From Linda: Opportunities Emerge

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

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.

Is There Anything You DO Like About Mali?

September 20th, 2009

Today is the end of Ramadan — the most important feast day of the year. It was mild weather, a nice change from yesterday, so Garrett and I took a walk around the neighborhood while we waited for our 3pm appointment. The streets were filled with people in their holiday best. It’s quite a sight to have many motorcycles pass carrying celebrants in beautifully patterned and decorated dashikis and dresses. Like a regatta when the spinnakers go up.

Children in party clothes are always charming. They were all over, greeting us, staring at us, giving little shy waves. Proud parents watching over, and sometimes letting us take pictures. It was an honor to share this day with Mali.

Is There Anything You Don’t Like About Mali?

September 20th, 2009

One dramatic feature is how dirty Bamako is, and how hard it is to stay clean. First, there’s the heat, so humid and pervasive that you’re dripping with sweat before you realize it. Just put your fingertips to your hairline – you might have dipped them in a cup of warm tea. Then there are the routes you have to use on foot. Stone slabs over running sewers are the best sidewalks. The sewers are active places – running questionable water, garbage tied in small plastic bags, at intervals people doing some kind of work beside them so the runoff from their activity can go directly into the ditch. This results in unnatural, alarming colors in the sewer in places. Somehow there isn’t much stench, but the sight is unnerving, as is the notion that you might lose your balance and plunge in.
As you walk, you lose access to the stone sidewalk and have to detour onto the roadside or even the road itself. This may require walking in loose dirt as well as brushing against cars and trucks. Walking directly on the road is alarming for me, but that must be an idiosyncratic neurosis, because plenty of people are doing exactly that, and there are no visible dead bodies lining the streets.

Why Are We Here?

September 19th, 2009

MicroVenture Support seeks social justice through the expansion of economic opportunity for the world’s poor.  A pretty ambitious goal, isn’t it?  Well, we believe we have the right method, that we will test and perfect it, and that after we have some success, others will follow us.  And if all that doesn’t happen? Well, the least we can aim for is that the people we work directly with will come out better off, and that there will be some concentric circles of influence.

So….Argidius Foundation read our materials, investigated us, talked through a lot of issues, helped us refine our thinking, thought long and hard…..and now have invested in a feasibility study for installing our business incubation program in Mali.  This study needs to establish our viability from every conceivable angle

–is our service wanted

–is it needed

–will it be effective

–will the public and private institutions of Mali support our efforts and help us succeed

So Garrett and I will spend the next 3 weeks meeting with individuals high and low and in between: government, NGO, bi- and multi-laterals, academic, commercial, and — what I’m most excited about — our potential clients.  We’ll keep you posted on our progress and our findings.  We hope you find this a good read.

First Post from Mali

September 16th, 2009

Impressions of Mali

Day 1, 17 September, 2009

An uneventful flight from Dulles to Dakar, with very little sleep.  Movies that you would never stoop to seeing in a theater are riveting on airplanes, and thank God for that.  Sandra Bullock – the perfect seatmate.  Dakar is prototypical of 3rd world airports.  They won’t let you on the bus from the plane to the terminal without seeing your passport.  Without a passport, I guess they make you walk the 100 yards.  Everyone seems to rush to one corner of the entry area sans signage, so you do too, until you realize you’re the only foreigner in that queue.  Then you find a different portal for passengers making connections.  It’s actually entitled “Transit,” which makes sense once you figure it out.  Sadly, my first thought was, “But we’re at an airport, we’re all in transit!”

Bandiougou Diawara, my friend from the Mali Embassy in DC, picks me up just as promised.  He’s very intense as well as attentive, and a determined ambassador of his beloved country.  As he drives from airport to hotel, he greets at least one person on every street corner.  Then screeches to the side of the road to buy me a sim card from roadside vendors.  Then makes several mysterious phone calls connecting us with a used phone vendor who will meet us at the hotel. (I half expected to be sold the very same phone that was stolen from me in DC 2 years ago.)  Then hustles around the hotel demanding the very best accommodations and service for his friend Linda.  Which I get.  Who am I to complain?

The city…..much slower pace and less congested than Manila.  I wouldn’t hesitate to drive here. Street vendors of various commodities – the aforementioned sim cards, fruit, etc. At regular intervals, empty fields will have a bunch of stalls.  General milling about.  Lots of motorcycles, but none that pull sidecars for hire and no pedicabs. There are 2 cows tethered in the street next door to the hotel. I’ve seen a few donkeys.  Wonder if I’ll be awakened by roosters crowing?

Bandiougou took me out for a pizza dinner to one of those pleasant courtyard restaurants you find in the tropics.  He like tun on his pizza – would fit right in, in Tunisia.  He’s looking for any opportunities that will make him some money.  Supports our program, thinks it’s needed and wanted in Mali, and is wondering how he can fit in.  I’d be very pleased to be in a position to throw some business his way – with travel assistance, office space acquisition, or whatever.

(follow up note — after sitting in traffic all the next day, NO WAY would i drive here!)