Mohamed Sheikh Nor

Al-Qaeda replaced by 3D movies, pizza as Somali capital rebuilds

A few years ago, standing in the core of Somalia’s capital would have been a death wish. Now you can go there to grab a slice of pizza and see 3D films.

The threat from al-Qaeda-linked militants in Mogadishu remains, but it hasn’t stopped Mukhtar Gambo and his two partners from investing $150,000 in Pizza House, a three-story eatery with Indian Ocean views. A pie costs $9 to $13—pricey for a country where most people live on less than $2 a day. It can be enjoyed with a screening at the restaurant’s tiny theater, while wearing a pair of 3D glasses in a vibrating chair amid strobe lights and smoke.

“I never thought services like this would be available,” said Nimco Hassan, a Somali customer visiting from London. “It means that Mogadishu is gradually rising from the ashes.”

Pizza House is one of the latest Western-style restaurants opening in Mogadishu as the streets become relatively safer and money flows in from Somalis living overseas. The success of these outlets could be a bellwether for investment prospects in Somalia, which has been mired in civil war for more than two decades and is trying to use recent advances against Islamist militant group al-Shabaab to rebuild the economy.For years, Somalis fled abroad — where many still provide a lifeline by sending back a total of $1.3 billion each year, or 80 percent of the country’s investment. But as African Union forces help the army seize back territory such as Mogadishu, which the insurgents abandoned in 2011, some of the country’s estimated diaspora of 1 million people are coming home.

The diaspora has “significantly contributed to the revival of business in the country” since 2013, Abdi Abshir Dhore, the head of Somalia’s Chamber of Commerce, said. “They’ve opened up many modern businesses in Mogadishu. They own and run shops, and they have polished our image.”

A short walk from President Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud’s official residence in the capital, Yasin Abikar Arif has returned from the U.S. with a plan: to make money from Somalis craving fried chicken that tastes similar to Yum! Brands Inc.’s KFC.

“We’re trying to attract richer people as well as Somalis who live overseas and come on vacation,” the owner of Royal Broasted Chicken said in an interview at the buzzing hole-in-the-wall establishment. Customers at a nearby table ordered three pieces of chicken and a soda for $4 a meal.

Companies still factor in security risks. As new eateries proliferate, al-Shabaab are targeting hotels and government officials in its campaign to impose a strict version of Islamic law. Yet the ever-present threat of violence isn’t hampering a rebirth in entrepreneurial spirit, according to Dhore.

“Even with hurdles such as insecurity, we have the resilience and perseverance to stay in business,” he said.