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Heart of Light Amid the Darkness:
An Interview by Paul Trustfull
All too often the story of Africa is presented as tragedy to the world through the lens of the media. Magnifying the lens closer on the African continent to the Congo (or Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC) and the case is doubly so. The third largest country in Africa gained independence from Belgium in 1960 and with a population of some 62 million has an immense natural wealth of resources. The world’s largest deposits of cobalt and a major producer of copper, industrial diamonds and tantalum—a key component used in electronics enabling everything from your DVD player to mobile telephone to function. Congo once had the reputation as being “the India of Africa”.
Classic author Joseph Conrad immortalised the Congo in his work Heart of Darkness later adapted for the Vietnam era by Francis Ford Coppola as the movie Apocalypse Now. Despite the potential, the country suffered terribly from the effects of civil war and political mismanagement, especially in the period of rule by Mobutu from independence through the mid-1990’s. During his rule the country faced two civil wars and was a front-line state in the Superpower confrontation known as the cold war. The end of the confrontation led to the importance of the DRC (or Zaire as Mobutu renamed it) waning, leading to a conflict likened by author Gerard Prunier as the African equivalent of World War I in his book Africa’s World War.
In this environment those people who can make a difference genuinely stand out from those elsewhere. George Forrest, President of Forrest Group International is one such man. The business he leads today was established in the Congo by Malta Forrest in 1922 as a transportation business. The company soon branched out into mining operations and by the 1950s was also involved in civil engineering. George’s parents came from New Zealand and Rhodes, though George was born in Congo and has been resident since. In the late 1960s he entered the business and became sole leader of the business in the mid 1980s and has run the company since.
The Forrest Group today spans several sectors of activity and four continents ranging from mining to engineering activities, health care to public works and construction, aviation to housing.
The success of the business can be traced to the values of the leader. George describes his father as being someone who taught him to be able to integrate and mix with all cultures as well as all strata of society. George studied in Belgium but as keen to return to Congo as soon as possible, preferring the friendship of his fellow Congolese in Belgium to Europeans. Clearly endurance is a key factor in growing a major business over time. George describes his success as, “doing something right, given the business has out-lasted conflict and political short-termism”.
George has a fundamentally optimistic view of Africa’s future and its politics, though tempered by reality, “there are too many cases of politicians seeking to reap the fastest possible reward, rather than investing more long term—to the loss of their own people”. George contrasts the colonial legacy culturally between Britain and the likes of France and Belgium in Africa. “The British left a legacy in their colonies of language and a strong planning mentality which is less prominent in the former French and Belgian colonies”.
Looking to the future of the DRC George emphasises the potential, “The DRC on independence was richer than the likes of Canada or Korea and would have potentially been one of the richest countries on the continent today were it not for conflict and mis-management”. There are however some bright spots on the continent worthy of emphasis. George notes, “President El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon is a good example of a leader who has focused on making medium and long term investments to improve infrastructure for his people”.
Forrest also believes that one of the impediments for development in the Congo was the former leader Mobuto’s willingness to listen to Chinese advice, “African countries need to realise that Chinese investment is limited to guaranteeing access to resources—not the enrichment of the African nations”. He sees the election of President Barack Obama in the United States as a very positive development for a generation of African children, “he (Obama) is a great role-model for African children and proof of what is possible if you put your mind to it”. In Forrest’s eyes one of the most central activities any government can pursue is that of providing a solid educational foundation for the next generation, “too often in Africa do politicians think of the short-term—without investing in education they may see their worst prophecies fulfilled”.
The Forrest family are also keen on implementing the values imbued by his parents seeking to engage in philanthropic activity via the Rachel Forrest Foundation. The Foundation had its origins in providing shelter and education for the families of workers, but is evolving into a broader based organisation, supporting everything from museums to helping put in place television antennas. The Foundation seeks to assist doctors, many of whom are very well trained but lack the basic resources to make an impact in their locales. One of the most important, though largely taken for granted in the developed world is access to drinkable water. In the Congo alone water supplies are scarce and are often of poor quality. The Foundation has sought to help drill new wells and to renew existing infrastructure which has fallen into disrepair. One example is in the town of Luilu which has lacked water for 13 years and the Foundation was able to arrange upgrades to the dilapidated infrastructure. Simply replacing pumping equipment can make a life or death difference to the people inhabiting these remote areas.
Looking to the future, George Forrest and his family believe in a better future for Africa. Four of his children work in the family business and the company is actively considering expansion plans, replicating the hard-won successes achieved in the DRC in Namibia and potentially Gabon.
Interview by Paul Trustfull, Editor-in-Chief, Global Vision Magazine