Tuesday, June 28, 2011

I always miss the good stuff!

The Whitest Guy in West Africa is now safely ensconced in the United States.  Meanwhile, violent protests have shaken the city of Dakar and another town an hour away, Mbour, as President Wade tried for a constitutional power grab.

Unfortunately for the president, several months earlier he replaced the Director General of Senelec - the nation's only electricity provider - with his son, Karim.  Given the corrupt nature of Senegalese politics, this was originally seen as a good sign (after all, the President would only put his son in charge if there was a plan to make his son look good, right?)

That was just prior to the so-called Arab spring.  And prior to the incredible spike in the price of oil.  Oil is what Senelec runs on.  This is a formula for power outages that are as frequent in Senegal as fart jokes in the third grade.  The only difference is the power cuts are now lasting for days, not just hours.  And THAT is a formula for violent protests as the President's power grab was essentially meant to help him pass more power to his son in the style of an old fashioned monarchial dictatorship.

10 months ago, I would have told you this type of thing would not be possible in Senegal.  But, 10 months is a long time - especially when political leaders are so insulated from the citizens they no longer have any clue as to their disconnect. 

The current events are an incredible reminder of the human side of events.  Today, I received an email from a former colleague who was charged with sending some hard drives back to our home office.  Here is his email, verbatim:

Also, I will send you the packing list and reports as soon as the problem on Campus is resolved. Right now it is dangerous to send the drives. I will try tomorrow. If not possible, I will wait for one week. I do wait to hear from you about the replacement hard drives.  I need to rush home...

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dinner and Lunch

I am blessed with an ability to move seamlessly between different groups of people.  I can talk with homeless people and CEO's of Fortune 500 companies within the same hour and feel as if I connected with both crowds.  So, when asked "What's it really like in Africa?" and "How is Senegalese food?" I thought this post might be the best example of both worlds.  This all happened within an 18 hour span...

FRIDAY NIGHT DINNER: About once a month, several of the neighborhood guards get together in our garage for a dinner party consisting of the same exact meal:  pork and wine.  Let me start with the wine: I walked in last night and saw a 10-litre jug that formerly would have been occupying space in a typical office water cooler.  The jug was filled with red wine that was purchased (discreetly) from someone in the military who somehow is able to obtain barrels of the stuff from Spain.  It cost 10,000 CFA (about $20) for 10 liters of wine.

The first thing that hits you on these Friday night dinners is the funnel.  Two guys are required to pour the wine from the 10-litre jug; one to hold the jug while the second balances the funnel into the mouth of a 1.5 liter bottle that formerly held the Kirene brand of water. Our guards save all the water bottles for just this type of occasion and they are careful to ensure that we are able to get nearly 7 complete bottles without spilling a drop.

Our guard is in charge of obtaining about 10 pounds of roasted pork.  Another guard's wife arrives with a giant metal bowl filled with sliced red onions, some type of green pepper, herbs and chiles.  She mixes the roast pork by hand with the vegetable blend and then places the completed dish on a very small table. 

Seven men and one woman then gathered round in rickety chairs to proceed eating by hand (using only the right hand).  The "President" of this secret society makes sure every glass is continously filled to the brim - and we drink out of 12 ounce water glasses!  If you're doing the math, that works out to over one liter of wine per person.  The ratio was 6 black guys, one white guy and one wife/server.  Total cost for the entire meal (including wine) is 35,000 CFA (about $70).  They would do this more often, but for two reasons:
1.) By only having this gathering once a month, it becomes a treat and not a normal dinner
2.) They don't earn enough money to do this every week.

Much of the pork is still "on the bone."  If you get a bone - don't worry.  Just toss the bone on the garage floor and one of the two stray cats that I adopted will come and munch on any leftover meat.  French was the primary language, with some broken English thrown in for good measure, so I didn't understand much of the dinner conversation.  However, I can tell you that I laughed endlessly at the antics of the group and even managed to take some compromising photos of people after they passed out from drinking the wine - much to the delight of the people who were able to remain awake.  I hear the photos were posted on Facebook...

At some point in the night, one of the guards brought out some wrapping papers and carefully rolled up some loose tobacco.  He shared his cigarette with a couple of other guards.

We started at 9:00pm and I didn't hit the pillow until after midnight. This simple recipe, coupled with excellent companionship, made for one of the best dinners I have ever had in Dakar.  While I might have only known two people before the night began, I walked away with 7 friends. 

SATURDAY AFTERNOON LUNCH: Every Saturday since the 1930's, the "Directors Generale" of the major companies in Senegal get together for a lunch party.  Each week, a different member is responsible for hosting the event at one of the area's posh hotels. 

I arrived a bit late and found almost 70 people milling about enjoying the open bar.  I saw a friend who explained the whole purpose of the event and helped me make the connection of how I was invited.  He mentioned that I could not have a drink until I had walked through the crowd and shaken hands with every person there. 

The first thing that hits you on these Saturday lunches is the atmosphere.  Linen napkins and 7 tables set for rounds of 10.  There were 4 different forks, 3 different knives and an array of glasses for each patron. There were buckets on each table with a decent chilled white wine; these bottles were replaced as soon as they were depleted.  Next, before the entree was served, each table was presented with a 1.5 liter bottle of a 2006 Rothschild Cru Bourgeois from the Haut Medoc region (essentially, the west bank of the Bordeaux region).  The host of the afternoon must pick up the tab for the entire event and I'm pretty sure each bottle at the hotel cost more than 35,000 CFA.

The ratio of white men to black men at this event is about 6:1 and no women were invited (excluding, of course, the serving staff).  The first course consisted of slices of homemade, spiced bread sealed together club sandwich style with just the perfect amount of fois gras.  These tasty sandwiches were accentuated by a tri-fruit chutney (pineapple, orange and pear) as well as a small red pepper called baies rose.

The next course was a wonderfully broiled thiof (a grouper fish) served with a pistachio creme sauce and topped with both white and green asparagus.  The rice was reminiscent of a nice risotto and I was looking forward to dessert when I realized the main course had yet to be served! 

The main course was a beautiful medium rare lamb sirloin accompanied by whipped mash/baked potato that was garnished with baby corn and a julienned carrot.  A balsamic dressing was drizzled along the side of the plate.  One of the more amusing components of the lamb dish was that there were small cubes of rendered fat neatly arranged with bones from the meat on the edge of each plate.  I wondered whether there were any stray cats in the kitchen...

The lamb sirloin was at least six ounces and went tremendously well with the red wine.  So well, in fact, that our table was presented with a second 1.5 liter bottle of the 2006 Rothschild.  Don't worry - every other table went through a second bottle, also.

After the lamb, we were served an array of cheeses including two types of brie and gouda.  After all, we needed to finish that second bottle of wine.  I was so full I couldn't even stick around for the dessert of that featured something drenched in spiced rum.

Many of the men were chomping fat cigars (you can still smoke in restaurants in Dakar) while a person at my table managed to light up a Marlboro after every single course was served.

We started at 1:00pm and lunch was still going strong at 3:45.  Most of the conversation was in French, with some broken English thrown in to help me understand the jokes, but I still couldn't understand most of the conversation.  This incredible gourmet meal was as good as the finest meals you might find in any country.  It was one of the best lunches I have ever had. 

While the similarities and the stunning difference between rich and poor are obvious, I think both meals actually represent "the real Africa."  There is a tremendous amount of wealth in Dakar, as well as a tremendous amount of poverty.  But for me, the biggest difference between the two meals was that I didn't really walk away from lunch with any new friends.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Hospital Food's Not Bad Here...

The title is a bit misleading, but I'll get to it...

This Thursday, I joined my local Rotary club as we celebrated the donation of a mammogram machine to a hospital in Dakar.  I am convinced if the U.S. stopped giving any money whatsoever for "foreign aid" and instead asked people to give 1% of those funds to Rotary International, all the problems of the developing world could be solved. 

This particular machine came compliments of a club in Belgium and was the first mammogram introduced to this section of Dakar.  There were two things about the introduction of the machine that took me completely by surprise.

First, most women in Senegal do not even know what breast cancer is.  In Africa, people just "get sick and die" - there is not much regard to "Why?"  So, introducing this piece of equipment also means introducing a whole new concept called, "preventative medicine."  In fact, one female member of the donating Rotary club (a business professional from Senegal) had no clue how the machine worked.  While we might be over-stimulated by all the breast cancer awareness marches, fundraisers and advertisements in the U.S., this concept that disease might be detected early enough to save a human life is news in Africa.

Second, we actually walked right into the exam room while a woman was having an appointment!  No, she wasn't actually being screened upon our arrival, but the idea of patient privacy is something that hasn't really occurred here either.  I'm thinking a description of the hospital might be in order to help the set the scene...

The building looks like a high school built in the 1960's that hasn't been maintained ever since it was built.  There were lots of chipped and decaying tile floors, tile walls and whitewashed concrete walls.  The decorations on the walls looked mostly like "school spirit" posters you might see in any high school.

There were no "recovery rooms" to speak of: just the equivalent of park benches or locker room benches.  There was an open-air atrium (although atrium isn't the right word, because that would imply some amount of class and fancy) and people were sleeping on the benches wrapped in blankets.  A mangy orange cat slept on the ground next to one patient.  There were no waiting rooms, either, just more locker room benches for arriving patients.

After we finished our tour of the hospital, we retreated to a conference room for our meeting.  The chairs in the conference room had well-worn cloth fabric that was a deep orange color; these chairs could have easily been hand-me-downs from a restaurant that closed in the 1970's.  I nearly fell through a hole in my chair, when - suddenly! - someone brought us covered dishes and beverages to thank us for donating the mammogram machine. 

Having never eaten in a Dakar hospital, I - of course - decided the worst thing that could happen to me would be that I would get sick and have to go to the hospital... and I dug into my plate that included some version of what could only be called an African spring roll, some type of spongy bread-cakes that were shaped like fortune cookies and some kind of ravioli type thing with minced meat.  It was accompanied by a pineapple beverage whose can proudly proclaimed, "With real chunks!" 

You'll note that I didn't ask what the names of any of these foods were.  Half the time, I can't recognize what I'm eating in an American hospital, so why would an African hospital be any different?  In any case, none of the foods was life threatening and the pineapple chunk concoction was an excellent pairing with the menu. 


Sunday, June 5, 2011

Bottom of the Barrel: West African Beer

This week's entry is dedicated to two friends: PR, an avid homebrewer and, JK, an industry veteran who - when informed I was going to live in Africa - sent a one sentence note: "Drink lots of beer."  
But, this is a blog about business in West Africa - not about idly drinking lots of beer.  Luckily, one of my security guards has an uncle who is gainfully employed at (drumroll, please...) the Societe Des Brasseries De L'Ouest Africain, alternately known as SOBOA and more commonly referred to as, "The Only Brewery in Senegal."

My guard and I secured a reservation to take a brewery tour for May 20.  Make that May 27.  Change that to June 3 at 3:30 p.m.  We arrived promptly at 3:30 p.m. to meet our designated guide.  Well, actually we showed up at 4:00 p.m.  It did not really matter.  Our designated guide never arrived until 5:00 p.m.  It's difficult to explain "Africa time" to people who have never been here, but this is fairly typical.  Nothing starts on time; you should just be happy if an appointment is kept at all.  Even a meeting with our accounting firm, Ernst & Young, scheduled for Friday May 27 actually occurred on Wednesday June 1. Why would I think a brewery would be any less business-like?

The other bit of information required for pleasurable reading is a bit of knowledge about African beer.  A better name for it might be "Lottery Beer" because, regardless of the label, you never have a clue what it's going to taste like until after you've opened the bottle.  I thought it was because of poor quality control procedures, but my tour proved otherwise.

There are two well known West African beers: Gazelle and Flag.  Gazelle comes in a giant green bottle and dates back to 1929.  Gazelle harkens back to the days when it was safer to drink beer than water, and when Muslims drank beer and ate pork.  Okay, I made that last part up, but Islam has been in this country since the year 1040 so the fact that Senegalese love to drink beer and eat pork should tell you how relaxed the religious observations are here. 

Gazelle has a relatively low alcohol content and is socially acceptable as a breakfast beverage (goes great with Corn Flakes!).  Gazelle can be consumed by women and small children.  Okay, I made that last part up, too!  But, the important note here is that Flag should not be consumed by children.  Flag puts hair on your chest.  Flag has hallucinogenic properties.  Flag is a thoroughly dangerous beer...

Or, so I thought.  After taking the SOBOA tour, I discovered that Gazelle and Flag are essentially the same beer with a singular exception:  Flag contains more of the "secret ingredient." You know, that secret ingredient that gives Flag its yellowish color?  It's maize.  Flag has more maize.  While it is manufactured with imported barley, the corn content is what ratchets up the alcohol factor and provides drinkers with the famous "Flag headache" the next day.

There was one other surprising factor for you home brewers.  I asked where they stored their hops.  Hops are the flower that gives beer its aroma.  The brewery manager looked at me as if I had asked him whether they put small children in the beer.  As it turns out, SOBOA uses cans of "hop extract" (Hop Extract #9, to be exact) to add flavoring and aroma.

I have previously worked in almost all facets of the beverage industry, but this is the first time I have seen everything under one roof.  EVERYTHING is done directly at SOBOA.  This brewery is the manufacturer, the distributor and the sales & marketing agency.  Glass bottles are not manufacturered in Senegal (which seems ridiculous given all the sand here), and virgin glass would be outrageously expensive to import.  So, all bottles are sold with the equivalent to a 20-cent or 40-cent deposit and the returnables are re-washed, re-labeled and re-filled directly on site.  In fact, there is not even a minute's time between when a bottle is washed and when it is re-filled.

The cases that hold the beer are made of plastic and even broken cases are recycled; shred into small shards (say that three times fast!) and sent out for re-manufacture.  SOBOA employs at least 1,000 people and is a 24/7 operation.  It's a gentle reminder that manufacturing items for local consumption is one of the keys to economic development for any developing country. 

Throughout the tour, I was surprised at the professionalism and the many quality control check points at the brewery.  I even had a frank discussion with the manager about possibilities for defects in the process (or, "Why does every bottle seem to taste different?") and surmise that any errors in the process could only come from the bottle washing and refill.  Most likely, differences in the final taste are most affected by post-brewery storage.

As an aside, SOBOA is also the local manufacturer for Coca-Cola, Sprite, Fanta Orange and nearly every other carbonated, bottled beverage available in West Africa.  I learned that the Coca-Cola syrup is actually imported from two different places and mixed together on-site, so that not even one syrup producer can know "the formula."  The only true imported beverages here are Heineken, Corona, Desperado and a variety of Belgians (with the most expensive beer being Corona!). 

There are several other tidbits that I found interesting.  Being located in West Africa, not much is actually "under a roof."  Bottles are stored outside in open air (hence, the plastic cases).  The beer tanks are outside in open air.  Only the bottling plant and the brewery itself are located under a physical roof.  Next, no one was wearing hard hats or steel toe boots.  Even employees working with broken glass were often wearing plastic sandals!  Finally, there are no toilets here.  None.  There are "facilities", but they consist of open pipes and urine-slicked floors.  The wash basin looked more sanitary.  Now that I think about it, I was never actually shown where the pipes led to or where the water used to brew Flag actually comes from...

The tour itself took almost two hours.  That did not include "post-tour" discussion with fresh, cold beverages.  No two-ounce samplers either, but full bottles of all-you-can-drink Flag, Gazelle, "33" Export and Castel.  The latter two brands are made under license.  Castel is originally from Cameroon and "33" Export has a checkered history, to say the least.  No one seems to know where it was exported from and whether or not the "33" appeared on this bottle before it appeared on the Rolling Rock bottle.  But, those would be topics of discussion for a different day, when JK and/or PR buys me a beverage to talk about my time in West Africa...

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Endemic Corruption

For some time now, I've been sketching out this blog entry in my head.  The question that students ask me the most is, "What business would you start in Senegal?"

My answer is, "I would not start a business in Senegal because the corruption is so deep - and at so many layers - that I would have to spend all my time on managing and controlling instead of doing something constructive such as new product innovation and providing superior customer service."

Let's start with the obvious corruption: government employees.  Remember when we used to call these people "public servants?"  Today in Senegal, even the military has finally succumbed to endemic corruption.  The Gendarme (essentially, the armed forces that also serve as a general police force for most of the nation) were considered one of the bright spots for many years in Senegal.  The following story is more representative of their role today.

Last week, the director of our program was returning from a rural location and his vehicle was pulled over by the Gendarme "for inspection."  Rather than be satisfied with just one vehicle, this particular officer then proceeded to pull over approximately ten more vehicles and told everyone to wait.  Essentially, the officer would then determine which driver was most likely to pay a "fine" directly to him for some imagined infraction.  This process would likely continue for most of the day.

Everyone knows about this type of corruption in Africa, but no one does anything to stop it.  That's simply because this corruption can only occur if it is sanctioned from the top of an organization.  To me, it's shameful, but I don't think this even captures the idea that the entire society is corrupt. 

The "private" corruption is why Senegal - and most other African nations - will never be a good place to do business.  I recently took over as the financial manager for my institution after the previous employee resigned.  There were things I expected to see such as "padded" expense reports, pre-paid gasoline cards that seem to be spent when no one is traveling, phantom employees, etc.

What I was unaware of was the outrage and scandal I would cause when I took the lead role in disposing of assets that are perfectly useable, but obsolete for our purposes.  First, the employees were outraged that the assets were not given to them as a donation.  Who would receive the assets?  Well, that was for the Operations Manager to decide, but - surely - these were "their" assets.  And, if we were going to sell the assets, then the staff was obviously much more qualified than I was to locate the buyers.

Here's where the scandal occurs: the real reason the employees were so angry was because I - the Whitest Guy in West Africa - was going to keep to keep all the "commissions" that were rightfully theirs.  Most readers should be shaking their heads right now (as I did) in wonderment, but any time an asset was previously sold at our institute, the person who sold it took a percentage of the sales price right off the top as their "commission" before turning in the remaining money to the company.  How much commission?  Well, no one knows because that gets negotiated between the buyer and seller (our employees!). 

It's not enough that we pay employees wages and salaries that are significantly above market rates, most of the senior administrative staff considers it their RIGHT to pocket 10% to 30% on EVERY transaction - sale or purchase - that our organization endeavors to make.  And this is part of the culture!  After all, just because they work in the private sector and not government doesn't mean they aren't entitled to take a percentage of each transaction.  In government, we call that a bribe in most parts of the world.  In private industry, we call it "theft", but in Senegal it's much more palatable to call it a "commission."

You want an airline ticket?  One professor asked for a ticket home during Christmas break.  He had a travel allowance of $1,500.  I booked my ticket over the Internet for $1,250.  His price (to the same destination) was $1,700 when purchased through our organization.  The extra $450 was meant to be split between the travel agent and whichever employee at our organization made the call.  When he complained to the employee, she responded, "You're rich, so you can afford it." 

By the way, she's the person I replaced as financial manager...

Some people might be laughing and saying, "It looks like THEY are teaching YOU a lesson or two about how to do business."  But, they're not.  They have raised the level of mistrust such that I now have no desire to do any business with them. 

Lest you think it's just our organization, I spoke with the manager at another education institute about how he handled this problem.  His answer was simple, "I work 12 to 14 hours a day and do all the purchasing myself."  He has one advantage in that he is Lebanese, and there is a large contingent of Lebanese businesspeople in Dakar.  He only does business with the Africans when he has to. 

Even my local Rotary Club is having the same issue with regard to bringing donated medical devices into the country.  The biggest issue (after determining how to avoid bribery at the port) is that most of the organizations that would be prime recipients for these supplies are very likely to re-sell them.

And the biggest irony of all?  This is a country that is widely known for a large tribe a businessmen known as the Marabout.  Go ahead and look them up; they are represented throughout the world and their basic system of accounting is built on... trust.