Among our varied assignments as volunteers, Big Beyond asked me to help several local business efforts with developing a business plan, marketing, packaging, and so on. I had an MBA and some experience. I was happy to try.
In the West, markets, supply chains, contract laws, and all the tools and infrastructure needed for business are so incredibly well-developed, the concepts I studied in business school often seemed like abstractions. But in Africa these problems are right in your face. I had already been stunned by the sheer volume of commerce on the terrible roads of Madagascar, where almost everything must be carried from farm and field to market on foot or zebu cart. It was such a contrast to the US, where cargo is swiftly and almost invisibly whisked from automated ports to the loading docks behind big box stores by rail and container trucks, and fresh produce arrives year-round by plane from wherever it’s summer.
In the days following the race, we discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly. It would take two or three weeks and cost nearly $500 to print another batch of T-shirts, and how would they make sure the shirts were distributed only to those who didn’t already get one? Was it worth it?
Karel and I pointed out that race generated an enormous amount of good will for Big Beyond, which could be leveraged to accomplish many of their goals. But that good will, built over four years, had been wiped out in an hour. They could recuperate if they came through on their promises. Going forward, they needed to manage expectations. Tell everyone the truth about how long it would take, and any other issues. As for the distribution problem, that was totally of their own making and I had trouble mustering any sympathy for their dilemma. They knew they were going to run out of shirts the morning of the race, but made no attempt to keep track of who got one and who didn’t. If necessary, we advised, print extra T-shirts. Hold some in reserve for next year’s race, when a few disgruntled runners would surely pop out of the woodwork, complaining they never got their shirt. The cost would be worth it to ensure that everyone who was promised a shirt actually got one.
What a crucible of customer relations!
And this touched on another aspect of business, namely, contracts. In the West, we have such strong laws to enforce contracts and property rights, we take most of it for granted. We transact business with strangers over large distances and lengthy time scales on a daily basis, trusting the banks, the delivery services, and other agents to handle the transfer of funds and merchandise seamlessly and at reasonable cost. When something goes wrong, we usually have some kind of effective recourse, backed by the legal system. We leave our locked cars unattended on city streets. With the exception of ground-floor apartments in major cities, we don’t have bars across our windows. Relative to other places in the world, we operate on a fairly level playing field, with laws and costs and opportunities that are meant to apply the same to everyone. We’re confident that a local official won’t swoop in and confiscate our property without good justification and fair compensation. I’m not saying the system is always perfect and fair—far from it. But the system in the US and much of Europe is light years beyond what I’ve seen elsewhere.
Our experience of our highly functional system in the West creates a culture of trust. Trust creates confidence—you believe that people will abide by their agreements, and so you’re willing to take the small risks involved in generating commerce. This positive pathway—enforceable contracts > trust > confidence > willingness to take risks—leads to lower transaction costs, which means more of the value of the commerce goes into the most productive elements of the transactions.
Now imagine an economy in which the police intervene only if you pay them to do so, or if they wish to confiscate something. Chances are, a stolen item isn’t valuable enough to justify the cost to you to get it back from a thief. Imagine a large company wants to buy your farm land to build condominiums for IT workers, and the government officials, whom the company have bribed, force you to sell? This is going on in India right now. Imagine you want to send your children to school. The cost per child might be only $40 per year, but you have no cash, and the school won’t accept chickens or piglets or baskets of rice as payment. Imagine that ten years ago a bank opened in the village and convinced you and your neighbors to deposit your precious cash reserves for “safekeeping.” Then five years ago there was a coup, or a war, or an economic collapse, and your money was taken or became worthless. Imagine that every few years the politicians and NGOs and international corporations ride into town, promising jobs and roads and schools and medical care. Just as suddenly, they disappear again, except the forest you depended on has been cut down, the new road you were using to bring your cash crop to market washed away in the last rainy season, and there are no teachers or doctors to staff the schools and clinics your village built.
If this was your economic “system,” you would have very different notions about risks and transaction costs. A large portion of the value of your produce would be frittered away. Anything you built would probably be destroyed, anything you saved would probably be taken, so why bother? In fact, it would be stupid, insane even, to try. If someone showed up offering free bottles of water, your instinct might be to grab whatever you could as quickly as possible. And if someone promised to give you a T-shirt after you ran 10 or 20 km, you might be bitterly disappointed if they failed to deliver, and highly skeptical about their promises to come through in a few weeks.
All things considered, it’s amazing that people around the world still manage to be fair and honest and to treat strangers as kindly as they do.
In spite of the problems, the future of the Bwindi Mountain Gorilla Trail Run looked promising. I have friends who are ultra-runners. I know there are crazy people out there who travel thousands of miles for the privilege of running 20, 50, or 100 miles in some amazing location—and the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is truly amazing. With some better organization and planning, a few sponsorships, and some outreach, they could turn the race into a small, but renowned, international event that would boost eco-tourism and the local economy.
By the way, if any of you readers of this blog know of adventurous trekkers or runners looking for a novel challenge, I highly, highly recommend a trip to Bwindi. The scenery is fantastic. The land is riddled with trails and dotted with villages. The people are friendly; you can buy something to eat or hire a bota bota just about anywhere. The forest reserve is ringed with tourist lodges, and yet the location is remote and hard to reach. Just be sure to check the weather (come during a dry season) and the current politics (avoid periods of unrest, in Uganda or just across the border—these are serious, you don’t want to be in the middle of that!), and the latest reports on poaching (another very real hazard to avoid), and figure out your budget (once you get there, you can do this super-cheap if you are truly intrepid and can handle local accommodations and food (bring water-purifying tablets), or you can pay the shockingly high prices for Western comforts at the lodges).
Nope, not easy. But if you can handle the challenge, totally worth it.