Africa's 10 most 'bullet-proof' businesses in conflict, and why you should stock beer, mattresses and bicycles

Some analysts suggest that the post-election violence was the spark that gave life to one of Kenya’s biggest success stories

A RECENT report estimated that the civil war in South Sudan could cost the country $22.3 billion over five years, or enough to pay the cost of antiretroviral drugs for everyone in the world with HIV – twice.

South Sudan’s neighbour to the south, Kenya, has seen its tourism industry fall into the doldrums – fears over insecurity and travel advisories against the country have seen international arrivals decline by 14.6% in the third quarter of 2014, continuing a trend seen every quarter since the start of 2013, according to government data.

Tourism is an especially unpredictable industry, sensitive to the vagaries of external events, and in Kenya’s case, it is the terror attacks by the Somali militant al-Shabaab that sparked a ripple effect.

But not all businesses in Africa are so fragile to violence. Some, far from teetering on the edge of collapse the minute a bomb goes off, do just the opposite – they are robust and survive, and even thrive in the midst of conflict and instability.

Here are Africa’s most “bullet-proof” businesses (apart from the obvious - guns, ammunition, and other weapons):

Beer/Alcohol

Say you have a nifty new brewing formula and are looking to expand your small craft brewery into more mainstream retail. The best thing that could probably happen to you is a war breaking out, if past African conflicts are anything to go buy - in Angola, beer was once even used as currency.

The best example is the Bralima brewery in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), founded in 1923 and fully owned by Heineken. Even with the outbreak of the Congo war in the late 1990s, the brewery – makers of Primus beer – did not stop producing, and actually saw a rise in sales during the conflict, as many fighters were paid in beer. 

In 2004, Bralima’s plant in Bukavu had a sales volume of 220,000 hectolitres and a production capacity of 300,000 hectolitres, despite being the epicentre of some of the fiercest fighting.

The eastern region of Kivu was under the control of the RCD-Goma rebels during the period 1998-2003. A government investigation showed how various “protocol agreements” were drawn up between Bralima and the rebels, with the brewers paying taxes to the rebels to transport their cargo across the region, at the rate of $5.50 per beer and an additional “provincial tax” of 18%.

A hand-painted advert for Primus beer at a bar in Goma, DR Congo. (Photo: Flickr/ Laura).

And in South Sudan, since the fighting broke out in December 2013, it is virtually the only industry to remain in operation, bottling White Bull and Nile Special brews.

It’s even been said that when the brewery shuts down, that’s when you need to start worrying about a war in Africa.

Prostitution

Soldiers and sex workers have a shared history, says Lt. Col. Christian Benoit in his book on the military and prostitution provocatively titled: The Soldier and the Whore.

War segregates a country’s young men when they are at their physical peak in terms of virility, Benoit writes, and requires them to follow orders and obey strict regimens - while putting their lives on the line every day, all of which are draining psychologically.

So a “sensible” general will allow some form of stress release, and the French in Algeria took this to its logical conclusion when they controversially established military sanctioned brothels for their troops in the late 19th century, and replicated it during the First and Second World Wars in Algeria, Morocco and their home bases in Europe.

It was partly a move to stem the syphilis outbreaks that were spreading like fire through the batallions on all sides. In World War I, the US Army, for example, lost nearly 7 million person-days and discharged more than 10,000 men because of STDs. Only the great influenza pandemic of 1918– 1919 accounted for more loss of duty during that war. 

With the state-sanctioned Military Campaign Brothels (known by their French initials BMCs) at least authorities could have some control – the prostitutes were registered and frequently screened for signs of disease.

Mattresses and bicycles

You may not think it, but mattresses are very valuable indeed in a conflict. They give some comfort when you’re sleeping rough in a refugee or displaced persons camp, and they are also a form of social capital – a woman who has her own mattress, for example, doesn’t have to trade sex for a soft place to sleep at night. 

Bicycles help you move faster and carry heavy loads, without having to spend money on fuel.

One 2009 survey in showed that in eastern DRC, out of every 100 women, 76 do not own mattresses.

And a 2006 relief effort in the DRC organised by the Catholic Church in the US that gave vouchers to Congolese households to purchase non-food items of their choice highlighted just how high-demand the items were: 60% of the voucher recipients bought matresses.

Mattresses and bicycles parts were the most expensive items; mattresses, required participants to spend nearly half of their money for this single purchase ($29). The average amount spent on bicycle parts was $33.

Mattresses for sale in Selingue, near Bamako in Mali. (Photo: Flickr/ donkeycart).

Also in this category are jerry cans and saucepans – you might run away a sack of flour, but it’s useless if you have nothing to cook it in. Now you know why most people fleeing conflict carry jerry cans, mattresses, and tie them all on their bicycle racks if they have one.

Radio and batteries

In Liberia, for example, the 14 year civil resulted in near-total destruction of the country’s infrastructure; even years after the end of the war, electricity is limited outside the capital Monrovia. But radio, unlike TV, requires only battery power (which you can stockpile in advance or give a new boost of life by putting them out in the sun). Most infamously, radio was used to marshall and mobilise militias for killing during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and also during the 2007-08 post election violence in Kenya. 

But in Zimbabwe, citizens took to illegal ‘pirate radio’ to protest and communicate amongst themselves and with the outside world as violence and electoral fraud took centre stage during the 2008 elections. 

Even when all radio stations in your own country have been destroyed, there is always the signal from the neighbouring state of the BBC or VoA from very far away, ensuring that you will never be completely cut off from the rest of the world.

Mobile phone airtime

If you’re in the airtime business, you can be sure of brisk sales, despite – and perhaps in spite of – violent outbreaks. During the 2007-08 post-election violence in Kenya, roadblocks were erected on the major routes heading west out of Nairobi; even the railway was vandalised in some places in the city.

It meant that essential supplies like fuel couldn’t go any further west than Nairobi, but Kenyan mobile telco Safaricom had a way around it – the company transported airtime credit using helicopters to the worst-hit areas during the conflict, according to a statement from the company. In Nairobi, brave hawkers made a fortune roaming around dangerous parts of the city selling airtime - for a very premium.

Mobile money

Some analysts suggest that the post-election violence was the spark that gave life to one of Kenya’s (and the world’s digital) biggest success stories: M-Pesa. A nascent platform at the time, the service was used by people to send money to relatives trapped in the villages and slums, and its usefulness in transferring money without going to the bank (which were closed anyway) was demonstrated. 

Having established a base of initial users, M-Pesa then benefited from networking effects: the more people used it, the more it made sense for others to sign up too. From one million users in November 2007, it now has more than 22 million users in Kenya.

The post-election dramatically probably established M-Pesa credibility in ways no subsequent amount of advertising has.

Private security guards

Private security guards are in greater demand as place becomes more insecure, and regular police and security are called to faraway fights where there is conflict. 

In South Africa, for example, persistently high crime after the fall of apartheid means that the private security industry is booming like few other places. In 2013, it was reported that there were 400,000 security guards in South Africa, more than the numbers of police and army combined. Some of the people setting up private security companies are ex-police or ex-military, and the guards are often well armed and trained in how to use automatic rifles and handguns.

Alternative medicine

Hospitals wards are obviously packed with patients during conflict. But violent times also means a spike in the use of alternative medicine of all kinds, both in the use of herbal plants to treat wounds and disease, as well - for those inclined toward the superstitious - in “witchcraft” as a force to be marshaled for self-protection or greater strength in battle.

In the Central African Republic, the anti-balaka militia swear by their amulets — typically leather or cloth pouches filled with herbs or scraps of paper and strung around the neck. These tokens, called gris-gris throughout Francophone Africa, are believed to ward off harm in battle.

In the Liberian war, child soldiers famously took to wearing all kinds of accessories—hair wigs, women’s dresses, human bones, gas masks, headphones, toilet-seat covers—that were designed to unnerve their opponents. One infamous unit even fought completely naked.


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