The Daily Marvel of Business In Africa
Thursday, November 2, 2006
A thousand daily miracles are needed for commerce to get conducted in Africa. Somehow, Adenike Ogunlesi keeps her children's clothing line humming in Lagos, Nigeria. In Kampala, Uganda, Michael Kijjambu, who has a coffee shop, wonders why his countrymen won't put more faith in his brew. "It would be suicide to think I can go and compete with Starbucks!" he cries. Ndaba Ndlovu has a tourist business in Zambia that promotes "adventure," a word not tossed about lightly in his surroundings.
Africa is a land where day-to-day business must be conducted against a backdrop of -- among other ills -- famine, corruption, disease, weather gyrations, coups, malfunctioning electrical generators and bumpy roads.
Carol Pineau's film, "Africa Open for Business," is both earnest and dramatically uneven. Shown locally at 8 p.m. tonight on WHUT, it takes a look at business owners across the continent, offering snapshots into how grit, savvy and resolve sustain enterprises that must grapple with drama most every day.
During the hour-long documentary, Pineau, who once covered Africa for CNN, takes her camera across several countries, settling on individual entrepreneurs as they tell of their rise and struggle.
In Lagos, Ogunlesi -- her business is called Ruff 'n' Tumble -- is clearly proud that she has customers who want to buy clothing "made in Nigeria for Nigerians." But it is not long before she is talking about the governmental corruption that bedevils her country's business environment. Her eyes well with tears as she speaks up for the honest Nigerian business operative and yet recounts how many times she feels maligned and stereotyped when traveling abroad.
There are nice homes rising in Accra, Ghana, and villagers are coming in from rural areas to take out mortgages. Stephanie Baeta Ansah is managing director of HFC Bank, and she has double worries: Keeping the young and educated from leaving Ghana, and impressing upon mortgage applicants that it will take time for their applications to be processed. Computers are in short supply and the loan process can take up to eight months. "We want to keep more and more of our people at home," she says. "We want to help them in the development of our country."
Every business owner complains about the myriad governmental regulations that befuddle them. When coffee shop owner Kijjambu wants to get a television set for his shop, called 1,000 Cups Coffee House, there is -- surprise surprise -- a tax. He is not amused. He notes that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, while traveling abroad, manages to visit coffee shops in fancy European capitals. If only he would visit his little shop!
The specter of HIV and AIDS gets only a cursory mention by some of the business owners. One wishes Pineau would have plumbed deeper into that vortex and the difficulties the disease, with its attendant loss of life, has caused for thousands of business owners. As well, one aches to hear just one official answer to the persistent legacy of governmental corruption. The gaps point to the film's one-sided tone, with business owners sounding as if they've been trotted out by the local Chamber of Commerce. It must be noted also that most workers appear to be female, doubtless owing to the fact that many of the young men across the continent may be working in mines, or caught up in rebel skirmishes.
There may be no more challenging work environment in Africa than Somalia, wracked by civil war for more than a decade. Mohammed Yassin Olad founded Somalia-based Daallo Airlines, a desperately needed airline in the brutalized country. "Our situation is a unique situation. Sometimes it's difficult having no government," he says, in what might be the understatement of the year. But then he realizes even that hardship comes with a notable advantage: "Corruption is not a problem -- because there's no government!" He lets out a nervous chuckle. (Pineau could have built her entire movie around this brave man and his airline.)
In one of those movie moments, the camera goes dark and, lit again with a scrawl -- "One Month Later" -- sweeps back into Michael Kijjambu's coffee shop. There is a commotion, women are on the streets outside swaying and singing. Something big and celebratory is about to happen. And up the steps comes President Museveni himself, walking over to a table to take a seat as Kijjambu serves him.
"Have a cup of tea, Mr. President," he says.
One assumes an enlarged photo of that visit is now on the wall of 1,000 Cups Coffee House.
"Africa Open for Business" (one hour) will be shown at 8 p.m. on Channel 32.