Slade Unlimited is happy to share another article published by Malawian Airlines’ in-flight magazine!
Slade Unlimited is happy to share another article published by Malawian Airlines’ in-flight magazine!
While traveling to back to the lake from Mzimba, my student and I stopped at Hope Investments in Mzuzu, which establishment had been recommended by her brother as a good source of used mobile phones. We entered into the dark high-ceilinged shop, crowded with other patrons shuffling to see into the glass case of phones. There was a metal and glass bookcase for sale placed right in the middle of the crowd, and I only narrowly stopped myself from giving innocent bystanders a primer on design thinking and operations management, so fresh in my mind from business school. We slowly shifted to the front as non-buying patrons were squeezed out the sides. I looked in the case with my student and was surprised to see iPhones.
In the U.S., the iPhone is the ultimate symbol of technological advancement and social status. I can’t count how many times Steve Jobs or Apple has been mentioned in my classes as an example of “entrepreneurship” or “innovation.” The funny thing I discovered while on my trip was that in an environment where sharing is essential and infrastructure unreliable, an iPhone actually is not advanced at all.
Don’t get me wrong – my iPhone worked just fine – perhaps because I never had to share with anyone. But in Malawi, people share phones, batteries, chargers and other components to support a working phone wherever and whenever, and for whoever, needed. Some people do not even have phones, only sim cards. They simply pop their card into a friend’s or family member’s phone to check and send messages. Or, if your phone is out of power, you might ask to use someone else’s phone to conduct some business (in Malawi, it feels like you could ask virtually anyone). With respect to infrastructure issues, my friend in Ghana had 3 or 4 additional sim cards, one for each network, so that he could always be assured of a data signal – he literally pulled them all out of his wallet in front of me at the Accra Mall. There, data has become of prime importance because it represents the only way to reliably connect to the internet; even laptops usually are connected to 3G data versus non-existent or expensive coaxial and fiber optic cable connections (which also support wifi).
The other fun thing I saw with respect to phones is the use of memory cards to share photos, music and anything else that can be stored on a memory card, I imagine. Someone can just listen to the music for a while, and then give the card back. These cards also are used to add memory to basic phones, many of which come with only 4 GB of storage.
— This adaptable outlet in my friend’s house near Accra even fit my American iPhone. —
In my opinion, the commodification of phone hardware changes the relationship between cell carriers and customers because the carriers do not sell or own the hardware. Rather, regular purchases of airtime and data (“topping up”) constitute the primary source of revenue from customers. This environment requires carriers to compete on the basis of price and service, instead of trying to lock customers into long contracts in exchange for a free or subsidized “latest smartphone.” Deals like “free Facebook between 6-9 pm” were advertised on billboards around Ghana; that’s a great offer when you have to pay for each megabyte of data and evidences the stiff competition among carriers.
This experience indicates that in a more cooperative and resource-scarce environment, technology that can accommodate many different potential partners becomes preferable to a customized, insular solution. This also makes for good business — the near-complete adaptation of the industry to Africans’ needs may be one reason why cell phone and smart phone penetration are at nearly 100% in terms of access, even in the rural areas I’ve observed.
Back to the used phone case: “What about the iPhone?” I asked the Middle Eastern man behind the counter. “It’s fake,” he said. “From China!”
Malawi’s nickname is The Warm Heart of Africa. But is there really THAT much of a difference between Malawian and other cultures?
Toward the end of my trip, I was headed to visit my former co-teacher and his family in a remote, mountainous area of Malawi’s inland Northern Region. My friend now is a reverend and was assigned to minister in this area. Traveling along with me were my friend’s mother (“grandma”) and my female student, who had just finished her high school exams. We traveled the first leg of the journey by minibus, but I wanted to rent a car for the second leg because it was getting to be afternoon and the only transport from the closest town to my friend’s house was a lorry truck running once a day in the morning – i.e. no transport at this time of day.
After getting to Mzuzu, I talked to some of the taxi drivers about hiring one of their cars. I tried to explain that I wanted to drive the car myself and bring it back the next day. I knew this type of informal transaction would not be a problem.
Once I reached an agreement with one of the drivers, it surfaced through translations that he could not let me take the car overnight without him, because it was not his car. He would have to come along. But there was no rest house where he could stay overnight, and we needed the car to leave the next morning, so he had to spend the night. I wasn’t sure how to negotiate this situation.
“Not a problem,” said my friend’s mom. “He can come. He can stay with us.” “Will there be room?” I asked. “Ah, it’s a big house,” she replied.
So off we went, the three of us and the driver, and me relaxing, instead of driving.
First, we stopped at the local hospital, where the driver’s son was being seen. I had paid for the trip, and he wanted to give some money to his wife, who was with their son. Most people live day by day in this country, so any influx of cash is immediately put to use.
Quickly, the driver, Luke, became a member of our crew. After 3 hours of travel through timber reserves, past rock formations (including an encounter with the police), and down a long dirt road, we arrived at my friend’s house. I didn’t even have to explain that Luke was going to spend the night with us, and when I asked my friend if I should help with his arrangements, he assured me he would take care of him. Hot water was heated for each of us to wash off the dust, and we all ate dinner together as a family. Luke was offered a room but chose to sleep in the car, which decision entailed a lot of whispering between him and my friend in plain view of everyone. My guess is that he didn’t feel comfortable leaving his boss’s car unattended at night, although we all knew it would be fine.
Luke and his car at my friend’s house.
The next morning, I was really proud of myself for waking up early. I didn’t even realize that my student wasn’t in our room until I went outside and saw that she had been up since the crack of dawn helping the woman of the house, my friend’s wife. My friend’s mom, the driver and I had nothing to do while others were busy preparing hot water and breakfast for us, so grandma sat down next to a huge pile of groundnut vines. These are peanuts, and they grow on tough vines in and on the ground. My friend had a bit of land where they grew. Ultimately, the three of us sat shucking the nuts off the vine, engaging in the fine art of Cucheza.
Chatting. In English, the word “chatting” has a flippant, superficial connotation. In Malawi, chatting is essential to human relationships. Occasionally someone will talk about “maximizing the chatting,” which just cracks me up.
Luke and grandma chatted like they had known each other for years. They both were intensely interested in the familial stories told to each other. Together, we shucked an entire bag of groundnuts.
We went to my friend’s church meeting late morning. Although the distance purportedly was “walkable,” Luke drove us – and it’s a big deal to have a car. During the church service, I was touched to see that Luke was honored and welcomed just the same as grandma and I, and he seemed touched as well. I found it remarkable how thoroughly he had been accepted into the family, while in my culture we surely would have found him a hotel room.
When we parted ways back in Mzuzu, he turned to me: “You are now a friend. If you need a driver, you call me.”
For the first time, I started to look at the art of cucheza as a competitive advantage.
Malawi is the most beautiful, peaceful and social place I have ever been. I feel at home in this country, and make it a priority to come back every few years to see my friends and former students, and to make new friends.
It really hit me this time how much people here make the most out of what little they have – they are constantly inventing, repairing and reusing – even compared to other African countries. For example, in Ghana they put three people in three minibus seats; in Malawi they fit four. This does not include the 3-8 people stuffed elsewhere in the Malawian minibus.
Nothing goes to waste here. At least 50% of clothing for sale in markets comes secondhand from Europe and North America.
(One of the ubiquitous markets selling secondhand clothing.)
An old water bottle is used to make a funnel for pouring underground petrol into a minibus on the side of the road, or for selling cooking oil poured from a larger container. A piece of rebar serves as a stick to point at the board in nursery school. Plastic caps can be turned into wheels for a toy children make of reeds, which they run down the beach. These are frugal innovations.
People are so frugal here that they learn how to fix and repurpose many things themselves that we would outsource. From all of my time spent in minibuses (sorry Mom!), I got to see this use of resources at its most active. When leaving Lilongwe, our bus wouldn’t start even after some guys rolled and pushed it while the driver popped the clutch (a regular method of starting a car here and one reason why manual cars are more practical), so someone brought a spare battery to hook the car up to manually. At another point in a trip, the battery was completely removed and refilled with some liquid, while we passengers waited. It’s interesting that the parts and labor were either already located on the bus, or brought to it; at no time during my multiple trips did a bus pull into a garage or other location for service (with the exception of air for tires).
One of my favorite small businesses in the village is solar panel phone-charging. Most people in the villages still do not have electricity, but most families do have cell phones. Armed with a solar panel, a car battery, some wiring and a barrage of different chargers, these businesses serve a common need for an affordable price of about 10 cents per charge (at least in one area). Pictured below is a solar panel setup from 2012 – I noticed a panel about twice as big this time.
When you see how little waste there is in Malawi, you realize how much waste there is in our society. It also makes me feel inept somehow, because I don’t know how to fix things like Malawians do. Like when my friend assured me I’d eaten all of the fish that could be eaten and then proceeded to dig into the head and other parts, remarking, “You can’t eat these parts.”
My trip to South Africa began with passing through the Accra and Addis Ababa (Ethiopia) airports. True to form, I made friends with the security lady in Accra and she later sent me a bunch of pictures of products she could supply for export. The Addis airport was notable only because it is the only place so far that I have not been able to receive data on my phone, including rural areas. A lot of people travel through Addis on Ethiopian Airlines, the largest airline in Africa based on fleet size (and one of the first anywhere to have the 787 Dreamliners). I can highly recommend the airline except for the relatively small baggage allowance.
Once I arrived in Johannesburg, I met my former Malawian student who is working in a factory there. He was the standout student in my sixth grade class and I’m so proud of his support of his sisters’ education back home. A lot of Malawians travel to South Africa, about a two-day bus ride through Mozambique and Zimbabwe, because of the greater job opportunities there.
Together, my student and I went to the Lion Park, which I did not realize at the time was where the American woman had been killed only a few weeks earlier!* But it was an incredible experience; we had a [turned out to be] private tour with Alex, the lion trainer originally from the U.K., who was able to interact with some of the cats and who educated us for more than two hours about their behavior, conservation, hunting policies, and life philosophy. We also got to touch a cheetah, who was purring while we stroked her. What beautiful animals!
Despite the arguably-exploitative nature of “zoos,” I feel that this type of park is the best option. Animals live in groups with plenty of space and periodic “enrichment,” and as Alex put it when I asked him, “I’ve never seen a lion go for a jog.” I also share his commitment to educating Africans about these animals, and I appreciated his subtle commentary on race in the context of natural heritage.
I felt like a slightly uncool mom as my student browsed the internet reading about military technology, while I went to sleep. That would not be the last time I would feel like that on this trip.
After this QT with my student, I headed to Cape Town for a meeting with Fiona Spolander of Fashion Sensitive Planet. This company uses native animals hides like springbok to make beautiful purses, handbags and home wares. You can see the collections at www.fspcollection.com. I was impressed not only with the products and the factory, but also with Fiona herself.
Being in Cape Town was a little weird. The VA Waterfront and downtown area are very upscale. I ate at a burger restaurant near my hotel, and it was filled with white people, except for the manager – he was from Zimbabwe and further epitomized the migration of the most talented and ambitious Africans to South Africa. Later, I also got to chat with some of the white people, and many of my preconceptions about them were challenged. That will have to be the subject of another post.
See you in the Warm Heart of Africa…
*The woman had opened her window, contrary to park rules. I may argue however, that people should not be allowed to drive around in their own cars, due to humans’ tendency to break rules no matter what they are.
My last day in Ghana was a busy one. I went back to the Tema port, this time to the customs bonded terminal, the area where the full containers are stored before their owners come to retrieve them and clear customs. Depending on the situation, customs may or may not need to inspect a container to ensure that its goods are legitimate. In general, Ghana imports items like rice (although Ghana produces rice), computers, TVs, clothing and household items, as well as some raw materials like chemicals. What shocked me the most was learning that, according to the person I met with, about 80% of the containers that arrive at the port leave empty – in other words, Ghana is importing five times more products than it exports!
While on this trip, I have been reading the 2006 edition of The World is Flat, by Thomas Friedman. Although slightly dated, the principles discussed therein are even more apparent today, in my opinion. I was especially intrigued by his theory of “glocalization” – that is, the more a country or society is open to and able to accept new ideas, the better it can compete in today’s world. Further, he argues that the fewer natural resources a country has, the more the people are forced to glocalize, because the economy depends on their ability to collaborate with others (as opposed to just selling off raw materials like oil or timber). I thought this was significant in light of Africa’s abundance of raw material exports.
With respect to openness and tolerance, I have spent a fair amount of time discussing issues of gay rights in light of the now world-famous Supreme Court decision in Obergefell et al. v. Hodges et al. (http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/14pdf/14-556_3204.pdf). For, as demonstrated by Uganda’s 2014 law making homosexual acts punishable by life imprisonment (which later was annulled by the Constitutional Court on a technicality), much of Africa is vehemently against homosexual rights. A lot of this opposition is premised on purportedly Biblical principles. At the same time, one of the most interesting things I observe here is that male friends can walk together holding hands, and it’s not considered homosexual. I hope that gay people can be more accepted without chilling straight men from continuing to express friendship in this way.
My experience convinces me that openness is inevitable. When I first went to Malawi in 2005, there were no cell phones. I had to walk an hour to a local lodge to call my parents on a land line every two weeks (which walk was one of the highlights of my time there). In my primary school classroom, when it came time to read a story that involved placing a phone call, my fellow teacher and long-time friend, Kenneth, asked the class, “Who has seen a telephone?” Only a few hands went up.
Wow how times have changed! Now, I would venture to say that almost every African has access to a cell phone of some type. And due to the expense of PCs and the lack of reliable electricity, smart phones represent the primary means for many people to access the internet. In urban areas in Ghana, one can shop online and have goods delivered COD by motorbike the next day. Just like the printing press allowed people to start reading the Bible for themselves, cutting out the corrupt indoctrination of the middle man, I believe so too will cell phones allow people to do their own research and make their own decisions about important issues.
The other thing I did on my last day in Ghana was visit two kids that I had become close with while working at a women’s rights foundation in the summer of 2006. Now 11 and 13, it was very emotional to see them growing into young adults. Both are interested in science, and the oldest wants to be a surgeon. It makes me extremely happy to realize that they actually have the freedom and resources to pursue those dreams.
When someone first hopped into my taxi in Ghana years ago, I was shocked! It was MY taxi, why was the driver picking up someone else I didn’t know? I soon learned that taxis here are shared if the driver is on the way to the same place. This saves not only money but also fuel. It also illustrates the camaraderie that I observe between Ghanaians; they are incredibly willing to share resources. Contrasted with Ghanaian society, the high value Americans place on individualism, privacy and ownership is apparent – only rarely will we share a cab, and then only when in the airport taxi line.
In a society where food, light, education, healthcare and other necessities in general are limited, the ability to share is a survival skill. People here often have one family member who is supporting an entire extended family. There is no room for greed or, frankly, your personal desires, when your cousins won’t receive an education without you.
By the way, in this blog I am deliberately leaving out much discussion of any negative aspects of African society – if you want to talk about that, we can do that offline. I know this is unbalanced, but there’s way too much negativity about Africa in the bank already.
In my quest for the best way to expand the pie, yesterday I visited the Exit Gate at the empty container yard of the Tema port, about 20 minutes east of Accra. Tema is the main port in Ghana. I learned that most imports come from China, India and the Middle East. The U.S. does not have a significant import relationship with Ghana, and only South Africa was mentioned with regard to inter-Africa trade. What also was interesting was learning that, as I suspected, most of Ghana’s imports were of finished products, while the exports are raw materials like timber, cocoa beans (not so much the finished chocolate), coffee, cashews, teak, rosewood, and gold and other minerals (which only the government can export). Despite the fall of colonialism, the economic relationships it formalized persist today – developed and more developing countries like China and India take raw materials from Africa, make them into finished products, and thereby extract more value from them than the home countries. That is why the import side of my business will focus on finished, high end products, to leave more value in Africa.
Let’s share the ride. Perhaps, for only a minor inconvenience, we can get more people where they need to go cheaper, and with less fuel.
Welcome to Ghana! This is my fourth time in this stable, democratic, West African country. I first learned about it in 1997 when I participated in an Experiment in International Living trip to the Navajo Nation in the American Southwest. One of the students on my trip was from Ghana, and he had gotten a scholarship to go. We kept in touch through letters – yes, this was before most people used email – and I visited him in 2005 when coming back from working in Malawi to go to law school. I’ll never forget that trip – seeing the slave castle at El Mina and crossing rope bridges in the rainforest of Kakum National Park.
This time, I want to be more than a tourist. On Tuesday, I met with Fred Deegbe, founder and CEO of Heel the World, a luxury men’s shoe line – and what a great meeting it was. Fred opened up about the challenges his company faces and his future goals, and it was clear to me that he would stop at nothing to bring top-quality Ghanaian products to the international market. You can learn more about Heel the World, and Fred’s wife’s exquisite clothing line, here: http://htwshoes.com/site/ & https://www.facebook.com/pages/DUABA-SERWA/186312377635.
In addition to describing the state of business on the Continent, part of the goal of this blog is to introduce Americans to some of the wonderful qualities of “African”* culture. In fact, I believe that the world can learn a lot from these values. One thing I love and also find hilarious is that people here really say what they are thinking, and no one seems to take offense. When my hosts (the brother and cousin of my 1997 friend) took me to my hotel for the first night, the bellhop was showing us to my room, but he was walking extremely fast and we couldn’t keep up. Instead of keeping their grumbles to themselves, my friend yelled down the hall in Twi: “Hey man, why are you going so fast?! You’re supposed to be showing us the way!” “We might end up in the Presidential Suite,” remarked my other friend. Ha! When we finally caught up at the door of the room, the bellhop was still smiling.
In the same vein, people are in each other’s business. It takes some getting used to, but after a while it became endearing to me. On the way out of the airport with my bags, a complete stranger started walking next to us and telling me to enjoy myself in Ghana – this would never happen in the U.S. unless the stranger was mentally ill. And rest assured that if someone is doing something in public that others disapprove of, he or she will hear about it – loudly. Africans are not afraid to “get involved.” In this way, the Continent exhibits some of the “it takes a village” mentality that American seems to have lost.
In addition, people here go out of their way to do things for family, friends, friends of family or friends, and even complete strangers! I admit that some of my experience certainly is colored because I am white, but I believe I have been here enough times to recognize patterns where they exist. Right now I am staying with my friend’s girlfriend, who I never had met before this trip. Any attempt to thank her or minimize my “inconvenience” to her is met with incredulousness – if you told me that the word “inconvenience” does not exist in local languages, I definitely would believe you.
As another example, I needed some cedis to pay for dinner, but only had U.S. dollars. I asked the waitress if she accepted dollars or where an ATM was, and given that these were not options, she told me she would run across the street to see if she could change a $20 for me at a local shop. In true Western (and lawyerly) form, I hesitated for a split second and thought about making some sort of oral contract before handing over my bill, and before remembering that this type of “errand-running” is done without a second thought in Ghana. Sure enough, a few minutes later she came back with the cedis, changed for a better rate than I got at the forex bureau.
As someone whose culture taught me that it was a sign of weakness to ask for help, and that I should never burden someone else, it’s wonderful to feel safe to accept these gestures. It’s not all rosy – and the electricity is out as I write this – but that doesn’t mean it’s all dark either.
*Given that there are almost 60 countries in Africa, there is no way to generalize about African culture. My cultural references are primarily to West and East Africa, which I know the best. Differences I observe between the two are noted where relevant.
Tilapia with banku, and a bowl of water and soap to wash your hands before eating – why don’t we do that in America?!
After I supported some of my former Malawian students through secondary (high) school, I noticed a common outcome. There were few jobs available in the cities hours away, and certainly no jobs in the village where my students’ family, friends and whole lives were. I found it discouraging that education did not translate into opportunity for my students.
I always was skeptical of business for its profit motives and [what I saw as] apathy toward humanity and the environment. But over the years, I learned that after health and education, commercial activity is critical to human life. To explore how I might contribute to sustainable job creation in developing countries like Malawi, I started Slade Unlimited, LLC.
This blog will serve as a public journal for my upcoming trip to the Continent, and my hopeful transition into a successful, socially conscious entrepreneur. I welcome your comments and thoughts along the way.