This is Africa

5 May 2017

Before you start reading, I would like to stress that my company is all about the opportunities of doing (social) business in Africa. We do not like to focus on the problems of the continent, or using clichés to frame the lives of its inhabitants (needy, poor, etc). But every once in a while, you have to write off your frustrations, my psychiatrist tells me. That time has come.

Many would say the most powerful three words around have something to do with love. They are absolutely mistaken. Anyone that has ever done business in Africa, will know that the three words of almost ultimate power are often referred to as TIA: “This Is Africa”. Words that have made grown men (and undoubtedly grown women) cry. Words that represent the biggest fears a business person has: complete randomness and unpredictability. Because they mean “no matter what your logic, ratio or right is, it is completely inferior to the fact that things just happen the way they do on this continent”. Because if you are very strict on not allowing bribery and palm-greasing and want to do something new; this story is likely what you’ll get in many African countries.

The last 10 months of business Closing the Loop did in Africa can be summarized as “Aaaaaarrggg!!!!” Just as I am tying this, my colleague who is now in Rwanda, tells me the transport we have been trying to get on the road for the last year, has to be investigated by customs, again. Yes… we have spent almost a year (!) getting shipments out of three countries. The total of the three is around 700.000 phones, of which almost 20.000 have been collected for Fairphone. Now that we are so very close to the actual transport, I wanted to reflect a bit on why is has been so extremely difficult to get to this point.

First, the boring part, so bear with me. At the end of the last century, the world decided it would be better if waste wasn’t dumped in developing countries. Hooray for that! But 20 years later, it also means it is very difficult to ship ‘hazardous’ waste (such as end-of-life phones) out of Africa. And yes, that means waste which can’t be recycled in countries such as Uganda, stays in that country because international laws make it very difficult to export it. Even if the transport is to countries where the waste can be recycled safely. Yes, mindboggling indeed…

But that’s the international side of it. For that part, we thank the Lord we have OVAM on our side, the Flemish equivalent of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Thank you, thank you for:

  • Helping us find the right contact person – because most countries we work in have never given out a permit to export mobile phone waste.
  • Helping to explain to these countries how the permitting procedure works.
  • Convincing them that we are not a bunch of idiots but actually want to prevent this waste from causing harm.
  • Or (to show what we have to deal with), sending a fax to Zambia, because that’s the only way they could to be contacted (TIA).

But then, the practical side of getting a permit. To get there, you need a key ingredient essential for African business… Huge amounts of patience. For example, we once waited 6 weeks for someone to put their signature on a paper. Just imagine what it feels like when you really need a signature ASAP and every day, you hear “Yes, it is still on his desk. Yes, he still needs to sign it.” For 6 weeks… It think the best word for it would be ‘torture’ (or TIA).

In Africa, people are used to waiting and have lots of patience. For us, this is something to get used to.

This sounds like a recipe for disaster and a reason to give up, but anyone that knows me will know we persevered. We took the challenge and decided that a healthy dose of patience will get us there.

If you want to know how we progressed from here, you will need some patience too. Check back on Tuesday for the conclusion of this story…

Joost de Kluijver