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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.

Day-to-day

| June 4, 2008

The popular crowd

Trucker is a popular profession in Africa. Not only does it pay comparatively well, it also offers drivers an opportunity to run all sorts of businesses on the side, such as smuggling cigarettes, transporting passengers and diverting fuel.

A representative of a Zimbabwean trucking company tells the story of one driver who didn’t bother to collect his salary for 1.5 years because the other opportunities that come along with the profession were so much more lucrative.

Besides, Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation would have rendered his salary worthless almost instantly. The money that bought a four-bedroom house last year might not even buy an egg today. This month, the Zimbabwean government introduced a Z$50 billion banknote—about 45 U.S. dollars.

Obviously, transportation companies would prefer drivers focus on the activity that they are paid for—driving. Some estimate fuel theft accounts for 10 percent of total consumption. Carrying passengers, meanwhile, presents a liability risk. If a truck is involved in an accident, the trucking company will be held responsible for any injured passengers.

It also increases wear and tear. Truck cabins are designed to hold two people, not 12.

Malawian truckers passing time while waiting to unload tobacco

But it’s difficult to stop the side businesses. Hitching rides is a way of life in Africa, where the distances are long and few people own vehicles. And fuel diversion is simply seen as a way of helping make ends meet.

The Zimbabwean trucking official says that, in order to operate here, you must understand the African mentality. With life expectancies as low as 37 years, many Africans live from day to day. They simply don’t have the luxury of long-term planning or worrying about tomorrow. In such an environment, the little extra money earned today outweighs the prospect of still having your job next year.

The trick, he says, is to work the system in such a way that there is enough room for drivers to steal fuel, while still allowing the trucking companies to make a profit.

Cobs and robbers

| June 3, 2008

Papers please

We encounter our first police stop at the outskirts of Lilongwe, but the officer waves us through. Malawi police are relatively relaxed, and those in Mozambique have gotten much better as the country’s economy improves. In the 1990s, with memories of the civil war still fresh, the police in Mozambique were notorious for shaking down travelers, charging them with bogus offences such as “driving with sunglasses.”

In an attempt to improve the country’s image and make it a more attractive destination for investors, the government has cracked down on corruption. Also, as Mozambique’s peace endures, a sense of normalcy has returned, and government officials appear to take their responsibilities more seriously. Most significantly, officers’ salaries are said to have increased.

The level of harassment has an inverse relationship to poverty. Zimbabwean police, who were fine during the 1990s, now present a great hassle to truck drivers. The change mirrors Zimbabwe’s demise from regional breadbasket to basketcase. With the country’s hyperinflation outstripping pay rises, Zimbabweans have been forced to supplement their incomes in whatever way they can.

Congo, where a tense peace holds, is a risky destination too. When a Congolese police officer asks for your driver’s license, you’d better show it from behind the windshield, says Alex. Otherwise, he might charge you $100 to get it back.

Alex spots a buddy truck driver and pulls over to chat. His friend says he spent four days waiting at the Zimbabwean border for customs to clear his truck. During an earlier trip, Zimbabwean officials fined him $60 for being overloaded. But the scales in Mozambique, and later in Malawi, showed his weight was well below the legal limits.

Alex is concerned about violence during the upcoming elections in Zimbabwe. He will ask Transcom Sharaf’s management for permission to bypass that country during trips from Malawi to South Africa.

Alex

| June 2, 2008

Today, we will drive the first part of our journey, from Lilongwe to Tete, where we will spend the night near Mozambique Leaf Tobacco Co.’s leaf processing facility. Our cargo: 20 tons of Malawi burley from Alliance One, destined for Philip Morris Germany.

To ensure their guest is comfortable, Transcom Sharaf has assigned me to their fleet’s latest and most modern vehicle: A Freightliner hot off the boat from the United States. (The company uses only previously owned trucks; new ones would be hard to justify on Africa’s punishing roads.)

Freshly painted in company colors, the truck has received a clean bill of health from Transcom Sharaf’s mechanics. The cabin has been vacuumed and the engine is humming nicely. Climate controls and advanced suspension technology will minimize the discomfort associated with travel in Africa.

But there is one problem—my driver is missing a leg.

Guy Harvey assures me I will be fine. The truck is equipped with automatic transmission and Alex is Trancom Sharaf’s best driver hands down. He can make it to Johannesburg, South Africa, in only three days, and—unlike some other drivers—takes good care of his vehicles, slowing down for potholes and inspecting his vehicle at every stop.

He also doesn’t drink alcohol. And if that’s not enough to gain my confidence, there’s the sticker on the dashboard, reminding passengers to relax, because “God is in control.”

In 2006, Alex pulled into a truck stop in Tete to spend the night. When thieves attempted to steal his cargo, he decided to look for a safer place closer to the MLT factory. On the way, he pulled over to chat with a friend. As they were talking on the side of the road, the truck suddenly slid off the embankment and tipped over, pinning Alex’s lower body under the front windshield pillar. It took nearly five hours to free him.

The doctors at Tete hospital wanted to amputate both legs, which would have ended Alex’s career as a truck driver. But Guy Harvey insisted on a second opinion. With the help of a MLT doctor, they managed to save one leg. Alex spent a month recovering at a Zimbabwe hospital.

The accident didn’t deter Alex. Upon return to Transcom Sharaf, he insisted on driving again. He also maintained his sense of humor. When he was fitted with a prosthesis, Alex reportedly complained that he would have preferred a white leg.

While hesitant at first, Transcom Sharaf’s management decided to give Alex an opportunity to prove his one-legged driving skills. Today, he is the company’s head driver and senior instructor.

Diesel

| June 2, 2008

No laughing matter

In addition to accelerated vehicle wear and tear, transportation companies operating in Africa incur another expense that their counterparts in Europe and the United States seldom have to take into account—fuel theft by drivers. The driver will stop and sell small quantities of diesel to villagers, who siphon it out of the fuel tank into a drum.

There are plenty of takers. At frequent intervals, we encounter people waving jerry cans alongside the road, soliciting a sale.

The quantities per sale are relatively small—the disappearance of 20 liters from a 1,000-liter gas tank will go unnoticed—but they add up quickly when you take into account the number of drivers and trips. In a back-of-the-envelop calculation, Guy Harvey reckons that Transcom Sharaf loses about $350,000 per year to fuel theft. “And that’s a conservative estimate,” he says.

Fuel theft is difficult to prevent. When the company fitted its fuel tanks with anti-siphoning devices, drivers used the breather hole instead. One driver reportedly even diverted his truck’s fuel lines to a drum in his cabin, filling it up drip by drip.

It’s a cat and mouse game, and the drivers always seem to be one step ahead. “These guys spend a long hours alone on the road, says Guy Fawcett, managing director of Transcom Sharaf Malawi. “They have lots of time to come up with ways to divert fuel.”


But the driver is not always to blame. Alex recalls a trip to Congo, when a young boy asked him to fill a small Coca-Cola bottle with diesel to use for lighting at his home. Alex took pity but quickly regretted his generosity. As was filling the bottle, the entire village lined up with drums and cans, and some of the men indicated that refusal would not be an option.

He lost 500 liters of diesel that day.

Me too.

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.