<GIVE YOU A RIDE?

Bu­run­di­ans be­set by the cri­sis are trad­ing used cars across bor­ders

The East African - - FRONT PAGE -

By DE­SIRE NIMUBONA

Dol­lars are hard to find in Bu­rundi — but three nearby na­tions and plenty of used Land Cruis­ers and Range Rovers of­fer some en­trepreneurs a so­lu­tion.

Buy­ing ve­hi­cles from cash­strapped own­ers and sell­ing them in Rwanda and the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo is an in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar ploy in the East African coun­try, which is try­ing to emerge from three years of po­lit­i­cal up­heaval. Along with cross-bor­der sales of bev­er­ages, fur­ni­ture and fit­tings, it's a way to beat for­eign-cur­rency short­ages, spurred by de­clines in in­vest­ment and spats with West­ern donors.

“To con­tinue my busi­ness, by hook or by crook I need to get dol­lars,” says Ali Has­san, who sells two ve­hi­cles a week, mak­ing $1,000 profit a month and hard cur­rency to buy spare parts from Dubai for his me­chanic's work­shop. “Banks don't serve us, so I thought sell­ing things like used cars could be a good deal.”

Such work­arounds sig­nal the dif­fi­cul­ties still faced by Bu­rundi, a land­locked na­tion of about 11 mil­lion peo­ple where vi­o­lence sparked by a dis­pute over pres­i­den­tial terms that be­gan in April 2015 has claimed hun­dreds of lives and forced thou­sands to flee, many to neigh­bour­ing Tan­za­nia.

The econ­omy, al­ready the re­gion's small­est, con­tracted four per cent in 2015, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund. Though the gov­ern­ment is tout­ing a cof­fee- and min­ing-led resur­gence over the next decade, the IMF says 2018 growth may be just 0.1 per cent. The Brus­sels-based In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group warned in Au­gust that wors­en­ing un­em­ploy­ment and poverty "in­crease the like­li­hood of in­sta­bil­ity and ex­ac­er­bate the risk of vi­o­lence."

Of­fi­cials of the Bank of the Repub­lic of Bu­rundi say cur­rency short­ages have stopped some for­eign com­pa­nies from repa­tri­at­ing prof­its. But they in­sist the sit­u­a­tion will im­prove, with in­flows that slowed when the Eu­ro­pean Union sus- pended di­rect aid to the gov­ern­ment be­ing re­placed with the pro­ceeds from ris­ing cof­fee and tea out­put, and pay­ments to Bu­run­dian troops serv­ing with a peace­keep­ing mis­sion in So­ma­lia.

Bank gov­er­nor Jean Ciza said Bu­rundi needs to re­vive other types of agri­cul­ture, live­stock-rais­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing that pro­duce ex­ports while cre­at­ing jobs. In the mean­time, peo­ple like Jean­nette Nduwu­musi, a shop­keeper in the cap­i­tal, Bu­jum­bura, have quickly be­come ex­perts on the used-car mar­kets in Bu­rundi's neigh­bour­ing states. Rwanda, one of Africa's fastest-grow­ing economies, has a taste for saloon cars, while buy­ers in the rugged, min­eral-rich DR Congo need off-road ve­hi­cles such as Range Rovers and Toy­ota Land Cruis­ers.

Nduwu­musi and her hus­band trawl Face­book and What­sapp groups to find ve­hi­cles for sale lo­cally, buy them with Bu­run­dian francs and drive them cross-bor­der to sell where dol­lars are in greater sup­ply. “We suf­fer be­cause of po­lit­i­cal prob­lems, but we are not ready to give up,” she said of her busi­ness dif­fi­cul­ties. They are com­pet­ing with Eric Nzis­abira, whose car spareparts busi­ness had ground to a halt by 2016, and who is also seek­ing au­to­mo­bile bar­gains. He says he took in­spi­ra­tion from his fa­ther, who sold items to Tan­za­nia in the 1990s to over­come the eco­nomic ef­fects of a re­gional em­bargo im­posed on Bu­rundi for a mil­i­tary coup dur­ing its civil war.

Cars are the big earn­ers, but other Bu­run­di­ans have stepped up re­sales of lo­cally made bot­tled beers and so­das or house­hold items. Er­ica Karib­wami sells beers and Coca-cola in DR Congo, then uses the dol­lars to buy other goods from China or Dubai. “We pre­fer to see our banks serv­ing us cur­ren­cies,” she said. “But that's not pos­si­ble now, so I plan for my­self.” Since 2016, Said Has­san has built a join­ery busi­ness with sales of metal door- and win­dow frames to DR Congo. Each cross-bor­der sale gets him dol­lars he partly uses to im­port ma­te­ri­als to build the next con­sign­ment.

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