What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Friday, November 12, 2010

Different world

So I wanted to touch on a few things from yesterday's meeting that illuminate business here. Obviously it was difficult to carry on a meeting with one person, and the oldest most senior one, sleeping. More important though were the differences in his business ideology and that of the others as well.

Firstly, there was a lot of respect for the laborers - hard work. Obviously in Western business culture education, experience, and management are valued more wage wise. Kevin showed a lot of respect for diggers, and brick carriers, and Kaps didn't think a supervisor should be paid more than the machine operator. This is refreshing to see as we in the West seem to have lost sight of the value of manual labor in our lives. Kaps actually didn't even really see the value of a supervisor. "Why should you pay someone to just stand around and watch everyone?" There is a logical sense to that statement. But it was as if the concept of a site supervisor made no sense. I had to spend a good 10 minutes explaining why a supervisor would be needed. There would be 17 workers to supervise on site with only one machine running, and this would increase with more machines. Digging, sieving, mixing, moving, operating the machine, dealing with supplies, curing bricks, loading/unloading, shipping, a cook for lunch, etc. It is not a simple process, and someone needs to know how to do it all, they need to know all about bricks, they need to be able to organize it all in their head, and to motivate people to work at a high level. Every minute we would not be producing is 4 bricks missed. A lag here, a lag there, mixed soil isn't ready, whatever, and production would be way down. It all has to run fluidly. But having a person to make all this function smoothly didn't make a whole lot of sense to him.

He also wanted to cut out workers. The company that makes these machines has a specific tried and tested method for producing the maximum number of bricks. They work in over 50 countries, and have a brand to uphold. They WANT anyone producing there products to be giving them a good name. Kaps had little interest in their well tested staffing, he wanted to just cut down workers. Hire less pay more. I started to get feelings of hierarchical thinking, jealousy perhaps at the wages. There are no salaries yet for board members, only workers... He just didn't seem to like anything he was hearing. He thought we were going to pay to much. He wanted to pay 5000 Leone a day - $1.25. According to Yapo, minimum wage is 15000. Now I know everyone isn't paying that, and there does seem to be a lot of variance in "minimum wage" concepts here, but I want to do things legally. I also wanted to pay taxes, and into workers social security funds, etc. This saw apprehension from him for the most part.

He also struggled with the concept and way of running a business. He wanted to be able to give away, or sell bricks below cost. I said, we can't do that, we can only give from excess revenues (profits). We can use our donations in terms of bricks if we wish, but we can't be a brick charity. It was as if the entire concept of running a business to make more than we spend - and to do it meticulously - was a completely foreign concept.

This is going to be a tricky situation, we have to be able to be sustainable. And our costs after this exercise may not even make the project feasible. I will have to crunch the numbers today if a computer is functional. But Kaps didn't think we could charge for each brick what we would need to cover our costs of production. That is partially because he seemed to value these specialty bricks little more than hand made clay bricks. Yapo saw it completely differently and thought we could charge a premium. But it is a struggle amongst them.

The result today though is that we will have to stall signing any kind of agreement and look much more directly into the numbers and what the market will bear. I knew it!! But I just couldn't get them all to see the value of making a list and sitting down and going through every number. For two and a half weeks I have been trying to get the list I gave them filled out with costs, and to all sit down, but nothing. In today's meeting, we started to talk about the equipment and still had no figures. Yapo made one call, left for maybe 15-20 minutes, and came back with a list!?!? Over two weeks of telling me it was done, was being done, some things weren't here in Makeni, blah, blah, blah, and then in 20 minutes they get one done. This is the way it is here, this is what we're up against... :-/

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