Saturday, June 29, 2013

Tonic shortage

My last tonic
Over the past couple years as I have traveled in Africa I have developed a love of tonic water.  Most Americans don’t know what it is besides something to add to gin, but this amazing drink that allowed european travelers so survive in the malaria infested regions of Africa has become a staple in my house.  The quinine in the tonic allowed the european travelers to survive malaria, but I like it for the flavor.

I was happy to see when I moved here in March that the local brewery sold tonic in the bottle along with Coke, Fanta, and the usual variety of sodas.  However, over the past couple months its been getting harder and harder to find tonic.  About a month ago the local restaurants ran out of tonic in the local bottle and began serving it in a can for three to four times the regular price.  Normally a bottle of tonic would cost 500 CFA (approx $1 USD) but this last Thursday a can of tonic cost 2000 CFA ($4 USD).  However, the price of Coke and Fanta has remained unchanged.

In order to find an answer to the tonic scarcity I joined a tour of the local brewery in N’Djamena to see what was going on at the plant and ask questions of the brewmasters.  The tour was interesting and they showed us the storeroom for the raw materials, processing vats, and bottling plant.  At the time the brewmasters were brewing Gala beer made from rice and malt and bottling Castle in smaller bottles.  The brewery could produce 300,000 bottles of beer and 250,000 bottles of soda per day and operated around the clock.  The production and bottling operations were automated and moved along smoothly and the warehouse was full of beer and soda.    
Unloading room where rice and hops begin processing.  At this point we were told to turn off our cameras to protect their trade secrets.

At the end of the tour they brought out a variety of their locally brewed beverages for us to sample but no tonic.  When questioned about the tonic the Chadian brewmaster replied that Africans don’t like tonic so it doesn’t sell so they don’t make a lot of it.  He continued that they will make a batch of tonic every six-months or so and it will sit in the warehouse or their distributors for a long time so it wasn’t worth making tonic anymore.  The brewmaster suggested instead that I try the Fanta Fruit Punch, which was pretty good.  

So in the end, the tonic shortage will continue in N’Djamena until the brewery decides its time to brew tonic again (and the brewmaster did not know when that would be).  I will have to search the distributor black market to find tonic that might be hidden in a back corner or perhaps I can get some delivered from Cameroon or Nigeria.  When they do produce tonic again, I will have to stock several cases and ration them for the long dry season.  

Friday, June 28, 2013

Expanding Car Dealerships in Africa

Bringing a new car brand into a country isn’t easy and there are many different factors to consider.  The primary factors involved are mechanics, spare parts, and market competition.  Other factors to be considered are the suitability of the vehicles to the environment, import taxes and other fees that raise the end price of the vehicle, and political incentives such as the ability to assemble the vehicle in the country.

Mechanics need to be trained on the nuances of different brands of vehicles as a Toyota mechanic may not be able to work on a Jeep or a Porsche.  Each brand is engineered a little differently and may use parts or technologies that aren’t used in other brands.  When cars were simpler it was easier for a mechanic to figure out the vehicle systems but in the new era of microchips and computer diagnostics a mechanic may need specialized software to communicate with the vehicle.  For example, a company recently acquired some new Mercedes trucks that came with a computer that is connected to the trucks during weekly maintenance.  The computer talks to the car, runs diagnostic tests, tells the mechanics to order parts, and can walk the mechanics through simple repairs.  However, for more sophisticated problems they will have to call Mercedes and wait for a team to fly in and bring parts with them.  A further problem is that the computer only came with german software and the mechanics don’t have a Chadian Arabic to German dictionary.

Establishing a spare parts chain of supply is critical because all vehicles will eventually break down and parts will wear out and need to be replaced.  A supply chain is more than being able to DHL parts into the country but to have a stock on-hand of commonly replaced items, like oil filters, but also headlights, fuses, and fan belts.  Its very expensive to DHL large, heavy items like engine blocks or transmissions so the in country dealer will need to arrange for shipping and customs arrangements.  The in country representative will need to be able to order the parts and receive them quickly and reliably as the longer a car sits waiting to be repaired the more attractive the competition appears.

The level of competition among car brands varies from country to country in sub-saharan Africa as does the variety of models offered.  Which brands are available may be a political decision, as in Senegal where the SenIran was a common brand of taxi.  The SenIran was a joint venture between Senegal and Iran and the vehicles were locally assembled outside of Dakar.  The variety of brands available may also be a result of the personal preferences of the individuals that control the car markets.  Monopoly of dealerships is not unique to Africa as in the US there are towns where there may be Peterson Toyota dealer next to a Peterson Ford dealer owned by the same guy.  It may be easier to control a dealership monopoly in a small country as once one has arranged import and customs procedures it may be possible to keep others out of the market.  At a minimum it will be easier to bring in other brands under the same organization once the system has been established and connections made with important officials.

In Chad there isn’t a wide variety of car dealership to chose from.  There is the Toyota dealer that also sells Renaults but you may be out of luck trying to arrange maintenance services for an imported Ford Explorer or Porsche Cayenne Turbo (both are singular examples seen on the streets of N’Djamena).  Most of the small taxi fleet are old Fiat 504s and they are repaired in crowded dirt lots scattered around town where self-taught mechanics and taxi drivers congregate.  A few places have tin shacks where they do the more delicate work out of the wind and sand, operations like grinding down an engine block or replacing pistons.  I have noticed a couple Nissan Patrols on the streets of N'Djamena but I have not found a Nissan dealer in the city.  Most likely they were driven across the border from Cameroon or Nigeria.

Nissan has made a goal to double sales in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2016 but that will be a challenge, especially in places where many people can barely afford to buy a bicycle or motorcycle.  The Nissan plan is to sell more small cars like the Micra, Almera, and Sentra but those cars require smooth paved roads.  Often good paved roads are hard to find or only go a short distance between the port and the refinery or the mines and the railhead.  I’ve only ridden a couple times in Nissans, usually in a Nissan Patrol and they were not  comfortable experiences.  For example, we drove from Monrovia to Buchanan, Liberia in a new, rugged looking Nissan Patrol and the jarring experience made me appreciate the basic Toyota Landcruiser.  We made the five-hour trip (each direction) during the rainy season on dirt roads and the vehicle barely survived.  A Nissan Micra would not have survived the potholed roads of Monrovia, let alone the mud covered rubber tree bridges in the forest.  

The Nissan goal doesn’t focus on sales in South Africa, where many Nissan vehicles are assembled, but targets increased sales in Ghana, Nigeria, Angola and eastern Africa.  Perhaps Nissan will have success in these regions, they are banking on it.  Roads aren’t that bad in Ghana and in the big cities in eastern Africa (although all have potholes, washouts, and sections with dirt roads).  I don’t know if Nigerian cities like Lagos can handle additional traffic.  Hopefully the maintenance and parts networks will be established to support this expansion of car sales.  Otherwise, as in many places along the sides of the roads in Africa, these new cars will become stripped rusting hulks of scrap metal.  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Toyota Landcruiser & NGOs

The World Peace Foundation published an article on 22 June 2013 that called for the Toyota Landcruiser to be regulated as a weapon of war because it has been used by many in conflicts in Africa.  However, the author of the argument neglected to notice the many good purposes for which people use the Landcruiser.  Driving around N’Djamena an observer would notice that everybody that wants to leave the city drives a Landcruiser or some Toyota 4WD variant.  That includes MSF, Catholic Charities, SOS Medecins, ASTBEF, the US Embassy, the French Embassy, the Chadian government, and the Chadian military.  These organizations use their vehicles to do a lot of good in the country and to blame the vehicle for its use in conflict is wrong.  

In some places “bad guys” conduct raids on camels or horseback, should these animals and their use be regulated as well?  If the Landcruiser was to be regulated as a weapon of war, will this expand to the regulation of all 4WD vehicles?  Jeep makes a decent off-road vehicle, as does Range Rover, are they next after the Toyotas?  In some places terrorists like to use non-descript cars like the old Peugeot 504 for VBIEDs, so should we regulate them as well?

Other vehicles just aren’t as reliable as the Toyota Landcruiser and no other 4WD brand has established such a robust base of mechanics and spare parts train to support their vehicles.  There is a sweet Porsche Cayenne Turbo parked by the Toyota dealer in N’Djamena, but there are no mechanics that know how to work on it and parts will take forever to get here and cost a fortune!

I agree that the Toyota Landcruiser has often been used in conflicts, but to blame the vehicle or to try to regulate it is not the solution to resolving these conflicts.  I would rather that more effort be put into understanding, conflict resolution, and resource sharing than increasing international regulation of a good truck.

Perhaps I feel so strongly about this because I like my Toyota Landcruiser.  It has driven me across many African countries and always brought me back safely.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Labyrinth of Kingdoms

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms by Steve Kemper
(The story of Heinrich Barth & his five-year expedition 1850-1855 through Central & West Africa before European Imperialism)

An amazing story of over 10,000 miles through Africa 160 years ago from Libya to Lake Chad and west to Timbuktu and back by Heinrich Barth.  Barth was a different kind of explorer than Livingston, Stanley, or Park because he was interested in learning about the people, their culture, and sought knowledge instead of conquest or expanding the European empire.  His books differed from theirs as he put the Africans first and not his own dramatized adventures.  The book is full of great descriptions of African societies and kingdoms before they were subjugated and many destroyed during the scramble for Africa.  Barth met with and shared scientific discussions with African scholars throughout the Sahel and not just in Timbuktu during his travels. Barth not only took made maps and made cultural notes but he also studied the languages, becoming conversant in many of them, and later publishing volumes on African languages. 

I wish I had learned about this book earlier as it destroys the many myths that Africa was a dark continent without any learning or civilization that needed to be tamed by Europeans. I hope I can find in print his original works published in the 1800s.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Chadian School Graduation

This morning I was invited by some expat friends to go with them to the graduation ceremonies for two of the schools they set up in the countryside outside of N’Djamena.  My friends have been living in Chad for decades working for various organizations and are not teachers, but started out by teaching the neighbors kids and slowly their group expanded.  Today I saw over 60 kids at one school and nearly 100 at the other.  The kids were smart and their French was much better than mine, despite speaking only arabic in their homes. 

Singing about the parts of their bodies
The school graduation ceremonies were attended by the proud parents and the top three kids from each group were individually recognized and received a gift bag with pencils, a notebook, and other school items.  We also tossed in a small bag of candies for each kid.  Before the top students were recognized each class gave a small presentation, usually in the form of signing and dancing, a short skit, or by reciting poetry.  The first group to present were the smallest kids, maybe four years old, but they could recite the alphabet perfectly and sang songs that showed off their robust French vocabulary (remember that many of their parents could not speak French).  Older kids talked about the metric system, the environment, human rights, and other things.  The parents were extremely proud of their kids and the moms were ululating as their kids were recognized for their achievements.
Proud parents & smart kids
My friends explained that the kids in their schools were more advanced than many in the city because they decided to focus on teaching quality and good treatment of the kids instead of buildings and other things that ate up the meager budget.  The first school consisted of a couple short wall buildings with a roof that allowed the breeze to pass through and provided a lot of light.  The second school had both the open walled facilities and complete buildings with doors, lights, and fans.  The operating budget of the second facility was much higher as they had to pay for electricity and maintain the more expensive buildings.  Additionally, the closed in rooms were much hotter as the air could not pass through the buildings (and most days are over 110*F outside with the breeze).
Handing out the prizes
Teachers were paid on average 50,000 CFA per month (approximately $100) and were paid year-round as in the summer they would attend teacher professionalization training.  The primary requirement to become a teacher was to be literate but over the years as the schools have grown the quality of the teachers also improved.  (Imagine how much good $100 per month could do here by paying a teacher’s salary).
Skit about an educated nomad herding his sheep
The cost of constructing a simple school building was about $1000 but the need for funding would continue after that for maintenance of the facilities and continuous repairs.  My friends said that once they were able to raise the funds they would like to build a wall around the schools, but so far this had been cost prohibitive as walls that are not done right or done cheaply have a tendency to fall down.

The schools were integrated and included kids from the nomadic northern tribes but also the local kids from the south of Chad.  It was evident that the kids mixed freely, studied, and played games together.  My friends said that working with the schools has been tough but their success was due to the involvement of the parents.  The parents made sure the kids made it to school on time, did their homework, and the parents did the extra work around their homes that normally for which they would depend on their kids.