Friday, May 9, 2008

A Small Victory

The world of work offers innumerable moments of small victories – a milestone achieved, a pat on the back, a deal brought in... Not having these little victories, albeit meaningless, can be difficult. But today there was a small victory.

Like many people, rather than pay twice U.S. costs for a new car, or buy a used vehicle that has been flogged over local rutted roads for years, we chose to import a car from Japan. We’ve seen that 10-year old cars regularly sell here for their original pre-drive-off-the-lot price. Since there are so few new cars here, used cars depreciate little if at all.

We were advised to use Yoshi, who has sold cars to at least five other ex-pats we know here who raved about his service. In an Internet posting-board-deprived world, good service makes the ex-pat word-of-mouth rounds quickly.

Purchasing the car is easy (pictures emailed, money wired to Japan); actually getting the car is the challenge. It was placed on a carrier from Japan a month ago. Again, easy. But getting through the maze of import customs, regulations, tariffs, wharfage fees, etc. requires a clearing agent, specifically, someone who knows how to navigate the rules and which outstretched palms need the most attention.

The agent we started with – me, typically compulsive one month before the car arrived -- took it upon himself to educate the new guy to how things are done here. In short: in business transactions, you are told what you want to hear to make you happy. So a, “I’ll pick that up by the end of the day” gets you off the phone feeling like you’re communicating well, have established good rapport, are moving forward together with a shared understanding, and both of you understand the timeliness involved. That good feeling of being able to manage your affairs in Africa can carry you through the day. Until the end of the day passes. And the end of the next day. And so on. There is not necessarily any correlation between words and action.

It is a business equivalent of the common question, “does this make me look fat?” Words and promises are like little droplets of happiness doled out that dissipate by the end of the day.

After a week of Agent X (I’ll call him) failing to pick up the documents as promised (tomorrow… tomorrow) as numerous unexpected things kept coming up, I was told there was nothing to do until a letter of exemption was signed by the High Secretary of the Department of Agriculture. An equivalent scenario is getting Condoleezza Rice to sign papers so you can bring your car in. Hillary managed to arrange a meeting with the High Secretary of Agriculture to “introduce herself” on behalf of TechnoServe, and oh, incidentally, here are some papers that she’d appreciate having signed. Agent X was working for a colleague of Hillary’s in parallel, so both sets of paperwork should have been ready to be signed. Except that our paperwork wasn’t prepared ahead of time.

With the meeting in a few hours, I asked Agent X to meet me at the TechnoServe offices to try to have the paperwork ready. He indicated that the forms (which are standard blank forms photocopied over and over again since 1964), had to be picked up from an office at the Bureau of Taxation and that would take some time. When we did finally meet, I asked why my paperwork hadn’t been prepared and Hillary’s colleague’s had. He said that it was my responsibility and they did it for her for “good will.” I certainly felt good that there was some good will going on somewhere, because he then sat and just watched as I tried to fill in the paperwork in time for the meeting.

I told Hillary that night that I wanted to switch agents. She rolled her eyes, supportively. Later, she told me that she had told her office administrator that I was in for a little lesson on living in Africa.

I called four agents in the Tanzanian Yellow Pages. I was told by two that I would have a quote by the end of the day (how that made me happy), and by another that the manager would get right back to me (more happy). As the sun set and we finished dinner, I sat at the table, hitting the refresh button on my computer over and over, disbelieving.

A friend offered a recommendation for her agent, who I called. He spoke in a language I could understand: PowerPoint -- using bullet points! We needed:
• 3 bills of lading, signed on the reverse
• Supplier’s invoice
• Export Inspection from Trading Country
• Letter of Exemption
• Authorization letter for clearing agent

Costs were likewise detailed! Yea - costs known in advance!!

We arranged to meet the next day. He showed up! (Normally you wouldn’t need a sentence indicating that– but he did it; he showed up!) Our little X-Trail (this is a picture from Japan) is in capable hands with Agent Paul and I have no doubt he’ll navigate the labyrinth of clearance customs within a few days.

More importantly, I got to gloat that I didn’t receive my comeuppance a la Africa (at least, not yet).

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