Life without AC

It’s great to be back in Abidjan for a few weeks, even if it is the hottest month. Of course people think Dubai is always scorching hot, when in fact it’s far cooler than Abidjan at this time of year, and with plenty of air-conditioning to boot. In Abidjan we’re staying at a relative’s place in the heart of Cocody and there’s no AC in sight. But we’re sleeping well – we’re in an old third floor apartment and with an electric fan and the wooden window shutters open there’s a cool breeze. There’s something about sleeping with the windows wide open during a tropical storm.

In fact it’s great to transition into a simpler life. There’s always water (I drink the tap water here, which I rarely do in Dubai), the shower is so refreshing in the heat, there’s a good breeze (no window panes needed) and the electricity has been reliable so far, which is the norm here. There are occasional thundery showers which only add to the comfort of sleeping more exposed to the elements.

I do really miss the car that I had here though. It is pretty sticky and with taxis lacking air-conditioning, it’s hard to ever feel at your best. The prospect of getting caught in a hot and sticky traffic jam does much to take the drive out of doing more during my time here.

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Akendewa e-book and concerns

A few days ago I bought a promotional e-book on Akendewa, an association of young Ivorian web enthusiasts. It’s written in French by Jean-Patrick Ehouman, a friend of mine and one of the main driving forces behind Akendewa, of which I am a member. I knew of the book’s existence for a while, but I hadn’t owned a Kindle until recently and I only recently recalled the book’s existence.

I wasn’t a founder member of Akendewa, though I remember hearing about it within hours of the association being set-up, from friends Frederic Tape and Paul Sika. I met Jean-Patrick at a barcamp organised just before Akendewa was formed, and went to every barcamp since, until the 2013 edition. There was an excitement about the movement in those early years.

The book was written at what from a certain perspective might be seen as the height of the Akendewa movement’s trajectory. The book is full of vision about what’s to come, and I confess to being a little disappointed that the momentum hasn’t seemed to continue. I hope this is just a false impression given from now being slightly removed from the scene, but there are a few warning signs that raise my eyebrows. I first started worrying when at barcamp 2011 I asked to be a member and it took 18 months for these membership applications to be processed. Ditto for the ‘annual subscription’ which no-one seems to be interested in collecting.

Let me go through some of the initiatives outlined in the book, especially the list of Akendewa projects that take up the final third of the book…

- From barcamp 2011 in October of that year (just a few months after the post-electoral crisis) it took until December 2013 for the next barcamp, the biggest gap yet. As a reminder, these are the biggest gatherings organised by Akendewa. I haven’t yet seen mention of barcamp Abidjan 2014.

- The Akendewa blog was only updated twice in 2012, and not since May 2012.

- On a slightly more positive note, the Akendewa group (open) on Facebook continues to see members post there regularly, though the debates that were once held seem to have declined, suggesting that people are using it for marketing but not exchange. A post by leading web mover, Dr Antoine Tako, which read: “Au vu du foisonnement et du dynamisme dans le milieu des TICs, au niveau de la communauté de bien entendu, cette année sera-t-elle l’année du vrai boom de l’économie numérique en CIV? En Afrique? Sinon que manque-t-il?” (Given the abundance and dynamism in the ICT sector, at a community level, will this year be the year of the real boom of the digital economy in CIV? In Africa? Otherwise what’s missing?) on 13 Feb has received zero comments and zero likes. You have to scroll down quite a way (two weeks) till you get either a post that has more than 10 likes or that has more than a single comment. I’m writing this in a rush, but scrolling down and down I can’t find the last entry in the group that has anything concrete to do with Akendewa, or its activities, or an event which carries its logo.

- The brightest spot is the Akendewa facebook account, which seems to show regular activity and information. Tres bien.

- Born in the post-election crisis, the #civsocial hashtag seems still to be getting regular use on Twitter. The website doesn’t appear to have been touched since January 2013, when it came into action during the New Year’s stampede in Plateau. So, still certainly a useful tool for situations as they arrive, but there doesn’t seem to be a vision on how to move forward with this.

- The Akendewa webschool website tells us it’s ‘Coming soon’.

- The Akwachi website project gives an error when loading, page not found. The Twitter account shows no followers, and no tweets (though some show up in the list).

- The Wonzomai website links to some Chinese spam. The twitter account hasn’t been updated since 18 April 2011. The same Chinese spam seems to have taken over the mobilehackaf website as well.

- Finally, and to end on a more positive note, the Matinées Kakou Ananzè, workshops do seem to have restarted after a long hiatus, though the Akendewa blog hasn’t mentioned anything about them since October 2011. However an event took place in January and I think another is planned for this month. The only other place where I can see a bit of life in Akendewa is on Google+ where mention has been made of these events in around four posts in the last couple of months (the first posts since 2012).

Maybe much of this is just a communications problem. But still, at the very least, the web presence of Akendewa seems on the moribund side, and that’s no advertisement for the Ivorian web community, even if things are happening ‘off-line’.

In conclusion, Akendewa made a great start, and I still believe it has a lot of potential. But there is a sense that some of the initial energy and dynamism is dissipating, sadly at a time when the IT revolution is only just happening. Ivory Coast needs a strong Akendewa in the next five years – it was created for such a time as this. I recognize that individual members are still dynamic, and that there are a host of different meetings under new organisations and under particular individual’s steam. However, working together could bring stronger results. These things were meant to build and build a movement.

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West African stock exchange report 2013

To continue a trend from 12 months ago, I thought I’d give you a little update on how my portfolio of shares is doing on the Abidjan-based West African stock exchange (BRVM). There’s been a bit more media buzz in 2013 about African stock markets (in fact I don’t recall seeing much comment at all on the subject before that). As a reminder, I started investing as an individual in 2011. In the first year my portfolio gained 17.8%, then 27.2% last year.

I was able to invest a little bit more at the beginning of the year, though my portfolio is still quite small. Everything’s managed by my bank, and to be honest they are extremely inactive by Western standards, but I won’t complain seen as the results seem to be good.

This year I’m up…29.2%. Not bad, eh? That’s despite taking my first ever significant hit, which was on natural rubber shares, which plummeted quite sharply as the global market took (what looks like a long-term) nose dive, and the Ivorian government also introduced new taxes on rubber. The first quarter of the year was good as people built up to expectations of high dividends. The middle period of the year was quiet, but particularly since the exchange moved to real-time trading, the market has been rising nicely.

Compared to other investments in Ivory Coast, I think it’s a relatively safe way in. Capitalisation is low, and the market can be surprisingly nonreactive – shares for instance weren’t much affected by the post-election disaster of 2010-11. But particularly for the diaspora, I think the exchange is a great way to be investing and involved, without the risk of some second cousin stealing from your investment or getting hit by a scam/corrupt official.

To get going, it’s standard to need an account with the bank you’ll be using and a minimum investment of 1 million CFA (about $2000). As a reminder, the CFA franc is fixed to the euro, so you don’t have much in the way of exchange rate issues.

Given the majority of the companies listed are Ivorian, the Ivorian economy is the one to watch (though Sonatel is by far the biggest company listed). The coming year looks to see continuing upward trends for the Ivorian economy with reconciliation starting to inch forward and security improving. The African Development Bank should move many of their staff back this year, the government plans a boost to public investments and a series of state privatizations will increase the number of listed companies on the exchange. Presidential elections are on the horizon in 2015 and will of course be a big test.

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Addition – The final day of the year saw a decent rise, so my actual 2013 rise in value was 31.4%.

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Leadership and institutions

Three things jumped out at me from reading the latest edition of the magazine ‘Foreign Affairs’. The first article in the Sept-Oct issue is an interview with Senegal’s president Macky Sall, who in the first question is asked to explain his country’s five decades of stability and multiparty competition. His response is “It stems from a long historical process”, including a “flexible and robust” constitution and “stable institutions”. As keen as I am to be optimistic about Ivory Coast, I don’t think any of us can avoid being a little bit reserved about the future – African countries emerging from conflict are so vulnerable to slipping back into violence. And what of institutions, in a country when 2010 exposed the sham of any apolitical strength in either the state or civil society? Yao N’Dre casts a long shadow.

Two other articles, one after the other, formed an interesting juxtaposition later in the magazine. An article on the rise of ‘the rest’ of India starts with a brief of profile of Nitish Kumar, chief minister of the Indian state of Bihar, one of the country’s poorest. Taking over a crime-ridden and corrupt state in 2005, he cracked down, improved the courts, enhanced agricultural yields and boosted the construction sector. “Within a few years, a state once described by the writer V.S. Naipaul as ‘the place where civilization ends’ had built one of the fastest-growing state economies in India.” The next article is on the African resource course and starts by describing the seizure of the Malibu mansion belonging to the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, a country with 400,000 bpd of oil and only 700,000 citizens. The mansion was worth $30 million, with 8 Ferraris and $3.2 million of Michael Jackson memorabilia among other items.

Maybe I’m just odd by not putting too much value in luxury goods, but I still struggle to get into the rationale of some leaders who have such extreme visions of their roles. Surely transforming the lives of the people under your authority in your village/state/town/country is a noble and exciting challenge, rather than investing an eighty Italian sports car and a T-shirt once worn by a pop star? Do the latter have no concept of creating a legacy, a positive mark on the world and a reputation that can echo through the ages?

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Reflections on YCD

Long time followers of this site, will remember that a while back I mentioned the Young, Creative and Digital evenings that I set up with a couple of friends in Abidjan. In total, we organised three (I think) following a similar format of short interactive presentations and some sort of performance in the second half with drinks and nibbles. The idea was to have an evening for exchange between young people involved in the web/tech/design/fashion/culture sectors.

So how did it go? The starting principal was that you don’t need very much to go ahead with this sort of thing. We financed ourselves through a few people giving 20,000 cfa to get the thing off the ground. Thanks to the provision of a venue by the folks at AMN, it was all quite simple. Sadly the organisation was a bit irregular, but I think all three evenings served a purpose and helped moved things along a bit. They also got more and more organised, so that was good.

Sadly there haven’t been any YCD evenings since my departure, which probably means it wasn’t sustainable. Having said that there has been an incredible flowering of tech meetings and organisations, almost none of which predate YCD, so perhaps we were able to show in some small way that things are possible with a bit of effort. Abidjan doesn’t necessarily need YCD now – if anything there is a need for less meetings and more concrete action to build a living and breathing community. Still, I think YCD was special because it tried to reach out a bit from the web sector to the arts and culture. In a sense it was trying to capture a movement of young people wanting to exploit the possibilities of 21st century technology to build a new Abidjan, that could have an influence well beyond the country’s borders. That’s a work in progress.

 

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Drogbascountry – the future

As you’ve probably worked out by now, I’m no longer living in Abidjan. Do I miss the place? Of course. But a change of scene to Dubai has been beneficial. After five years in Abidjan, it was a time to have new experiences, though I sincerely hope to return to Abidjan in the future. That’s unlikely to be an empty promise as my current work finishes at the end of 2014 and I’ve kept my house in Abidjan.

I’ll still be blogging here every now and again and I still try and keep in touch with what’s going on back ‘home’. Thanks to the web that’s as possible as ever – most of my Facebook and Twitter friends/followers are Ivorian, and with the help of my wife I’m still speaking and eating Ivorian at home. Every morning, I read my (PDF) copy of Fraternite Matin and go through the newspaper front pages and news stories on Abidjan.net.

Thoughts on Abidjan…

I left with very fond memories of Abidjan. My wife warns me that heading back from Dubai, the place looks a bit small, shabby and undeveloped, but that wasn’t what attracted me there. I have such close family and friends there, a sense of community, and I still have an excitement about the potential of the place.

Thoughts on the future….

On that note, I don’t think Abidjan has finished with me just yet. I have a Word document I keep going of ‘things to do when back living in Abidjan’, which has loads of exciting projects. I have some strange dreams including running a farm, and setting up a public opinion polling business. First though I’m keen to gain some new skills and experiences, and set up a more secure base for investments that could keep the kitchen stocked in the future. Plus I need to see my girls through university.

So, please keep returning to the blog and above all subscribe via RSS so that you’ll catch posts that will continue to appear here when I feel inspired. I’m actually starting a more personal blogging project at www.yaostravels.com so you’d be welcome to join me there – the content will be more personal and more diverse.

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Abidjanito

I’m not sure I ever mentioned my Abidjanito project on this site. It was an idea I worked on for a number of years in Abidjan, interrupted by the post-election crisis, and delayed by a long and eventually fruitless path with one Ivorian web designer, before eventually using the services of my friend Franck Baye at Madox. The idea was for a leisure time website giving information on hotels, restaurants etc, while also having a diary of what’s happening in Abidjan. I was actually initially in talks with Time Out, but the idea was a little too small for their sort of scale.

I wasn’t the first person to try this, though perhaps I tried to do more than others had tried in the past. I thought I could provide much better photos, professional reviews and bi-lingual content. The site’s been live for a year now – visitor numbers aren’t amazing and since leaving Abidjan, the website has received little attention from me.

What happened?

The initial problem was investing a lot of money in a web designer who took a long time to not build the final product I wanted. He got close, but not close enough. He had some strengths, but his failure to reply to emails and slowness almost scuppered the project. Things were a lot better with Madox although even here, things took far longer than initially promised due to switches between Joomla and Drupal as the software base for the site. To top it all off, I paid a writer to produce French content for me (a European), who promised 50 articles in two months and has produced about 20 articles in two years. I’m a little too trusting – perhaps I should stop paying people up front.

Then of course I left Abidjan just after launching which didn’t help. My assistant carried on some of the work, but the quality of the content and particularly the photos took a hit. The current strategy is to keep it ticking over and perhaps when I’m back I can do a thorough update. Hopefully I’ll be back in Abidjan for another extended period of time and I can give this another go. On the financial side, if I was able to generate even a small amount of money it would give me confidence to leap back in. Having said that, I do wonder about the value of such local sites compared to the Tripadvisors of this world.

Still, I think we have some unique content and more content than most in English, so hopefully it’s still useful even in its present form, and I learned a lot putting it together. It’s still early days for the internet in Abidjan and people don’t yet use the web for much outside social media, but that will likely change very quickly, very soon, though probably through mobile connections than computers.

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Abidjan taxi business

Many Ivorians in the diaspora (a category I technically fall into) invest their money back home – often in little projects – farming, construction, etc. The goal is often to build an investment portfolio back in the place where many expect/hope to eventually return. There’s also the idea of job creation for relatives. And frankly of getting better returns than a Western savings account.

And so when Ivorians meet abroad, the conversation frequently turns to such subjects – and often with a sadly recurring theme – how their hard earned savings that they thought they were investing, have in fact been stolen by some good-for-nothing cousin/sibling/uncle etc. The hardest challenge for any business seems to be obtaining trust and professionalism from those running the business back home.

Anyway, aware of these pit-falls, I’ve started a little project myself. As well as my house going on the rental market, I now have a taxi running the streets of the economic capital, allegedly with my name on the back bumper (although I haven’t seen photo proof of this yet).

Here’s how it works. Late December I commissioned my Dad and brother in the UK to find an old Toyota Corolla (the car of choice for taxis in Abidjan). There aren’t huge numbers available – due to age and perhaps previous exporters. I was looking for a 5-door, manual, diesel model – and making sure not to get one with a French engine inside (a pitfall a friend of mine fell into). They found one for a little under $2000, which then cost about $700 to ship to Abidjan. Passage through the port/customs took a few weeks and cost $3000, and then changing to left-hand drive, paperwork and other modifications to create a red/orange taxi cost about $2800. So total expense (and about 6 months waiting) leaves me with a taxi working the streets of Abidjan for $8500.

That’s a little bit more than I’d expected, but it’s still about $2000 less than buying a similar car all set-up from a forecourt in Abidjan. Was I cheated along the way? I have proof for all the expenses so I don’t think in a major way, though it’s remarkable how little of the original car’s purchase value in England is of total expense (less than a quarter).

Phase 2

So, after many months the car is now on the road. The economics work like this; there are two taxi drivers who work two days on, two days off, six days a week (the car rests on Sunday when there’s not much traffic). Each morning the driver gets the car with a full tank of fuel and must return it with a full tank in the evening, along with 17,000 cfa for a week day (or 15,000 cfa for a Saturday). These charges seems to be standard across the sector. Anything above that is the taxi driver’s income. I’d love to know how much they actually make on top of this – perhaps I can investigate this when things settle down.

My brother in law who runs the business gets 2,000 cfa (4 dollars) on the weekdays and 1,000 cfa on Saturdays. There are then several other expenses on a monthly basis including insurance, a secure car park space we hire and vehicle maintenance. Then of course there the breakdowns which are likely to become more and more frequent as age and Abidjan’s roads take their toll.

After four weeks, including a major breakdown in week 2, I’ve made 218,000 cfa ($400) after expenses. At such a rate, it’ll take me 73 more weeks to recuperate my investment. though hopefully breakdowns like week 2 will not be frequent. It’s certainly not a path to riches, and many don’t succeed. As far as I can see, the three key factors are i) not being cheated by your manager, ii) having a car that survives long enough to earn a profit, iii) not seeing revenue as profit, but realizing that the capital investment needs to be reimbursed and that for the business to continue, you’ll need a pot of money in two years’ time to purchase a replacement vehicle.

I’ll let you know how we get on! The government recently tried to crackdown on illegal taxi vehicles, so that should improve the market for me.

Posted in Economics | 3 Comments

Checkpoint extortion

It’s interesting to see how the likes of Amnesty, International Crisis Group and above all Human Rights Watch have started to move into investigative journalism. This HRW report from this week is a good read. Overall there are many positives in this trend, but I wonder if there’s also something negative – media houses have pulled back, and sources of reliable news coverage seems to depend on fewer and fewer actors (Reuters et al) often quoting ICG/Amnesty/HRW as the hallowed experts. Amnesty-ICG-HRW are in turn frequently the cause of many developing world news stories (Amnesty condemns XX).

As I said, overall I think it’s a good thing. But I do wonder i) why aren’t the real concerned people telling me directly (e.g. cocoa truck drivers) through local civil society organisations or even directly to the web, ii) am I comfortable with researchers replacing journalists?

On a rather different matter, I do think these groups need to go multimedia. Text reports are fine, but particularly on checkpoint corruption, it’s amazing just how brazen and open it is in Ivory Coast. If someone rigged up a cocoa truck with small video cameras (e.g. Hero IIIs) or used mobile phones, they could capture an amazing amount. If the video didn’t go viral (and there’s a good chance it would), it would still make an impact with decision makers in Abidjan. It’d be a lot of fun as well.

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Mamadou Koulibaly

Maybe I’m a little disillusioned, but there are very few Ivorian politicians who really stand-out as people with a certain intellectual integrity prepared to colour the grey spaces in between the black and whites of the pro-Gbagbos and pro-Ouattaras. Love them or hate him, one of them is Mamadou Koulibaly, formerly number two in the Gbagbo regime (he was head of the national assembly) and the interim leader of Gbagbo’s FPI party after the 2011 conflict, though he left the party after a few months in charge.

Last week, an interview was published with him in the Cameroonian press which made a lot of headlines in the Ivorian media. While much isn’t new, I’ve never seen it so succinctly gathered together in one piece. The interview is here in French. Let me go over some of the major points:

- while many in the opposition refuse to engage with Ivory Coast’s economic growth figures, he does, giving faint praise and then saying that the tragedy is that ordinary people’s lives aren’t getting better.

- he explains why he left the FPI – saying the party refused to reform itself and change with the times to accept the new situation in Ivory Coast. His main stated reason for leaving is that as an ethnic Dioula (from the north, like President Ouattara) the FPI didn’t want him in charge (the party has strong support in the ethnic groups of the south-west).

- as a major Gbagbo-era politician, he’s prepared to criticise their behaviour during their time in charge. Perhaps this discussion is being had behind closed-doors but we haven’t seen the FPI admit to any faults. I think it’s clear the Gbagbo regime saw incredible amounts of corruption and ‘anything goes’, although of course, as Koulibaly points out, it was a power-sharing system. He spoke out near the end of the regime and had a very public dispute with the leadership over things like recruiting police officers largely from ministers’ villages.

- regarding the 2002 rebellion and the subsequent peace deal, Koulibaly was and probably always will be highly critical of the 2003 Linas-Marcoussis peace accord, saying it gave too much power to the rebels. He sees Ouattara as pulling the country’s strings since 2002, and interestingly says his advice to Gbagbo was to concentrate on developing the south so that the north would eventually see reason and rejoin the state.

- regarding France, he is highly critical of Gbagbo for having been so pro-France during his time in charge, repeatedly giving key contracts to the major French companies, and keeping the CFA franc. This is a blow for the current opposition who like to portray the current president as a French lackey. Koulibaly seems to feel that Gbagbo acted like an unloved child constantly going the extra mile to please his ‘parents’ who in the end always preferred his sibling.

- finally on the elections, again Koulibaly has said these things before, but he implies that Gbagbo lost the election, especially after accepting the African Union evaluation which then asked him to step down.

It’s a sad reflection on Ivorian intellectual life that there are so few people in politics and civil society who are willing to state their mind and chart their own path of views and opinions. Things aren’t helped by having such a partisan press that gives little place for such people, but civil society must take some of the blame as well.

As for Koulibaly, the chances are he will always remain on the sidelines. Politics in Ivory Coast retains a strong ethnic element and as someone whose family was from the north (though he grew up in the south) he has little chance of creating a natural base. His lack of riches to compensate for this also puts him in a weaker position. It is almost unimaginable to see the opposition uniting around him at the 2015 elections, though they lack very few other credible and recognizable candidates. He himself is not above reproach – though he lived in a humble flat in Cocody for a long time, even when at the top of his game. He spent the last few years living for much of the year in neighbouring Ghana, despite being one of the highest officials in the land. As all intellectuals, perhaps he also ignores the difficult concessions one needs to make in peace negotiations to gain higher prizes.

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