The East African (Nairobi)

Somalia: Amid the Chaos, Money Transfer is Booming Business

Amid bomb explosions, gun-totting warlords, women scampering for safety and bodies strewn all over, something positive is coming out of Somalia -- a financial institution that is emerging as Africa's largest money transfer company.

Dahabshiil, a Somali word meaning gold smelter, was born from the ashes of Somalia's civil war.

It began as a small store in a tiny town in Burau, through which Somali immigrants send money to relatives at home, after the war started in 1988.

Its chief executive, Abdirashid Duale says Somalis in the diaspora formed a network to help those who were stranded back at home.

"Some needed to leave the country. There was a growing need for money which was not readily available; That was how the idea of a money transfer institution was born," says Mr Duale.

Today, Dahabshiil -- a family business-- which also deals in telecommunications, is growing fast and has bases in over 40 countries including Australia, United Arab Emirates and Britain. The company has offices in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan and Ethiopia.

"We are targeting other markets across Africa as well," says Mr Duale.

The company, almost single-handedly, keeps the entire war-torn country afloat financially.

Dahabshiil's headquarters in Hergeisa is a complete contrast of the business empire it has become -- a modest building with uneven staircases, slanting walls and off-kilter balustrades.

The office has the relaxed charm of many a family-run African business. Duale's father Mohammed Said, who founded the company, shuffles by in his sandals, a kanzu and a short traditional walking stick tucked under his arm, as he makes his way to a private office in the attic, where he sits cross-legged on the floor in front of a computer.

It is a far cry from Western Union's Colorado headquarters or Moneygram's in Minnesota, Dahabshiil's competitors in the money transfer business. But then Hargeisa is an unlikely place to find a multi-million dollar financial services firm.

The building stands on a dusty street filled with potholes, battered cars and ambling pedestrians.

The tangled birds' nests of wires that cling to every telegraph pole are testament to the recent boom in telephone connections.

Informal stalls that sell imported goods as well as Ethiopian and Kenyan-grown stimulant khat, (popularly referred to as miraa), line the roads.

The World Bank estimates that remittances worth around $1 billion a year reach Somalia from emigres in the US, Europe and the Gulf states.

And industry experts reckon that Dahabshiil could be handling two-thirds of that, with as much as half of it reaching the semi-autonomous Somaliland.

With one-tenth of Somalia's population as emigres, the country has become a nation without borders. Dahabshiil offers the over one million Somalis spread around the world a quick and easy way to send money home.

Dahabshiil's growth accelerated after the September 9/11 tragedy when the US government shut down its biggest competitor, Mogadishu-based Al Barakat Bank of Somalia, on suspicion it was helping to fund terrorism.

The new regulations have caused the firm to migrate to the formal sector and ensure compliance.

"We now operate under full banking licenses," says Mr Duale.

Mr Duale intends to make Dahabshiil's foreign exchange, banking and mobile phone businesses as popular among Somalis as the money transfer business.

His ambitions are perhaps most clearly seen in downtown Hargeisa where a huge new Dahabshill bank is under construction.

Plans are also underway to provide both 24 hour online transfers and SMS notification to its customers.

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