Schoolchildren play in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo. The school is next to a health center that had solar-powered electric kits installed to provide power for a fridge to keep vaccinations cold. / Louise Osborne for USA TODAY
BRAZZAVILLE, Republic of Congo - A man walks alongside a busy street, past cars stuck in traffic and the packed sidewalk. He pulls a heavy cart laden with garbage, his progress slow as he avoids pedestrians stepping out in front of him.
The man is one of many who pull these carts - called pousse-pousse - for a living in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo. And it's backbreaking work.
Congolese entrepreneur Destiny Loukakou wants to change that by capitalizing on the cottage industry - he wants to create the first motorized pousse-pousse. And by doing so, he is part of a growing number of young Congolese trying to create small businesses in the poor West African country to lift themselves - and their countrymen - out of poverty in a country where the average person earns $2,300 per year.
"My friend and I were moving a mattress over a distance of (3 miles) and we had no car," said Loukakou, recalling an incident during his decade in Paris. "It was raining and a little painful. I told my friend that if we had been in Congo, we could have got a cart pusher to do it for us."
"We began thinking about the business and how it must be hard and heavy work and so I came up with the idea of motorized carts," he added.
He's moving closer to realizing his vision with his new company, POUSSELEC. And he was one of four young Congolese entrepreneurs recently awarded 50,000 euros ($82,788) to build his business from an organization of Congolese expats in Europe and the U.S., known under the French acronym, RICE, who want to promote entrepreneurship in the country that has been dependent on its petroleum business.
The Paris-based group gave out a total of 200,000 euros ($270,092) as part of its Challenge Entrepreneurial Bassin du Congo, a project to boost industries such as agribusiness and eco-tourism in the country.
It says the only hope for the country is for small business to flourish.
"We decided to do something regarding entrepreneurship in order to have people realize that improving their way of life will be led by entrepreneurship," says RICE President Edwige Mombouli. "For me, it was very important to show young Congolese that they can dream."
Sandy Mayetela Mbaya agrees. He has created Africa Solaire with his wife, Michelle, to provide solar kits to health clinics and homes to generate power for lights, mobile phone chargers and fridges - basic amenities that many in the Western world take for granted.
"When we work in the health centers, it's such a great job satisfaction because you arrive and they tell you terrible stories about people dying because there wasn't any water or because they didn't have the equipment or medicine," Michelle Mbaya says. "It was such a big moment for their health center to have access to electricity and water and that's really rewarding - dealing with poverty every day and knowing when we go to work we're doing it to make people's lives better."
Still, the young entrepreneurs need all the help they can get. In a country where corruption is rife and the informal economy eclipses the formal one, starting a business is difficult.
"If you want to register your company, you have to pay around £800 ($1,325)," says Frederic Nze, a RICE founder, who is chief executive of the British financial services company Oakam.
He says that it is an expense many people cannot afford. Therefore, it's far easier for businesses to operate illegally, with the added benefit of avoiding official taxes.
"You reduce the desire and ability for people to move from the informal to the formal sector," Nze says. "People are not sure that the benefit will outweigh the cost."
Ironically, Congo is poised to cultivate a thriving entrepreneurial class. It is rich in natural resources - including oil, minerals and fertile soil - and home to the second-largest rain forest in the world.
But 16% of the population is unemployed - 25% of youth between ages 15 and 29 - according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Meanwhile, almost half of its population of 4.3 million live in poverty, according to the World Bank.
Still, Congo's most lucrative resource - oil - is a curse as well as a blessing, say some. It offers little in the way of jobs and those it does generate often go to foreign workers.
But oil keeps Congo's government running even if its profits don't greatly benefit the larger population.
"Oil brings so much money so easily into state coffers, it tends to make governments lazy," says Henri-Bernard Solignac-Lecomte, head of the OECD's unit for Africa, Europe and the Middle East.
In that environment, the informal economy thrives. But such jobs don't foster healthy growth, he adds.
"Informal jobs are bad jobs," Solignac-Lecomte says. "They're badly paid. Some are not paid at all, they're dangerous. There's no certainty you will have work the next day, so you can't plan ahead."
Still, it means people do not have to pay taxes, although this means they get nothing in return.
"If you ask people to pay taxes on the business they conduct in the country on the income they earn, then in return they will ask for quality public services," says Solignac-Lecomte. "It's a vicious circle. The government doesn't feel like it owes anything to its citizens, who themselves feel they don't owe anything to the government."
The government, however, declares it is working to turn business in Congo around.
"The government has put in different organizations to ease the process of creating a business for entrepreneurs here and to make the Congo a place for entrepreneurship," says Adelaide Mougany, minister for small businesses in Congo.
Solignac-Lecomte says he hoped the government was taking action to move the economy forward.
"The key problem in Congo is to find people decent jobs and decent pay, so they have a minimum level of social protection and revenues to invest in consuming goods and new economic activities," he says.
Having won the RICE challenge, Loukakou is now ready to try to solve that problem, one pousse-pousse at a time.
"This project allows me to do what I've always wanted to do - that is, put my skills into Congo and Africa," he says. "I hope it will contribute to the economic development of Congo without petrol."
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