Sunday, October 12, 2008

Business Ideas – Continued

I am torn between getting work as a consultant and trying to start a business. The consulting is the easier route – I’ve done consulting, there are lots of groups here hiring consultants and the projects might even be meaningful. Consulting calls my name in a sultry, siren-like voice. “Come do a gannt chart and a budget, you know how, and we’ll give you a nice day rate and you can chalk up a little self-esteem again…

However, I keep toying with the idea of trying to start something. I have the rare opportunity in life to attempt something new, truly a clean slate. There is opportunity here, but I also know there would be tremendous frustration. Simply grocery shopping or dealing with everyday matters here can be exasperating, so I can only imagine that magnified in running a business.

The business climate here is challenging. With lots of western donor investment, there are countless commissions and committees and ministries all focused on trying to make business investment easier. All this bureaucratic focus on trying to make it easier gives a pretty good indicator of how monstrously cumbersome, bureaucratic, and rife with corruption the process truly is.

Some of the criteria I’ve put in place for starting a business include:
  1. Tangible product. I want something to bring home to Bodie besides a PowerPoint presentation, and to be able to say, “This is what Papa does”. This is a reaction to many years of consulting and marketing with everything I’ve done to date able to be erased from a big hard drive.
  2. Must be able to sell a customer once, and then, if attention is paid to quality and price, you can keep the customer and not start from scratch. A reaction to zero based budgets year in and year out…
  3. Must be a socially minded or a social purpose business. This is the easiest to achieve as any company here that employs people is doing a mitzvah in job creation.
  4. The product should be viable long term. A lot of intermediate steps are introduced in developing countries – solar ovens, biomass briquettes – which may be wonderful and helpful, but designed for use until there is real infrastructure in the country.
  5. Sleep worthy. That is, a product or service that I could go to sleep feeling like it was a good healthy addition to the world and not slowly withering my soul with each day of further engagement.
  6. Money. I don’t need to be rich, but I’d like to make some money somehow. We have friends heading home soon who are scouting pre-schools. Its easy to forget here that the costs in D.C. for a year of finger painting, napping and diaper changes exceed what it would be to build and staff your own school in Tanzania.

I get stymied when I think about the challenges of building a team here. The slightest hint of initiative seems a rare personality trait. Try ordering something just a little different than what is listed on the menu here and you see a look of absolute confusion, followed by frenzied conversations between waiters and cook staff.

A few months ago when navigating the labyrinth of a big hospital with Tom, our gardener and his wife, we were told to go to room 50. Tom went to the door, tried the handle, and stopped cold.

I asked what was up and he said it was locked. That was it. Game over. No effort at an alternate strategy, say knocking, or asking about another room. I’m not sure how long he would have stood there had I not kicked him in the shin.

I’ve been helping a woman entrepreneur write a concept paper to be submitted to a business plan competition here. I wrote and printed out the first draft and reviewed it with her, noting sections that needed her attention. We met a week later and she handed me eight pages of carefully written cursive script. I was thrilled. Until I read them and realize that she had undertaken an elementary school exercise of simply copying, word for word, everything I had written in her own script. Including things like “Need more info here.”

From my understanding, the education system here focuses on rote memorization. I can’t imagine anyone I’ve worked with in the U.S. thinking that copying what I’d typed in careful penmanship would be anything other than a complete waste of time. This is the raw material that an entrepreneurial team must be built from?

The ideas have come and gone and my energy around them has waxed and waned. From solar to biomass briquettes, I finally landed on an idea that hit all my buttons: Dried Fruit. It makes sense as health trends in the U.S. and EU are trending so that people are more health conscious; roughly 30% of the fruit grown here goes bad from lack of processing ability, Tanzania is on the ocean making for easy transport, dried fruit would be weight effective for transport, and the process is relatively simple. I was excited and dug into the research.

I was put in touch with the founder of a company that has been in the business for 20 years. He and his partner started a dried fruit business in Uganda and expanded to a UK-based company that imports and packages. It’s an impressive story and the absolute right person in the world to be learning from. I was excited about writing him and eagerly opened his response, which began:

“I don’t want to be negative, but”, (an inauspicious beginning) “I would not encourage you to work on fruit drying for a number of reasons:
  • It is at best a marginal business. I have been working at it for 20 years and it took us 14 years to break even! We will lose money again this year and we expect to lose money roughly one year in three.
  • My partner and I still draw salaries roughly equal to those of a UK school teacher despite being in charge of a substantial and risky business.”
He continued in an incredibly thoughtful and analytic approach with another nine bullet points and a wrap up, “Honestly if I had my time again I would not dry fruit! Fruit Drying is only one step above basket weaving in my opinion ... and basket weaving is the last hope of the damned.”

Case closed. Mark that feasibility assessment complete.

Grateful for the candor, I am exploring other options. And I am thinking that a little consulting may be a good route to maintaining sanity during the exploration.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

High Holy Days á la Tanzania

While Tanzania is comprised of more than 140 different tribes, not one of them is Jewish. So for Yom Kippur, the Lubavitch Chassidim send over two rabbis from New York to lead services for a small group of ex-patriot Jews. You can only imagine a group of these rabbis, focused on outreach, clustered in a small room in Brooklyn, drawing straws. “I got Greece!” “I got Puerto Vallarta!!!” “I got Dar es Salaam????”

And in Dar, counting the Members of the Tribe doesn’t take too long. For a service to be held, by the rules of, um, well, by the rules, one needs to have a minyon, or quorum, with 10 men. They just managed to scrape that together for the evening service commencing Yom Kipper, the most holy day on the Jewish calendar.

One cannot help but be struck by this crazy contrast of worlds. Driving the few kilometers over to the service, Bodie and I passed Massai, strolling purposefully in their signature red and blue-checkered capes, beaded ankle bracelets, knives tucked in belts, carrying long warrior staffs. Bodie and I pulled into the restaurant and met Rabbi Yaacov, wearing has signature Hassidic long beard and side curls, broad brimmed hat, black suit and white talus over his shoulders.

I wanted to broker introductions. Rabbi, these are Massai, from an ancient tribe of pastoralist warriors. Massai, meet Rabbi Yaacov, from an ancient tribe of pastoralist doctors and lawyers?

Services are held at Nargila, an Israeli-owned middle-eastern restaurant, that serves as the hub of al things Jewish in Dar. It had been set up with a wooden divider in the middle, men on one side, women on the other, and Bodie running back and forth between the two, calling out to each, “here I am.”

A few middle-aged Israelis sat in the back, acting surly as if they were there only to please their mothers. A few eager Americans gave a good show of sounding out some Hebrew. Bodie, hearing Hebrew, tried a version of a Swahili song to see if it would fly with the crowd.

The service was, as in a Chabad, mostly in Hebrew. But Rabbi Yaacov thought jokes and stories were better in English. Maybe they would have been shorter in Hebrew. One, about a Jew, and Frenchman and an Italian in hell (I didn’t know we even had hell!) having the option to boil in chicken soup for 5 minutes a day in exchange for the rest of the day being paradisiacal, went on for 10 minutes with an upshot of how Jews aren’t good at starting things on time. I see a huge market opportunity for good comedic editors among the Chassid.

It turns out that beside myself, two women at the service are also blogging about their lives in Tanzania. (Mahlers on Safari and I didn't get the other) It seems that attending services in Tanzania may certainly have some element of spirituality, but is likewise highly sought after as good blog fodder.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Tanzania for Obama

This U.S. election, the first presidential election that I’ll vote in as a father, is being touted as the election of a generation. Looking at the past eight years, I can’t help but wonder about how the world might have been a little bit more welcoming and a little bit more sane for Bodie had those elections turned out differently. The President certainly doesn’t have all the powers and accountabilities that the public so often hangs on him, but it sure has been frighteningly informative seeing what one person can do to tank a country's morale and its perception around the world.

Thinking about what kind of country I want Bodie to be part of definitely influences how I think of the candidates and the importance of this contest. I don’t want him to grow up in a world polarized by hatred or distrusted because he is American.

Last week I went over to a friend’s house to watch the first McCain/Obama debate being rebroadcast on Armed Forces Television. As I was racing to get there, about as excited and filled with anticipation as I’ve been in a while, it occurred to me what an absolute geek I’ve become. Not enough to wake up and watch it at 4 a.m. in real-time (which, truth be told, I might have done had we had a television), but based on level of excitement, pretty damn geeky nonetheless.

Being this far from the action, from the relentless political advertising, the minute-by-minute media critiques, and from the regular dinner table updates on gaffes, we feel removed from an important campaign. We cheered Obama’s PowerPoint approach to the economy (Tactics 1, 2, 3 and 4), and jeered McCain’s patronizing. We rooted like it was a World Cup soccer match.

Last night, we got as close to the action as we could by going to a “Tanzania for Obama” party designed to be “a celebration and show of support for Barack Obama.” Situated at a beachfront restaurant, the party was not so much a political rally as an excuse to sit under a thatched roof by the ocean, listen to loud club music and drink a beer.

A table to the side had a full line of T-shirts with a picture and slogan “Tanzania for Obama”. Since kanghas, large squares of bright fabric, are the standard dress for most African women, someone had produced a line of red, white and blue ones with Obama’s picture, and slogans printed around the edges “Yes, we can” and “Change you can believe in” in both English and Swahili.

I was thinking that this party would be an absolute YouTube bonanza for the Republicans. ”Look,” might say Sarah Palin, “You betcha those people in Tanzanistan love Obama, cause he’s one of them, not ‘Merican like you and me.”

While driving the baby sitter home afterwards, she said, “it would be the first time that we Africans have had an American president, so that would be good.” An interesting perspective, although doubtful one that would be helpful in the campaigning in, say, Ohio.

Speaking of Ohio, we are offering our guest room as a nice vacation spot close to the beach for the first 10,000 McCain supporters from Ohio. Availability is limited to the first week in November.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

African Sting Bug

The sharp, stunning sting of a bee seems a rite of passage of childhood. Bodie had yet to experience this uniquely shocking moment. Until today.

Well, at least that’s at first what I assumed it was when he first screamed from the garden while he was helping Tom to water the plants. The familiar sharp shriek is clearly distinguishable from other cries unburdened with pain and fear. I ran from the kitchen to find out what had happened. Like any good mother, the 30 seconds it took me to get from the kitchen to the garden were rife with images of blood and hatched plans involving towels, pressure and an ambulance.

I, instead, found my child standing in the middle of the garden, in one hand a limp garden hose dousing nearby shrubs, tears streaming down his face, and a fantastic tale already hatching.


Sure enough, I could see the pinprick of a stinger just above his left eye. I whisked him into the kitchen with more drama that the situation called for, and began to treat the wound, somehow comforted in the utility of my role, however overblown.

As we applied ice and a topical, organic antihistamine that surely can only be sourced in the few co-operative-loving, nuclear-free zones in the U.S. like Takoma Park, the story of the encounter with the sting bug began to grow.

“It had EIGHT legs!” Bodie proclaimed, at which point I knew the situation had downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical depression. “And it had wings like bat!”

“It was a big as a bicycle!” he said with full conviction. “But it had a little mouth,” Bodie said, adding the probable to make the improbable seem plausible.

It occurred to me that his storytelling was helping to ease his pain, but I also questioned the wisdom of encouraging his fabrications. At what point does stimulating imagination become encouraging lying?

I erred on the side of imagination and fed the flames.

“What color was it?” I said in exaggerated tones. “BLACK! And RED! And GREEN!” he exclaimed.

While it’s entirely possible in Africa that Bodie was stung by a black, red and green bug the size of a bicycle, I assumed it was more akin to the standard American bumble bee and decided that as long as his imagination distracted him from the pain above his eye, I had made the right parenting decision to encourage his imagination and allow the pain to become epic only in the re-telling.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

On Chaos and Order

It is only after returning to Dar es Salaam after a few weeks home that some of the truly distinct differences of life in Tanzania vs. in the U.S. become readily apparent.

Yes, there are the obvious things that as I write about them I start to tear up. The immaculate inviting aisles at Whole Foods – all the earth-friendly, organic, fair-trade, goodforyou products perfectly lined up at the front edge of their shelves eager to jump into your cart and fill your body with antioxidants, the coffee shops playing cool jazz with comfy couches that don’t harbor insects; bagels, sensuous chewy everything bagels that delicately tickle every taste bud on the tongue. Throw a schmear on there and what used to be a daily breakfast at my desk has become pure food porn for me now.

But aside from “things”, there is pervasive difference in a notion of order and how individuals connect into society. I was at the bank the other day and the teller had enough American inflections that I asked him where he had been in the U.S. He had lived in Dallas for a few years, but came back, he said,” because there are too many rules there. You have to do things every day, every month. Here there are no rules.”

In the U.S., we all tacitly agree to a certain linear order and progression of things. Streets are edged with curbs, and there are distinct lines where streets begin and end, and they have names as demarcations., Buildings and houses have straight horizontal and vertical containing lines. And we behave with an acceptance of linearity: cars ahead of you get to turn the corner before you. We all agree to pay credit cards or rent or utilities once per month. These are all unsaid agreements that are understood to create a certain level of daily order.

There is no such unsaid agreement in Tanzania. Roads, if they are distinguishable as roads at all, don’t have edges. Just because there may be a car, or several, in front of you, that is no reason that you shouldn’t pass them and try to get around the corner first. And you pay for everything with cash up front as the idea of credit would impose a rule.

Entering Dar’s airport after the plane ride from Amsterdam, late at night after 27 hours of travel, Bodie a zombie-eyed limp rag from nonstop airplane seatback videos, the lack of order is palpable. This isn’t the overwhelming chaos of a war-torn country. Rather an implicit shared understanding exists that permeates every part of living here. One is charged with getting by. And the boundaries of how one does that are much looser and less proscribed than the storylines once can follow in the U.S.

Hillary picked us up at the airport. On the road leading from the airport to the city, traffic slowed at an intersection, two people ran up to the car, and, before we knew what was happening, stole the driver’s side mirror, and ran off.

Welcome home.

It turns out, that there is a significant, theft-driven, market in side mirrors. I went to the Nissan dealer and they could order the mirror from Japan for $165. A friend told me that you could go to Kariakoo, a part of town that is the biggest market in the country, but also has a brisk trade in stolen things, and try to get a mirror there.

One of Hillary’s colleagues, Michael, took me to Kariakoo. It is chaos manifest – small streets, crowds of people on foot swarming around cars and motorcycles, stalls teaming with all manner of auto parts, vegetables, and electronics.

In the midst of this teeming disorder, I discovered the one area in Tanzania in which there might be a comprehensive, real time tracking system. You can provide your make of car, the approximate date and location of the theft, and within a few minutes, someone will come out and fit a mirror back onto the car. It will fit exactly because, for $70, you just bought your own mirror back. It is like they have some massive database tracking system under one of the tin-roofed sheds.

While there, Michael insisted that we have the mirrors etched with the license plate number. This might not dissuade thieves, but it does make it easier to get the right mirror back. So our car is now tricked out and Africa-ready. Not in the way I’d once imagined -- big safari lamps, roof racks and bull bars -- but with mirrors etched, the rubber side bumper guards and rain guards newly riveted to the doors, to prevent theft (they’d break during removal so have no market value.)

As I was fuming on the car ride home about having to buy back my own stuff, Michael, wise beyond his twenty-some years, explained that Tanzanians are good people. “The problem is hunger. With few jobs, people do what they have to do to survive.”