Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Intellectual Property

If I had known when I had this dream over 4 years ago of building wealth for kids in Africa that at times it would be so excruciatingly hard I wonder if I might have hesitated. One of my best friends says that she always knows I'm happy when my blog is updated with another story. I haven't written for over two weeks because I lost all my strength to do this. It seems like it may be back, it always comes back when I sit with the t-shirts or design books and download all my creativity into what my business will look like so everyone in the world will fall in love with African kids the way I did back in Conakry.

It feels like I am at the very bottom of a massive dark pit with walls so high and so smooth there is no way I can get a grip. After four phone calls and seven phone prompts finally a recorded voice at Canadian Border Services told me they were closed. I was freaking out after the lady at UPS said even a $20 value on a trade barrier item might have duties of $500 applied to it which means my $1,200 value shipment would have duties of $30,000 on it. Of course it won't because that would be ridiculous but on the Customs website red hot words beside TARRIFFS are USED + TEXTILES. Canada does not want in any way anything second hand or anything textile entering this nation.

Two weeks ago I had tried to bring the shipment in through New York but then the Heathrow scare and that was the end of that. No shipments coming in from Nairobi due to terrorism. Terrorism? I thought - they should see what's going on next door in Somalia. Kenya's nothing.

So I found a lawyer in DC who gave me a quote to trademark the brand and while I was talking to him I was looking at the website of another law firm in Nairobi who also specialized in 'intellectual property'. My nemesis - if only I was happy selling real estate or being a teacher - those things are lucrative and good for the planet. But no, I had to decide that my sole purpose in life was to create wealth in one of the most volatile complicated and messed up places on the planet. Anyway this Kenyan law firm states very clearly on their site that "Although official Government policy has been to encourage investment in Kenya, including from abroad, its record in attracting significant foreign investment has been poor. With a liberalized economy (price controls and foreign exchange controls were lifted more than a decade ago), and a vibrant market-driven private sector, Kenya could be further along the development path than it is."

Intellectual property is also a bit weak and requires 'modernization'. My thinking is that the business needs to be based in the US to take advantage of strong corporate law and our product imported into the States as there is almost no duty on incoming Kenyan textiles and of course, the American economy is the most powerful entity on the planet so all this seems a no-brainer. At the same time I am thinking the team in Nairobi can find ways to re-cost the product and start selling it to Kenyans as well as long as we can protect the brand. And it's funny because there is almost no retail brand industry in Kenya - there's a few little things but nothing based on intellectual property - mostly commodities based brands like oil, coffee or sugar.

I have to lie down after the customs experience. It was like a flashback to last fall when I was arranging for the 3 Kenyans to come visit for our art show. It's all so hypocritical for the average person. I get on a plane with no cash and fly halfway around the world knowing full well I don't have the $50 USD to enter Kenya and by the graciousness of trading with Africa I am let in and welcomed. Of course I paid the visa fee but only after I found a Barclay's ATM in the Jomo Kenyatta arrivals lobby. "Don't do that again" the security guard told me so of course I suggested they relocate the ATM so it was beside the visa application desk. And if I was an African boldly exiting into the Great White North with no paperwork or money? They can't even get into our embassy in Nairobi.

I can't rest because I am sleeping in my friend's loft and its so bloody sunny I could get a suntan and I'm boiling. After lying there feeling sorry for myself for three minutes I get up and put on my bathing suit. I've never tanned while working in an office but why not? I can't not succeed at this. As I sit at my desk in my bikini trying to learn more about importing I look at myself and think I am becoming somewhat of a weird person. Other people are rollerblading or sitting on a patio drinking cold beer and here I am living out of suitcases and thinking about kids in Africa. I am so deep into this it has changed me.

But then I sit down with the 20 colour samples I scored at Home Depot thanks to Ralph Lauren and I layout the colour lines of 'village', 'national', 'coastal' and 'exports'. There is probably nothing I don't know about the Kenyan economy and how it works - it's all there in the colours of our shirts; bloodshed, sunshine, coffee, tea, carnation pink, indian ocean, rusty, corn, kiss - everything you see in Kenya is a colour.

I got an email the other day from one of the designers. She asked to use some of her fees to pay for drugs for her mother who is sick. When she was refused to cash a cheque unless she had sex with the officer she realized she only had a few days to make this decision. As I go to bed at the end of what seems a nightmare of a day in the world of small business I think of my own mother who died because there were no drugs to cure her back then. I never reached out and asked anyone to help us halfway across the world. I wonder why not?

One day in June my father told me my mother would be dead by Xmas and sure enough she was. I didn't make a single phone call, or ask for help or even read a book about cancer. It was 1986 and we all had free passes to Expo. That was the year all the sushi bars opened and the farmed salmon industry began. My mother died 12 days before Xmas which has always amused me in some strangely musical way. When I think of her I think of the kids I know in Kenya and tell myself businesses succeed every day and some don't even try to make people's lives better.

I told her we couldn't lend her money but that I would try and get her another order so she would have income instead. I haven't heard from her since. I wonder what decision she made and if this is why she hasn't emailed back. And why didn't I say - yes - do whatever you have to do to save your mother. It's times like this that I crawl into bed and think not only I am failing as a businessperson I can't even seem to get the human stuff right.

A new door opens - - a gift from someone who not only understands but cares too.


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