Wednesday, December 2, 2009

West African Travels Overland

Last week I went to Ghana for a 2-day workshop. The voyage itself ended up lasting 3 times longer than the workshop. Here I am providing a synopsis of my 6-day travel adventure, which is sadly very telling of the extreme exploitation, inefficiency, and lack of organization that characterizes West Africa’s transport system.

Day 1 and 2 of Travel: Bamako, Mali to Accra, Ghana

Total bus time: 40 hours
Total time waiting in bus station: 3 hours


- Bus leaves Bamako station more than 3 hours late.
- During overnight segment of travel, bus kept stopping to either sell fabric, or pay bribes in fabric, I’m not sure which.
- At some point during the night bus backtracks 15 minutes for some unknown reason—at 1 am in the morning it was best not to ask why.
- At Ghana border we’re detained 2 hours. A group of about a dozen Malians had been recruited by Saudi Arabians to go be truck drivers in their country, but their VISAS were expired 2 weeks ago and they had no idea who to contact. After long discussions in a closed room with Ghanian border officials, somehow that Visa problem got cleaned up, minus 2.000 CFA from the pockets of each Malian. I will assume these were official administrative fees.

Day 3 & 4 of Travel: Accra, Ghana to Ougadougou, Burkina Faso

Total Bus Time: 16 hours
Total time waiting in stations: 4 hours


- In Accra I discover that all the direct buses to Bamako are canceled due to the Tobaski Festival (the biggest holiday in the Muslim holiday), and if I don’t leave immediately it’s likely that I’ll be stuck in Accra until next week.
- Thanksgiving day/night spent on a bus. (Dinner: rice and chicken).
- In Ouga I immediately begin looking for a transfer to Bamako, but nothing: this is Burkina’s national day to celebrate Tobaski.
- I’m promised a direct ride to Bamako the next morning, and for now I’m stranded in Ouga.

Day 5 of Travel: Ougadougou to Bobo, Burkina Faso

Total bus time: 4 hours
Total time waiting in stations: 5.5 hours


- Nice try: my direct bus to Bamako got no further than Bobo, Burkina Faso. Why? Burkina’s Tobaski was over, but today is Mali’s turn to celebrate its Tobaski, and nothings going in or out of Mali. (Why the West African Umma couldn’t get together and coordinate holidays is beyond me).
- After trying to negotiate with about 10 bus companies and travel options, I concede defeat, and am again promised a direct trip to Bamako the next day.
- I had never heard of Bobo before today, but somehow manage to find a place to spend the night with the family of the sister-in-law of one of the Mali Peace Corps staff members. Thanks Justine.
- Meanwhile throughout the day I hear many other horror studies about TSR, the bus line in question. Turns out they have a company policy of lying/misrepresenting information, leaving people stations for hours/days at a time, selling worthless tickets, and on and on.

Day 6 of Travel: Bobo to Bamako, Mali

Total time: 13 hours
Total time in station: 2.5 hours


- Turns out there was a whole busload of us who had been lied to/abandoned in Bobo the previous night, each by his or her respective bus line. The next day the bus lines pull together and put us all in one bus for Bamako (nice of them).
- Bus breaks down 3.5 hours from Bamako…I flag down another, pay the remaining fare again to get myself home.

Monday, November 9, 2009

An African Village

I spent my first couple months in Mali living in a village just outside of Bamako. While very much a village as far as amenities go, its significant that the town calls itself a quartier of Bamako, (though its really more than 10km outside the capital)--for the the sprawling town has plenty of city-like issues, especially the side of town I was living in.

The place could not at all retain the "quintissential village quality of being "tranquil." Right behind me: Mali international airport, in front of my house: the main highway going to Cote d’Ivoire, and across the street the villages notorious bar le loisir, whose dealing of alcohol was only one of its many litany of goods and services forbidden by Islam, and in some cases also by the law. The village has lots of trash, dirt (mud, when it rains), no electricity and it was always a half-day affair trying to get clean water. Though the town is relatively close to Bamako and is quite big comapred to other villages, people are very discourage to invest much in the property because the city has not yet gotten around to surveying and registering property lots. Many people commute into town for work and school on a regular basis, and the part of road running in front of my house was a particularly potent reminder of the perils public transportation that most everyone is enslaved to here. On average, about three accidents happen a week in this spot, usually of a "T-bone" quality, usually the fault of the wreckless public transport drivers, and usually very audile from inside my house. The village also seemed particularly poor--a trait emphasized all the more by its proximity to the capital--and most everyone seems to be hardly getting by doing extremely menial jobs (or not), and many, many people steal.

In the end, I moved to a location a bit quieter, a bit closer to my work. Yet it’s interesting how fast a place—or more aptly put, the people in a place—can grow on you. There are lots of people I’ve come to spend regular time w/ this village, and I’ve grown quite fond of them. When I began telling folks of my imminent move, and it was surprisingly sad.

In many ways, this Africa. What I just written explains alot of villages, and alot of lives. The problems are many and veritable, and living and earning a living are a continual trial, no less for the people who born and die here. But these people are wonderful, perhaps even more so because of the difficulty of their lives.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Beninese Bush in 360 Degrees

If you haven't heard of Confluence Project, check it out. It's a website that hosts entries from all over the world from people who have visited and documented one of the globe's confluence points (where a line of lattitude and longitude intersect).
The small country of Benin happens to have 9 confluence points, most of which were recently documented by my PCV friend Jim Rybarski. "Confluence Hunting" can be a tricky task when you're trailblazing in Africa bush, and documenting Benin involved some failed attempts for a couple sights. Problems include unexpected bodies of water, unreliable roads, unknown terrain, and trying to convince local motorcycle taxis to do the unreasonable (take you into the bush) for a reasonable price. Here is an index of Benin's confluence points.

One of the points happens to be not 40 km (as the crow flies) from my own Benin town, Nikki. You can get a 360 degree idea of the place here as well as get a synopsis of the couple attempts to locate the point. While I didn't personally make it to the point, I accompanied Jim in his first attempt, which on the day was eventually given up after a decent ammount of meandering in the bush and realizing reaching the target would mean walking in uncharted terrain at least 10km.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Global Food Crisis & African Food Security

For over a year now we’ve been hearing quite a bit about the global food crisis. Though much eclipsed now by attention to the international financial crisis, it remains one of the most pressing global issues today. The problem is that the world is reaching the limits of its capacity to feed itself, and the problem is most dire in Africa.

This is somewhat ironic, given Africa’s vast land resources, however a number of causes render this the reality: the short-sighted trade policies of the more developed nations, but also the paranoid export restrictions of many developing nations, climate changes, commodity speculation, rising fuel prices, and the diversion of important crops (notably corn) into bio-fuels.

Aside from redressing these causes (all very much political in nature), all experts on the matter agree that more energy and funding needs to be put into improving the productivity of the developing world’s farmers, especially “Africa’s 400 million small farmers and their families in Africa who are most vulnerable to hunger,” which represent “80% of the hungry in Africa” (Catherine Bertunini & Dan Glickman). Also very political, this requires that all aid programs increase their focus and funding on agriculture research and development to get to the rural farmer more agricultural inputs (enhanced grains, fertilizers, etc), better equipment and methods, and better access to markets. In a recent Foreign Affairs article, Bertunini and Glickman site that U.S. agriculture aid to Africa has dropped off 85% since the 1980s (at which point the 1970’s global food crisis seemed to be resolved).

On the ground, the global food crisis is expressed by the issue of food security, which has three core elements: the physical availability of food, the physical and economic access to food, and food utilization, all of which must be fulfilled simultaneously and continually for a household or community to have food security. While a healthy productivity is key to the world’s level of food security, in recently in West Africa the food security rub has been price, as high grain prices and general inflation is making it more a more difficult for households to feed themselves. This is the case even when the country itself is producing enough grains to feed its population (as is the case for many West African countries).

Redressing food security really implies a holistic strategy that encompasses many sectors. The Mali government, along w/ other West African countries, has been trying to weave market-based food security into its overall economic growth strategy. Donors and NGOs operating in Mali are also working food security into their programs, and recently USAID allocated quite a bit of money to Mali for food security projects. A small portion of this fundsing is going to Peace Corps Mali, whose nature and mission is in many ways is uniquely positioned to intimately understand and deal with food security issues that rural Malian community face. In the next four years the program will taking a multi-sectoral approach to the food security problem with such goals as the creation of Food Security Community Comities, encouraging the agricultural exploitation using new techniques, the creation of agricultural cooperatives, and assistance in natural resource management.

More reading on Global Food Crisis and Food Security:

Monday, October 12, 2009

Investing in West Africa

An interesting article from the West African Trade Hub.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Getting Settled in Mali

Greetings from Mali! I arrived a couple weeks ago, and my time since has been filled with an assortment of introductions, visits, and briefings as I get acquainted to my new surroundings of Bamako, the capital. All that has included some intensive Bambara language training, which I'm trying to tackle hard in these first months. French is the official language in Mali, but local language definitely plays a more predominant role than it did in Benin.

My job assignment in Mali will be defined more clearly as the first months here progress, but my major work partner is a new Malian company called Karite Mali ( As a refiner, marketer, and exporter of Malian shea butter, Karis+ should fill an important gap in the local value chain. Hopefully this will render Malian butter more competative (better quality and price) in international markets, and bring more business and revenu for the women producer groups Karis+ partners with.

Here are some pics from a couple recent sightseeing outings. By the way, w/ much of sahelian West Africa, Mali's had an exceptional ammount of rainfall this year, which explains how green everything is!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

From My Dusty Corner of Benin

For some time now I've thought of Nikki as my dusty corner of northern Benin. "Dusty," because it is that (and dirty), especially during the dry season. A "corner," because it's off all the main roads, nestled away to the western corridor of Northern Benin, the country itself normally unknown to your average Western traveler. Nevertheless, this has been "my" dusty corner because for the last two years Nikki has been my Peace Corps post.

Some angles from Nikki. Left: gazing down one of Nikki's main roads one early morning. Right: the king's courtyard. It's Friday, and small local kings are slowly gathering on the "palace" grounds to greet the Barriba kingdom's highest sovereighty.

Living and working as a business volunteer in the somewhat geographically isolated capital of the historical Barriba kingdom has had its unique challenges...this can be a tough spot for the development of business and commerce, even for Benin. Nonetheless, workwise we've done pretty well.

But there's more to life than work, and more to work than a series of projects. These eventually fade away or lose their immediacy, and what always remains is people and how we related to them. Maybe it's cliche to say, but I'll remember Nikki for the people. The infatigable mothers whose joy somehow always seem to surpass their many burdens, the philosophizing old Barriba men who walk around with their canes and umbrellas, the kids whose smiles make you smile.

To you all, "A kwan weru" and "Na siara."

On a promenade, some village paths and people around Nikki.

Combatting Child Trafficking in Benin

Nikki recently hosted Unseen Stories, an American NGO currently working on a couple film projects aimed at stemming the problem of child trafficking in Benin.

Illegal child trafficking is one of Benin's more serious long-running human rights abuses. Although since 2006 there have been laws in the books abolishing child exploitation and illegal displacement, the problem perseveres due to the many factors fueling the phenomenon, especially economically poor and vulnerable households, insufficient rural knowledge of the problem and the law, ineffective law enforcement, and cultural traditions in which certain forms of child displacement and work/study arrangements (both good and bad) have long-been practiced.

Local NGOs working on the problem estimate that hundreds of trafficked children are either sourced from, trafficked through, and/or end up being exploited in Benin. The region surrounding Nikki is particularly vulnerable, due to the district's proximity to the Nigerian border and because of the large, rural, poor, and uneducated populations.

In Nikki the trafficking scenarios vary from case to case, but usually include some common elements. Usually a trafficker goes to a rural area and negotiates either with a family or the child himself, promising either money, goods, or an education in return to the child's labor for a given amount of time, after which it is presumed that the child will be freed of his obligations. Then the child is illegally displaced (usually snuck into) Nigeria, and put to work in an exploitative manner. Boys are often put to work in the fields or rock quarries, and girls end up as domestics, market vendors, or even prostitutes. Most of the time the children are either forcefully or effectively restrained from returning home, even after the end of their pre-agreed time of service.

While in Nikki, Unseen Stories' activities focused particularly on the problem of poor public education. The NGO had put together an animation telling in French the stories of two Beninese trafficked children, and over four days we played the film in six of Nikki's most vulnerable villages. Following each screening was a discussion of the film. Leading these discussions and serving as our local expert on the problem was a development worker from the Beninese NGO APEM. For the last two years our animatrice has been working against the issue of child trafficking with a UNICEF-financed project, and has to date educated thousands of Nikki residents, installed over 60 community vigilance communities, and assisted in the reception and recuperation of trafficked children. Protecting children has trully become a passion for her, and her tireless work that goes beyond the normal call of duty proves that. Our sub-project couldn't have been a success without her.

Our Animatrice.

Unseen Stories also held dozens of similar screenings in communities across Benin. The other major element of their project is ostensibly in its final stages: the realization of a feature-length documentary on child's trafficking in Benin. Once finished this fall, it is set to be screened in film festivals, universities, churches, and other venues across America in order to raise awareness and support for the issue. You can see a trailer from this documentary and track the work of Unseen Stories' at their website.

Unseen Stories Northern Benin Team in one Nikki village.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

From China with Love

Remember growing up and buying that toy that was made in China or an electronics device with the same origin, then being dissapointed later to find that it did't seem to last as long as your Fisher Price or Sony purchase? I've read that these days China is working hard to develop a more reputable national label for its manufactured goods destined for the West. Meanwhile, that kind of low quality manufacturing is still happening in Africa.

Every once in a while evidences of this shows up in the international news, but living here you see it all the time, and can't often help but feeling that too many pieces of life are uncontrollably at the mercy of cheap imports. I've had two rather disturbing recent experiences that have driven this point home for me.

There's variety of new bus lines that have popped up in Benin in the last year, riding on the advantages of having a large potential client base of people desparately looking for safe, reliable, and efficient alternative modes of overland transport, and secondly the availability of inexpensive Chinese imported buses. Rolled off the dock, the buses are shiny, clean, and airconditioned--all welcome changes to the normal transportation alternatives.

But structurally and mechanically the buses have not proven so appealing. Exhibit 1: Mid march, I'm traveling North and the engine catches fire. Fortunately, all the passengers got out of the cabin before the entire vehicle caught flame, which was in a matter of minutes. (There's a photo of that wreckage in my last blog post). Exhibit 2: Last week I'm making the same trip w/ the same company and in the same bus model and the windshield "suddenly" (without any obviously siginificant cause) shatters into large and small shards, which shower over the first three passenger rows. This was obviously not a shatter resistant window pane. This time there were injuries: three bleeding badly, including the driver himself. Fortunately he didn't panic, and wasn't hit in the face, otherwise the end could have been alot worse for all. (Minutes later, by the way, the back window pane also blew out).

The problem does't just reside in the public transport sector. Late last year you may recall the scandal of one of China's largest dried milk manufacturers essentially lacing their recipe with a main ingredient to pesticides in order to bump up their milk's printed protein count. I remember hearing the story on the news here, that quite a few number of African kids died and thousands more were sick as a result. Earlier there was the antifreeze toothpaste that thousands (or millions?) were using without knowing it. I'm always hearing complaints from neighbors and coworkers about the repairs they're always making on their motorcycles, almost all of them Chinese makes, all purchased w/in the last year ago.

Who's Fault?

I'm not one of those people that labels China a rising evil industrial power, nor do I fear globalization, nor do I get upset necessarilly when I read about China's increasing commercial and financial presence in Africa. I say commerce and competition is always good when the market is honest and fair. In fact, China has improved the quality of life for many poor Africans buy making available cheap goods that do work, and at an aid level by financing many public infrastructure projects across the continent. But I'm all for trying to fix economic inefficiencies when they're there--especially when they have the potential to hurt people-- and there's some to be fixed when it comes to commerce from China to Africa.

The biggest is imperfect information: the African mother doesn't know enough about the milk she's buying to know whether its good for her family. Often the labeling isn't even clear enough for her to know what country it comes from let alone what's in it. Another related problem is that when malfunctions happen there's not really any single and central and accesible mode to complain, nor know about other complaints. I felt the pangs of this problem after my second bus incident--there was somthing significantly and seriously wrong with these bus models, and I wanted "to do something about it," but I felt that I had no satisfactory recourse to voice my complaint.

Of course I complained to the company management my string of "bad luck" with his cars, but will that stop them from buying more? I doubt it, just recently I'm pretty sure I saw at least one new purchase. And new companies are buying from the same place. And so this is another problem...though a product may be risque, African firms continue to buy them because they're cheap, and often neither the government nor the clients will mount enough pressure for change.

So then we can put some on the African governments, who don't regulate their importants nearly as much as they should. When the powdered milk crisis came out last year, a slew of African states banned Chinese imported milk. This reaction was good until the products were proven good once again, but there needs to be more preventative and controlling activities going on too.

How much fault should be accorded to the Chinese producers? Probably lots, but depends on the severity of the deception. With regards to the milk, it was completely the fault of the group of individuals who decided to lace their product with chemical melamine, and furthermore deceive their consumers about it. Perhaps rolling out cheaper buses is a lesser crime, but in my opinion it's still a crime to put on the market buses knowing they have weak windows and malfunctioning engine pieces, and furthermore that they will be put under even further strains in the tropics of Africa.

I should make a couple points to catch some false assumptions that might otherwise be made. One, it's not just Africans that are sufferring from cheap goods--China dumps them on their own people, as well. Chinese infants also died from the poisoned milk incident. (What's more, I've heard reports of entire Chinese communities with whose population suffer physically from the harmful chemical spillovers from careless and accountable-less nearby industrial factories.) And it's not just China dumping it's cheap goods on Africa. There are alot of scary low quality Chinese-made meds sold on the streets of Benin, but alot of them also come from India. And Africa also dumps alot of bad products on itself. And alot of the equipement imported can become dangerous when it's over used and poorly maintained.

I guess what is so unique and potenially frightening about the Chinese cases is the fact that China is probably the biggest supplier of "cheap imported goods" to Africa--and commerce is only going to increase. The other element is that certain of China's manufacturers seem to have the power and intention to put pretty shines on prodcuts that prove inferior once they've been road tested.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Some Recent Images

Here are some various photos to illustrate and recap my last couple months of blogging silence.

My dad visited Benin in February, and actually managed pretty well for three weeks. We spent our time touring some southern and northern sites like Ouidah’s slave coast, Grand Popo’s tourist coast, and the Pendari Nature Park. We also did 10 whole days in Nikki, which was probably the most insightful leg of trip as far as getting the true picture of life in Bénin.

Ever wonder where all those presidential aid to Africa dollars go? At the end of February I and my work partners realized a small project educating local secondary school students on HIV/AIDS, and facilitating testing for those wanting to know their status. This photo is the result of group brainstorming during an event held before, in which united the project partners came together for training and to talk strategy. The project encountered several hiccups along the way, but in the end a couple hundred students were educated and tested.

In March I hosted 16 other volunteers for Nikki’s annual Ganni festival. This two-day event celebrates the Barriba kingdom (whose historical seat is Nikki), and features a lot of formal salutations, pomp and ceremony, decorated horses and riders, and some other sideline events. Crowds, horrible traffic, power outages, and hot afternoons usually figure in too. All in all your staple Beninese cultural festival. Always a good time.

On one fateful return voyage from Cotonou in March, I was sitting in the back of said bus when the back began smoking. I won’t narrate the not so fun subsequent 3 minutes, but fortunately the end of the matter was that everyone made it out all right before the bus completely went up in flames. You would think that after a month the bus line would have taken the incinerated wreckage off the road, but apparently this kind of publicity damage control doesn’t figure into their marketing concerns. For myself, the charcoal monument remains as a reminder to always sit at the front of the bus. Otherwise a roadside exhibit testifying to the chronic poor quality of Chinese imports (the bus was practically new).

My Nikki Shea Project was funded back in January, and we’re now in the middle of realizing the project activities—the grand vision always being to organize and offer trainings to 15 Nikki village producer groups which will render Nikki’s shea sector more commercially competitive and profitable. Already we’ve held several general assemblies, have drafted the Association’s founding documents, and have successfully finished a training event on production/quality control, and also one of the fabrication of a simple Shea-based soap. Also in March I accompanied Nikki’s shea association president, and the president for another in Parakou, to an international shea conference held in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, which was very informative for us all. If you find yourself in the strange minority of people interested in this shea work, I’ve put up a simple blog that better tracks the project’s activities.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Sad Loss in Bénin

If you are reading this you have likely heard the news of the tragic death of Benin Peace Corps Volunteer Kate Puzey on Wed March 11th.

Kate was an English teacher who had been living and working in the NW town of Badjoude since 2007. She was a very sweet girl, and a passionate and hardworking volunteer. Her passing has affected many.

This week I have been in Cotonou with most other PC staff and volunteers to attend a private memorial held for Kate. It was very lovely. This week the Benin PC Director is bringing Kate's body back to her family in Cumming GA, and a stateside funeral is to be held this Saturday.

Here is a link to Kate's Peace Corps Blog.

Her Uploaded Photos Site.

The AP wire on Kate's Death. And other news sources: the news source and Atlanta Journal.

When such a seemingly meaningless tragedy happens, attempts at explaining its significance or reason, at any level, becomes an impossible and even arrogant task. At least for now, in the immediate wake of such a death, what can those who mourn do, other than praise the Creator for his moving in beautiful people and actions, and then cling harder and tighter to the only hope offered to this broken world:

"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Amen.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

A Primer on West African Music

Unlike the U.S.’s melting-pot culture and our music scene’s incessant search for new sounds and styles, West Africans seem comfortable reserving only a handful of music categories to which they typically listen. (A Virgin Mega store would probably be a very intimidating place for your average Beninese.) On a recent bus ride I decided to try creating a taxonomy of all the sounds I’ve heard. This wasn’t too arduous a mental activity, but I am also no sophisticated connoisseur or technician of music. In any case I came up with 5 main categories of music that is commonly “locally” produced in West Africa:

- Traditional music. Yeah, Duh. West Africa’s traditional music can vary quite a bit depending on what region you’re in—each has its own personality, language, and canon of instruments. In my opinion there are certain regions that put out more beautiful and skillful music than others, but I won’t say which.

- Rumba sort of type stuff. Not a very technical term, but there you have it. I think this originates from the Congo, at least all the major artists seem to be there. Some of it sounds quite Latino.

- Cote d’Ivoirien Beat Music. This thrives all along coastal West Africa and is characteristically identified by a very overt electric drum-beat driving each song. Often there’s some trumpet involved. A lot of West African musicians seem to come from this stock— and it takes a lot for such an artist to sound original.è

- I want to add a sub-category to this one. I say sub-category because to me its just a more mellow version to the just-mentioned. But it probably (and as I am told) actually warrants its own category. It’s called, Zouk: a style actually originating from the Caribbean, and featuring slower beats.

- Reggae. Cote d’Ivoire is again the bastion of this school, but there is more variety and often more depth within. This music’s lyrics thrive get a lot of their inspiration from social issues.

- Hip-hop. Not sure if West-African hip hop has its roots in any particular place in the region, but many successful artists of this genre seem to come Senegal, perhaps because it is most one of the region’s countries most connected to Western culture whence rap comes. In any case, hip-hip is being attempted enough all over the subcontinent to warrant being its own category.

Here are some of my favorite albums. Some of them are produced in Africa so I’m not sure how widely availably they are, but I’ve tried to include links where possible:

- Habib Kioté: Malien singer. Exemplifies the best of acoustic traditional music. Hear samples here.

- Tiken Jah Fakoly – Noveau Albume. Probably my favorite reggae artist. Amazing lyrics and original sounds. He’s from Cote d’Ivoire but lives in France. A music video from this record.

- Magic System. I’m usually not a fan of the common-stock Cote d’Ivoirien stuff, but these guys are pretty good-O, good-O, good-O. Their website.

- Petite Miguelito. I had to throw at least one Beninese artist into the mix. I’ve seen Petite, and he really is small. But his songs are fun. Hard to find him one the internet but heres a picture at least to prove he's a little guy. Scroll up.

- Rokia Traoré. Beautiful, haunting voice. A rare example of the softer, more melancholic music that’s rather rare. Her website.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Challenges Facing Beninese Small Businesses

I've been reading a book called Je Gere Mon Entreprise written by a Cote d'Ivoirien named Kanga Ballou. It's interesting because its a practical guide written for African Small Businessman. As such, it explains alot of western-originated management tools as they could--and might not work--in sub Saharan African contexts.

The book does quite a bit of diagnosing of the issues facing small business owners and managers. I've seen most of these problems operating also in Benin, where it can be very, very hard to establish and develop a profitable business, at any level. Despite the variety of causes, when I try to spur the folks I work with here to analyse their business-related problems and then to brainstorm possible solutions, they have a hard time moving beyond "le moyen," or the financial means, as the preeminent problem facing them. If only there were enough of ______ (equipement, money in the cash box, etc), all problems would be resolve.

Ballou is a bit refreshing because it's an African voice giving a more honest assesment of the situation. He finds that the problem of poor management is one of (if not the) key impediment to African businesses. That is, even when businesspeople here have enough capital resources of any given type: money, materials, etc., they often still end up with unssuccesful businesses for lack of proper managament of these resources. For example, stocks are poorly monitored, little market anaylyse is done, often the most basic accounting books are kept, let alone the financial position of the entreprise periodically analyzed and planned for.

The reason for poor management is both a within and without problem. There is certainly often a problem of initiative and will: alot of people that I have given training and guidance to here simply don't put the tools into practice. On the other hand, this is hard. Let's face it, businesses in the world run on western models and values, and most business people are not adequately trained in even the most basic management tools. Many have not furthermore haven't evolved in a culutral milieau that endorses certain Western notions of efficiency, linear time, market operations, etc. This is espcially an issue for in the case of Benin, which before 1990 was a so-called Communism-style controled economy--little opportunity here to develop intuitions about supply and demand, market analyse, workers incentive, etc.

Of course, there are other problems ailing Beninese businessman. Some of the other significant one's I've seen here in Nikki include very poor infrastructure (chronic power outages and one of the worst roads in Benin connecting a major town to the main highway); lack of access to markets (Benin has valuable commodities, but unfortunately doesnt see much profit on them for for lack of market info and a surplus of middlemen); difficult physical environment (sickness, heat, shortage of water); and dishonest business practices (in Nikki, its very difficult to be both honest and profitable as vender of many imported items--gas and processed foods, for example--because of the price-deflating affects that smuggling has on the local market.