MOGADISHU, Somalia, June 23 (UPI) -- When Ahmed Jama Mohamed returned to Mogadishu, Somalia in 2008 to open a business, he was acting against all odds.
The fight between al-Shabaab, a group affiliated with al-Qaida, and government forces was at its height. Most of the coastal city was a battleground,. Close to 1 million people were displaced to the city's outskirts. Food prices were soaring, and a devalued Somali shilling coupled with a looming humanitarian crisis created a dire situation that should have scared off any investor.
Except that Mohamed, a trained chef who lived and worked in the United Kingdom for more than two decades, was determined to make it happen. After traveling to Kenya, Tanzania, and the United Arab Emirates looking for business ventures, Mohamed settled on starting his business in the Somali capital, because, he said, he believes business "opens a door to peace."
Four demanding years later, and almost a year after al-Shabaab was forced out of Mogadishu by African Union Mission in Somalia forces, Mohamed, also known as Ahmed "Village," is managing a chain of restaurants known as The Village that he has set up all over the city.
"You are always taking a risk when you want to get into a business," said Mohamed, who claims to have cooked for Hollywood actor Bruce Willis, as he walked around the latest branch of his franchise that he has just opened. "I wanted to show the world that you can actually start a business and do work in Somalia, that it is not about the bleak image we have all come to associate with this country."
In the lull that Mogadishu has been experiencing since August 2011, the city has come back to life, one step at a time. For several months now, the "audacity of peace," as the people in Mogadishu call it, has shaped this city on the shores of the Indian Ocean for the better, giving it a new face. Construction is booming, businesses are thriving and buildings once filled with squatters, like the Parliament and the National Theater, are being renovated and the squatters are being sent packing.
In Mecca Al-Mukarramah Road, a key thoroughfare in the city, businesses are opening on a daily basis, including banks, hawalas (informal money transfer systems), travel agencies, hotels, barbershops, cafes and restaurants and even video arcades. Pavement along the road is being restored, garbage is collected from the street sides, and traffic police guide drivers to use the right lane or direct them to the right turn. Somalis from the diaspora like Mohamed, many of whom haven't visited the country in decades, are also coming back in droves, filling the daily flights that land in the city's Aden Abdulle International Airport.
It wasn't just the ouster of al-Shabaab that renewed confidence in Mogadishu. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Somali in August, at the height of the worst famine in decades. At the time, he said, "The tragedy going on here is a test for civilization and contemporary values."
This led Turkey to open an embassy in the capital and spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help reconstruct the city. From digging wells, building hospitals and camps for internally displaced persons, refurbishing an airport terminal, in addition to investing in infrastructural development, Turkey took a lead role in rehabilitating Mogadishu. In March, Turkish Airlines began a twice-weekly flight to the capital, making it the first commercial airline to land in the country in 20 years.
Turkey's aid agency, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, has extended its reach all over the city, funding projects as far flung as repairing the Constitution Building, which will host a national event that will bring together more than 1,500 delegates to adopt a new Somali constitution in the next few months.
"Somalia is a big country," said Abdulahad Kokdaji, a program coordinator for the Turkish agency. "They might have war, and for 20 years faced a lot of problems. But we must join our hands and come and make this country better."
The Turkish influence has emboldened Somali companies to improve their work, with many investors awarding contracts based on competence. A case in point was the bidding for the reconstruction of the Constitution Building in the Abdi Aziz district of Mogadishu. Thirty-five companies bid to rebuild the run-down compound, which used to be the Central Police Vehicle Service Center before the fall of the government in 1991.
"As you can see, a lot of construction is going on in this city," said Mohamad Abdullahi Mursal, the managing director of Star Construction and Logistics company, whose company won the bid. "Everyone wants to be at the center of the progress that is happening in Mogadishu."
In a record three weeks, when the company completed the refurbishment of the building, the city's mayor extolled the changing dynamics of his city's commercial competence.
"There was doubt among the international community of whether a Somali company can actually do this work," Mohamed Ahmed Nur, popularly known as Tarzan, said in an interview. "That doubt has now been removed as a Somali company has proved that it can do professional work with good quality."
Despite all the hope and optimism that have characterized Mogadishu's regeneration, challenges abound. For business patrons, security tops the list of concerns. Car explosions and targeted shootings occur frequently in the city's alleys, worrying investors who place safety and precautionary measures above all. Government sources have continuously blamed defeated al-Shabaab extremists for being behind the attacks.
Recently, a car exploded just outside one of Mohamed's restaurants in the busy downtown area.
"We have no control over these security issues," he said. "These bombs are being planted everywhere. But as a businessman, you have to hustle and do what you have to do."
Another challenge to companies and business owners is the scarcity of manpower and employees with good work ethic. Jamal Hussein Omar, the engineer who was contracted to refurbish the Constitution Building, said that he faced hurdles trying to recruit workers in the first week.
"I needed over 300 workers and I got 20 in the first day of work," Omar said. "The next day, I also got less than 40."
And because of the surge in both the construction and hospitality industry around the city, workers have an array of alternatives from which to choose.
Nonetheless, the main challenge that the respite in Mogadishu has afforded the city's residents and businesspeople is that they can barely afford their own expenses. The Somali shilling, which has endured despite the lack of a central bank, has been steadily gaining against the U.S. dollar, standing at 22,000 Somali shillings to the dollar in May, up from 35,000 Somali shillings.
This means prices on basic commodities and services have sky-rocketed and rental fees around the city have doubled. Get sick and the least you will pay for medication is $100. Drive around at a cost of almost $2 for a liter of fuel. If you get thirsty, a can of Coca-Cola or Pepsi goes for $1.
But on Friday mornings, Mogadishu's beaches fill up, with many enjoying a dip in the ocean or playing soccer. After years suffering under the yoke of warlords and fundamentalists, the weekend brings to life a side of Mogadishu never seen.
Businessmen like Mohamed are capitalizing on the change. His latest branch opened on the once-quiet sand dunes of the Jazira beach, which is about 18 miles south of Mogadishu.
"Miami Beach and Los Angeles and all that you see there were built and dreamed by people," he said a few weeks before he participated as an invited speaker in Somalia's first TEDx, a global conference on ideas.
"As the business community, come back and let's build Somalia," he said.