Archive for September, 2009

Garretts little bit of ‘faim’ can be good for his well fed soul

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

We had been out all morning at meetings with various bankers in their air conditioned offices, which for myself are a necessity. Even the taxi ride to the office can be troublesome, with the windows down and my head slightly to one side trying as best I can to get some of the draft which can appear from time to time when the taxi manages to get up enough speed.
At every intersection there are any number of vendors, with phone credit being the main commodity, but frankly there is little you could not get, at one intersection there appears to be an abundance of bureau de change merchants plying their trade. They have quite large bundles of fresh notes, millions of CFA’s, the local currency, and likely some thousands of dollars and euros between them all, perhaps twenty in a small stretch of the main road into the city centre.
They are trading, no-one seems to take into account that they have multiples of the average annual salary (did I say salary?, sorry that would imply a job, income of course would be closer, and perhaps even more appropriate would be hard earned small amounts of cash) in their hands. There are no guards, no guns, no air of tension, just people doing their business. With others carrying just about anything you can imagine, bags, books, shoes, pans, hats, drugs, hardware, you name it.
We conducted our meeting in a smart modern office, the headquarters of one of the local banks and duly returned to our hotel.
At this point I am feeling a little peckish and so head down to the bar for some lunch with yesterdays International Herald Tribune under my arm (I get a copy daily, it is one of the free copies from Air France, which I have noticed and can get free online anyway, but…..).
I head to the kitchen through the bar, we are that well known at this stage, which is grand, and order some poulet frites (chicken and chips, the standard fare for my good self when looking for food and not wanting to be adventurous, just fed).
The bar girl notes that I am ‘faim’, which in my terrible French know to be hungry. ‘Oui’ says I in my mild brogue French and proceed to sit down with a cold drink and my newspaper.
I am half way through my meal when the young man who sells all sorts of souvenirs in the hotel lobby wanders in. He sits with the bar girl and they pass the time of day. His stall is outside the door of Linda’s room and he resides there day after day, ever trying to make a sale. We talk politely to him when passing and even stop for the odd chat, as much as you can with the language barrier. I have a look at the items he has and make a mental note of what he has, what I would like, what would fit in my bag and so on and delay the actual purchase.
So there I am in the bar, happily munching on my food, with the girl and boy talking and I happen to catch a word coming from the young man, ‘faim’.
My heart sinks, my stomach shrinks and my mind blinks, back to the reality of who I am, where I am, and what is going on around me.
I stop, take up my plate, and walk over to the young man and hand him what is left of my lunch, suffice to say I have a friend for life and an indelible scar seared on my soul.
Bon appetite mon ami.

Garretts initial thoughts on culture, education and religion

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

An outsiders, possibly naive, perspective.
Talking to an array of interested parties in Mali, of which there are many, there does seem to be something approaching a common view, and one that as an outsider I was reluctant to admit openly, that there is a culture which denigrates planning, which frowns upon taking the longer view. ‘I will look after what is in front of me and God will take care of the rest’ is something I have heard uttered more than once.
But where does this come from, is it a reference to religion and fate? faith? in God, which ever one you happen to believe in? is it a cultural phenomenon, where tribal and historical mores come to the fore?
Or perhaps, as has been suggested by some of the local stakeholders we have met, a matter of education?
The answer to this is crucial in a number of aspects. Planning is seen as foreboding, inviting fate to play a negative role in your future, that you are somehow trying to outdo God and plan for the future when you know that this is not possible, as only God can decide your fate.
Culture is very strong, in my opinion, in developing countries, and dictates to a large extent peoples activities and opinions. Whether everyone agrees with this in place like Mali, in their heart of hearts, is another matter of course.
Proselytising on the inherent truth in science, and dare I call business education a science?, can be seen as inviting failure.
However there does seem to be something approaching a consensus that more education can ameliorate this attitude.
Replacing one dogma with another can be very dangerous, as vacuums usually are, never mind what nature thinks.
Education may help to smooth the transition from a society determined by fate to one determined by action. True, there is no way of telling the future, but there are many ways of potentially altering it, and for ones benefit. I may plan for the future and also make contingency plans, for
without them, you are indeed inviting the naysayers and doom prophets upon you with tales of ‘told you so’. But culture and more importantly, certain elements of it pertinent to our work, can be explained in more
realistic, practical, relevant terms. The challenge is not to confront culture, and who can challenge something without knowing its core, its source, its essence, especially when they are so nebulous and uncertain, but rather to offer alternatives that are attractive to people, from all
religions and tribal backgrounds, offer what does not involve conflict with core values, but which can augment them.
There is room for such thinking, and talking to locals this has become abundantly clear.
So the challenge is set, the task is great, the road ahead uncertain and unmapped, but what must be taken, dare I say it, to borrow a well worn phrase, is the road less travelled.
Anyone got a map?


Saturday, September 26th, 2009

One of our first conceptual struggles at MVS was how our service could be paid for. We established the organization because we recognized the very real limitations to success and growth that limited business management skills impose. However, developing our program and then offering it to entrepreneurs at the level we want to reach has a cost. We started out, idealistically, thinking that the microfinance community would recognize this as an essential service for their clients, and would be happy to pay for it. However, MFIs have great pressures — internal and external — to cut costs to the bone and be sustainable or profitable. We recognized that our clients are already under a great deal of financial pressure — after all, they’re poor to begin with, and then may be carrying a lot of debt to keep their businesses viable. Plus, they’re in no position to take any more financial risk. So we came to the conclusion that not only would we have to bear the upfront costs, but that we SHOULD bear the risk of ensuring that our program was successful and effective.
So….we decided that our clients would only have an obligation to us that was in proportion to the benefit we bring. If we have an equity stake in their businesses, we only succeed if they succeed. And if we have a pre-defined, transparent, exit strategy, then we only benefit as long as we continue to bring value.
From the beginning, I’ve been unsure of how this would be received. Would the small entrepreneur, who’s worked so hard for what she has and has had so little power all her life, be willing to share ownership of her business? Could we establish the trust that would be essential to make such an arrangement work?
It’s a pleasant surprise to me that we’ve already heard of 2 arrangements in Mali that are very similar to our intention. One is actually a proposed equity fund that we may have the opportunity to participate in. So some of the groundwork has been laid for micro- or meso-equity investment, and it seems to be “culturally appropriate.”

Mali Diary, One Week Later

Friday, September 25th, 2009

We’ve been here a little over a week. We should have enough inputs to get some meaningful outputs, but the place is so alive and complex, and in some ways its true nature is so hidden, that I can’t be sure of any conclusions I might draw. After this 3-week trip, we may well be able to identify effective ways to do business here, but I can already see that understanding the culture in any organic and accurate way will take much, much longer.
First I’ll say a little something about how hard it can be to be a stranger. Garrett and I both have the handicap of not knowing the language, in addition to being outsiders. In the morning this is a nagging irritation – communicating with cab drivers is a chore, we may have to settle for a breakfast that’s not really what we wanted. By evening, it’s emotionally exhausting. All casual conversation, all day long, has only been with each other (what would I do without Garrett? I don’t even want to go there!). You don’t realize – trust me, you really don’t – how disorienting it is to have a natural, quick reaction – “Look at that bird!”…..”What a cute baby!” – and have to explain and attempt to translate what you’ve just said. So by evening, we’re both unnaturally relieved to see a white face. I was disappointed the first few days when we went to a restaurant that was frequented by ex-pats. Now I see how tempting it can be, on a long assignment, to surround yourself with those a little more like yourself. These are not our values, and this is not why we’re here, and on a personal growth level this factor could well make the experience meaningless, but it will be a very, very hard impulse to resist.
I won’t write yet about business factors. That’s unfair to you readers as well as all the people who’ve shared with us – there are possibilities for alliances but no conclusions. But we’ve been hearing interesting things about the national character that will certainly inform our business methods. Early on, an old (American) Africa hand said, “The Malians don’t trust each other.” This seemed to contradict the surface behaviors – the manners we’ve observed. Mali is a very social place. Everyone greets everyone else on the street. There are smiles and waves all around. Except for the beggars, there’s a remarkable lack of expectation of tips. The streets aren’t tense like they are in so many places, and we’ve seen soldiers and police but absolutely no guns. So the trust comment had to be filed away for future reference.

I guess if I’ve come to any conclusion, it’s that everyone is trying to make sense of the world in their own way. I take in what others say, Garrett does as well, we talk and compare reactions, and we’re each still learners — maybe even pilgrims.

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Typical Shopping DayKora

Even More Pictures

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Motorcycles on Display Motorcycles in Boxe

More Pictures From Mali

Friday, September 25th, 2009

Day Care

Pictures of Mali

Thursday, September 24th, 2009

The End of Ramadan

From Linda: Opportunities Emerge

Monday, September 21st, 2009

Jean Harman, from the USAID mission here gave generously of her time yesterday.  She drank coffee in our sitting room and dumped her brain upon the table, for us to question, analyze, and try to comprehend.  Jean verified our impression that Mali is not the impoverished backwater that it’s portrayed to be.  Clearly the place bustles.  You see new construction all around, and the change is happening in that boom-town way where a big, shiny new building still has a truck farm going on next door, on the lot that hasn’t been built on yet.  If I worked at BMS or Kafo Jigenew, or the American Embassy, you’d find me poaching my lunch of fresh-picked okra and corn right from the garden next door. (Makes me think of the Flopsy Bunnies — if Mr. MacGregor catches me, Mrs. MacGregor might make me into a stew!)

I expected to see Chinese investment here, and we’re finding a tremendous amount of Libyan as well.  The Germans built a lot of the roads.  Mali is sort of invisible to Americans, but clearly others see a lot of potential here.  It would be good if someone made the long-term investment of establishing a more viable education system.  There are still far too many children not going to school, and the reported literacy rate remains around 50%.  Even if only the children of Bamako all attended school…greater Bamako is about 25% of the population. 

We went to the Artisanal Center today, along with the central market.  As I expected, there is indeed a lot of beautiful cloth for sale.  Some Chinese knockoffs, some from neighboring countries (I bought some yardage from Cote D’Ivoire and Togo to use as wrap-around skirts while I’m here and maybe repurposed as window coverings for home), and some actually from Mali.  Of course we were assaulted by vendors, but at the Artisinal Center we also saw leather tanners and toolers and wood carvers at work.  There are wonderful musical instruments — beautiful to look at and to listen to. 

All in all, our impression is that there’s a lot going on here, and that means there’s potential for growing business and market expansion.  In the coming week, n’shallah, we’ll find some opportunities for ourselves, to become a part of this exciting process.

Garrett’s concentric circle to Bamako, Mali

Monday, September 21st, 2009

I eventually managed to make it to Bamako, via Waterford, Dublin, London, Rome, Addis Abbaba, and then for good measure all the way across Africa to Mali.

First thing I notice of course is the 40 degree heat,  and being pale and freckly, means that evolution is dropping me subtle hints to stay at home.

I am met by a very nice policeman at the airport as the person who was meeting me was stuck in traffic.   Winding our way through traffic Bandiougou pointed out the central bank, the new government buildings nearing construction, new roads everywhere, many, many private buildings rising up, generally a city on the way up.

This looks promising I thought and the best part is that there are no guns that I could see, not on police, and no army in sight, great.

There is great hustle and bustle on the streets, lots of life and business and a great lack of absolute destitute people. Mind you there are of course kids at junctions cleaning car windows and the like.

We grab a sim card and change some money on the road, aacquire a phone ten minutes after reaching the hotel, and the internet connection is fine. So down to work straight away, we have meetings organised over the weekend, being the end of Ramadan and the national day of independece on Tuesday, locals are enjoying the fete, foreigners tend to keep working to some extent.

Wonderfully colourful dresses and Kaftans abound and people are in good spirit. there is a palpable air of excitement.

Linda and I meet with some people, admittedly I meet fewer as I arrive a few days later, but they are great meetings, all with non-Malians, as they are enjoying the festivities. And so the weeks work lays out in front of us. This affords us the time to organise, acclimatise, and even socialise.

It is looking increassingly likley that we shall be heading up north, which I am particularly looking forward to, big cities tend to look like other big cities fairly quicky when you are on the street.

On the steet the general atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, usually this may make me even more wary, but Mali and Malians appear to have an innate sense of calm, decency and approachability.

There is an abundance of economic activity, with the economy seeming to be somewhat insulated from outside. trade routes out of Mali are few and far between, it being landlocked and far from the ocean, and with the train line in disrepair as I write.

So it would seem that there is a lot of activity, liquidity, in that money, business and people move around Bamako at least, a lot.

This country is far from the poor place it is so commonly depicted to be in the various journals, reports, papers and articles etc. I have read before coming here.
Learning by listening, I hear that there are an arbitrary number of parameters used to determine relative country poverty and in this regard, it is pointed out to me, Mali does not do well. But this does not fit with what you see, hear, see and feel on the street.

I shall endeavour to put flesh on this argument in the coming weeks.