Serge Nawej is an attorney specializing in African business development with global law firm DLA Piper.
Knowledge at Wharton: You left your home country — the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) — when you were 12. And you have come back. Please tell us why you left and why you came back.
Serge Nawej: We left in 1992, because I am from a family with a political background. We went to Belgium. I spent 22 years in Belgium. I graduated, became a lawyer and I decided to go back home because this was the duty of someone who was being educated outside. It was part of my objective, even when we were in Belgium. The only thing that was important for me was to come back and do something, probably not in politics, because I have seen what politics could do to people. My mother was tortured; they broke her hand.
I wanted to do politics differently by doing business. And the way to do business [in my case] was to bring reliable companies, reliable players, into countries that are sometimes seen as failures, but their people are really good and they are developing a lot of things.
Knowledge at Wharton: So after education and becoming a lawyer and working for DLA Piper in Belgium, you said, “You know what? I want to go back to the Congo. I can make this work as a lawyer, and I can do something good for the country.” What was the reaction from your colleagues in Belgium?
Nawej: Well, it was a bit more. They came to see me because I had started a small law firm. None of the big firms were familiar with Africa. But they said, “We need to have a strategy for Africa. Would you join us?” I thought a lot and then decided to join them.
It was difficult. When you have correspondents — legal correspondents — who are not responsive, sometimes inefficient — not because they’re not good, but because they have not been used to the type of transaction we handle — you have to be there.
So I decided I would go. We built something; I have created with two colleagues a law firm named Proxima, which is in the DRC. We are starting to handle quite a number of large transactions.
Knowledge at Wharton: What kind of misconceptions do you find that people have of the DRC?
Nawej: The misconceptions are mainly about corruption. There’s corruption in any country. At a certain level, it’s the middleman.
Knowledge at Wharton: So your advice is to avoid the middleman?
Nawej: Definitely. At least make sure that you do the proper due diligence.
Knowledge at Wharton: What kinds of opportunities can businesses find in the Congo, and are they actually beneficial for Congo citizens?
Nawej: Of course. Infrastructure — you have to deal with the government. The government now understands that it had to be different; we’re coming from minus 150. Now we are minus 50. This means we have done a lot. Agriculture, of course. Mining. We have most of the minerals in DRC, and you don’t have to dig too much.
I am also starting to see something which I was underestimating — IT. Young people with a lot of talent are developing apps. But the problem is that they are not getting assistance. So this is why I am also assisting business development — business incubation and creation. I was doing that before even being at DLA.
“If the diaspora just comes home, we will fail. We need to be with the local people to understand.”
Knowledge at Wharton: What do you see as the barriers that must be overcome in the next five to 10 years to achieve the kind of vision that you and others have for business in the Congo?
Nawej: I think it will be political transition, which is an issue. Stability is the key. A challenge will also be the relations with our neighbors, which we can increase by doing more businesses. But I don’t see any particular challenge which will stop the country and its people. There is a critical mass of people coming back.
Knowledge at Wharton: So this is partly the diaspora coming home?
Nawej: It’s a combination, because if the diaspora just comes home, we will fail. We need to be with the local people to understand. We also need to listen to our elders – sometimes, to listen carefully not to do what they did.
“The new investors have shown the people that we should not be satisfied with some small roads which will be built 10 times and paid for 20 times to the same Western countries.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Investors from the West have been active in Africa for decades — British, French investors. But now there is a new group of investors from Asia — the Indians, the Chinese — who are quite active in Africa. What do you find is the difference between these new investors and their strategy and the old imperialists, as they were called?
Nawej: Well, I would not use the word “imperialists.” But if you see development and the changes that have been coming in the DRC, they have come through the BRIC countries. They have shown the people that we should not be satisfied with some small roads which will be built 10 times and paid for 20 times to the same Western countries. But now, competition is not only between Western countries, but also with new competitors. The new investors are not coming with a lot of conditions. So we will be entering into the same system; it’s not bad. And it’s bringing a lot more business for lawyers, so it’s good for us.