Hell to Heartland: Mogadishu, Minnesota and Economic Opportunity

May 22, 2017 11:23 AM

The money is flowing back and forth. The goods are travelling over land and seas. And a cottage industry of remittances is transferring $2 billion between Minnesota and Somalia.

Innovative, driven Somalis are flooding Somalia with new small businesses. But a trade deal between Somalia and the U.S. doesn't exist yet. It's now a work in progress, and the man cutting the deal is a former Minnesotan. 


He knows all roads may not lead to Rome, but they lead to a new dawn in Mogadishu. As he stands on his roof, his favorite place in the Ministerial palace, Abdi Aynte knows he's exactly where he needs to be, where his calling brought him. 

He's one of the highest ranking government officials in the new Somali government and a former journalist and Minnesotan. He's 8,000 miles away from Minnesota in Mogadishu, in a city where every door opened only to destruction for the last 25 years. 

"A lot of destroyed buildings, a lot of new buildings coming up, you see a mix of life, you see this country is actually going through something," he says. 

That something drives Aynte to keep pushing into his purpose. 

"I'm reminded how privileged I am and the extremely difficult work to be done," he said. 

Aynte's privilege was partly born in Minnesota. He lived and worked in the Twin Cities, and still has deep connections here. But he also remembers the heydays of the land that shaped him. 

The civil war in Somalia ruined the city to its core. Rubble stands where riches once did. The city on the hill is what Aynte dreams about now for his homeland. 

"People don't sacrifice, the country won't fix itself, it needs our expertise, our knowledge and network," he says. 

Aynte's sacrifice is immeasurable. He moved back to Somalia to help rebuild his country. His wife and children live in Wisconsin. Aynte is now one of Somali President Farmaajo's most trusted right-hand men. 

"I was given a job to redefine the economy of the country with one of the lowest (gross domestic products) in the world, fifth poorest country, with a meager revenue of $ 300 million in a year," he says. 

It's an impossible job. 

Seventy percent of Somalia is swimming in poverty. The worst famine since 1945 is ravaging its regions. Al Shabaab terrorists are wreaking random savagery on the streets. Aynte lives with the threat of death.  

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"Four years ago, you and I would not have been able to be (on Aynte's roof). There would have been a lot of gunfire coming from that direction," he said. 

Seventy-five percent of the city was controlled by Al Shabaab six years ago, but he said the terrorists no longer control the heart of Mogadishu. 

"But they are underground, they still have strong cells, they are able to organize suicide attacks and car bombs and assassinations that continue to happen," he said. 

Aynte said insecurity stands in the way of opening the door to Somalia's success. Somalia is strategically located on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Its 2,000 miles of coastline are the longest in Africa. Somalia's ports make it a critical trading center. Somali exports camels, goats, sheep, dairy and leather to the Middle East. 

China sees Somalia's potential and invested $60 billion in to help rebuild Africa's infrastructure and economy. 

Aynte's goal is to build an economic relationship with America, too. He met with U.S. Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and Defense Minister Jim Mattis in London last week. 

The State Department said the talks would "accelerate progress on security, peace, and prosperity in Somalia." 

"A huge part of our economy is the diaspora," Aynte said. "People like me either who have come back or have not come back who are still in places like Minnesota  and sending $2 billion a year in the form of remittances -- many of them are investing in key sectors (such as) telecom, energy." 

Aynte said trade between the U.S. and Somalia could lead to trade between Somalia and Minnesota. 

Reportedly, 100,000 Somalis live in Minnesota, more than anywhere else in the country. 

"One of the big gains for Minnesota is the diversity it has, and the Somali people have been in our society for several decades and they're very important," said Minnesota's Chief Protocol Officer Gabrielle Gerbaud. 

She's the executive director of the Minnesota Trade Office. She said Somalis are a driving engine of trade. They're doing business with friends and family back home, and they are getting on the state's radar she says. 

"We don't have official numbers of exports but we have noticed beginning in 2017 some minimal but important trade," Gerbaud said. "It's the beginning of exports."

Gerbaud says preliminary numbers tell her buying and selling with Somalia could pay off one day for Minnesota, a state pulling in $19 billion in exports. 

Somalia wants to do the same. 

"Livestock and fishing are sources of our economy, but look at new elements of our economy, such as the telecom sector, energy and other means to chart a way forward," Aynte said.

The way forward right now means building roads, and finding a path through a fractured and fraught land paved with the possibility of a new dawn in Somalia one day. 

The dawn is spreading across Africa. It is the new emerging market. Some of your coffee, cocoa and diamonds come from Africa. Some Fortune 500 companies like Medtronic, Ecolab and Land O' Lakes are doing big business in Africa. 

They're going to talk about how to get even more money and goods flowing back and forth on Thursday at the African Business Forum at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. 


Farrah Fazal

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