At the age of 30, Léonard Maliona is one of the most visible entrepreneurs in Beni (eastern Congo). After studying in Musienene, Butembo, he left for Nairobi and then London. He returned to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with a degree in architecture and currently manages several businesses, helping to create more than a thousand jobs.
It is almost 8 am and the shops are slowly starting to open. On the large Boulevard Nyamwisi, a few metres from the BCDC (Banque Centrale du Congo/Central Bank of the Congo), employees are tidying up the last cases of beer and the bottles scattered across the ground. The previous day there was a match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. The supporters had a ball - shouting, hurling insults, singing... While the bolts on the shops and other businesses are sliding open, the security guards at Ishango are changing shifts on the other side of the boulevard. A few hundred yards away, an armoured vehicle with the UN symbol on its side is also doing its rounds. In Beni, UN vehicles, FARDC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo/Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo) patrols and lorries from the private security firm Khami often share the road with motorcycle taxis and other road users. It is all par for the course in this part of the DRC.
Léonard Maliona gets out of his vehicle at Ishango, as he does every morning. This architect and entrepreneur originally just helped to prepare the construction plans, but over time he has become the company's owner. Ishango is the ultimate meeting place in Beni. All kinds of people can be found there: United Nations officials, young people from well-off families, artists, expatriates, etc. Founded as a restaurant and bar, it hosts all the region's major cultural activities, including comedy on Thursday evenings and karaoke on Fridays. This is something rare and worth celebrating in a region that has sadly become famous for its poor security record (1).
Like all the Golden Boys found in increasing numbers on the African continent, the entrepreneur explains his desire to turn this part of the DRC into a jewel in terms of both tourism and the economy. "I dream of the day Beni will become a hub. I don't think it will be long now. With the renovation of Mavivi airport, it is highly likely that Mavivi will become an international airport in a few years" exclaimed this local who, as well as being a shareholder in the Kwetu Partner (KP) chain - which belongs to his family - is also the Director General of the Sicovir soap factory (2). He also likes to recall that his main business models are none other than his parents.
In total, we employ around 1,000 people and have created 150 direct jobs. And we are not planning to stop there. When you see that people like Buffet are interested in our region, that means it's all worth it.
Kwetu Partner consists of petrol pumps and several supermarket distribution chains. "In total, we employ around 1,000 people and have created 150 direct jobs. And we are not planning to stop there. When you see that people like Buffet are interested in our region, that means it's all worth it. It is time for others to realise the wealth of this region and its potential, which is just waiting to be developed". Léonard gives his last instructions to his employees in town before setting off for a field visit to Mutwanga. "Our clientele at Sicovir is essentially rural", he explains while unlocking his car. After checking that everything is in order, he gets behind the wheel and continues, "We think about households first of all; all these mothers in the villages who need to make savings to be able to feed their children". While the landscape rolls past by the side of the road, the entrepreneur recalls that it has not always been easy to create such sustainable businesses. "To survive here, you need a plan; I had to analyse the region's potential. And then you have to add a touch of determination and the desire to succeed."
To survive here, you need a plan; I had to analyse the region's potential. And then you have to add a touch of determination and the desire to succeed.
"I drive from Beni to central Mutwanga in my car whenever I can. I almost died on this road a few years ago. Now it is more or less safe, but really only recently and sometimes people can still get caught in an ambush, like I was." Driving the 40k between the two cities takes us past Virunga National Park. "If you look left, there are small roadblocks put up by the military, and on the right is the park. There is a sort of tacit cohabitation here," explains Léonard. Small camps and a few barriers have been built on the road by the Congolese army. "Docta bébé, Docta bébé, oko tikela bisso mwa savon teh?", (3) shout the soldiers we pass at one of the many barriers.
Everything is produced here, we control the entire production chain. We have our fields for producing palm oil, which we need to make the soap.
"They know me. I usually have a different vehicle; today, as I have this one and they can clearly see the posters for our soap, they are asking me directly," said Léonard, before hitting the accelerator once the barrier was raised. "The road infrastructure, the high taxes on local products and above all the poor strategies for protecting local industries against imports, all remain a hurdle to the growth of businesses here, not forgetting the lack of security", he explained, with a slight pause while keeping his eyes on the road.
Once he arrives in Mutwanga, Léonard explains that the factory did not exist two years ago. They were not able to produce their first soap until 2016. He now plans to expand his activities, with his partners the Belgian Michel Defays and the German Matthias Kuntze. "Everything is produced here, we control the entire production chain. We have our fields for producing palm oil, which we need to make the soap."
4 to 5 tonnes of steam
In Mutwanga, Léonard and his teams do not only produce soap; there are also units producing cocoa (prevalent in this part of Congo), vanilla, which is grown and dried on the site, papain and quinquina. Wood is an important resource, and they have planted it to create a cycle and be able to use it as a resource. "50% of the wood we use is eucalyptus, and the rest is palm kernel shells. Palm kernel shells were not used in Congo until recently; we now use some of them for our furnace", said Léonard before continuing, "We will now be able to produce 4 to 5 tonnes of steam per hour, which will allow us to supply every part of the factory. We use steam for receiving raw materials, managing our tanks and even producing soap."
Now considered a promising entrepreneur in his region, Léonard Maliona says he does not really hold the secret to success, just a few keys for making progress. "If I had to give advice to a young person wanting to get started, it would be to not be afraid to begin. But above all I would reassure them that in the DRC you can succeed in being something other than a politician or an NGO employee."
Sicovir currently produces nine types of soap. In the long term, Sicovir plans to fill the household shopping basket, but for now it is focusing on producing soap and the means it needs to put in place to continue production despite the particular security situation in Beni and the surrounding area.
(1) In 2014, civil society organisations made a provisional assessment of one thousand people brutally murdered or kidnapped. These crimes were attributed to the presumed ADF-NALU rebels present in the region since 1980.
(2) Around 5.5 million dollars in investment. 15 million are expected for phase two.
(3) Docta bébé, can you leave us a bit of soap?