Mali, February 15, 2005
Do you have any to spare?
Lets say you are a concrete building block maker in Bamako. You have your block form and a shovel. You walk to the construction site and make each block by hand. You mix the cement with the shovel on the ground, scoop it into the form, and then when it starts to fix and harden, you open the form and let it cure in he sun. This whole process doesn't take more than 10 minutes and you make about 5 cents a block.|
In the wet season, you don't have the hot Malian sun to cook your blocks so the process takes much longer and the quality can drop, and its planting season so you're expected to work the fields too. This raises the price of concrete blocks to 30 cents each and makes me think that there would be a good business in making blocks at the end of the dry season and selling them all wet season for a good profit.
Of course, I'm not the first to think of this - and endless numbers of businessmen better than I see arbitrage opportunities everywhere in Bamako. Funny enough, none can convince the locals to run a brick surplus. You might think it's a transportation problem, since donkey carts are the delivery trucks of Bamako, but that's not the real issue.
The real issue is the lack of long-term business sense. Or maybe it's deeper than that. I think it is a lack of the concept of the future here. The day-planners sold in the market are not used to plan tomorrow but to record today. Financial budgets do not predict the future but record the past. In Mali tomorrow does not exit because it hasn't happened yet.
And if it did exist, few Malians would write about it. While I'd heard that many Malians, like 50%, are illiterate, I didn't expect to find business people who couldn't read or write. A surprising number of very successful Malians don't write at all, and a few, like the Geekcorps landlord, are even more removed because they don't even speak French, the main business language, or Bembera the most prevalent local language.
Because of the illiteracy they do have amazing memories. The Geek driver, Issa, can't read, much less read a map, but he knows every street, lane, and alley from Bamako to Timbuktu, and told or shown a place once, can find his way back to it months later with uncanny skill, like a human GPS. Oh yeah, and if you want the best African reggae in Mali, ask Issa, he knows and can find every album and every song better than Kazza ever could.