Africa

Congo River luxury condos cause Kinshasa controversy

Congolese workers stands next to a pump

Kinshasa's most ambitious project is being built on two islands on the River Congo, which promoters believe will become an entire new district for the capital of the Democratic Republic Congo.

Its official name is La Cite du Fleuve (River City), but the Congolese media has dubbed it "the new Manhattan".

Designed in Dubai, the new complex is expected to include thousands of flats, villas, offices, hotels and shopping centres.

"It's a crazy idea," says Robert Choudury, the French-Indian promoter.

"But it's very difficult to find land right now in Kinshasa and if you find some, land title issues are so big that most of them are under conflict in court."

Image caption A three-bedroom apartment will cost $200,000

There are no proper records of property ownership in DR Congo's capital so real estate development often triggers bitter feuds. Developers build on land which others then claim to own.

The site is empty for now. Big pumps are doing most of the initial work, reclaiming the land from sandbanks and swamps.

When I visited it, builders were drilling holes to wire up a luxurious show home while a gardener watered the freshly grown grass on the promenade along the river.

Some locals from the neighbouring area of Kingabwa, home to some 10,000 people, look on in amazement at the building works from their pirogues.

The pilot house is "a typical three-bedroom apartment of 110 sq m [1,184 sq ft]. There's a balcony with view on the river, parking and it will go for around $200,000 [£121,000]," says Mr Choudury.

Friends in high places

With most of the eight million people in Kinshasa living beneath the poverty line, the only people who will be able to afford these flats will be expatriates and the Congolese elite.

The developers were hoping that by building a district on land newly reclaimed from sandbanks and river beds, they would avoid lengthy battles over who owns it.

But the project has still caused anger in the local community.

"We welcomed Mr Choudury with open arms because we thought the whole project would be very good for us," says slum dweller Gabriel Koffi, standing in front of the small police checkpoint at the entrance of the site.

However, he says some residents were upset when their shacks were demolished without a compensation fee being agreed beforehand.

Image caption People in Kinshasa's slums are angry that homes for the elite are being built

"To extend the road, they destroyed our homes without prior compensation. They came with security forces so we had no choice," says Mr Koffi.

"In the end, the promoters of the Cite du Fleuve gave us the amount of money that they had decided."

Since then, most people of Kingabwa slum see the project as a threat to their area.

Mr Choudury, who does not hide his friendship with government ministers and close advisers of President Joseph Kabila, says he paid the slum dwellers more compensation then he needed to.

"When I asked people in the government, they said: 'Why are you paying them? Just chase them,'" he says.

"We never destroyed any building without negotiating and paying beforehand."

Financed by a group of international private investors, La Cite du Fleuve is valued at $1bn.

But in a country ravaged by conflict and corruption, the project raises eyebrows and critics say it is just another gigantic project which will never be finished.

Barefoot workers

In downtown Kinshasa, where the authorities are hoping to give the area a facelift, luxury building projects are flourishing with at least 20 high-rise buildings under construction.

Image caption Congolese construction workers are often supervised by foreign staff

Most of them are run by Indian or Lebanese businessmen who employ Congolese builders.

They rush towards construction sites at dawn and queue for work. At the new Congo Trade Centre site, Indian staff give the workers instructions in the local Lingala language.

The lack of regulations in the country means that labour is cheap and working conditions are basic.

Carrying piles of bricks on his head, a Congolese worker points at his feet. He is wearing flip-flops and a band-aid on his right ankle.

"It is a big problem because there are nails everywhere," he says.

None of the builders are wearing safety gear and some even work barefoot.

Pay is handed over to each worker at the end of the day while another team prepares for the night shift.

"I earned $4.50 for 12 hours of work," another Congolese man says.

"But I have to spend $1 in transport and another one for food."

Beyond the land issues and bad working conditions, there are wider worries about these building projects.

'Kinshasa the garbage bin'

The UN predicts that the city's population will double within the next 15 years to become the largest on the continent - so the property boom will put pressure on already limited resources such as water and electricity.

The head of the banks association in Dr Congo, Michel Losembe, doubts whether the banks in Kinshasa can support these projects.

"When you start a real-estate project you need banks that are able to finance during 10 or 15 years," he says.

"That's not the case yet in DR Congo; banks are not yet ready to really support this industry."

With no appropriate banking system, most projects are paid for in cash.

Mr Losembe warns that the market for luxurious projects is already saturated in Kinshasa.

Demand for decent affordable housing is now coming from a tiny middle class of about 300,000 people.

But in the city that has become known as "Kin la poubelle" or "Kinshasa the garbage bin", many remain doubtful of the government's willingness to build basic infrastructure for everyone's benefit.

It may well take years before the city regains its former nickname - "Kin la belle" or "Kinshasa the beautiful".

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