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Lilongwe, Malawi

| May 30, 2008

Insiders quip that the transportation business will turn your hair fully gray by age 40. This prediction could of course easily be dismissed as one of those professional folklores that can be heard in any line of business where a heavy workload is common. But in transportation and logistics, premature aging actually seems to be a realistic prospect.

The biggest contributor to stress—and thus, aging—is the fact that many factors are beyond control, explains Guy Harvey, chief executive of Transcom Sharaf, a provider of supply chain solutions that specializes in tobacco. “There are so many variables,” he says. Road conditions, custom formalities and vehicle maintenance insert a degree of unpredictability into the business that makes planning challenging to say the least. Flexibility—together with a healthy sense of humor—is the key to survival.

The challenges facing transportation firms worldwide are amplified in places such as southern Africa, where Transcom Sharaf operates. Potholes, red tape and a poorly developed support infrastructure require a dogged determination from any operator in this part of the world. Driving 1,000 km might take 12 hours in the European Union, but in Africa, you need three days.

Vehicle maintenance presents an enormous expense. Parts that last a lifetime on the roads of Europe or the United States must frequently be replaced in Africa. And because none of those parts are produced locally, they must all be imported, adding to shipping and storage cost.

In the workshop, Harvey guides me past shredded tires, bent axils and deformed hubcaps. Later, he hands me an undefined piece of metal with what looks like a hose clamp melted into it. It is all that was left of a tractor-trailer after a head-on collision with another truck.

“When we ordered a replacement spring bushes, the U.S. manufacturer could not understand why we needed them,” recalls Harvey, picking up a piece of metal encased in shredded rubber. The only time American truck operators might need to replace this part is in case of a serious accident. On the African roads, by contrast, replacing spring bushes is part of regular maintenance.

Harvey has invited me to experience the African roads for myself. Tomorrow, I will join his head driver, Alex Nkalamba, on an 1,100 km journey to Beira.

Category: Blogs, Out of Africa

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