The Indian construction companies rebuilding post-conflict states

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Indian businesspeople waiting for a flight in South Sudan, via Caravan

Caravan magazine recently published a fascinating article about the Indian-owned construction firms which are waiting out the war in South Sudan.  Many of them have previous experience in other African countries experiencing or emerging from conflict, including the DRC, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda.

Kuber D, an Indian who runs a restaurant on the outskirts of Juba, had earlier set up a business in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He told me that during the Second Congo War, in 1998, he was held hostage in his home as rebel forces looted his stock. Other Indians I met last year during a visit to South Sudan narrated similar experiences. A commodity trader I met in a hotel told me how he was once assaulted while taking photographs in a market in Mogadishu, in Somalia; another businessman recounted how he had driven lorries through the rebel-held jungles in the DRC. Most of the people I spoke to seemed to find these risks exciting, and part of the challenge of making it in a new country. “We chase the money. We don’t care if we die,” one commodity trader said, “We’ll be born again anyway, right?”

Extremely low levels of development and industrialization in post-2005 Juba offered excellent opportunities for Indian businesspeople elsewhere in east Africa who were willing to relocate.

But compared to much of central and east Africa, South Sudan was magnitudes less developed and had been a battlefield for the better part of the previous century. Even with their experience, for these Indians, moving their jobs and businesses to Juba was a leap of faith.

At the time they moved there, Kuber told me, the city contained only a few brick structures. The rest was largely tukuls—thatched huts. The infrastructure that now stands—roads, markets, even government offices and courthouses—was scant. Many of the people I spoke to said there no power or water. “We were spending $100 a night to sleep in tents, but we didn’t mind,” Kuber told me.

Part of the allure of Juba was the presence of various non-governmental organisations from the United States or Northern Europe, which had large budgets and could contract businesses in the city. It was “a new market,” said Reddy, an Indian water driller who had previously worked in Tanzania. Sandal Raj, who also works in the drilling business, said he brought his business to Juba because he “saw the opportunity there was with aid groups.” “Even during the oil crash, we were fine,” he told me. “There were still good dollars coming in.”

The current conflict in South Sudan hasn’t completely displaced the Indian business community, but the longer it drags on, the more difficult it has become for many businesses to break even.

With the South Sudanese Pound losing several points to the US dollar almost daily, the situation has become untenable. Sanjay Patel, the director of Jit Mart, the largest supermarket in Juba, bemoaned the circumstances. Patel had been working with Jit Mart in Tanzania, and brought the franchise with him to Juba when he came, in 2006. “By the time it goes from the shelf to sale, I’m losing money on everything. The floating currency is worse than the war,” he said. Even so, he sent off his friends at the airport last week, electing instead to stay back.