Continued lawlessness and the absence of a central government have deterred investment in Somalia.
By Grant Ferrett
BBC correspondent in Mogadishu
However, the recent opening of a Coca-Cola bottling factory in the capital Mogadishu, is the clearest sign yet of growing business confidence in the country.
Businessman AbdiRisak Isse: "The beginning of a new era for Somalia"
Standing on the white sandy beach at the port of El Ma'an, looking out across the Indian Ocean, I could almost have been viewing a scene from 19th Century Africa.
Hundreds of porters were wading waist-deep into the sea to bring ashore the cargo from dozens of small boats.
On the horizon, anchored in deeper waters, were the large vessels from which the small boats had ferried their contents.
El Ma'an handles several thousand tonnes of goods each day without the benefit of a quayside, never mind cranes or modern containers.
The impression of having travelled back in time was spoiled only by the fact that the porters were carrying crates of empty Coca-Cola bottles.
The new factory was due to open in Mogadishu within 24 hours, and was desperately short of bottles and crates.
The ones I was watching being unloaded had come later than expected from neighbouring Kenya because of bad weather.
El Ma'an cannot work when the waves are too big.
Mogadishu has a modern port. It is a 15-minute drive from the new Coca-Cola factory, whereas the journey to El Ma'an takes more than an hour along an untarred road.
The problem is that Somalia's warlords, who have helped to drive the country to destruction, cannot agree who should control the port.
The result is that no-one at all uses it. It is the same with Mogadishu's international airport.
Any attempt to re-open it could ignite another round of fighting, so travellers are forced to use airstrips many miles from the capital.
El Ma'an is able to remain open because it is very well-defended.
Standing on the beach surveying the scene with me, the port's head of security told me he was in charge of 1,500 gunmen and dozens of technicals - trucks which have been modified to carry big anti-aircraft guns.
When I remarked that it sounded like an army, he proudly responded that it was indeed.
He and his senior assistants had all served in the armed forces during the days when Somalia had a government.
His men needed to be disciplined, he said, otherwise it would not provide security.
That discipline was not immediately apparent when I drove towards one of the checkpoints on the sandy track to the port.
Groups of young men armed with AK-47s seemed to be engaged in an argument.
One of them, who appeared no more than about 14-years-old, was sucking a lollipop.
Another had his finger poised on the trigger of his gun, which was pointing menacingly forwards at waist height. He looked annoyed.
As my personal militia of half-a-dozen gunmen drove through the checkpoint in a truck ahead of me - that is the standard bodyguard for any visiting Westerner in Mogadishu - there was a lot of shouting.
I was not sure if the angry-looking gunman was telling my car to stop.
As we drove on, he fired a single shot in the air. I prayed that he would not fire any more, and that my bodyguards would not fire back.
He did not, and neither did they.
In spite of all the guns and the air of incipient violence surrounding El Ma'an, Somalis do not consider the man who controls the port, Abukar Omar Adam, to be a warlord.
He is referred to as a businessman - the most prominent of a growing number who carry out trade and happen to need armed guards to protect their investments.
Warlords, I am told, are those who generate income not by providing services, but by extorting money through their militia, for example at roadblocks.
In recent months there have been signs that some of the warlords are losing influence.
In May, one of them tried to seize control of El Ma'an, provoking more than a week of fighting during which thousands of people were displaced.
The warlord lost. Since then, many of his militia fighters have joined the businessman, and are now helping to protect the port.
They are better paid, receiving $2.50 a day, and are given better food as part of the deal.
The new Coca-Cola factory imported most of its equipment, including the bottling line, through the port.
For the opening ceremony, the company increased the number of armed guards to more than 100.
Continuing lawlessness has deterred many would-be investors
But the man behind the idea, AbdiRisak Isse, a 37-year-old Somali whose family lives in Sweden, says the real security comes not from the guards with guns, but from the goodwill generated by the company.
Its 400 shareholders come from all clans and all parts of Somalia.
It directly employs 130 people and suggests that thousands more will benefit indirectly, offering an alternative form of employment to being a gunman.
The whole business community hopes that the arrival of Coca-Cola will in turn encourage more investment, and so help to promote security in Somalia.
It is peace and nation-building through private enterprise.
But for all their money and power, the businessmen are not yet strong enough to ensure the re-opening of Mogadishu's port.
For now, El Ma'an remains the only option.
From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 10 July, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.