Kinshasa – the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Africa’s greatest megacity – is poised to benefit from the massive copper and cobalt boom under way in the country. 

In terms of population, it is the continent’s largest city with 17.1 million people living in the greater area, only slightly smaller than the Netherlands (17.7 million). It is projected to become the world’s biggest city with a whopping 35 million inhabitants by 2050, 58 million by 2075 and 83 million by the start of the next century.

The city is located on the Congo River – about 515km upstream from its mouth on the Atlantic Ocean – and faces Brazzaville (population 1.7 million), the capital of the neighbouring Republic of Congo. The two cities are only 5km apart, separated by the river’s Malebo Pool. They are the world’s second-closest pair of capital cities (after the Vatican City and Rome). Kinshasa also forms one of the DRC’s 26 provinces. The city-province covers an area of 9,965km2, slightly bigger than the country Rwanda. As the administrative boundaries of the city-province cover a vast area, more than 90% of its land area is rural in nature (the urban area occupies a small but expanding section on the western side).

Kinshasa is Africa’s biggest city (its urban area has a population of 15.62 million), followed by Lagos at 15.4 million, Cairo (ten million), Giza (9.2 million), Dar es Salaam (7.1 million), Khartoum (six million), Johannesburg (5.9 million), Abidjan (5.4 million), Alexandria (5.3 million) and Addis Ababa (five million).  

The city has had a turbulent past but is now a vibrant economic hub. Most foreign companies operating in the DRC maintain a presence there and Congolese companies normally have their corporate headquarters in Kinshasa. It is the country’s most significant consumer centre and the core of its industrial and commercial activity. It dominates the DRC’s financial scene and is home to the head offices of the leading banks. All foreign diplomatic missions are based there, as well as many non-governmental organisations and charities. 

It is also the largest francophone urban area in the world (Paris is the second largest with a population of 13 million people in its metro area). French is the language of government, schools, newspapers, public services and high-end commerce, while Lingala is used as a lingua franca in the street.

DRC could become the Saudi Arabia of the electric vehicle age

The DRC produces more than 70% of the world's cobalt, holds 60% of the planet's coltan reserves and is the world's fourth-biggest producer of copper, which Goldman Sachs is calling the "new oil". The country could become the Saudi Arabia of the electric vehicle age and, as its financial and commercial centre, Kinshasa stands to gain a lot. 

Among Kinshasa’s other main industries are brewing, food processing and the manufacturing of consumer goods (for example, textiles and footwear), mostly for the domestic market. Construction and an array of service industries also contribute to the economy.  

However, the city’s transportation system is widely considered to be substandard. It is well-served by roads, but its dense and rapidly expanding population creates huge levels of congestion. Within the city, public transportation is made up of overcrowded buses, minibuses, taxis and 'fula-fulas' (trucks adapted to carry passengers). It is estimated that only 6.4% of the city area has planned and well-serviced built-up areas. Some parts suffer from eroded housing lots and roadways, clogged up open drains and accumulated rubbish. 

Kinshasa city-province lies to the west of Kongo Central province, DRC's only province with direct access to the sea. Matadi – with a population of 302,000 people and located 148km from the mouth of the Congo River and 273km south-east of Kinshasa – is that province's biggest city. It is also home to the country's main seaport, with a maximum draft of 8.2m. A metre-gauge portage railway and a paved two-lane road connect Kinshasa and Matadi. Although the Congo flows between the two cities, this stretch contains many rapids and is unnavigable. 

However, the river is navigable to the city of Kisangani, about 1,600km upstream from Kinshasa. A vast network of navigable stretches on its tributaries – connected by railways – brings almost all inland traffic carrying exports destined for Matadi down the river and through the port of Kinshasa. Ndjili International Airport, to the city's south-east, is one of Africa’s biggest airports. In June 2015, a new international terminal was opened that can serve one million passengers a year. Its destinations include Paris, Brussels, Istanbul and many African capitals. 

Currently, there is no bridge between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. It only takes ten to 15 minutes to cross the river by boat, although waiting times can be long. The price for a single Kinshasa-Brazzaville ticket is about $28. There are also commercial flights between the two cities on ASKY Airlines , the Togolese airline. These are among the shortest international flights in the world and normally last only five minutes each way. The two cities form the economic gateways to each country's huge hinterland. 

Bridge planned for the Congo River

In December 2021, the DRC government announced plans to construct a modern $815m (CnFr1.64trn), 1,575m road-rail bridge between Kinshasa and Brazzaville. Work is slated to begin in 2023 and will be completed in 2028. It is expected to be co-financed by the African Development Bank and Africa50, a platform bringing together African states to finance development infrastructure. 

In September 2021, Alphabet X, part of Google, found a novel way of delivering high-speed internet between the two capitals via beams of light through the air. Under the project, called Taara, the cities could get faster and cheaper broadband through the technology known as Free Space Optical Communications. Connecting the cities has been tricky – despite the short distance ­­– because traditional cable must be routed around the river. This has made broadband prices five times more expensive than normal.

The city is also becoming a tech hub for Central Africa and has hosted Kinshasa Digital Week. Many tech start-ups are located there. 

"The fact is that Kinshasa is a tough city, but so is Lagos, so is Johannesburg, " said Barrett Nash, founder of moto-taxi app CanGo Africa, in an interview with Disrupt Africa. "And a lot of the truly incredible things that this city has – like an educated, open-minded and entrepreneurial business class, awesome major city roadways, a ginormous population and totally open competitive playing field – seem to be completely invisible to outsiders.

“Sure, this is an earlier-stage tech market than a Nairobi or Lagos, but that is an opportunity. We can look at how other cities developed and be influenced by what worked but also try to avoid the pitfalls."

Paul Emmanuel, hub manager at co-working space and tech hub Ingenious City in Kinshasa, highlights the size of the potential market and the nascent nature of the local tech scene. “There are a lot of opportunities that a tech start-up could tackle," he said in an interview, also with Disrupt Africa. "The DRC is a large market and because of scalability, tech start-ups are more able to reach more people than normal businesses."

However, there are issues – internet connectivity is more expensive and less efficient than in other African countries, while finding talent is also an obstacle. 

The DRC has one pilot special economic zone, in Maluku in Kinshasa, covering a 244-hectare area. It is being formed under a public-private partnership and offers tax and regulatory advantages for investors and entrepreneurs, including a five to ten-year tax exemption.

For the many poor people living in Kinshasa, it is in many ways like an overgrown village, whose people forage at long distances for firewood and keep gardens where they can find adequate soil. The demands of this vast urban population have caused extensive erosion of the surrounding countryside, as the soil is exhausted from over-cultivation. Trees cut for charcoal have not been replanted, for example. 

Kinshasa's colonial history

The land on which Kinshasa expanded was inhabited in ancient times. The present city evolved from two villages, Nshasa and Ntamo (later known as Kintamo), dominated by the Bahumbu people and visited by Bateke fishermen and traders. The explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley , on his visit in 1877, formed an alliance with the ruler of Kintamo, a rich ivory trader, and was able to acquire a trading post site on his return in 1881.

Stanley named this post Léopoldville, after his patron, Léopold II, king of the Belgians. Although Stanley managed to open river traffic as far north as Stanleyville (Kisangani since 1966) by carrying prefabricated steamers around the cataracts of the lower river, Léopoldville remained insignificant until the railway line from Matadi was completed in 1898. In 1960, Léopoldville became the capital of the new republic, but its name was changed to Kinshasa in 1966. 

Strategically located in Central Africa, the DRC gained independence from Belgium in 1960. From 1971 to 1997 the country was officially called the Republic of Zaire, a change made by then ruler General Mobutu Sese Seko, who wanted to give the country a more authentic-sounding African name. Following the overthrow of Mobutu in 1997, it reverted to its former name, the DRC. The country was subsequently plunged into a devastating civil war; the conflict officially ended in 2003, although fighting continues in the eastern part of the country to this day. 

Today, Kinshasa is the dynamic centre of the country's popular culture, the language of which is Lingala, while the DRC's popular music is renowned throughout Africa. Well-established bands from the country tour in Europe and North America. Like the popular songs, paintings sold on the streets express the social themes of the day. 

Kinshasa's city hall is called La Gombe. The city-province has a provincial assembly and the governor is Gentiny Ngobila Mbala. 

Lubumbashi – the DRC’s second-biggest city with 2.78 million people – is located in the country's south-easternmost part, 1.55km from Kinshasa and along the border with Zambia. It lies in the Copperbelt region and acts as a hub for many of the country's largest mining companies. Unlike Kinshasa, Lubumbashi is connected to the southern African rail network.

The DRC's $24trn raw materials market

The DRC has a poor international image – it is known for poverty, child labour, civil war and Ebola. Few people outside the country know, however, that it is considered the world's richest country in terms of its natural resources – its untapped deposits of raw minerals are estimated to be worth in excess of $24trn, according to Michigan State University. It is home to 1,100 different minerals and precious metals. The economy is largely dependent on commodity prices – in particular for copper, cobalt, tin, tungsten and tantalum. Diamonds are also important. 

The country is Africa's fourth-biggest by population (95.2 million), after Nigeria (206 million), Ethiopia (115 million) and Egypt (102 million), according to Worldometers. In terms of geographic area, it is Africa's second-biggest country at 2.34 million square kilometres, slightly smaller than Algeria's 2.38 million. It is more than four times the size of France. The DRC had an estimated $59bn economy in 2022, but income per head is a paltry $622 a year, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Meanwhile, the Republic of Congo has a $13.3bn economy, a 4.9 million population and an income per head of $2,704. 

The DRC has a monocultural economy – more than 90% of its wealth comes from extractive industries. Minerals and petroleum make up about 95% of the state's export revenues. It has made little progress in diversifying the economy.

The country's forest accounts for 10% of the world's tropical forests. Its peatlands cover 100,000km2 and are the largest in the world. Its ecosystem offers a carbon absorption service equivalent to ten years of global emissions, according to the UN .

The IMF estimates that the DRC's economy jumped by 5.4% during 2021 and forecasts that it will surge by 6.4% in 2022 and 6.6% in 2023. That outpaces total sub-Saharan African growth, estimated at 3.7% in 2021 and forecast at 3.8% in 2022.

Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF's managing director, describes the DRC as a rare "bright spot" in Africa's economic performance. "The DRC benefits from higher commodity prices but above all benefits from the reforms that the president and the government have been pursuing," she said during a press conference in Kinshasa in December 2021. 

However, the DRC has the world's lowest Covid-19 vaccination rate – with only 0.1% of its population inoculated as of December 2021 – which could hamper its economic recovery. 

Will corruption hold back Kinshasa and the DRC?

Experts say that chronic corruption, economic mismanagement and armed conflict have stunted the country's economic output for decades and left the vast majority of the population in dire poverty. It has an import-based economy due to a feeble manufacturing sector, porous borders and weak links between the capital and the periphery and between the regions. Low-cost consumer goods and foodstuffs are smuggled into the country from Angola and Zambia, undercutting local production.

Felix Tshisekedi's inauguration in 2019 represented the first peaceful transition of power in the country’s history. In 2021, he ended his alliance with the party of former president Joseph Kabila and formed a new coalition called the Sacred Union. He has introduced reforms including greater independence of the central bank and more efficient revenue collection. The government has published old mining contracts that were previously kept secret and replaced the board of the state-owned mining company, Gécamines.

“The DRC is now attracting lots of people from around the world – everything can go very fast," said Kanik Pascal, chief executive officer of local edtech start-up Schoolap, in an interview with Disrupt Africa. "I think the DRC will surprise the world in a very short time.”  

Kinshasa shares its time zone with London or Paris depending on the season and the Congolese speak a major European language. Its population is young and expanding greatly in number. It is Africa's fastest-growing megacity. For many decades it was a failing city, but the DRC's present copper and cobalt rush should help it to prosper. At long last, Kinshasa has a bright future.