Ghana business lessons

Yoda:

So, the background for my trip to Africa, the need for which will become apparent later.  My son ended his “academic” career at Berkeley a few years ago by studying African Drumming, African Dancing, and other challenging courses as an exchange student in Ghana. (In fairness, he had already completed all of the real courses he needed for his degree). Being my son, he was not content to just go to class; he found a master drum-maker in some village who took him on as a quasi-student. Eventually, he made his own drums; but, more importantly, he became close friends with the drum-maker and his family, as well as familiar with most of the village. As is typical in the third world, the actual craftsmen earn very little from their labour, most of the profits going to the more entrepreneurial transporters and marketers. Being a good American capitalist, he recognized this and decided to help remedy this situation for his friends. His idea was to somehow obtain a truck for the village, allowing them to recoup the considerable cost of transporting the logs from the forest to the village. But these people are not business oriented and it was impossible to get straight answers via e-mail that would allow for any semblance of a business plan for all this. So one of the reasons for this trip was to help establish and implement such a plan. But this was also a good excuse to travel in this part of the world. My son had traveled throughout West Africa and was eager to show me around. And, because he knew people, I would be able to get a much more intimate experience. And finally, he speaks French, which is the over-riding language in this part of Africa, the language that transcends all the tribal languages. (As a side note, it is interesting that people in these semi-illiterate societies manage to be fluent in at least two, and usually four or five, languages; while we find it impossible to learn even one other language, or even to accommodate people who speak broken English!)

And so, I flew into Accra, Ghana.

My son was waiting for me at the airport. With him was his close friend from the university, Mauwko. Unfortunately, they were waiting outside of customs, and I could not get past immigration. They needed an address in Accra, and I didn’t have one. I have since learned that my son’s trick is to just look up the address of some hotel out of Lonely Planet, and say that he is staying there. Looking back at it – and judging from later experiences – I suspect that the immigration guy was just hoping for a bribe. At the time, though, it was just frustrating. I offered to leave my passport with him while I went outside to get Mauwko’s address, but he was having none of that. Eventually, I got Mauwko on the phone, he talked to the immigration guy, and I got through – I guess the guy figured out that I was too much of a stupid, naïve American to consider the expedient of a bribe. This trouble-at-the-border theme was a recurring one throughout my time in Africa.

The other recurring theme that was introduced into my travels that day was the car-that-won’t-work theme. My secret suspicion is that there is a car factory somewhere in Africa that manufactures beat-up, rusted cars with sagging suspensions and corroded fuel lines. There is, of course, another possible explanation. Cars that are decrepit beyond the point of sale in Europe or the Gulf sheikdoms are shipped to Africa for sale. Here, they travel on roads that would be considered impassable – literally – by American standards. In addition, they are fueled by smuggled gas shipped in rusted jerry-cans and sold from roadside stands out of recycled whiskey bottles. Car owners must carry spare gas-line filters, and must be adept at sucking rust and tainted gasoline out of carburetors, like we used to do in the fifties and sixties.

So, as you might have guessed, I met my son, Mauwko, and his brother (who could drive) outside of the airport; we piled my stuff into Mauwko’s father’s car; and . . . nothing. Not even a hint that this car was willing to go anywhere soon. So we left the brother with the car and hiked out to the main road to try to get a taxi. I know what you are thinking . . . why didn’t we just get a taxi at the airport. Well, when you travel with my son, that’s just not the way it happens. Airport taxis are much more expensive than the ones you hail on the street . . . and besides, what’s the fun of doing anything as normal as just paying for the first and most convenient option available? And, truth be told, paying for the most convenient option often precludes the more authentic or interesting options. We walked around for a while, but there were no taxis this far from town. Fortunately, however, the brother got the car to start, found us, and off we went to Mauwko’s town of Tema, about twenty miles from Accra.

For a while, we drove down highways where we had to thread past folks selling all manner of goods from towering piles atop their heads. Anything from shampoo to snacks can be bought this way; and, as the light changes and traffic moves forward, these people run down the road balancing these enormous loads, expertly plucking the asked-for item from the pile without looking, and making change. It’s all pretty amazing and wonderful to watch. Then we passed Ghana’s one and only shopping mall (complete with multi-screen cinema), of which they are enormously proud, and onto its one and only freeway.

Ghana is considered the success story of West Africa. Not coincidentally, it is one of the few former colonies of the British, who left their colonies around the world much better prepared for independence than did other European powers – whatever we might think of the self-serving hypocrisy of the whole concept, they really did take their propaganda seriously and bore what they saw as the “white man’s burden” of “civilizing” their colonies. Kwame Nkrumah was like the Simon Bolivar of Africa (without the horse), and led Ghana as the first independent nation in West Africa. It has seen its share of corrupt and autocratic leaders, but not the violently repressive regimes of some of its neighbors. Neither has it had the violent tribal and/or religious antagonisms that have sparked civil wars throughout the continent. Reasonably free and fair elections are the norm, and governments have changed hands relatively smoothly, a fact of which the Ghanaians are enormously and justifiably proud. There are plenty of poor people, of course, and some pretty bad parts of town, but the same can be said for the United States. Ghana feels like it is on a continual upward trajectory – its markets are full, and its people seem hopeful, industrious, happy, and proud of their country. The shopping mall and freeway are seen as symbols of their success.

So . . . past the in-the-street vendors, past the shopping mall, down the freeway, and into Tema. Tema is a fairly prosperous satellite town of Accra, and Mauwko’s family is pretty well off . . . by Ghana’s standards. They have their own house, they own a car that sometimes runs, and Mauwko graduated from the university. Their standard of living, however, is hardly middle class by American standards. Mauwko and his brother share a bedroom the size of a walk-in closet. Also living in the very small house are his parents and an adult sister. And there is a young male relative of some kind, some kind of cousin, who sits in corners and is treated as a servant – I never did get that relationship quite straight. My son had been staying in Mauwko’s room (I don’t know where the brother was staying), but the family obviously thought that I should have more expansive accommodations. They took me to a hotel that I thought was pretty inexpensive, but that they thought was exorbitant and would not allow me to stay there for more than one night. Enter Uncle Eric. Uncle Eric is an educated chap and lives in a nice apartment, but doesn’t seem to really work – he seems to spend most of his time hatching business schemes that never come to fruition. His wife is a nurse in Pennsylvania, and I think she supports him; but, although he has lived in the U.S., he prefers to be in Africa. So Uncle Eric became my very gracious host while I was in and out of Tema.

There really isn’t a lot to actually SEE in most of Africa . . . see in the sense of tourist attractions like great cathedrals or iconic bridges or museums of artistic masterpieces. Time is spent just soaking up the feel of the place, the sights, the sounds, the smells, the heat and humidity . . . and the ebb and flow of the people on the streets and in the chaotic markets, so different from our culture of individualism and isolation. And time is also spent just getting someplace. It is almost a cliché to say that the journey is more important than the destination; but while traveling in the third world, that is definitely true, and especially true in Africa. Systems of transportation there develop organically rather than planned, and each locale devises a different set of solutions to transportation needs. Within Tema, taxis ply established routes along main thoroughfares, like busses would in America. As you see a taxi approaching, you hail the driver. If the taxi is not full, you get in with whomever is already riding. They might get out part-way through, and someone else might get in. In other cities in Africa, there are fleets of motorcycles that provide a hair-raising taxi service.

If you wish to travel between cities, you go to these huge parking lots where a zillion beat-up vans called “tro-tros” wait. Asking around, you find the van that is going in your direction, and you wait – the vans do not leave until the seats are full. And when I say full, I mean FULL! If the seat was originally designed to accommodate three people, four people are expected to sit there – and then there is a fold-down seat in the aisle for a fifth person! Okay, so picture a seat that, in its previous incarnation in Europe, has been worn down by three sets of derrieres. Now, the person on the left is wedged into the armrest, the two people in the middle are sitting on the ridges created between the previous sets of derrieres, and the person on the right is sitting on the edge by the aisle, half off the seat. The fifth person is perched on this fold-down contraption that wobbles as the van careens down the road. No allowance is made for the size of the derrieres, and one of the amusing pastimes is watching four large-hipped women trying to squeeze their ample bulks into a seat designed for three Europeans. Orion explained that the trick for your own comfort is for men to sit between two women. Women, of course, have larger hips, while men have larger shoulder spans. If a man sits between two other men, his shoulders are always squished, but the hips of the women leave room higher up for men to fit their shoulders. Pretty nifty, huh?

And then there are the inter-city busses. These ply the routes between major cities, and are considerably more comfortable. Again, they seem to be the discards from more developed places. The seats are torn and wobbling, and the engines are not always reliable. And you share the space with kids, cargo, and chickens. Goats (and sometimes cows!), however, are usually relegated to the roof or to the luggage area underneath the bus. In fact, both the busses and the tro-tros double as cargo conveyances, and are likely to have anything from livestock to dried fish to cotton bales to piles of wood lashed precariously onto their roofs. Like the cliché says, getting there is half – or MORE than half – the experience.

The first such experience (if you don’t count getting home from the airport) occurred a couple of days later when my son and Mauwko decided to take me up to the Lake Volta region. Coincidentally, a friend of Orion’s was also coming back to Ghana to do volunteer work, so we decided that the most efficient way for us all to get up there was to rent a car. Yeah. Mauwko had called around, and had found a pretty good deal, so we took a taxi to the sort-of car rental place. Once we got there, however, neither the car nor the car rental place was to be found. Apparently, there was some kind of bait-and-switch thing happening, and Orion and Mauwko were not willing to pay the higher price. So we ended up at the mall, where Mauwko hoped to find a friend to help him out in our search for a car–and it was here that we met Simon and his taxi. Simon was willing to drive us wherever we wanted for less than the cost of renting the car. So we piled in, picked up Liz (my son’s friend) and headed up to Hohoe.

Everything went fine until it started to rain and Simon’s taxi stopped running. Just stopped. And it just happened to stop right in front of a school that was just letting out. Some students helped us push the car to the side of the road, Simon popped the hood and sucked some gas out of the fuel line, and . . . nothing. A car stopped to help, more gas sucking, a disassembly of the carburetor, and . . . nothing. So the guy gave Simon a ride back into the closest town to get a new gas filter, and we waited around. With a Frisbee. And a school full of kids. My son always travels with a Frisbee as an ice-breaker that needs no language. These kids had never seen such a contraption, and they were absolutely delighted!! The girls, in particular, were giddy at being included in the game! Before long, they were all doing trick shots and laughing hysterically! Then, when the rain got heavy enough to wash out our Frisbee game, we ran to the porch of the school, where my son entertained his adoring fans with his beat-boxing skills. We all had so much fun, that it was a shame when Simon got back with the filter and got the car running again.

Well, not quite. The Volta region was beautiful ! ! ! Describing it will sound almost anti-climactic because we really didn’t DO anything. Except drive over impossible mountain roads, with Simon’s taxi bottoming out over the ruts and potholes and boulders. And hiking in the jungle with stunning waterfalls and beautiful flowers and gigantic trees and insane vines and wild pineapples and cashews and interesting animals and Simon showing us how they make palm wine. And cacao trees – yes, Virginia, chocolate really does grow on trees in Africa! And hanging out and exploring little villages and eating local foods and interacting with the people. My son is pretty fearless when it comes to introducing himself to strangers in strange places, but Liz outdoes him by a factor of ten . . . at LEAST. She just wades into bewildered crowds, introducing herself, shaking hands, and talking away in English, looking like a politician working a crowd.

These villagers have mixed reactions to people coming and taking photographs. Some are bashful, but most like the attention and they like seeing themselves in the screen, just like people here do. But they resent the fact that photojournalists make money from their images and they get nothing in return. And they also resent publications that use their images to portray them as primitive and poverty-stricken. In heavily touristed areas, people sometimes get angry. We were not in such an area; but in one of the villages, the chief had decreed that no photographs were allowed . . . unless, probably, he got a gratuity, which does happen in some villages, thereby causing even more resentment from the villagers who still get nothing from the images. There are still plenty of pictures.

So we had a totally awesome two days up in the Volta region; and then, ten miles from home, the taxi broke down again. Another pulled carburetor. More gas sucking. A gasket made from the cover of a Lonely Planet book. And we finally made it home. The next day, we went to the drum-making village. We decided to pass on Simon’s taxi and take a tro-tro.

My son showing up in this village was like the return of some hero or something. Kids followed him around yelling, “Obruni, obruni”, which means “White guy”. He had brought developed pictures from his time in the village, which were passed around to everyone’s delight. I got a tour of the workshop, which consisted of a few open-air thatched shelters so the men could continue to work when it rained. Then Liz went off to do her meet-and-greet thing, and we settled down to business: me, my son, Atta the drum-maker, and Atta’s father, who was the master drum-maker of the workshop.

There are several drum workshops in the village, and these workshops provide all of the outside income for the villagers. As we talked, the “business model” of the village became clear . . . we thought. The story that we thought we understood was that the workshop paid somebody to cut the trees in the forest, which was a considerable distance away. Then they paid someone to haul the logs to the village, where the workshops turned the logs into basic drum shapes. Although some of the drums are finished by master drum-makers like Atta and his father, most are sold to finishers in Accra who carve the decorative elements and add the drum-heads. My son’s idea was to help the village buy a truck so they could eliminate the cost of hauling the logs to the village and hauling the drum molds to the finishers. As we talked, however, it became clear that the cost of the woodcutters was just as much as the cost of the transportation, so we could save them just as much by loaning them the money for a chainsaw as we could by loaning them the money for a truck, and at considerably less cost. So we arranged to meet Atta in the main market in Accra, re-connected with Liz and went for a tour of the village – “Obruni! Obruni!” – and caught the last tro-tro back to Tema.

Fast forward a few days to our meeting with Atta, his father, a cousin, and a friend. We met them at a huge traffic circle where many tro-tro lines terminate, and headed into the main market of Accra. It is impossible to describe these African marketplaces. They are a maze of winding pathways that thread their way among little booths where wares are displayed. Sometimes you realize that you are actually on a street with shops, but much of it is more like an immense, completely unorganized flea market. If you have ever wondered where all your donated clothing goes, this is the place. Booth owners buy humongous bales of clothing from the developed world, unpack them, and sell them in these markets. At first, it is a little off-putting, like it was not your intent for anyone to make money from your donations. But it is a good system. People can operate these tiny businesses, thereby bettering their situations in life. And prices are still low enough to be affordable to almost anyone. Meanwhile, it makes for some humorous sights, such as old men wearing vulgar Eminem tee-shirts, not realizing what the words mean. My favorite, though, was one booth owner wearing a Hallowe’en witch hat, which someone had obviously thrown into their donation bag. I wish I could have gotten a picture!!

We made our way to the store that sells chain saws, got a price, and settled into a little eating establishment to discuss the business arrangement. This was to be a loan from my son, and Atta was to put aside the savings until he could pay him back. Until then, Atta’s father was to open a bank account at the local bank. There are no credit scores or income tax returns in this part of the world, and bank loans are made on the basis of personal relationships built up over time. Atta’s father was to go into the larger town each week, introduce himself to the bank manager, and make a deposit. In this way, the village drum-makers could position themselves to become a profitable enterprise free from their dependence upon third parties. Once my son was repaid, they were to continue banking their extra profits until the village could buy a second chain saw; and only then would they start spending the money that the chain saws were saving them. Based upon what they had told us about their operations, this sounded like a sound business plan to us, and everybody agreed that this was a smart plan – in fact, they were very impressed by our business acumen!

We were about to go out and buy the chainsaw when the friend, who had been silent up until now, asked Atta a question in Twi, the local language. Well, it seems like our understanding of the situation was TOTALLY wrong and our clever business plan wasn’t so clever after all ! ! ! The question was, “Do you have any wood to cut with this chainsaw?”, and the answer was, “No”!!!!! WHAT?!?!?!?!?!? It turns out that a man in the village had “borrowed” some money from the local church and bought the truck. HE is the one who hires the woodcutters, then loads the truck and brings his wood to the village. He then pays the drum-makers to work on HIS logs and takes the rough molds into Accra to be finished and sold. The friend, who turned out to be the village tavern owner and had some business sense, told Atta to skip the chainsaw and to ask Orion for cash in order to buy his own load of wood, bypassing the truck owner and selling the rough molds himself to the buyers from Accra. Wait . . . we had just been switched from providing a chain saw to handing over two thousand dollars in cash – both our radars shot up. My son and I took a walk to discuss this new turn of events.

We both, independently, came to the conclusion that these men really were as simple and honest as they seemed. If my son was going to lose the money, it would be due to their mistakes, not their dishonesty. On one hand, this loan could make a real difference in the lives of the villagers, the people who had been so welcoming and kind to him. On the other hand, he could learn a very expensive lesson. He decided to make the loan and we formulated a new business plan. Atta would use the money to buy a load of logs directly from the woodcutters, sell the rough molds directly to the buyers in Accra, and open a bank account with the extra profits. We impressed on him the importance of pretending that the money didn’t exist – otherwise, it is too easy to spend the profits on the zillion things that his family desperately needed. After three cycles of buying his own logs, he would have enough to buy the chainsaw and start cutting his own logs. The extra profits would still be deposited in the bank until a second chainsaw could be purchased for the village. With the extra profits, the next set of bank deposits would be used to pay my son back. And only then would the village start to spend the extra money on improving their lives, still depositing some of the profits in order to enhance their relationship with the bank.

Atta and the others were ecstatic at the terms. They were smiling like crazy, and we were smiling because they were smiling. This really was a wonderful thing that my son was doing for them, and it felt really good to be able to help him do it. Atta reached into this enormous plastic bag he had been carrying and pulled out a small drum as a gift for me. I really was touched. Smiles and handshakes and hugs and thank-yous all around. Pictures posed for. We parted at the traffic circle feeling really high.

I wish I could give you a happy ending to all this. Atta did buy his load of wood with Orion’s money. He followed the business plan, opened the bank account, and bought the chainsaw. Then, while cutting logs in the forest, he was cited for failure to buy a forestry permit, and his chainsaw was confiscated. Maybe the bypassed truck owner had something to do with it all. Maybe not. Of course, he should have bought the permit. But he didn’t. If he would have had more cash, he could have probably bribed his way out of it like the big timber companies do. But he didn’t. And that is the way it is. This is the Third World. Something always happens. An official gets greedy. A kid gets sick. A grudge gets settled. The poor stay poor.

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