Sunday, August 14, 2011

Work that network

The UM Alumni network is one of the biggest in the world, so it’s not too surprising that you’ll find a lot of us in Nairobi. Even before I arrived, I knew one – my boss is a UM MBA alum – and on the first weekend I ran into two more, a girl that had studied the same program I studied during undergrad and another UM MBA who also happened to live and work for a year in Flint (what?!!?). I went out to dinner with some friends not too long ago and sat next to a guy who had just finished his MBA at UM, and I even ran into a girl that lived in Alice Lloyd, my freshmen year dorm, and is now married to another guy I was fairly close with during freshmen year. We’re everywhere (and we’re cool, good looking, and smart, I might add). But I haven’t quite had to rely on this network until this past week when it turned out to be the handiest thing around.

Next week, I’m launching a test in Tanzania that involves 1000 credit card sized mobile registration cards that will be placed in our pumps’ packaging. The cards offer free mobile talk time (98% of the phones here are pre-pay) to any pump owner that sends an SMS with the code he finds underneath the scratch off box on the back of the card. New pump owners send us an SMS and get free talk time, and we get their mobile number to give them a call at any point to do follow up work – offer additional services, answer any questions they have, learn about where and how they’re using the pump, and better understand if the pumps are improving their livelihood. Because we’re not as much interested in the sales of the pumps as we are interested in confirming that our pumps are increasing the incomes of small scale farmers, it’s critical that we can locate, find, visit, and converse with the farmers that are using our pumps. The mobile registration card, if it works, will be a very cheap and effective way for us to do just that. I’m really excited to test this to see what happens, but since I did all of the design and printing work of the cards in Nairobi, I first have to get the 1000 cards down to Dar es Salaam, Tazania.

 Yes, there is DHL here and I could spend the $110 to ship the cards through their reliable network, but I find their price to be annoyingly expensive and there’s rarely any fun in convenience. So, why not look for a different option? Regular post is, not surprisingly, dangerously unreliable and though danger is usually a lot more fun than convenience, I don't like placing bets on something that's 90% stacked against me. So instead I sent out a few emails and a couple of texts to some friends, and sure enough the UM alumni network came through. Laura, the girl that lived in the same freshmen dorm as I, happens to be heading down to Dar es Salaam this weekend and is happy to carry the package in her bag. She’ll be leaving the package at her hotel’s front desk, and I’ve arranged with the Tanzanian team to pick it up on Monday morning. Cheap, reliable, fast and personal – DHL cannot compete with the East African UM alumni network.

Now if I could only figure out a way this alumni network can help me actually convince these farmers to send me a text.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Lusaka's Finest

I had the pleasure of visiting Lusaka’s finest last week while working in Zambia. One of the shining stars I had hired to do data collection work in the country managed to lose, within just a few hours, the $300 phone I had given her to collect and submit survey data during her field work. An excellent way to start, indeed. I didn’t have any hope of actually finding the phone with the help of the police, but in what has turned out to be 2011’s best decision, I had gotten insurance on the phone, and I figured a police report would help my case in reclaiming some of the phone’s value. Damn, you’re smart, David.

So on Saturday morning, I was off to the police station to report the phone as lost/stolen. If I had to rank top places to avoid while travelling in a developing country, a police station would surely make the list. It wouldn’t beat out a market bus station which I’d consider the worst –something along the rating of “I’d rather give my eyeball 15 paper cuts” – but it’d score very well, maybe one paper cut. Not so much because of the actual locations of these stations, but because there aren’t any positive reasons why you’d have to visit a police station and, well, you’ll probably leave the station with a stronger feeling of hopelessness and hatred than when you arrived (maybe this isn’t unique to the developing world?). I have to say, though, my recent visit wasn’t all that bad, probably because I didn’t really go in with a desperate feeling of “please help me!!” which would have surely led to very painful disappointment, and because I found the detective and the entire process to be pretty humorous.

I walked in to the small cement house, painted police blue, that sat in the shadow of Manda Hill, Lusaka’s upscale shopping mall, and found four people behind a large reception desk, all looking at me like I was some criminal. But after briefly explaining what had happened and what I was hoping to do, I was pleasantly ushered back into a bare office that offered a school desk, two desk chairs that had seen better days roughly fifteen years ago, and three remarkably huge case books with dusty black leather covers and pages upon pages of handwritten, unorganized notes of Lusaka’s previous crimes. Detective Nathan was in charge and told me to sit in one of the chairs as he flipped through one case book to find the next free page. He was a big boy wearing a shirt one size too small that had two cigarette burn like holes in the front, each of them just large enough to distractingly reveal bare skin. Apparently no uniform is required for detectives. Or maybe it’s casual Saturday.

He finds his page and asks me a series of basic questions, referring to me as “Americano.” Americano, when did you lose the phone? Where? What was the phone number? Do you have the serial number of the phone, Americano? He copies my answers into the book with, in my opinion, rather sloppy handwriting and as he’s writing my answers down, he continues to ask completely unrelated and absurd questions.

How does Lusaka compare to Texas? Hmmm...that’s a pretty tough one. Texas is very big and its major cities have huge populations. He sees me struggling to answer and gives me an easy out “so you can’t compare Lusaka with Texas?” No, you cannot, detective. Americano, you know Mike Tyson? He doesn’t have any money now? I would have laughed out loud at this one. Mike Tyson!!!?? But he asks me with a very concerned and troubled tone, like he’s pained by Mike’s reckless fall from grace and riches, and so I keep my straight face and very gently confirm to him that yes, Mike Tyson basically lost all his money at one point, but then reassure him that he’s slowly getting back on two feet. I ask if he’s seen Tyson’s starring and comeback role in The Hangover. Detective Nathan has not seen it, but he jots down the title of the movie so that he may remember and see it soon.

After jotting down all relevant notes about the phone, Texas, and Mike Tyson, Detective Nathan tells me he will do his best to recover the phone but will require a payment to “move around the city while investigating.” Excellent. I ask him how much he requires, and after a very long and considered pause, he says the equivalent of $35. I let out a small laugh and ask him if he’s planning on “moving around the city” in a limo. He smiles at this but doesn’t come down in his offer. I tell him I’ll pay him his amount if he can also provide some sort of report or paper that says that I have legitimately filed a case with the Zambian police, which is really all I need for the insurance (I have no hope after seeing the scribbled case notes that the phone will be pursued at all, much less recovered). He agrees and after payment (which turns out to be closer to $40 because surprisingly, Detective Nathan can’t come up with the change I need) has Officer Banda fill out a photocopied form that’s about as professional looking as what you could expect from a group of third graders playing cops and robbers. But it does provide the official Zambian police stamp, which just may do the trick for the insurance company.

I bid farewell to Detective Nathan and his comrades, still hopeless for the recovery of the phone and $40 poorer, yet feeling pretty good about what I purchased with that $40 – a form I can turn into the insurance company, a lunch or two for the entire station, possibly a new shirt for Detective Nathan, and with any luck two hours of laughter for Detective Nathan as he watches The Hangover. Not a bad purchase, and certainly enough to move “police station” down a few rungs on the top places to avoid when travelling list. Thank you, Detective.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Zambian Spiderman Is A Big UM Fan!

Spotted this little guy strutting around the Zambian Agricultural Show. I'm guessing the UM shirt that fits his 7 year old frame was at one time worn by a Tri Delt sorority girl.

Selling Pumps

My project is unrelated to selling our pumps, but I happened to be in Lusaka during the Zambian agricultural show this past weekend and was happy to lend a hand to my boss, our Zambian sales rep, and our distributors to help present our pumps. I actually wasn't too excited about it at first - there were a lot of things I'd rather do than sit in the hot sun, in the middle of a very large and dusty showgrounds with a carnival like atmosphere and shoulder to shoulder people - but I found it surprisingly enjoyable. My boss and I made up a good team, selling three pumps in one afternoon, and it felt good to do something that seemed so helpful, easily answering farmer questions about the pump and how it works. Of course not so easy at first, but within fifteen minutes I had it down. 4,000 liters of water in one hour, 10 meters of inlet pipe, 25 meters of outlet pipe, 4 spare piston cups, 1 year guarantee, irrigate up to 2 hectares in one day, 5 distributors and several dealers throughout the country. Any readers interested in becoming a small scale farmer?

I thought this would be easier

It felt good to get to Lusaka. Malawi had been a lot more difficult than I had anticipated, but I made it through and was sure Zambia would be easier. It’s much more developed, as evidenced by the Samsung Galaxy advertisements that dot the highway into town and the skinny jeans wearing teenagers that hangout at the shopping mall, which would make things, I presumed, a little easier and more comfortable. And most significantly, I had already done everything that had to be done. I had made a lot of mistakes on the first go of this work in Malawi, but I had learned a lot from that initial set up and was sure Zambia would go fairly smoothly. Sweet Lord, David, you foolish and naive piece of crap, have you learned anything in your three years working in developing countries?

Things started out innocently enough, but really took a turn for the worst on Monday when I started to feel pretty sick. It was a beautifully sunny 80 degrees and I had the chills. The only good thing about having a fever here is that the stupidly hot taxi rides, which usually leave you with a nasty ring of back sweat that creeps through your shirt, actually offered some relief as the baking inside of a 1980s Corolla felt pretty good when I was finding the outside temp to be too chilly for my depleting health. But at least you can self medicate in developing countries. And by self medicate, I mean take your medical advice from the Indian kid that looks about half your age standing behind the counter of the walk in pharmacy. Yes sir, I will take this alka seltzer/vitamin C combo that you have suggested and sold to me for $5.

So that’s what I did for the next three days, chug alka seltzer just to get through the busy work days before I could make it back to a shitty hotel room and collapse into bed at 6pm to try to sleep it off before the following morning. They were fitful nights, spent either shivering cold or sweltering hot, and as my physical health deteriorated by the day, my mental well being was shot by Tuesday. I won’t go into the details as to why (there’s just too much pain to relive), I’ll just say that feeling as if you’re constantly being misled or lied to is very, very hard to emotionally deal with. In any case, by Friday, I was at least physically feeling a little bit better, around 70%. At that point, with two data collectors hired and trained, I was nearing the home stretch. Just had to get the phones hooked up and send them to the wild.

Just get the phones hooked up. Shamie (one of the enumerators I hired who sports purplish hair and smacks her chewing gum during the interview), can you please give me the phone I gave you this morning, so that we may finish things up? Shamie? Where’s the $300 phone? How the f’ have you lost the phone within two hours of me giving it to you? You’ve got to be kidding me. Daggers fly out of my eyes and straight into her heart. I picture myself picking her up and lifting her above my head, spinning her around a few times before throwing her as hard as I can to the pavement, a quick kick to her midsection before leaving here there helpless. Instead, I just tell Shamie and Cuthbert, the other enumerator I hired, to go home while I figure out what next. My immediate next, after getting rid of both of them, was to find a bar. Two beers in, nursing my fever and emotional distress, boarding the next flight out of Lusaka and back to the US sounded like the best option for everyone involved.

But the following morning was a new day. I had decided that it was unlikely that Shamie stole the phone. I’ll never be 100% confident that that’s true, but I give her the benefit of the doubt for a lot of reasons, and though buying another phone in Lusaka wasn’t an option, I could leave her with my phone to get the job done. I called her and Cuthbert to meet up again in the afternoon for the final send-off. I spent the better part of the first 15 minutes of the meeting with Shamie lecturing about the seriousness of losing that phone, about making a sizeable deduction from her pay, about how disappointing it is to get started like this, and about how if something like this were to happen again, she’d be gone. And I spent the better part of the first 10 minutes of the meeting with Cuthbert lecturing about responsibility and timeliness after he showed up an hour and twenty minutes late. Not exactly the smooth start in Lusaka I had envisioned when I had arrived. Then I finished as quickly as I could, wishing them luck in the field, and getting rid of them as quickly as possible. I had better things to do with the afternoon.

I checked myself into the Southern Sun and spent the rest of the weekend reminding myself, with the help of the top notch staff, what it felt like to be in a place where things just work. No hassle, mental breakdowns, or frustration required. Checking into the hotel was me waving the white flag. Zambia wins. You are not easier than Malawi...not by a long shot. You are equally tough, maddening, and humbling. And as good as I thought it felt to arrive in your capital city, it’ll feel better to leave.