KINSHASA, Congo—Any new technology takes some getting used to. Just ask Claude Musonda, who had a run-in one recent Saturday night with this French-speaking country's first-ever "distributeur automatique des billets," or ATM.
On his way to a nightclub, Musonda, 25, who has a marketing degree, stopped for cash. He inserted his card and followed the instructions, but when the machine spit out his card, he didn't grab it. Fifteen seconds went by, and the ATM, as a security measure, swallowed his plastic and didn't dispense his money.
His female companion gave him the look dreaded by men the world over.
"I didn't know you had to take out the card right away," said a sheepish Musonda, who had to borrow money from a friend so they could go out that night. "I'm still learning this system."
Until Germany's ProCredit Bank established a branch last year in Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of this war-torn former Belgian colony, most Congolese had never seen an ATM. The very notion of a bank account—and the financial stability it represents—is foreign in a place that for four decades has known nothing but corruption and conflict, and where 8 out of 10 people live on less than $1 a day.
The state-owned banking sector has all but collapsed, and to stay solvent, banks charge exorbitant fees to the few customers they have. The merchants, sidewalk vendors and businesspeople who make up Congo's small but ambitious middle class have nothing better to do with their money than hide it in their homes.
Commerce here moves at a pre-modern pace. Everything—food, appliances, even automobiles—is transacted in cash, either U.S. dollars or comically thick wads of blackened, decaying Congolese francs.
Now, as votes are tallied from Sunday's runoff presidential election—the first democratic election here in 41 years—many Congolese are seeing a chance for renewal in their country. It's a renewal epitomized by nothing so much as Kinshasa's ATM, situated in the busy commercial district of Gombe, on a narrow street lined with kiosks and filled with hawkers peddling everything from matchbooks to pedicures.
By far the best-looking building on the block belongs to ProCredit. With branches in 20 developing countries, the Frankfurt-based bank specializes in micro-loans and savings accounts for individuals, with nominal fees and no minimum deposits. Its investors include the U.S. retirement fund manager TIAA-CREF, which bought a 10 percent stake in the bank in September.
In one year in Kinshasa, ProCredit has signed up 14,000 clients—twice as many as any other bank in Congo, said the head of the bank, Oliver Meisenberg. About 6,000 of them have signed up for ATM cards, which require a $23.60 annual fee.
"For a long time we have had problems with banks," said Kanyinda Muamba, a 49-year-old housewife who shares an ATM card with her husband. "It was impossible to take out money. People didn't have the confidence to invest anything."
Muamba's husband is a sometime writer and social critic who in 1978 penned the novel, "The Rot," a thinly veiled critique of the kleptocracy of Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu ran the country for 32 years and amassed a personal fortune estimated in the billions of dollars while his economic policies fueled runaway inflation that reduced ordinary citizens' savings to nothing.
Running a household with six children on a writer's salary was a job made tougher by their inability to invest money. Whatever they earned went into a hiding place in their bedroom, and it seemed to disappear quickly.
"I had no idea of what we were spending," Muamba said. "With the bank, there's a record."
For $35 more annually, the bank also offers Visa cards, which have become a status symbol among Kinshasa's young and beautiful. But they also offer Congolese traders much-needed access to their money abroad, instead of having to travel with stacks of bills.
One cell phone vendor says he hopes to get an account at the bank because he's spending thousands of dollars on Western Union fees wiring himself money in China, where he goes each month to replenish his merchandise. Some Congolese women travel with so much cash that they conceal it under their shirts like unborn babies.
ProCredit is preparing to open a second branch in a suburb later this year, and in a few years it may operate a network of ATMs throughout the city. But expanding outside Kinshasa may be difficult. Congo covers an area the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River, but has only a few hundred miles of paved roads.
And the business environment, even for established firms, is challenging; in a recent World Bank survey of 175 countries' regulatory regimes, Congo ranked as the toughest place to do business.
Still, some said that even one bank was a good start.
"We're definitely surprised by this bank," said Bernard Tshasuma, 48, a marketing consultant. "It shows confidence in the rebuilding of Congo."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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