An indian’s Congo Capitalism

‘Fortune’ on July 28, 2006 has an entry ‘Congo Capitalism’ by Anjan Sundaram.

In Congo, the world’s most difficult place to do business, an Indian entrepreneur has built an empire of soap, ‘the Wal-Mart of Congo’, as he likes to claim.

Rajesh Nambiar manages a consumer goods empire like the proverbial village elder under a palm tree. Ambling by the green foliage on his factory premises in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, Nambiar isn’t preoccupied with any grandiose supply-chain or production problems but rather with the quotidian concerns of his local staff.

Nambiar moved from India to what was then Zaire to open a Yamaha motorcycle dealership in 1996, one of the worst moments in the country’s recent history. Inflation had hit 9,800%, the army had pillaged the nation’s businesses, a rebellion was brewing in the east, and expatriates were selling off estates and jetting home.

Nambiar, then 26, saw in Congo’s ruins an unlikely launch pad for his fledgling career.

In theory, business should be next to impossible in this corrupt nation. Neglect and two wars in a decade have left the country’s infrastructure in shambles. The Parliament is filled with former warlords, and the World Bank reckons that Congo’s taxes cost businesses more than their profits.

Indeed, the global lending agency rated Congo the worst business environment in the world in a 2005 survey. But Nambiar is thriving in Congo’s chaos: He created one of Africa’s largest Yamaha distributors from scratch, then engineered a turnaround of operations abandoned by Unilever.

Since Nambiar took over Unilever’s soap, detergent, oil, and foodstuffs factory in 2002, he and his team have cut costs and tripled production. A new palm oil refinery is set to open next year.

“You can make a lot of money in Congo if you have the guts and tenacity,” says Nambiar, who learned his craft selling electrical motors in Mumbai, fighting for the better half of 1% profit margins. “But you need the patience to understand business traditions in Africa and how to get things done.”

“It’s all about logistics. Our trucks could take a week to travel ten kilometers, but they get there, and our products reach every village in the country,” Nambiar says. “We have a guy sitting in godforsaken Ndjokopunda–the only expatriate for miles around–just to get things done. That’s what it takes.”

That, and a fleet of 30 trucks, 20 pickups, nine barges, four boats, and hundreds of motorcycles – mostly Yamahas, of course – plying marshy rivers and bumpy roads.

“We’re the Wal-Mart of Congo,” Nambiar says.

Is it not an example of innovative entrepreneurship of an Indian youngman that may inspire many more to emulate?

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