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Investors Are Helping Put Somali land on the Map

Hong Kong–based American business developer Robby Zirkelbach has set up small firms in South Sudan, Iran and North Korea. But Somalia was too risky even for the former U.S. Marine sniper with a stomach for adventurous investments, until he stumbled upon the country’s north, the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. There, he sees promise in a land shattered by war.
After a walk through the bustling, dust-filled market at the center of the region’s capital, Hargeisa, and a trip to the developing port city of Berbera, Zirkelbach has decided to “dip a toe” into the developing market. He has identified electronics as an area where his company would like to invest, and he isn’t alone.
Prospective investors are flocking to a part of Somalia that most of the world doesn’t recognize as a separate entity, attracted by its strategic geography, relative stability and mineral wealth. Such recognition is driving its next big economic hope.
UAE-based DP World is redeveloping Berbera Port on the Horn of Africa to accommodate modern supertankers, a development that could open northern Somalia — or somaliland — to the large markets of neighboring Ethiopia and Kenya. Wassim Haroun, CEO of Conser, a regional engineering and development firm, sees potential in the northern Somali desert and is currently building a road connecting Berbera and Ethiopia.
One you get over the misconception that Somaliland may be unsafe, you open your eyes to the vast potential this country and what its people can achieve.
Wassim Haroun, CEO, development firm Conser
And Faiza Dubbe, a partner at regional firm SomOil Company who was born and raised in undivided Somalia and moved to Canada as a refugee in 1986, has now returned to Somaliland to invest in an oil and trading business. She chose the separated region over southern Somalia that is still controlled by the federal government, because Somaliland — unlike the south — has maintained stability and held democratic elections for years.
“Once you get over the misconception that Somaliland may be unsafe, you open your eyes to the vast potential of this country and to what its people can achieve,” says Haroun.
That the peace in northern Somalia coexists with the legacy of decades of war is evident on the streets of Hargeisa as the call to afternoon prayers during Ramadan rings out. Men shutter their shops and bring their prayer rugs to the mosque, walking through row after row of building blocks festooned with barbed wire. Guards with AK47s manning checkpoints pray in the road rather than abandoning their posts.
The Somali civil war began with military resistance to the dictator Siad Barre in the 1980s. The Barre government collapsed in 1991, plunging the country into a vicious conflict. Somaliland declared its independence that year. As the crisis worsened, Puntland, a region in central Somalia, declared autonomy in 1998, though it still remains loyal to the federal government.