In an area no bigger than one square kilometre, on a one-way street that sits on the communes of both Anderlecht and Molenbeek, a cluster of second-hand car dealers have been exporting cars to the African continent ever since a bunch of entrepreneurial Lebanese businessmen set up shop in the area back in the mid-70s. A vibrant cluster of dealerships that could very well be called Little Africa, the area today counts more than 150 family-owned garages as well as a tight-knit tribe of related businesses – everything from repair shops to restaurants. With their future uncertain due to the authorities’ plan to move them to the North of the city, we take a stroll through its bustling streets and meet some of its precursors.
Photography: Eva Donckers
How it all begun
Faidi, the owner of Facar – an automotive shipping company with outlets in Angola, Congo, the Emirates and Belgium – explains how the business took off during the Lebanese civil war in 1975. “The entire country’s infrastructure was annihilated, including the public transportation system. Yet civilians needed to travel in order to save their lives, and cars were the only option.” That’s how her father, Facar’s founder, shipped his first car to a family member in the Middle Eastern country back in the 70’s. “Before he knew it, he was shipping cars on a weekly basis. First to his cousins, his neighbours, and his friends, but soon enough word spread countrywide.” A medicine student at ULB university at the time, he dropped his studies to set up an import-export business when he realised he could make a living out of it. “And while he was at it, he convinced all of his Lebanese friends to do the same.
All of sudden, you had all these young guys, who were 25 years old at the time, getting into the export business.” They at first set up shop on Brussels’ Boulevard du Midi, with the artery’s proximity to the city centre and the train station making the area attractive to their business dealings. But when business started booming, the neighbourhood became too small and it was time to look for a new location. “They went looking for a suitable area and, coincidentally, wound up here, in the Heyvaert neighbourhood. Back then the streets were mostly filled with small butcher shops who, with the help of the local counsel keen at the time to enforce new hygiene regulations, got chased away. That’s when all the Lebanese entrepreneurs started buying property here, from the Rue Heyvaert to the Chaussée de Ninove and even partly up until the Chaussée de Mons – we all started clumping together in this small block of the city.” When the Lebanese war ended, the market to Egypt opened up. “First we did most of our trading with the Arab world, which was also a linguistic issue. It was only when the Lebanese car dealers all had acquired a decent French language proficiency that the African countries were included too.” Back then every car got shipped through Rotterdam, until NileDutch – a private cargo and ferry company – came to Antwerp’s harbour. This marked the start of an enormous expansion of export to the entire African continent. “We opened our outlet in Angola, and at one point we were shipping 3500 cars every month. The vehicles came from all over Europe, and left the continent here in Brussels. Up to this day around two million cars a year get sent to Africa from this tiny neighbourhood.”
Strength in numbers
Today, the neighbourhood is a bustling hub of economic activity. Nearly all of them family businesses, the different car dealers of the area are closely tied. Ziyad, who works in his father’s garage, explains that “More than mere friends, we’re actually like brothers.” Overseas customers are aided by solicitors, who casually hang around on the street and act as middlemen between salesman and client, while pocketing the usual, small commissions. Habib, himself a solicitor, states that “when clients come from Africa, they’re completely lost here. So that’s why we’re here to show them around. We’re solicitors and guides at the same time.” He goes on explaining that the intercontinental movement that happens in the Heyvaert neighbourhood has given space to more local and informal trade, from impromptu car repair services to authentic restaurants and shops selling exotic foods and beauty products. Indeed, what initially started as a purely import-export-centered cluster of businesses has today evolved into something more akin to an entire eco-system, one where you come to the neighbourhood to sell, or buy, a car and end up also feasting on a home-cooked meal. There’s no denying the fact that the sector accounts for billions of transactions every year, and most of them are handled in cash. Unstable African currencies and high corruption rates cause merchants to distrust their banks, so they prefer making their purchases with euros and dollars. In 2014, the Belgian state decided to install a limit on cash payments – at 3,000 euros – in an effort to transition to a cash free economy and to combat fraud. A thorn in the side of the car dealers, who’ve been quick to adapt to the changing landscape and have somewhat circumvented the newly installed system by issuing several invoices for one single purchase, or by making use of promissory notes.
A charming nuisance
Much has been made – and not always in the positive sense – of the neighbourhood’s car dealers and, reading the bad press they’ve received over the years, no one can be blamed for thinking of it as dirty, noisy and dangerous. But not everyone agrees on this matter. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to move here at first,” says Baptiste Bosmans, who’s now been living in the area for four years. “But then, when I moved to a different apartment a month ago, I absolutely wanted to stay near the Heyvaert area. It feels like home, like a small village, a tiny community, which is above all a multifaceted mix of cultures and generations.” Admittedly, it can get quite rowdy, but living in a city you get used to the noise. “I’m not sure if that’s a good thing though,” laughs Baptiste. The communal counsels of Molenbeek and Anderlecht on the other hand, would rather see a radically different Heyvaert neighbourhood, one without car dealers. Making a political statement, the communes have decided to systematically appeal against the distribution of new environmental permits, which are a prerequisite for every automotive business. It’s a decision that evokes much anger, sadness and even consternation amongst employers and employees alike. Indeed, with over a thousand low-skilled jobs created precisely because of the sector, it seems as though authorities would be better of acknowledging and assist its economical impact – whilst at the same time reigning its questionable practices in – rather than attempt to stifle it. Simplice, a car vendor who was formerly employed as a supermarket cashier, attests to this. “Everybody needs money. And I’d rather get it through doing something I enjoy, which in this case is selling cars, and helping people find what they’re looking for, than by doing yet another service job that, in all certainty, might be outsourced in the coming future.”
A vision for the future
For years now, the Region of Brussels has been devising a plan to relocate the entire cluster of car dealers to the North of the city, close to the outport next to the Van Praet bridge in Schaerbeek. Expectedly, business owners’ reaction to these plans show a lot of reluctance on their part. Ziyad, for example, shares a myriad of reasons why he’d prefer to stay around. “This entire area has been an industrial zone for years, it’s where nearly all of our businesses were born. It’s close to the train station, in Europe’s capital, in an area where we’re all together”. A statement confirmed by Ben, a Nigerian undertaker whose family has been doing business around here for thirty years. “People can easily find what they’re looking for here, thanks to the fact that all the car dealers share the same street. There’s not an area like this anywhere else in the world.” The neighbourhood’s most prominent businesses – Facar, Socar and Abou Zeid – respond in a different way, with a plan of their own. “It’s going to be like a supermarket, but for cars,” Faidi enthusiastically pitches, while showing an elaborate plan of what’s she’s hoping to be her business’ future home. “A terminal by the canal in Vilvoorde, exploited by all of us and in collaboration with Antwerpen Euroterminal and Mexiconatie, the big players in the cargo field.” Currently awaiting approval, the project that carries a price tag of 85 million euros could mean a vast change for the Heyvaert street. In any case, it seems like no one is able to give a straight answer on what the neighbourhood will look like in ten years, but two final outcomes seem plausible. Either the car dealers will decamp to a new area in the city, making way most probably for a rapid gentrification of the neighbourhood. Or they’ll manage to find a way to stay put and blend seemingly into the urban fabric. Whatever the outcome, one thing remains certain: second-hand European cars will continue flowing to the motherland.