Wanted: Congolese entrepreneurs to turn peace into profit

Image (c) Falling Whistles

It’s unlikely many all-American youngsters “rock up” in Congo looking for fun. By his own admission, Sean Carasso arrived in the region as a result of that strange mix of wanderlust and naivety that comes from having a background that includes a certain level of comfort and privilege that young men in the US can take for granted.

“Before I got there I had spent three months just having a great time. I had gotten a job right out of college with an entrepreneur and it was pretty amazing.

“I got to see how the wealthy of the world live and so I got to see the 1% and I wanted to see the other 99% so was travelling through Africa having a good time. I was, and am, a bit impulsive I guess.”

But that was six years ago, and a lot has happened in the meantime. This month marks a remarkable end to the journey that started in such an unlikely way for Sean - the charity he founded to campaign for peace in Congo moves from the US to Europe and starts a whole new programme of work to build business in the region.

That charity is Falling Whistles, so named after Sean heard about the horrifying role that whistleblowing children were forced to undertake in the war-torn area. Issued with whistles to make noise and scare enemies in a similar tactic to armies using bands and bagpipes in wars centuries past, these noise creators were no warriors; they were just too young and their hands too small to bear arms. No matter what happened to them, their tiny bodies could always be piled up and used as makeshift gun positions for the bigger boys if they fell.

The war is an economic war its a war for control of the resources, or the trade of the resources.

“Congo’s estimated value is somewhere around $24tn; that’s why it’s one of the deadliest places in the world, the deadliest war in the world. It’s been fought over for 120 years, right.”

Using the powerful symbol of the whistle, the charity set about whistleblowing itself with initiatives to raise awareness about what was happening in Congo and raising cash for projects on the ground by selling whistles - items that became a political fashion statement back home with people such as legendary hip-hop duo Mobb Deep and US singer Lissie.

During the intervening six years, that activity funded schemes such as education for street kids.

Their activity has continued against a backdrop of major shifts in the politics surrounding the world’s approach to Congo too. Effectively putting it onto the world stage, US President Barack Obama said back in January 2013: “And how do I weigh tens of thousands who have been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

In response to that changing landscape, the charity is reshaping too, and has just started a whole new chapter that involves the British former Saatchi and Saatchi director turned entrepreneur Mike Beeston.

Carasso says: “Global policies in the region have shifted towards actually solving these problems, with special envoys appointed from all corners of the world to focus on sustainable peace. We actually see that the dream of peace in Congo might become a reality, so for us to keep on working on awareness and advocacy doesn’t make sense any more. Those things will happen if we do it or not, so what makes sense then is to help the people of Congo build an alternative to war. Having some high-powered people signing an agreement saying there’s peace doesn’t really change the life for the people in the region. It’s critical is to find entrepreneurs in this war-torn region.

“We have come increasingly convinced that the political structure is necessary to create baseline security but if you want to ensure that you go beyond that, which the Congolese have not been able to for some time, the most important thing is to have alternatives. Ways for people to make money that don’t involve war, ways for people to sort of keep their core capacities… We are now working with entrepreneurs across Congo to create conflict-free industries.”

The original founders will still be on hand as part of an overseeing trust structure, but now one of the charity’s early supporters, tech entrepreneur Anders Olsson, is taking over the reins and heading off in a new direction - supporting sustainable businesses in the region, with mentoring on hand from Beeston, who has a track record of setting up successful companies such as Fjord.

Beeston was invited to visit the country in 2013 and says his interest has since grown: “For me, this means providing financial support and practical advice to people living in the KIvu region of DRC who have a business idea that will benefit their community. This ranges from coffee exporting to brick making. It’s not always easy but I like the people and their courage.”

Following a noisy launch in Olsson’s home city of Stockholm, the pair and their band of supporters are starting work to identify potential entrepreneurs, focusing particularly on eastern Congo near the border with Uganda and Rwanda, where fighting has been particularly fierce.

Their ambitious target is to raise $10m in five years to support enterprises with an emphasis on sustainability and transparency. It’s about creating “beacons of hope”, says Olsson.

“We are finding entrepreneurs inside the local communities with ideas of how to make their communities better and create sustainable businesses. Then we move in and help them with financing and mentorship with connections. We help them build sustainable businesses that provide an alternative to war and provide people with a job. Creating these beacons of hope shows another possibility is out there.”

I shall be donating the fee that Contributoria members backed for this article to the Falling Whistles initiative and hope to be able to revisit this story at some point in the future to find our more about the enterprises they support.

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