Why the Body Shop goes shopping in Somaliland

A ban on cattle has forced the self-declared republic to turn to other natural resources.

When the first traffic light appeared in this sandy small town six months ago, some people did not know how to react. Some didn't realize they had to stop; others were confused about when to go.

"It was good training for us nomadic types," says former camel herder Ali Moussa Hassan, as he screeches to a halt beside the plaque marking the light's unveiling. "We knew nothing about such new ways of life."

These days, the nomads - as well as the rest of the self-declared state of Somaliland - are at another kind of crossroads.

A livestock ban imposed last September by the Gulf States on much of the region - because of a disease cows carry - has decimated the main source of livelihood for most here. Sheepherders and cattle traders face tough times. Everyone, meanwhile, is looking for a new job.

"We hope the ban will be used as an opportunity to diversify the economy," says Gerry McCarthy, director of Progressive Interventions (PI), an Irish group working to develop the private sector in Somaliland. "Granted, there are some impediments to investment ... like not being a recognized country and not having either a central bank or commercial law," he says, without a twinge of irony. "But that really should not stop us trying."

A breakaway state from the Republic of Somalia - and still not officially recognized by the international community - the local infrastructure and economy of Somaliland were destroyed during the civil wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

What is striking about Somaliland today, however, is not what is missing - which is plenty - but what exists. This self-declared administration, in stark contrast to Somalia itself, seems to be starting to pull itself together.

Teams are exploding leftover landmines around the airport; murals adorn the shelled facades of buildings, the soccer stadium has been rebuilt, the mosque fixed up, and a maternity hospital is going up on the former execution grounds.

The self-declared government, led by Mohammad Egal, has the trappings of a state. Money is printed, visas issued, license plates molded, and ministries created.

Several new projects are showing promise.

Working hand in hand with the Chamber of Commerce, Progressive Interventions has encouraged and helped locals look at the natural resources available in Somaliland and develop them into small and medium businesses.

Shukri Ismail, for example, runs the Asli Mills company, which produces henna and qasil-based products - hair dyes, conditioners, and body cleansers - for domestic and foreign markets. The England-based Body Shop recently struck a deal with the company, and last year purchased six tons of the products.

When it was founded in 1998, Asli mills employed 60 henna and qasil leaf pickers. Today, it has some 400 on the payroll. Last year, Aslia made a $30,000 profit; the company opened a second store and a wholesale outlet shop.

While Mr. Ismail is the local success story to date, budding businesswoman Amina Rodol says the next big thing is frankincense. Somaliland and the surrounding area have long been famous for the pure and ancient perfume base; however, its economic potential has never been fully tapped. There are today an estimated 11,000 locals collecting frankincense resin from the Somaliland highlands and selling it to Saudi Arabia or Europe. But they make only a pittance, even as the market for frankincense grows worldwide.

In an effort to cut out some of the middlemen and add value to the product before it leaves Somaliland, PI has put out an investors' guide to distilling and marketing frankincense, and plans to import distillation equipment to the region. Ms. Rodol, the first to take advantage of the assistance, has put her life savings into a new range of beauty products based on the product.

John and Mike Weston, meanwhile, father and son gem dealers from South Africa, see the future for Somaliland differently - in ruby red and sapphire blue. In Hargeysa at the invitation of PI to give a three-week course on gem mining, identification, cutting, and marketing, the Westons say that the precious stones could potentially bring in tens of thousands of dollars to the economy and create jobs for more than 5,000 people.

"Somaliland is part of the Mozambique belt, which is well known to be gem-rich," says John. "But people here don't even have the most rudimentary mining skills ... it's just goat herders picking up gems on the surface." If the collectors could learn to mine deeper into the ground - without breaking the gems - differentiate between the different types of rocks and grade and market them, argues John, they would be in business. "Gems are a negotiable currency," he says. "No one will have a problem with this not being a country. You could sell anywhere."

But despite the new directions being talked about, many in Somaliland remain pessimistic. "My whole way of life has disappeared," says nomad Hassan Mohammad, counting out his worry beads. "I used to sell about 150 sheep and 20 cattle per year. Now we don't sell anything.... I really don't know much about Frankincense or any of that. It's not easy for me."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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