year DRC peacekeeping mission, a host of new upscale restaurants and cafés have sprouted in the past year, including the town’s first boutique bakery and pastry shop.

Abraham Kazadi (second from left) has seen success marketing kombucha, a fermented beverage.
Jonathan W. Rosen

Then there are businessmen like Kazadi, who’ve found success by targeting a more mass-market demographic. Starting 15 years ago by tinkering with small batches of kombucha in his kitchen, the former trader and computer salesman slowly scaled up his operation. He perfected his recipe with the help of an herbalist in China and expanded his distribution as far as the distant capital, Kinshasa. Today, he produces approximately 20 tons of his sour brown elixir each month — a process that entails fermenting sweetened tea for 21 days with a culture of yeasts and bacteria. According to Kazadi and his many loyal customers, the drink, which is believed to have originated in northeast China or Manchuria, helps boost the immune system and is effective against a host of ailments, including diabetes, rheumatism and sexual dysfunction.

Although these claims have not been scientifically proved, Kazadi says demand for the drink in Congo is consistently on the rise, and his biggest challenge is keeping enough in circulation. Like other Goma-based entrepreneurs, he’s had to be creative. Aside from the city’s crime, which requires him to employ round-the-clock security for his factory, Kazadi’s biggest headache is his supply chain — particularly the 300-milliliter (10-ounce) plastic bottles he uses to package his product, which he purchases twice a month in the Ugandan capital, Kampala, a 24-hour round-trip by car. Due to Goma’s notoriously unreliable electrical grid Kazadi bypasses the grid entirely, powering his factory, often the only building in his neighborhood with lights, with solar panels and an accumulator. Since high rates of interest and predatory lending practices make borrowing from local banks untenable, Kazadi — like most Goma businessmen — has financed his operation almost entirely from his own pocket. Unable to access credit, he’s also regularly besieged by tax collectors, often for assessments that are dubious. Illegal taxation — effectively, a form of forced bribery — is a widely cited problem in Goma and one that has caused many startups to founder.

“Someone will come to collect a tax, then after an hour another one comes, a few hours later, someone else,” said John Sabiti, owner of Haki Fresh, a sandwich shop that opened late last year but may be forced to close because of the issue. “I ask them to give me official documents, but they never do. I’m happy to pay my taxes, but it should be legal.”

If we can have a little peace, it would be the perfect place.

Vanessa Jados

bakery owner

For all of the challenges that result from the region’s insecurity, the revival of Goma is also, in part, a direct result of Congo’s crisis. In an irony not lost on Goma residents, it is largely because of the region’s elusive peace that many in the city, home to nearly 100 international development and humanitarian organizations and a major base of U.N. peacekeeping operations, have managed to prosper. Today, aside from those employed in mining or by telecommunication firms, traditional mainstays of the local and national economies, many among Goma’s middle class are products of MONUSCO as well as the wider international-aid industry. The economic impact of the humanitarian industry is most visible in the town’s large number of upmarket hotels and restaurants, nearly all built since the DRC conflict started. But it’s also felt by local drivers, cleaners, mechanics, cooks, office workers, translators and real-estate entrepreneurs, who continue to erect new homes, rented for inflated prices, atop Nyiragongo’s rubble.

This dependency, of course, has many risks, highlighted by growing signs that the U.N. may soon begin to draw down its DRC mission — and with it, the local jobs, contracts and foreign clientele that keep the city humming. Nonetheless, even locals whose businesses cater largely to expats say they’re prepared to trudge on even if a large portion of the international community departs.

“Even if MONUSCO leaves, we’ll still have a lot of customers,” said Vanessa Jados, a 27-year-old Goma native who opened an upscale bakery, called Au Bon Pain, last June. “Already, we are getting more and more Congolese clients.”

Vanessa Jados recently opened the Au Bon Pain bakery in Goma.
Jonathan W. Rosen

Speaking to Jados, whose sleek second-floor café stands out on a downtown Goma block of derelict buildings and an abandoned supermarket, one gets the impression her mission is as much about reviving the image of her town as it is about her own café’s success. Although Jados, like Kazadi, laments Goma’s many business challenges, she’s quick to stress its many perks. These include the city’s picturesque spot on Lake Kivu and its proximity to the famed Virunga National Park. Even Nyiragongo, the town’s great menace, is, in the primordial beauty of its churning lava lake, also a source of pride.

“In Goma, we have the lake, the volcano, the forest,” said Jados, sitting on her café’s balcony, as expatriates worked on MacBooks and street children used rags to wash a U.N. vehicle parked below.

“If we can have a little peace, it would be the perfect place.”


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