Archive for June, 2008

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One journey ends, another begins

| June 28, 2008

All aboard!

With the container delivered to Beira, our journey has come to an end. Alex will return to Lilongwe with a load of grain, and I will fly back to the United States to prepare an article for Tobacco Reporter’s print issue about the logistics of tobacco in southern Africa.

Our cargo, on the other hand, has only started its long voyage to Philip Morris Germany. The container has been booked on the MSC Chaneca, which will sail on June 15. The vessel will take it to Durban, South Africa, where it will probably sit for a few days until it can be loaded onto a mainliner—one of those huge containerships that traverse the high seas.

Depending on where else the mainliner will call—Rotterdam or perhaps Antwerp—the journey to Bremen can take up to four weeks.

When Philip Morris’ employees finally unload the Malawi tobacco in late July or early August, they are unlikely to reflect on the dedicated efforts and careful coordination that made the delivery possible.

And why should they?

See ya

After all, if the transportation companies are doing their jobs well, their clients will never have a clue about the obstacles that must be overcome to get them their tobacco—unless, of course, they’ve followed this blog or are a regular reader of Tobacco Reporter.


| June 10, 2008

Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation continues to fascinate me.

I’ve seen photos of people getting trays full of change after paying for a beer in a bar. The money depreciates so quickly that Zimbabweans must spend their earnings instantly on items that hold their value better than the does beleaguered currency—which is pretty much anything these days.

Apparently, Zimbabwean prostitutes have even been demanding payment in diesel.

I try to picture people paying for big-ticket items such as cars in these circumstances. Would there be enough space in the showroom to hold the cash?

It’s not an entirely unrealistic vision, because many African economies are cash-only. In Malawi, for example, few people have access to credit because there is no national identification system. Without birth certificates, it is almost impossible for people to prove they are who they say they are.

When Transcom’s Guy Fawcett purchased a pickup truck recently, he had to bring US$30,000 in cash to the dealership—and then the saleswoman tried to trick him by folding one stack of notes in a way that made it seem as if there wasn’t enough money.

So, while many things are done differently in Africa, the ethics of salespeople appear to be consistent with those of their counterparts in the West.


| June 6, 2008

Even as the Mozambican police force is less corrupt than it was in the past, plenty of parties continue to demand “facilitation fees.”

Prior to entering the port of Beira, truck drivers must clear their paperwork at a decrepit customs building just outside the gate. Some 20 young men are hanging around with no obvious purpose. I meet the gaze of one of them, and he responds with a hand gesture that I assume to be the local variant of a raised middle finger.

As Alex enters the customs building he slips the apparent ringleader a few banknotes—the price of trouble-free passage.

In the port, money changes hands again. First to persuade the operator of a reach-stacker (a giant forklift) to unload our container now—instead of whenever he might feel like it.

And when he goes to collect his return cargo, grain, he “tips” the foreman of the load crew to get to work straight away. After a few days in Mozambique, I understand why.

A truck weigh station operator who got nothing kept babbling on his cell phone as trucks lined up for the scale. Remarkably, Alex pays the “fees” out of his own pocket. They allow him to deliver his loads faster and, ultimately, make more trips. The extra money earned that way more than compensates for the cost.

Back on the road again

| June 5, 2008

Traffic is light and consists mostly of trucks. We also encounter several overloaded busses heading in the opposite direction. “Mozambicans and Malawians fleeing anti-immigrant violence in South Africa,” explains Alex.

At times, he pulls over to chat with a fellow Transcom Sharaf driver. Because Alex’s truck is the newest and most modern in the fleet, the other drivers all want to check it out. Without exception, they are impressed, some whistling in admiration as they inspect the cabin.

Mine is faster

The bumpy journey continues. While most potholes are a result of poor maintenance, some have been made intentionally, says Alex.

Thieves will break the pavement, making it easier to steal the load from passing trucks, which must now slow down to avoid the manmade potholes.

Break-bulk is most susceptible to theft, but the thieves go for containers also. “They’ll just use chain cutters,” says Alex.

Processed tobacco is a less popular target than, say, fertilizer, which can be easily sold.

To deter theft, Transcom Sharaf covers break-bulk in nets. “It’s not invincible, but if the thief has a choice between a covered and an uncovered load, hopefully he will target the uncovered one,” says Guy Harvey.

Who wants to be a billionaire?

| June 4, 2008

The new Zimdollar is a note of 5 billion, not 50 billion as I wrote earlier. All the same, it means that Zimbabwe not only has the world’s best performing stockmarket, but also the greatest number of billionaires.
Five billion Zimbabwe dollars equals US$2.50 today–probably half of that tomorrow. Have fun counting zeros when buying that house or car.


Slow-motion slalom

| June 4, 2008

Hold on tight

The first part of our journey progresses smoothly. Malawi’s roads appear to be in relatively good condition. I mentioned that to Guy Harvey upon arrival in Lilongwe, but he just grinned. “Just wait until you get to Mozambique,” he said.

But the roads on the other side of the border are just as smooth. “This stretch was built in 2005,” says Alex. We cruise along at a steady 70 km per hour and I am starting to suspect Guy may have exaggerated

Then we hit Changara.

The asphalt ahead looks as if it’s been hit by a cluster bomb. Some of the craters are deep enough to bathe a small child in, and Alex must slow the truck to a crawl. Bouncing violently in our seats he navigates around the potholes, sometimes driving around them and sometimes going straight through.

“If I approach a hole from the wrong angle I could tip the truck,” he explains. At times, the best option is driving next to the pavement.

I ask Alex about the red-and-white tapes tied between poles at regular intervals alongside the road. “Landmines,” he explains. A decade after the end of Mozambique’s civil war, many areas remain infested with unexploded ammunition.

Cross at your own risk

When I relief myself along the roadside, I prudently aim for the pavement rather than into the bush.

We are overtaken by a Toyota Landcruiser and a bicycle. But with 20 tons of precious tobacco in tow, we must continue our slow-motion slalom. The speedometer never exceeds 10 km per hour.

Two children are “fixing” the road by throwing sand in the potholes. Alex hands them some money, but then grumbles that they should be in school.

After three-and-and-half hours, we hit Guro and the road starts improving.