Tuesday, January 16, 2007
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
The Georgia Straight
Halfway through writing this book I realized it was going to be hard to decide the ending. After completely re-engineering my life and transforming everything I believed in how was I possibly going to 'end' this story? In my soul it feels like things have just begun. So I have waited patiently for the end to find me.
I think today it has come in the form of a newspaper interview I have been asked to do about the t-shirts and the studio in Nairobi. For a change I will be able to advocate on behalf of the people and youth I so believe in - to afix a huge spotlight upon them and not me and encourage people in Vancouver who are fair and kind that this new little business in Kenya is a cool thing. And that is the best way for me to interact with the world - to stand off to one side quietly and passionately empowering those who no one else will believe in. The people we dare not invest in, those of us who in some way are falling through the cracks.
So the end is my own private moment I guess. A summary of what the last few years have been like while I became what I refer to as a wealth activist. When I am sitting at my computer in dirty socks. When I am late getting to a movie. Not some party with balloons and a pay package. Not a huge new door opening to the next world of opportunity I thought might come to me for all my hard work. Not even a jittery feeling of excitement when I get into bed.
In this interview I hope to be able to tell the real story behind my story of t-shirts and orphans, the more interesting and painful story that although we all know is going on in the world we still turn away from and say we just don't know what to do. My story of why I believe poverty really exists and those of us who maintain it either consciously or in ignorance. The Africans story of why after so long and so many billions of dollars that could transfer themselves at the speed of light into communities of darkness, people still live in the shame of not being able to provide for themselves. Why even though we are so smart and sassy in all those home decorating shows there are children sleeping in cardboard boxes addicted to glue and being raped by other children. That's the real story of poverty - not how it still exists, but WHY it does despite every dream of success the world makes come true. Why our collective human morality is letting this pain continue. Why we are turning away from suffering.
We don't share. We hoarde and gloat and in our own fear of scarcity forget that life is to be given away to perpetuate it's abundance. Like a river that is damned, the beautiful energy that moves between all of our lives nourishing and feeding us has become far too stopped. Those of us who can are hijacking capital out of the economy so we can wear it like a badge at a coming out party for all the people in the world who were smart enough to succeed. But how can we begin to revel in our wealth on one side of the world when there are millions of people in the light of another time zone who are desperate and terrified and on the brink? When these people are our neighbours a short drive across town?
I think we do this because some manufactured idea is bullying us and it's making us greedy. When I see all those books written by leadership experts on how to make yourself a millionaire I think of my friends in Africa and feel so proud that some of them are merely just trying to hang on because that's the better party to be at. Because no one person is more valuable than another even when they can buy the rights like a celebrity on a red carpet stroll to even hint or suggest they might be. That's why everything is so fucked up. That's the idea that we have to stop investing in so we can value all of our lives equally. Because we are all equal despite our differenes in resources. Aren't we?
The dignity we choose to afford each person on the planet is right there for all of us to see in the transparent margins of how we trade. It's the only thing that has ever evened out the differences. It is the immediate opportunity right in front of us. It is the free giveaway gift that has the ability to harmonize what has become such a teetering fragile imbalance affecting each one of us in subtle shameful ways.
Let's trade and not aid because it doesn't work.
That is what I learned from doing business with Africa.
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Friday, November 03, 2006
I suppose most people who start businesses imagine future growth and excitement about the day to day operations but for me, much of this part has been excruciating. To know deep inside that I am not a business person per se, that I will always be looking for the exit sign, the opportunity to close my eyes and have all these worries go away. So for me this has been harder because my motives were always so different. All I really wanted was to put my idea to test that what Africa needs most in investment partners and now, they are coming in droves.
Finally the dilapidated railway system is getting a 6 Billion Shilling investment from the private sector arm of the World Bank as long as the Germans come to build it. If Germans can't get this old tired maze of steel up and running I don't know who could. Rift Valley Railways - light rapid transit to see the future of Kenya whizzing by through a clean window with a cold drink.
When I made that decision there was very little to do but get out of the way and see if the past 2.5 years were worth it. Everyone was shocked. One felt abandoned. Another confused which I sat and listened to and understood but underneath I was smiling. They don't need me anymore and they are the last ones to know this. They have everything they need.
Ever since I had said I wasn't going to pay salaries anymore things changed in the studio. The conversations were faster and angrier and things were being talked about in much more crucial ways than ever before. And after telling them I was returning to Canada even more so, I think the whole team was at work by 9am. So even though is it awkward and terrifying for them I know in my heart it's the right thing to do. They are becoming their own business and I am helping to cut them free from mine.
Sometimes people criticize me because I focus so much on income and sales and profit for Africans, but really and truly that is how poverty does become history. It doesn’t happen by a fundraiser whose donations run out. It doesn’t happen after a massive press conference to shock us all by the statistics. What really works are the small local things that Africans are building for themselves. They are tired of saying thank you. They don’t believe the hype anymore. They want to live in their own private dignity of self-sustainability like the rest of us. And they know this is their right to do so.
Mary is the one leading this charge. She is the one who says that we have to save a little bit from all our revenue for the future. She is the person Uchumi obviously didn’t have on hand when it was forced to shut it’s doors last spring. Quietly yet with pride she tells me about her dreams of moving to a better home so her son can come live with her. And when she told that from her earnings she was able to build a home for her mother I stopped in my tracks on Kimathi Street. We were coming back from visiting the mayor’s office to ask him if he could write a forward to our book and again I realized the immediate massive power of what happens when Africans are able to accumulate wealth.
In Mary’s case it’s not much right now but it’s more than she’s ever had and it’s enough. She is changing and she is starting to inspire others. Last Sunday I went to visit her in her neighbourhood called Kariobangi about 20 minutes by hot noisy matatu to the South East of the city along the road full of houses built for the railways. I alight in front of Kariobangi South Primary School and there is Mary waiting for me in all her slightness. She is such a slim pretty gal. She is becoming my friend and in a strangely familiar way she reminds me of my mother. She knows how to do everything and wants to learn it all. She will fill my place when I am not here.
After we have tea in her modest room of corrugated metal, a bed she shares with her cousin, all of their clothes and their cooking tools, I ask her if we can go for a walk. And like so many residential neighbourhoods in places like Nairobi in it’s own way it is really beautiful. A westerner would not see this right away, I believe I can only see it because I have come here a few times now and deep my heart I have great respect for these people.
At first glance you would see what you see on the tv commercials about how Africa is so poor and this is so sad. You would see the broken roads full mostly of big rocks that nobody removes and how awkward this makes for walking. And then you would see the garbage that is everywhere – plastic bags, food things, a shoe, a broken bit of something metal. Beyond that you would see a gaggle of kids who are missing items of clothing, shoes, whose clothes are soiled because everything is dirty and dusty and kids after all, are kids. And likely you would feel sorry for all of this because it’s not what you know, what you think is the right way to live and you would stay there on the outside of everything that is happening around you.
I never take my camera to these places and then I always regret I didn’t. I don’t like strangers thinking that I am one of those photographers who will take a picture that is sad or will show yet again something tragic of Africa. Those aren’t the kinds of pictures I take but the Africans don’t know this because why would they? So many of us have just come and gone with open mouths and or sat in meetings debating solutions without ever really stopping to see what is really there. To look but not to truly see.
When you do that what you notice is quite different. You see strong little bare feet capable of running quickly and fearless across very harsh terrain with no complaints, with nothing but a smile. And then you see a network of women caring for children, selling simple fruits in the street, trying on used clothing – maybe something pink and quite lovely that brings a smile or a blush. Of course you would hear the church in it’s thumping, it’s grand belief that what really matters today is a baby that has been born, that life has come yet again to this beautiful and complicated place. And if you had stayed that long and touched the hands of people as they do so often you would feel like you do everywhere in Africa, that you are welcome here.
I no longer get a discount on our t-shirts. I have to pay full price which is startling but wonderful. I am buying as many t-shirts as I can before I leave again so I will have reminders of how simple and precious this beginning time has been for all of us but I think especially me because I am a guest here.
As soon as our book is printed and our sales coordinator is sitting at her computer I will go back to North America. Probably I’ll go to Vancouver to see my accountant and my friends, get some rest, check in. And then I will find somewhere where I can earn some money for myself while shamelessly selling our shirts. I may go to Atlanta. I’d like to visit Georgetown or anywhere in California would work. I need to be in a place where people not only respect what our t-shirts stand for but they see the power of trading with us. Usually this is women. And when an American can pay $40 USD + shipping from Nairobi for one of our beautiful handmade shirts everyone can pay their rent.
The best thing I can offer my business in Kenya ironically is to leave here and go back to where I come from to spread the news. The Kenyans don’t need me anymore here, they just need me to hold the door open for them which thankfully – is one of my best qualities. For all the things I feel I have failed to do or understand in business, sales is not one of them. Nobody sells our t-shirts like me. Nobody says no when I tell them what I have learned about trading fairly with Africa. Nobody can show me in any kind of pricing structure that higher margins for Africa isn't a pledge of dignity, of kindnessness, of repect. Na Heshima.
The Ethiopians are trademarking their coffee brands in order to secure higher trading margins on global commodities markets and Starbucks is trying to stop them. Shame on them. Shame on us all for not acknowledging that paying 3cents more per cup is not an act of losing power in our own personal economies but of creating solidarity with the much greater community we live within that spans the circle of the globe. So we have less. So we go without for a change. So we consider to be far more grateful than we ever have so that others can sustain, so they can have what we have had in abundance for so so long.
Saturday, October 28, 2006
The future of Africa is urban. And if anyone doesn't like that they should get over here and participate. Dense urbanization is far better than a nightmare of sprawling SUB-URBAN unplanned growth like Johannesburg, Sandton, Randburg. The trick is to think like Manhattan and go up - not like L.A. and go wide.
The city is greening - the purple Jacarandas that line Kenyatta up to Ngong Road are so pretty in the uniformity, so elegant in their history. In 20 years Nairobi will have 10 million people living in it and if these little trees have a chance it will be rather green.
A modern highly technological urban village en masse.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Bella, The Bomb Blast & Canada Post
Everything is connected. Sitting in the studio this morning on a holiday Tuesday waiting for Mary to come in to discuss the book, I am surprised and delighted when in walks Bella. 15 years old living only with her siblings because mum and dad both moved out on their own, she cannot afford to go to school. And she is so sweet and so quiet I jump up to shake her hand and say welcome.
She has drawn CITY HALL which I love – THE most important building in Nairobi and there she must have sat, sketching so carefully and shyly because nobody seems to like it when we draw the buildings. I asked Mary to find more girls because so far our first seven sketches have been done by boys. Except Lillian – 18 years old with 2 kids already we sat together and sketched one of my favourite little buildings in the city – the REHABILITATED PUBLIC WASHROOM. Public washrooms are a big deal for folks on the resource-poor scale of the spectrum. Someone with a big heart made sure this building came to life. Someone who cares about the average Kenyan.
Again told to move away from the security cameras so we weren’t to be seen. What chances do these kids have with policies against public sketching? Perhaps our book will help change that.
Our first little booklet KAMBUKA NAIROBI – Volume 1, The Central Business District, will feature 18 youth sketches of some of the city’s most interesting buildings. It will be sold for KSh 700 or $10 USD or 5 GBP to hopefully net us about 7 months of rent, salaries and internet all the way to next summer. We only need to sell 10,000 of them with the 10% youth license fee being dedicated to school fees. If they can sketch. If they can help us spread the word.
Waking up in the middle of the night I had a dream I was thrown in jail for earning kids more money than their parents. But who else is going to care as much as the youth than themselves about their future? Many of the parents are abandoning them or even beating them up – all they want is to go to school and be happy. Our business can do that for them and they are the very key to the success of the whole thing.
In every problem its own solution is sitting right behind it in the shadows. Thousands and thousands of youth with no access to opportunity in the current African economies. Is this a problem or is it its own brilliant masterful solution? Problems of this magnitude require a completely different set of ideas – an upside and backwards approach to empowerment with no barriers. If we can get out of the way and harness their energy the kids will do the rest themselves.
In the shadow of the Co-operative Bank Building walking through the Bomb Blast site of the old American Embassy that is no more, I think of Bella and her siblings living alone in a house in a slum. Everyone around me thinks I am an American, I can feel it. Like I am responsible for all the names on the slick dark wall behind the fountain. In my jeans, t-shirt and ponytail of course I look American and as a North American am I anything very different? The Kenyans don’t have much time for the Americans especially the ones appearing in the newspapers fundraising for Africa. When I suggest that there are Americans and British and Canadians who care about Africa the conversation runs dry. It’s like we’re not even on the radar here. Whatever, knock yourself out, their blank looks seem to say. The Africans want success stories about themselves. They know our best intentions many times never even arrive. They are tired of saying thank you. They are tired of things that do not work.
Hundreds of Kenyans died right there in that NW corner of Moi and Selassie – so what chance does Bella have living in these conditions? These were folks with jobs. But Bella can win – she’s smart and careful and she arrived today with a beautiful precise little vision for our book. She is why I am here and why I refuse to give up. I love these kids. When they smile at me in hopes of me sharing the secrets of obtaining a better life I want to share every advantage I have ever been so lucky to experience. So I buy them French fries to fill their empty stomachs and felt pens and pads of paper – the only things I can offer right now and some Shillings for artwork.
I am watching a BBC newscast about whether or not we are actually making poverty history yet while I do my accounting for my shareholder’s loan. I am going to get a return on my investment if it kills me. It seems like in some ways we have started and in others like the still enforced subsidies on agriculture, we are far far from trading fairly. Tomatoes. Sugar. Coffee. Bananas. Such simple tools to feed a nation. What are we so afraid of? We have been so rich for so long, isn’t it perhaps time to offer this up like a turn at the wheel, a run down the slide on the playground. My mother used to reprimand me for not sharing. Being selfish in our home was sternly frowned upon. But as nations we do it without a second thought. And that's why we give aid.
Looking at my receipts from the Post Office I get confused thinking I have grabbed my Canadian expense file but I am wrong, it’s from Posta – Kenya’s Post Office. And then I remember that Canada Post came and went from this place of cold water in an effort to transfer knowledge and share our ability to turn a profit from stamps, envelopes and things flying through the air. As I listen to the experts from the UN talk about aid I wonder why Canada Post left? Was it the bomb blast? Was it the overwhelming prospect of millions and millions of Bella’s who at 15 years of age are still finishing primary school? Was it the Kenyan’s stubbornness to do things their own way? Was it the exhaustion and bitterness that ensues with corruption? Perhaps they will come back.
God I hope they come back. I would give anything for self-adhesive stamps as I prepare to ship 25 shirts to Vancouver tomorrow morning. And if they sold me tape instead of giving it to me for free maybe everyone could take a little more home at night for all those little mouths to feed like Bella. Maybe we would finally see the Africans as so much like ourselves in so many many ways.
This story is for Mary Shiro who completely thrown into the massive task has begun to produce her first book and is exceeding all my expectations.
Saturday, October 21, 2006
Indian Celebration of Light
Today the Hindus are celebrating light - and the earthern lamps placed around their homes in hopes that they will illuminate individuals and societies burdened by ignorance and darkness. Deepavali or Diwali is today October 21st. I wonder if all of us prayed today along with the Hindus for all ignorance to illuminate, for all darkness to brighten - what a powerful force this would be in the world.
This is the long weekend bookended in between Jomo Kenyatta Day yesterday and something Mubarak on Tuesday so the city as I so love it, is empty. Looking down from my patio I happen to witness what looks like an African swimming lesson. And I know how cool and wonderful the water feels because I was doing just that yesterday in the heat of the day falling asleep after so many sleepless nights. I can feel my work schedule changing slightly so I am most productive from 8am-noon and then again from 5pm-10pm. For a few different reasons in the middle of the day I get tired and hot and grumpy.
And I am weaning myself away from the studio seeing if the team can make their salaries without me, with only the legacy of all the ideas that I hope are good and respectful so they can trade their own way. I think I actually get in the way really, in my fury and North American-ness mostly I think I make everyone nervous so I am starting to ask them, what can I offer? What do they need from me? Such is my fate being most motivated to help the people in the world who can least afford to pay me. How ridiculous. And I will likely always feel this way. If only I had whatever it is that Mother Theresa had. My commitment is deep enough but I remain conflicted thinking I should be buying things and flying places and being current with all the things that are.
If I don't find a partner by Xmas I have to leave and go back to work leaving the Kenyans on their own for a while. What the hell am I going to do? Who is going to say to me - yes we would love you to come here and share everything you know with us? The idea is so exhausting I can't bear it. And where? It's too bloody cold anywhere in Canada until May or July even for my liking. Southern California would work, or Atlanta which I like. I have a friend there and I do like America. Things work there. Everything is clean. Not forever but maybe for a while. Enshallah.
I love this photo - it makes me laugh.
Thursday, October 19, 2006
It was after my first trip to Kenya but before my second and even though I had only made 50 or sixty shirts I began to feel a sense that one day I would let go of my idea so that others could hold onto it. I didn't start this so I could have a job - I'm not a manager of people or a person who sits and reads spreadsheets so in the end I always knew my role was to be the inspiration so that others could gain from whatever I was able to set on fire, to ignite. And even though I probably only had a couple thousand dollars on hand, it made me a little sad to think into the future and know that one day I might not be the one who sews the letters, who answers the emails, who tells the story.
So today in the studio surrounded by 12 or so Kenyans all madly jockeying for table space as we quickly designed shirts, opened photoshop, cut fabric, drew pictures and paid out cash in Shillings for beautiful work again I stopped a moment to see this frenzy going on without me and there it was, that lovely yet lonely sadness. My business doesn't actually need me anymore to function - it really just needs me to ensure financing and sales will unfold long enough so everyone who is training can continue. And everyone is getting so good - so efficient in their execution be it Steph who makes screens out of photos or Mary who researches and tidies and just loves it all so much - and of course Judges who now has the task to do what I used to do - grab the reins, hold on and hope there's money in the cash box for the next day and the day after that.
And it is only later tonight while I am alone and I think about what happened today do I wonder, did I sound appreciative enough? Was I kind? Did I listen carefully? But even if I didn't it's okay because as I've told everyone I have worked for the last three years now to build something for them so it's really not about me anymore and it actually never was which in it's own way is such a massive bloody relief. I like it when the youth come into the studio and they don't really know who I am or they just get their stuff done and leave again. I can be invisible. I can smile and watch how all our little handmade systems work themselves out in the most African of ways. There will be a day when I am no longer here and this is why each day I try and step further and further away.
I had to tell everyone that if anything happened to me that I have a will and in it is the instructions that will bequeath all of this to them to take on and own themselves. That in such a case if they so wish they can take it over and fortify it for the future so all the ideas and promises I have tried to express can really come true - it's up to them. Of course everyone was silent. What a confusing thing to say I suppose but how can I not? If something did happen to me they might not know what to do. They all have keys. They know who the rent is paid to. They have inventory and a sales book - they bloody well better keep the lights on without me.
And of course the only reason I have ever had to think this is now after finally building something in life that is worth anything so important to save. I know even though we are still so tiny in our operations that we do have the chance to grow very very large and this is the opportunity they will be afforded. And I would not likely have to think this if this place of cold water wasn't so dangerous and didn't have daily reminders of how precious and momentary it all is. I would hope they could make it live. I would hope they would do all the things I never knew how to do myself.
This story is for Rose and Dennis, Barbra and Joseph, Jared, Lamex, Mary, Levitty, Steven, Rosette, Nancy, Lois, Penny, Steph, Judges, Moses, Benson, Nicolas, Derek, Beatrice, Shiro and the quiet boy from Uganda who ran away from a life that was too painful to live within. It is a 150 square foot room on the 15th floor of an office tower in downtown Nairobi. It is the biggest dream I ever had the strength to believe in.
Monday, October 16, 2006
When I tell people our shirts sell for KSh 750 ($11 USD) all the way up to KSh 3,000 ($42 USD) it's like I've just said I was a transexual trapped in the body of a lizard. They stare at me like paying a fair price for something is a sin, or a problem or that something is wrong with my business model. So I start to explain that to pay fair wages and make a profit in business products cannot come to market for cheap prices. Why would you even try?
On the news today I see that a UK chain is selling 3 shirts for $10 and as a businessperson I immediately think - which country is being exploited for that contract? That's $10 to grow, gin, mill, bleach, wash, sew, fold, pack and ship the cotton a 1/4 of the way around the world. For over five years I have been studying how this possibly makes sense, how I must be missing something vital or complicated in this formula but now that I am deeply embedded amidst the people who live in the underpaid world of work here in Africa my suspicions are absolutely coming true. It doesn't make sense unless someone along the way is being taken advantage of.
When I tell people here my mission is to increase the wages, to pay people fair money to create and make - to imagine and work hard so that my business will earn a profit - many of them look at me like I am tredding on dangerous waters. Because the system isn't fair and most of us know this deep down in our hearts but it's been going on for so long we are used to it.
Why should any one country or culture or group of people be paid such abysimally lower wages than us in other countries? In the big picture scheme of things I mean - forget the economics - why shouldn't wages start at the point that makes a life possible to live in dignity? How can so many of us stand seeing people go hungry because they just can't earn enough? Why aren't we sharing more?
The very first time I went to Las Vegas I saw first hand what the root of this problem is. The deeply embedded concept that to compete on price is a business advantage. Miles of buffet food laid out in all the cheap hotels in the desert showed me how accustomed we have become of getting the things we need at the prices that suit us the consumers and not the providers. And the theory I am told when I challenge this is 'that someone has to work for less or it doesn't work' or my favourite, 'that's just the way it is here in a developing country' and I am stunned because that's not an explanation of a system, that's an excuse. Kenya should be far farther along the development curve than it is and everybody knows this.
So the t-shirt sewers in Bangladesh are protesting - enough they say - they're not going to make this cheap cotton stuff for such an awful rate anymore and we as the consumers of 3 for $10 ought to think very deeply about this shift. We don't need to consume so much. We waste the profit margin that truly belongs to other people halfway around the world. We toss things in the garbage without thinking because they're cheap and meaningless but if they were priced fairly and we were made to work a little harder for what we have maybe just maybe we could begin to correct what is so deeply wrong.
I sat in the office of a very interesting Indian woman this morning who administers an educational trust here in Nairobi and she said something that I think about so often everyday here in Africa. People here have dignity and they feel shame because they are treated poorly. To come here as a foreigner and distrupt what is already a beautiful system of trade and culture is what she called uncivilized. India worked before the British arrived and now finally it is starting to work again.
I wonder if the fact that Mohammed Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize this week has anything to do with the workers protesting in Bangladesh. I think it must. They feel proud. They will survive without us and they know it because the world has told them that their own homemade system of banking on the poorest of the poor is the most successful investment on the planet.
One day I will go there and see the Parliament Building that was built for them by an architect who died penniless in a public washroom.
This story is for Joseph Kahn.
Saturday, October 14, 2006
A redrawing of lines
Thursday, October 12, 2006
Cash Box Sales
Nothing a pile of cash spilling out of a dirty brown envelope. Showing up for this week's team meeting I couldn't believe how fast sales have begun - everyone loves our shirts! We are nearly halfway to making our monthly goal of 50,000 KSh ($800 Cdn) and we've only been at it 3 days. If only our lawyer would get back from holidays on the coast and incorporate us so we can open the bloody bank account.
They love the fair trade. They love the recycling. They love the hand-stiching. They love the kids' art - we are finally coming into vogue - trade not aid for Africa.
Sunday, October 08, 2006
Syl Rogers is a teenager I have been communicating with for over six months now by email - we've never met. This is him wearing a shirt he made in Freetown in an attempt to see if we do can do what we are doing in Nairobi on the other side of Africa too. The reason is twofold - growth and KUSAIDIANA.
One of the most important lessons I have learned during this was taught to me by a financier in Vancouver when he told me "We don't look for stars, we look for constellations" - a sentiment I have never forgotten and why Syl is making shirts in Freetown on his own. In order to get people to buy into my idea of using the private sector to build kids lives in Africa I knew I had to prove the business model had growth potential. And even though I have yet to actually get anyone else's money at work in our business I know one day we will and this is where KUSAIDIANA comes in.
It is a swahili expression that means 'to support one another'. Ku meaning, we or us; Saidia meaning to support; and ana meaning the act of - the verbalization of the whole thing I suppose. We know we have a product that sells and Syl and his team can figure out how to do exactly what we know in Nairobi only in the edges of the Atlantic beneath what is known as "the Lion Mountains", Sierra Leone.
So it is too early to consider doing this quite yet but then again I think, if I have known how painful and confusing and difficult all of this was going to be perhaps I would never had started in the first place three years ago. So it must be that drive, the passion I have burning inside me to invest in these kids that is saying, go now and meet Syl. Lay the first bricks and build slowly just as I have done in Nairobi.
One email - an order for four shirts. Direct seamail from Freetown to the Hudson River - hand made shirts from Africa on the streets of the Big Apple.
At a cocktail party last night two young journalists asked me what I was doing in Kenya and when I told them our story they said, 'How refreshing from the usual UN/Aid story' and I thought, yes, we are what's coming next. We are what really alleviates poverty in Africa, the small scale entrepreneurs who in our quest to better our own lives are making others better as a result. An increase of 1% in trade for Africa is about $70 billion USDollars. The most powerful and stable economies in the world do not have aid coming in - they are driven by small business activity like we now see flourishing in India, China and even Canada.
A nation of shopkeepers, counting the pennies, sweeping the floors, innovating for tommorrow and what could be. A new friend is frustrating by her old aid job and is tortured over going back again because she needs the dough. So I suggested it could be an opportunity to change this, to make aid better and more robust - or even change it or end it - but for god's sake do something.
We all have to be the change, that's what is really comes down to. There's no more room on the planet for those of us not willing to roll up our sleeves and figure out how we are all going to survive. I think it was Ghandhi who said this, 'to be the change you want to see in the world' and it's so so simple.
NBO-FNA - Passport to Africa discount on Kenya Airways.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
Webcam photos from Freetown to Nairobi via a Vancouver-based server: a handmade value-added Africa. When I stop to think of what I am actually trying to do my brain melts and I have to find a window to look out of.
So Syl Rogers and the team are sewing shirts in Freetown and have already decided that using machines is faster and more profitable. I love it. And as I step aside and train Judges to become our Managing Director for us here he tells me that a smaller space is more feasible for us now, that we should only move to a larger one when we can afford it. Now that's worth finding a salary to invest in.
Someone said to me last week when I told them what I do - "Now that takes courage" and I responded "YES it does." This stuff is really hard and lonely too sometimes believing in the importance of something that I may never actually see in my lifetime. The things I work for will bring results far in the future - this is not a now endeavour and so I have learned that some things in life are far more important than this immediate gratification thing.
I think that's what has gone wrong in my own culture of North America - that we have become so used to immediate results that we fail to appreciate that good things take a long time to build. Like the increasing divorce rate of 50% - we are giving up too easily on some of the best things in life. The other day over coffee my new Kenyan friends asked me what it was I was most seeking in a partner and without hesitation I answered "Someone who wants to love me" and if I can't find that then brilliant, gorgeous and rich will have to suffice.
This photo of me bending over is probably the most poignant image of what my life has become. There I am standing on African soil teaching a kid how to use a camera. I have many photos of me like this - head chopped off - mouth open speaking - fingers illustrating how simple technological buttons can transform us. It's a bit revealing for my taste but it makes the people who love me and support me smile in it's truth.
Pendo means love and this shirt, a little pink pendo for a girl is designed to share how I feel about this beautiful place. I actually designed and sewed it myself so when our new managing director sees it I suppose he will have no choice but to pay me for fair market rate. A little extra cash to fill the fridge here.
Today is Sunday which is the hardest day for me in Nairobi. All my friends are either in church or with their families and I end up walking around rather alone. Although today should be fun going to an afternoon party up in Muthaiga with a bunch of local business and political types. I always like to wear high heels to these sorts of things as a much welcome break from my usual workday wear but parties are usually on grass here and I end up either in bare feet or getting stuck in the soil. I am looking for a financial partner on the little book I have designed - KUMBUKA NAIROBI (I remember Nairoibi) about the old architectural stories here.
I have been photographing and sketching the old buildings in the CBD in hopes of creating a new product the studio will sell. And each time I sat to sketch on the sidewalk the Kenyans came over curiously to see what this Mzungu was doing. So I found 2 teenagers who want to contribute to the book and if their sketches are good they will be paid royalities and offered a chance to sell the book for income. Everywhere I turn to look in this place of cold water there is someone keen, talented and hungry for opportunity. It's like liquid gold running through the streets of the city - and all we have to do as responsible well-intentioned adults is build the pipes and harness the energy. "I've been drawing since I was a little boy" Benson says to me sitting a few feet from the beautiful 'peace pole' built on the other side of City Hall Way from City Hall. In remberance or perhaps apology of the 2 bombings seen here in 1998. Dar Es Salaam and Nairobi - Americans attacked out of hate and mistrust.
And good for the Americans - still amidst this anger they are coming here with their cameras and Tilly hats because at the end of the day the most average couple from a small town has saved money for the last few years so they could finally come to see Africa. We are guests here and everyday this is important to remember.
When I first saw Benson coming towards me on Saturday afternoon as I sat sketching in the sun, I figured he was one of the rough street kids who was likely to be looking at my purse. His shoes were dirty, his hands idle, a kid with ambition but nowhere to put it. So he stopped out of curiosity and looked over my shoulder. Even if I do get mugged again it will be okay because anything valuable cannot actually be stolen and I have duplicates of all my plastic conveniences.
So I asked him if he wanted to draw and immediately he sat down beside me. A beautiful little kid with nothing to do on a Saturday and sketch he could. He'll come visit the studion on Monday and meet Judges. If my budget for the book is correct he will be paid 1,000 KSh for his sketch that I insist he must do at least 5 times to make it the best he can. And then he can help us sell the book and gain pride that his skill has currency in this world. That everything is not so sad and discouraging - that when we allow ourselves to believe it is possible that is when it begins to be so.
God I hope these photos upload today. I know my friends need to see what's going on.
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
If there was one moment in the entire last four years of my life that I wish my father had been present for it was today at 2:30 pm Nairobi time when our first Kenyan sales occured. I can't count how many times he has said to me 'Remember Sue - CASH FLOW' which of course I know and am aware of the importance in business but considering the magnitude of the undertaking I have been slow to focus on. I needed to walk down the streets safely. I needed to find my place to have coffee in the morning. I needed to be able to blow dry my hair.
And after all this time, now we have beautiful shirts. Now we have trained sewers and designers. Now we have a young completely motivated Managing Director who has already figured out how the business can save $450 USD. That's what a 40% employee ownership fund does - it mobilizes and energizes and keeps people awake at night just like I have been hoping and dreaming that one day this business will sustain.
$2,600 KSh is roughly equal to $38 USD which is why as well we will co-price the shirts in both currencies. Psychologically the inflated Shilling disturbs Westerners and I believe even discourages them from spending more than they do when they come to Africa. So that was how much income the business generated today on October 2nd, 2006 after nearly $120,000 Cdn invested to get this far. I nearly cried. And this was with a discount for the family rate - the real figure was $3,500 KSh which is why of course I should not be in charge of sales because I would give everyone a discount who came to trade.
So we in the West just have it all so wrong - Kenyans like most Africans, have cash and when they see an opportunity to trade fairly and invest their money into products or services that better their own economies they are loyal. When I designed the hand-made component of the shirts it was my personal subsersive way of showing people how beautiful this place is, how beautiful humanity itself is - and that when we invest in this we get something back that is healthy. It is our human capital that we need to unleash, more powerful than the FTSE or DOW or the price of gold, the more than 6 billion of us is the energy we have yet to truly tap into.
I have been told many times by white people or mzungus, as we are called in Kenya, that I need to be careful here because "the wages aren't cheap", or "the people I least expect if from will steal from me" and every time I hear this my heart gets sad and I get a lump in my throat. What do I say in return? I believe in something different that when you put in place systems of trust and empowerment this kind of thing doesn't occur. But maybe I am naive still here and I did get badly mugged here by a group of people who showed me anything but courtesy.
So I live in the optimism of what could be in this place not because I want to be right but because it keeps me happy and getting up in the morning to do all of this all over again tomorrow. It gives me the strength to want to share everything I am with the world because I can and after all this time I don't think I could ever live any other way. How do you champion a cause if you don't believe deep down in your soul?
I saw Kirk Kervorkian on TV this morning - the man said to be worth billions more than all the others billions of us walking around on planet earth. And when I see someone like this I look at them closely and wonder how they can hold onto so much for themselves when there are so many people living in the poorest most abject lives possible? Why does he believe that accumulating so so much more than what he needs to live even the most brilliant of lives is more important than sharing it? Why do we still accept things like poverty and children dying of hunger? When will we decide that there can be another way and that we have everything we need right now to changes these things?
There are 16 of us now in the studio sharing the space in shift rotations for design, production, management, shipping and whatever I do - 15 times the likelihood of coming up with amazing ideas and ways to succeed. All I have to do is step aside and tweak. The Kenyans are starting to do the rest.
Boda Boda - a new green bike for Africa. Less cars, more space for the humans in this place of cold water.
Sunday, September 24, 2006
I have heard about the Masaii Mara like most people for over ten years probably and so finally arriving there it was no surprise to discover like in so many other places there is lots of change and a lot of it not good. It was a great idea that so many people decided to get over to Africa and discover the animals but the footprint has been deep and the locals don't like it. Like so many issues in Africa I believe this negative, this challenge, this natural disturbance does have a silver lining. They say we only truly appreciate after we have lost what we held most dear.
So it is ironic to be writing tonight after watching Darryl Hannah on CNN who will finally hopefully will get her fella americans guzzling biodiesel and organic food and HAND MADE RECYCLED T-SHIRTS! I believe the next 2 years will see the biggest environmental tidal wave for the better the planet has ever seen and the Americans will lead this charge. Nobody consumes like they do - it could just be for the good.
Walking along the Mara River in Southern Kenya I can hear the bottom of the inside of the belly of a hippo whaling out from the river as I pass by a 'regenerative fruit buffet' - a snack shop for birds featuring wonderfully decaying passion fruit. How elegant. How colourful. How thoughtful. If the birds eat the rotting fruit and drop their waste on the ground then maybe somehow this aerial excrement will refuel some grass that an elephant will eat who will then crap on the ground where bugs live who will creep and crawl back to the shamba and regenerate the papaya tree. Now if we humans can just stay out of the way. What a wonderfully humble agreement.
Waiting at the Mara airstrip I search the local crowd for kids and sure enough there is a 6-year old boy looking over curious at us. I signal him to come and see my camera, which he does hesitantly but reassured by the grandpas after I give him a grown up felt pen. Instantly he loves it and ferociously he is not interested in giving it back to me. We play around for about half an hour shooting silly self-portraits when finally we hear the plane coming. It has been hired by Kenya Airways to Boscovic Air Charters to come get us. How casual. How African. Can you help us out? We messed up today - a crowd waiting in the middle of nowhere for something to fall out of the sky.
As I say goodbye to my little friend I have to turn away in my inability to tell him in our different languages that I will be back one day. I will post him some shots he took so he can see an ability he may never have known before. My business could educate him. He could become a resident naturalist who takes pictures to teach us who come so far to see to rather appreciate and love what has always been, what needs to remain. And he could recharge the batteries with the solar panel down the road - send me photos from the wifi in the lodge. It's not too late for him, in fact, all this technology is just in time.
"It is in the shelter of each other in which the people live." - Irish proverb.
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
One of the most common ways for me to wake up is in a cold sweat in the middle of night with 2 thoughts as fast as freight trains running through my head - what country am I in and how much money is in the business bank account? I used to think this was abnormal.
In these moments I comfort myself with stories or thoughts of others who must also have had some sleepless nights and tonight it's Craig McCaw - the genius behind the massive capitalization of the American cellular industry. A few months ago I came across a quote of his that I sent to my girlfriend Sam in LA who has struggled courageously for years to build a stable of tv shows to call her own. She, like me, broke out of a secure to life to bring her dreams to reality and live in the uncertain life that begins immediately thereafter.
McCaw said, "Your greatest ideas will never be understand by anybody" how empowering and frightening at the same time. But when I told people years ago starting this that I was going into business with millions of African orphans I wish I had the fortune of coming across Mr. McCaw who might have said - now that's an idea worth investing in Susan. I have always been the kind of person who learns by racing right to the very end of the idea and then thinking slowly backwards from it. So it's hard sometimes for me to learn with others because often I don't understand what they are thinking and at times my own thought patterns go unnoticed. I can't explain how I get to where I do - only that I see things mostly visually is how I learn and often I am on the sidelines trying to get back in the game.
So tonight, finally at last, sleepless in Nairobi as I can hear the little African birds waking up outside the window, I came across Mr. McCaw again and another one of his amazing ideas that comforts me in this hyper-extended space I have been occupying while I struggle to become patient for how long all this stuff actually takes. Watching Bill Clinton on the television tonight made me think of change and how slow it takes when he reminded us that all of our wars are over resources and not religion. We fight because scarcity terrifies us and we have yet to evolve past this idea.
So McCaw said "Change occurs when there is a gap between what is and what should be" which of course made me think of Africa. What is is poverty and corruption and a broken-ness. What should be is what has always grown here - regeneration, family, trade.
Being back only 12 hours and already I have felt the secret handshake at least 30 times. Besides Kenyan tea with milk this is my favourite custom here, to join hands immediately with the person you are in front of. To extend of yourself without question the respect of what you are to the other. Salaama.
People say there will never be and end to the war between Israel and Palestine but I don't believe this. The war would end tomorrow if everyone fighting in this levant would consider seriously that peace comes from the moment to truly want it. That to win is to overcome and not defeat, to evolve and not conquer.
Sitting in the Norfolk drinking birthday champagne I see a little kid hiding himself behind a chair looking at me. He is maybe 3 years old and bored with his grandparents who are not talking to him. But he is an African kid so he shows those signs of being so loved and so adored it comes across as confidence. I can't stop looking over and smiling at him but he is so shy he just keeps disappearing behind the upholstery. As he walks away in tow behind mama he keeps looking back at me with that chubby cheek African smile. He is why I have come back. These kids are my greatest happiness.
38 years old - Vancouver to London to Nairobi. I've got just over 3 months to find us a financial backer. And thanks to Bono and Angelina and Clinton and Brad and George and all those incredibly powerful influencial voices I just know in my heart we will find someone. Things are changing, the gap is starting to be filled by what should be. Bono's t-shirts went on sale for $40 USD - 25% earmarked for people in Lesotho.
Besides tenacity, humility and generosity I think one of the most powerful tools to have in business must be patience.
Monday, September 18, 2006
Finally I have found a book that explains everything I have been building and learning over the past 2 years - a book that explains the concept of regenerative economics, the future economy. So when I walk thru the streets of London it seems one day all this luxury will disappear because it can't regenerate and is based on the concept of scarcity. The very act of creating abundance is such a wholly massive threat to so much else because it presupposes there is enough for everybody and our desires will actually finally be met.
I think this must be the biggest revolution our modern economies will face - how to reclassify all our systems of manufacturing and delivery - consumption and exchange when we start living in the new economy that does not waste. An economy based in ideas and not things.
When I stepped out of the material economy two years ago it took me a long while to lose the feelings I had of being almost like a leper who desired very little except healthiness and equality. And still it's hard in the face of all this so-muchness to stand apart from it and be happy in the lack of desire for it. But to believe in the regeneration of the planet, the growth and health and feeding of it is such a more beautiful store window to look into. It is like escaping to the top of a beautiful mountain on a warm spring day looking over a river crashing endlessly into the sea.
In the movie 'The Queen' I saw a few nights ago here in London there is such a lovely scene when Helen Mirren is sitting quietly crying from all the confusion and stress of what is going on with Diana's death. She turns suddenly when she hears a buck behind her - the one the young princes want to shoot and clain trophy over - that she too is hoping to own in some way. But in it's beauty and it's example of regenerativeness she privately and intimately changes her mind. She chooses life over waste and keeps this secret to herself.
Saturday, September 09, 2006
Trade Not Aid
When you see a drug addict your first thought is that the drug is the problem and if that could be taken away or weaned off of then everything would be okay. But drug users are much more complicated and interesting than that. Many of them have lived multi-generational lives in addict families where physical and sexual violence, systemic poverty and racism also is prevalent.
The real story that will come out of Africa is 50 years from now when the healing is occurring. Now it's about survival but if we look at our first nations people who have healed mostly in the past 20 years, they're starting to get their fair share of the ecomomy and only now are we hearing the stories of how bad the oppression and abuse really was during the past 100 years. The psychic or emotional healing is still to come.
So I believe the sooner all this crack aid stops the better off Africa will be. It's maddening for me to have the little kids come up to me on the streets begging with these fake voices of sympathy pleading with me when I have just seen them moments ago laughing and playing soccer. I know they're homeless and I know they're hungry but I also know they have more dignity than they let me see because I am mzungu they see me as a charity hit. So I tell them not to beg and they get angry with me because this is all they know. It's an addiction with no solution unless a whole new approach comes along.
This is what aid does and the kids in Africa are far better than the circumstances it breeds for them to live under. The most stable and properous economies in the world do not have aid. My dream for the future is to see the emptying of all the offices in all the United Nations buildings around the world. And all the charities and all the NGO's lose their workers because there is nothing left for them to do. This is supposed to be the goal. Aid is supposed to end so why aren't we starting with this?
So many African economies are completely hijacked by aid and if you told the aid agencies to pack their bags and get lost what do you think they'd say? They tell us they are there 'to help' but when you look at how many employees and vehicles and meal vouchers this adds up to - you have to wonder. It's a complete economy really - with it's own CEO's, accountants and job seekers.
I tell my African friends if there is one criticism I have of them it's that they are far too polite. But there is a growing movement to get rid of aid and all it's addictions in Africa which is so great and something I can't wait to be around again because over here in North America we just don't get it. We want the tax relief, we want the valour of our names being on an Endownment Fund, we want to say - we helped to save Africans so in part we can feel better about our wealth. It seems we're doing the right thing by donating or volunteering but when it comes down to the more difficult and threatening concept of actually sharing our trading strengths this is where it gets a little mirky for people.
Do we need the poor countries to stay poor so the rest of us can afford our lattes and t-shirts and dollar stores? Does the global economy depend on some of us serving others? Will the world allow a value-added Africa?
Our first shirts start going in the mail next week. We'll see what consumers say about all this.
Uhuru for Africa
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
The Economic Freedom of the World
This story is a rather unpleasant story and I don't like to tell it because it upsets people and I get critcized and told I am greedy. It's a story about how my business was taken advantage of by aid and probably the most painful lesson I have learned so far. It still hurts when I think about it because it may have cost me the friendship of the Kenyan woman I started this with. She never responds to my emails anymore and I worry this is the reason why. When I see her in person again I will ask her and I hope I am wrong but until that day it still haunts me somewhat. I am probably wrong because she is African and therefore far more experienced in the complexities of aid than even I am.
During September of 2005 when I was producing an exhibit to earn income for the business and the SHERP Orphanage I had been working with I had the idea to try and bring two of the orphans and Grace to Vancouver for the show. I knew it would help our sales and everyone loved the idea. The Kenyans would get the chance to see Canada and it would give them a powerful sense of belonging as partners to have them as guests here.
I sold the idea to Canadian Immigration as a 'Trade Mission' between our respective nations - a gutsy move to show Vancouver that trade was more powerful than aid. In a series of late night phone calls, faxes and emails to Nairobi I somehow managed to convince a famously restrictive Visa desk to let the kids and Grace come which almost NEVER happens. As the news shows frequently now boatloads of Africans floating their way to some dream of economic freedom in Spain or later France, the world has no idea what to do with all these Africans who are seeking something better than most of what is going on in their countries. And it's so bitter and painful if you know the colonial history of Africa - how welcoming the average African was when the Europeans first arrived looking for tea, diamonds and gold.
The only catch in my plan was that I didn't have enough cash for the plane tickets. I had to ask 3 friends to guarantee they would lend me $15,000 to add to my meager $5,000 in case something happened to the Kenyans in Canada - a bond requested as well as a notarized letter stating that yes, I could get my hands on all this money. We don't know what that's like in Canada - when we go to Africa if anything happens to us we'll be okay, we have credit cards and insurance and bank cards that work everywhere but it's not the same thing coming North.
So I was maxxed out but then I got a surprise phone call from a person who told me if there was anything they could help me with me to ask. So I did in a letter to a movie set requesting if all 300 crew members might be interested in each paying $20 to attend an art exhibit - advanced sales so I would have the $6K to cover the flights. But the person offered to pay the whole shot themselves and in my naivety I said yes. I knew in my heart this wasn't great to put all my eggs in one basket and not spread the risk and joy around more - something I learned in political fundraising. You are far more powerful to have 10,000 supporters each give you $1 then to have 2 supporters give you $5. In the latter scenario if 50% of your supporters go away you are left with one person. In the first example if 50% of the people end up hating you even - you still have 5,000 supporters. This is why grass roots movements have been so successful and ultimately why I believe African will be okay if aid diminishes. But I was under the gun and I only had 2 weeks to get them here so I said yes. I had never taken anything for free until then - I had always paid people for their help because I am a business and I am trying to prove that trade is better than aid so I don't take handouts.
After the exhibit I was asked by someone involved with my donor to allow a new charity, society and endownment fund, that had all 3 been established within 4 days of our exhibit, the rights to use our documentary film to fundraise for them. Great right? Just what I wanted - to have even more people love the kids I love and help them. And after investing $10,000 of my own money so the exhibit could earn us as a group $30,000 it felt a little strange but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. So I suggested that they could use 3 minutes of the movie (and they chose the best 3 minutes) if they paid Sam the film maker $2,000 and $10 for every dub they wanted to mail out. A rather innovative distribution tactic I thought. They were likely to get at least a $100 cheque for each copy they mailed out - a basic 10% marketing cost.
So I was stunned and offended when I got a call saying that not only was $2,000 'unacceptable' by the millionaire on the other end of the phone, but that my request was selfish when their intention was to help the kids even though I was very effectively doing that. He said our film was 'a very powerful tool' for them to fundraise with for his endowment fund which made me laugh of course - having hurled myself over to Africa six months earlier to achieve the same thing. But when I explained to him that no portion of the actual endownment fund was ever going to leave Canada, only any accrued interest that might come in time - @ at very high 10% interest rate the kids would get $10,000 after one year of $100,000 in donations sitting in a Canadian bank account paying a Canadian financial institution interest as well. Aid money for Africa. Aid money used to buy plane tickets and holidays for people who want to help.
To make a long story short I did not let them use our film to fundraise because I felt that the beautiful little business I had worked so painstakingly hard to build from nothing so it could be a signpost of dignity for these kids was ultimately being taken advantage by aid. And I made a very unpopular decision in that moment that cost me relationships, confidence and maybe even the friendship of the woman who had flown across the world to come see Canada. And their side of the story is important too. I don't agree with what they are doing, fundamentally I believe they are hurting Africa in the long run, but they feel it's the right approach and they may succeed in getting huge amounts of capital over to Kenya in the years to come. But it won't sustain, it will continue to reinforce the concept that Africa needs help instead of an equal opportunity to the economic freedoms that we all have the right to.
In the first twelve months of trading my business generated nearly $60,000 CDN in income, $12,000 of which was direct wire transferred into the kids income account we helped setup when we sold our first t-shirts in Maralal. If that group had chosen to continue supporting the vehicle of trade I had built to work in the kids best interest god only knows how much income they would have by now. But they have their aid and hopefully the well that was promised to them.
When our exhibit came down there was $20,000 of unsold art - $3,500 which belongs to the kids as their income and $7,000 which is apportioned to the 6 artists who created work to be sold. I will always wonder what would happened if this story had ended differently. If a charity had never been created offering tax breaks to Canadians, if an endownment fund for Africa had not been announced in the Globe and Mail and if those very people who called me and said they wanted to help me ever received or read the letter I sent explaining how trade is better than aid. Should Africa gain an increase of 1% in the global pie of trade - this $70 billion dollars would be triple the amount of it's current aid agreements.
Poverty doesn't just happen, it's borne within the womb of the deeply rooted complicated macro-economics we all live by. At the end of the day my business could not compete with a 47.3% tax relief for Canadians - money our government somehow relieves from tax income so it can leave our country to create dependancy somewhere else. But all this isn't explained to you in those sad black and white sponsorship ads that make us all pull out our cheque books. We don't see how most of our money doesn't actually end up in the hands of the kids you see hungry and crying on television. It pays for salaries and studies and expensive hotels rooms owned by private equity firms registered in small offshore countries. Some of it gets there sure - but most of it doesn't. That's what I always say to people - go to Africa and try and find the aid money. The things that are truly working there are the small local ideas that have a chance to grow, things Africans are building for themselves and all their children's tomorrows.
I think about Grace everyday and pray that she understands the decision I made even if she doesn't agree. I know her dream is to have the orphanage self-sustain one day, the same dream I have for the other 450,000,000 kids who are her neighbours.
Monday, September 04, 2006
EBITDA or CASH
If someone has said to me three years ago when I told everyone I knew that I wanted to alleviate poverty in Africa, "EBITDA" I might have gotten to this place of feeling completely ignorant much much faster. Supposing most people are like me and have no formal financial bankground things like EBITDA and cash on cash yield are incredibly daunting. But to use the private sector to finance whatever dream you have these are two terms to most definately master.
If I was happy just having a small little operation making a difference in a small number of peoples lives then I could go on forever never having to learn these things however, such is not the case - my dream includes 450 million children. When I ask them what they want to be in life they say the professions - a doctor, a lawyer, a pilot - but what they really need to also focus on is economics, banking and trade so they won't have to leave their continent to get a job. But economics isn't sexy - or at least not yet.
I am trying to get a financial mentor to come to the studio and explain EBITDA to everyone - to show the Africans who are wondering why the hell are they so poor when they're living in such a rich place - the very things they need to know. And it's all about cash which Africans understand better than most of us I imagine because most of their economies are still very much cash based. I know a Masaii guy who owns over 1,000 cows and each one is worth $300 CDN which means he has over a quarter of a million cash on hand - all he needs is to call a butcher. But he would never do that because his herd is his cash on cash yield, month after month, year after year.
EBITDA - used to approximate the fundamental earning power of a businesses operations while forecasting capital expenditures coming down the pipe.
Cash flow into Africa.
Faith, Surrender & Hope
Last night was the darkest of the darkest - going to bed wanting to throw in the towel and move on feeling like I have failed and that I will never be able to actualize my vision into something lucrative. And why I don't know after actualizing this summer's sales orders and seeing we made a 37% gross profit margin you'd think I'd be happy. But I think it actually scared me because I know my idea has the ability to be incredibly successful but I don't know how to get it to this point. I don't even really know how to calculate a gross profit margin - I had to buy a book that explained it to me written by a guy actually who admires one of my best friend's fathers for his business acumen. That's somewhat encouraging - perhaps someone to eyeball my business plan. And with 5 currencies in 4 time zones my head gets dizzy trying to understand how to possibly forecast this tiny trickle of a stream to hopefully become a river of cash flow.
I am a designer and a champion of kids - I am the one who does the best job looking into their eyes and finding a way to help them understand how powerful they are - asking them "Have you ever done this? I will teach you how." And I am the one who sells this idea better than anyone else in the world because I can translate to people so easily how poverty is a trap and that a business like ours is the key that loosens it so people can spring free. I know this deep in my heart because SHINDA supported 8 employees and 15 family members for two months making a big difference like they have all emailed to say - a big difference to feed their kids, nurture their esteem and sustain. I can't let this fail for them or me.
So it is so baffling for me when I wake up full of dread in the middle of the night over and over again feeling like I am already failing when I just can't be. I am exhausted and discouraged and I need someone to help us - someone who knows how to do all those Excel-things that I never bothered to learn because I was desinging and sketching and learning about Africa. I just have to keep believing or having IMANI that someone will come. I have to remind myself that what is important is this lesson below of the Wise Woman's Stone that was sent to me by the business coach I hired three years ago to help me begin this journey. It is a reminder to me during these painfully lonely days that all this giving and sharing and extending of myself so I can find a way for kids to SHINDA in Africa does have currency in the world and that it isn't all for naught. That my demons are wrong and somehow I will find a way for us all to SHINDA over them because the world needs dreamers and idealists who believe in the "Why not?" that so many of us need and are willing to build.
The Wise Woman's Stone
A wise woman who was travelling in the mountains found a precious stone in a stream. The next day she met another traveler who was hungry, and the wise woman opened her bag to share her food. The hungry traveler saw the precious stone and asked the woman to give it to him. She did so without hesitation.
The traveler left rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the stone was worth enough to give him security for a lifetime.
But, a few days later, he came back to return the stone to the wise woman.
"I've been thinking." he said. "I know how valuable this stone is, but I give it back in the hope that you can give me something even more precious. Give me what you have within you that enabled you to give me this stone."
Friday, September 01, 2006
Calgary Film Festival
So Emily and Sam will be headed to Calgary to Moja Moja at this year's film festival. I wonder what people will think? After watching the film myself at least 20 times all the nuances and africanisms are so subtle and funny - like an old friend farting next to you on the couch. But I remember my first time being in an African home how nervous I was, how overpolite I must have seemed in my attempt to express how much I wanted to understand. Na Heshima.
But for someone who has never been to Africa and only watches CNN...thank god for all the visible publicity and celebrity celebration of Africa because people ARE finally beginning to understand they have never understood before. Matt Damon is going to be opening the Toronto Film Festival with an announcement of his film about Africa so today we fedexed a package with Moja Moja just for him. A shot in the dark - an arrow sent forth towards an imagined goal.
And after all the emails I've sent and phone calls I've made, letters I've mailed and dreams I've had; drinks I've bought, fingers I've crossed it seems as though finally there may be a break in the clouds coming soon. My horoscope the other day said the most amazing things about Virgo - I wish I had kept it. Something about a spilling over of all things tumbling and hot and fast like a waterfall rushing in my favour. I yelled YESSS! out loud in the restaurant with my girlfriend waiting for the soup.
If you build it they will come. Enshallah.
Thursday, August 31, 2006
First USA retail order
Well it finally happened! A retail buyer from the San Francisco left me a voicemail saying 'the staff just love the shirts and want me to order them'. It's a very cool museum (The Museum of the African Diaspora) and even though his price point is too low we'll INAWEZEKANA somehow and show him what a value-added Africa is worth.
And Stephanie who brings her laptop to work who studied design and sends me emails about organizations who have grant money available. What a great thing to have the person who assists you tell you they need their own assistant - that's a good sign.
The big order of 100 shirts is done and will likely be shipped moja moja - or one by one to the buyer in Canada. Air cargo prices are even higher than last month so we'll see how well Postal Kenya and Canada Post do for us. I don't entirely know if this falls within the professional guidebook of apparel retail but it certainly will be special for the office to receive 100 brown envelopes over the course of a few weeks. Small business 101 - do whatever it takes no matter what to survive. If the front door's locked go to the back. If the back door's locked - crawl in a window.
Everyone in the studio did such an amazing job I think I'll have to find another office to work in so I don't get in the way of a good thing. And if my Kenya Airways flight crashes into the Sahara Desert next week I will leave this world knowing my dream of building wealth for Africa has come true.
Moja Moja - flying t-shirts over the pole across the globe.
Saturday, August 26, 2006
It takes a Village
I think my favourite of our colour lines is village - Corn, Tarmac, Blue Sky, Rusty and Kisses - what you are likely to see on your way to an African village. After cutting and designing and sewing all day when I look at the floor I see a beautiful pile of scraps - still so gorgeous in it's elegant waste. Something else to figure out how to recycle, regenerate, re-think.
The saying that 'it takes a village to raise a child' has kept me going for years now thinking about how to empower Africans in this venture and when I walked into this shop today I thought - now this could be what we look like inside SHINDA. Not anything like you see in Kenya really - maybe in the private homes or embassies but definately not CBD shopping. Joseph has a second potential place in mind for us on Ngong Road so we'll see if they're up for a lease. By January we're going to need more space that's for sure.
Getting all the samples done to photograph and show to retailers in London on my way through this trip - get some orders, flash the brand and hopefully tell everyone we all have jobs for another year or month or whatever it takes.
Moja Moja - colour explosion.
Friday, August 25, 2006
Albert Normandin is a photographer I have known for a very long time who graciously allowed me to use this photo over three years ago when I started building the business. And in a completely circular twist of fate I had the chance to bid on a huge beautifully framed version of it at an auction last night for the Nelson Mandela Foundation. They raised $30K Cdn which is to be matched by CIDA - not bad for a Thursday night in Vancouver.
But as I sat there wondering about the charity model it made me think of what Africa really wants and needs so much is more trade and not more aid. So I thought of Joseph and Anna who came with a suitcase full of beaded jewellery to sell, to trade with us and how they went home with over $1,000 in sales what that must have done for them over a handout of the same value. I know Joseph bought a bicycle.
I don't talk about these things so much because people are generous and they want to help especially in Vancouver where we are so rich by comparison. I saw a lady on tv today who has over 500 pairs of shoes and although you can't help but wonder at the accomplishment of that, for me whose soul is divided so deeply between the haves and the havenots, it did seem rather sad. That's probably half a million dollars worth of shoes given their value - an amount that could better lives of thousands of people who have nothing.
She said she wanted to be a model of inspiration to women. If I could ever inspire a single woman it would be to encourage them to share with others who have nothing.
Wednesday, August 23, 2006
Duties and Tarriffs 101
It's funny because when I was a kid I remember looking at the underside of things and always seeing MADE IN TAIWAN. I guess in the 70's there was some sort of manufacturing boom there before the curtain was dropped and Shanghai rose again.
This is why Kenya is positioned so well for the future - they like so few African countries who have a port which is second in size to that of Durban in South Africa I believe. So the 300 million people who make up East Africa can get their goods out at least and on their way to a more lucrative albeit costly foreign economy like Canada.
Our products, HANDMADE RECYCLED T-SHIRTS that employs Kenyans and gets kids into school enjoys the highest of all Canadian duties under category 6109 10 00 22 - t-shirts/unisex/cotton - 18% on manufactured value and 6% GST on top of both of those amounts. The main reason I keep strategizing to eventually export in the USA is that I have been told and am trying to find out that textile imports into that land are 0% thanks to the EPZ's Condeleeza helped to build. I also think that the military base in the North Eastern part of the country might have something to do with it - free trade for those who sympathise with our national agendas.
As I budget for these duties and email the paperwork to the studio I wonder what life would be like in a world with no borders. If there were no more nations but collections of communities trading and living and eating completely based on choice and convenience. Wouldn't we be better off really? What is all this nationalism doing for us as a global community anway? It's like a membership to a privileged club - what you really pay for besides clean towels and a great view is the knowlege that other people are kept out.
Global trade really is just another club. And as we build the business model the club we join will be the one that wants to trade with Kenya and South Africa and Sierra Leone. Who are those people and what colour of t-shirts do they like to wear? When I sent those disposable cameras to Kenya in July of 2004 I never imagined I would be calculating textiles duties into the wee hours of the night in order to get my point across. But that's the small task of what making a difference truly is about. It's not the grand sweeping press conferences and promises - it's the small letters at the bottom of confusing legal documents that hold more power over us than we realize. How some of us get rich and why others of us grow poor without ever really understanding the impact of other people's decisions.
I was watching Christiane Amanpour sniff out Bin Laden tonight and it occured to me that muslims and arabs and fundamentalist terrorists might actually speak and use the Swahili language as it was borne off the Saudi Peninsula. What would they think when the saw our declaration to SHINDA with African kids? I think they might actually love it and if there were no import duties into Afghanistan and Pakistan and the Sudan could this be a market for us? I would imagine I would have some explaining to do next time I crossed at Peace Arch on my way to the outlet mall on Exit 202 North of Seattle. Didn't we see Osama wearing one your shirts Miss Standfield? Of course he would look good in our tones of coffee and tea and maybe sky blue to go with his eyes. He gets his Kalashnikov's from somewhere and all those white Toyotas.
Eleanor Roosevelt said 'The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams'. What on earth is the world going to look like in 20 years from now? Who has the most beautiful dreams? Who will want to help us SHINDA?
Lala Salama. I go to sleep dreading the possibility my new t-shirt silkscreener is going out of business with all 25 of our new samples locked behind his doors.
It's amazing how many things come together once a strong logo and brand are selected. This is a first rough draft of the book cover - done by Sam Oliver whose film has just been selected to be in the Calgary Film Festival (great place to sell t-shirts).
Right after the Vancouver Canucks rebranded I had the opportunity to speak with the guy in charge of marketing so of course, I asked why did they choose the logo they did - the orca whale arched into a C. What he said is what I always think of when I realize it has taken me 2 years to identify this image as our logo and to use the name SHINDA. And the money it cost is a fraction of what the Canucks paid.
So the guy tells me they hired some fancy PR firm or ad agency to do market research into the most successful hockey franchises in the NHL. Not even who scored the most goals, but at the end of the fiscal year which teams brought the greatest shareholder returns in the league because after all the face-offs and penalties and hot dogs and bad calls that's really what allows us Canadians to enjoy our sport so much - it has to make money at the end of the day.
It turns out that of the top three teams there was a consistent theme to the logo - something that if the Canuck's replicated they might hedge their bets and gain market share. Who knows if the new logo made any of the guys skate or shoot better - likely not - but the logo was designed based on the findings the hired PR firm had told management. Basically at the end of the day, they paid $1 Million bucks to be told that if they wanted to go with the odds of a winning logo the one thing it had to have was 'teeth'. And so it does.
How would you value the Nike swoosh or the Mercedes circle? The peace sign? The hand that says DON'T WALK in the crosswalk. You can't. These things are priceless. When it comes to alleviating poverty these days you most definately have to get in the game and compete with the best.
Tuesday, August 22, 2006
When I see people like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton and Kofie Annan and Angelina Jolie and all the people who so want to help create prosperity in Africa the first thing that always comes to my mind is the power of money and if applied humanly, what it can accomplish.
The Amazonians who realized their land could be taken away from them made one succinct decision that has been a landmark precedent for anti-poverty activists around the globe. I don't know where they got the money from but they financed Ivy League business education for enough of the younger generations so they could come back and fight for their rights of their land with powerful corporate law, and with english and judiciary skills - how truly the world works for those who have the tools to play the game we all are governed by.
And so we are learning the corporate law of Kenya and of Africa - likely the most fractured legal systems in the world but nonetheless working in places like Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa. If there is one thing that post English colonies in Africa might be grateful for is the system of common and civil law that remains. Not because it's better than whatever was there before, in fact I'm sure it's not, but what it can be used to do from this day forward - to level the playing field and to get in the game before it's too late.
Hopefully by January SHINDA will be a corporation - paying taxes, sharing ownership, taking advantage of how the global economy really works on behalf of the kids who need it most. And if there's one thing I know the Kenyans who work with us can do as well or even better than anyone else is to think, to discuss, to anaylyze and debate and determine what is right, what is fair - how to SHINDA for their own good. In the eyes of the law, everyone is supposed to be equal.
I have always thought that the world is made up of 2 economies - like superhighways travelling at the speed of sound - twin Autobahn's shooting across the globe. One highway is the 'good economy' that cleans up rivers and cares for children - the one that makes us all happy and healthy and proves to us that there is enough. The other one is the 'bad economy' that wrecks everything, drains the lakes, starves the indigenous and discourages us to believe that there will be something green and beautiful for our children, our grandchildren. And there are millions of us out there working passionately into the night scheming to hijack capital out of the bad economy so it can get to work in the good one. That's all it is - these intentions are not contrary - they are not two highways going in opposite directions like we sometimes feel. They travel towards the same goal that is the future whatever we determine it shall be.
Can we protect children using the same tools that have made them so very vulnerable? I think so. I'd like to see someone stop us from trying.
FBO YYJ - Victoria