In April 2014, I made my first return to Abidjan after leaving for Dubai in late 2012. I published some blog posts at the time, but a few others sat in a Word document on my desktop, and four years’ on, they are still there. Sadly, the thinking that prompted me to write has long since moved on. But for what it’s worth, let me publish these fragments below. The main unpublished post was a list of ten tips for those venturing into the Abidjan taxi business – on this blog I had recounted starting out, but hadn’t concluded (the project was by and large a failure). I had drawn up ten tips, but these are all forgotten, and I just have what I wrote at the time.
Ten mistakes to avoid in the Abidjan taxi business
After nine months as the owner of a taxi, I think it’s time to throw in the towel. We’ve been metaphorically taken for a ride by many of our drivers, so I think it’s best to call it quits. My general conclusion is to advise against entering the business – and I increasingly think it’s best to disbelieve any statement by an Ivorian talking about any sector that ‘ca marche’. Frequently this is only a very superficial assessment of how a business sector works. But, clearly the business works for some – I suspect particularly Lebanese and Chinese business people who have their own garages and are a lot tougher on drivers and demand daily payments from drivers at above average rates.
1. One of the main reasons small businesses fail in Abidjan is I think dishonest staff. The three key roles for a taxi owner are the day-to-day manger, the driver and the mechanic. In my case I had an honest manager, but we got in trouble with the drivers.
Starting with the driver, this person frequently has a motivational problem. They can hurt you by overloading the vehicle and driving recklessly. They are also in charge of your principal asset and out of sight for most of the day.
2. Taxi parking
At the end of the day, the taxi should be parked to rest with a full tank. Drivers will frequently want permission to park the taxi at their home. But this leaves you open to having the taxi used outside of hours for work, and even criminal activity.
3. Choosing the right car
There are very few exceptions to Toyota Corollas on the streets of Abidjan, though you get the odd Peugeot, and most recently some use of the famous Mercedes 190. Get to know your Corollas – they all have local names, generally associated with the historical era when they were introduced, so the latest Corolla is called an ‘Obama’. The major expense you’ll have when you’re on the road is vehicle repairs, so you need a car that is reliable and has cheap and readily-available car parts. Ask widely for advice so you don’t fall into unknown traps – for instance, some Corollas have a Peugeot engine, which will have a considerably shorter life-span than a Toyota equivalent.
Also, spend time making sure you’re bringing over a decent model. Newer models can save on import charges designed to punish older cars. And given the vehicle purchase cost is likely to be a minor part of your initial start-up costs, it can be worth paying a bit more.
[My draft ended here. I was sure to get on to the problem with mechanics – the major fault of the business venture. By placing spots of glue on engine parts, we discovered mechanics were removing them, to be replaced with cheaper/broken ones.]
I’m a real fan of the easy community in Abidjan. After a few days I feel I already have a connection with the people who work at my bank, the policewoman who produced my new identity papers, and the city’s taxi drivers. Human relations are real and alive in Abidjan. People also tend to really put down roots here – Abidjan is THE major city in Cote d’Ivoire, and once people have a house they tend to stay there. The same applies for jobs – once Ivorians are employed they try and hold on as best they can. Things are far different in the UK where you may work for a couple of years in one city, buying a house for a few years and then reselling and moving to another city.
Here so much of conversation consists of catching up on the well-being of extended groups of people. You can listen to people in the street when they meet…they can go through the list of everyone who lives in their neighbourhood getting an update.
Ivorians love their soap operas, and in fact we’ve arrived in Abidjan just as a film my wife starred in is being shown on the state television. I’m actually surprised the Brazilian soap operas are so popular here, because real life seems far more extreme. In the past few days I’ve heard numerous stories of mistresses, affairs, cheating, witchcraft, double-crossing, sudden death, falls from grace, etc.