Making a living here is not easy and I’ve discovered it’s best to keep trying out new things and to never rely on just one income source – what is known in the UK as a portfolio career.
Tourism is great for many reasons (aside from anything else, I get to meet great new people and sometimes travel with them), but it’s hard when a guest doesn’t show and there goes your sole income for the month. Maybe not a problem for a 100 room hotel, but tricky for us.
I occasionally make a website for someone – here’s one I made earlier – as well as sell some photos or articles – an area I need to push.
Whilst on that point, check out the front page of my website which I have updated, including a link to my art shop.
Then of course we try to reduce living costs by living as self-sufficiently as possible – no water or power bills and the fruit trees are coming along nicely, we have some vegetable success and as my permaculture experiment develops, I hope to produce more and more of our own food.
Khady’s motorcycle taxi continues to bring in a small daily income (she saves all of this – her intention is to buy a car to provide a transport service to her mothers remote village). Earlier this year she tried to sell fish but was hit by red tape which we’re still cutting through.
Most African countries, despite their vast resources, are not as productive as they should be because rather than allow economies to grow and entrepreneurs to flourish, all too often the authorities will take the money for itself, its family members and ethnic group, stifle industry and trade and impose bewildering amounts of bureaucracy. Unfortunately for most Africans, this suits developed nations as it’s so much easier to do business with a few bribes than it is to do it transparently. The developed nations, corporations and a few lucky Africans win whilst the majority of Africans lose out. Meanwhile small scale entrepreneurs end up supporting huge families and assorted hangers on and are unable to invest profits to grow their businesses. You have to break out of the system to succeed, hence the popularity of trying to escape to Europe.
Take the Senegalese car industry. It’s not possible to import a car older than 8 years, supposedly due to wanting to keep old cars off the road (when you see what’s already on the road, this doesn’t make a lot of sense), but more probably because the ex-Presidents son ran the local car manufacturer and he didn’t want competition. Consequently, all old cars go straight to the Gambia which has a thriving 2nd hand car market. This guys currently on trial for massive corruption, but that’s another story.
Anyway, I digress. Recently Khady approached me with a new idea. Her cousin, Papis, has a room facing Abene’s main street and would she like to open a shop there? The rent is virtually nothing (£10/month) and she was keen to try something and keep busy. And I’m always very happy to support her entrepreneurship.
“I’ll open a breakfast bar” she declared.
“But there’s a ton of those, why don’t you do something different?”
“They’re all “salty” (dirty) – I’ll do it properly. And I’ll squeeze fresh orange juice for tourists!”
It was her birthday last month and rather than me buy her a present she wanted investment. So, that’s what she’s doing. And it’s been a hit. Before she opened, there was a buzz around Abene that Khady was opening a restaurant. As usual here, there is a lot of jealousy, but a lot of people declaring they’d come and buy from her. Of course she consulted the marabout and made some ceremonies before opening, to ensure success.
She sells superior versions of local sandwiches – beans, pea (like mushy peas – sounds gross, but it’s quite nice), tun (mashed fish cooked with oil, onion, garlic and chilli) and a new one – bullet. These are the fish balls that she cooks in a sweet tomato sauce. I convinced her to cook with a small amount of sugar – the concept of adding sweetness to savoury dishes hasn’t appeared to reach the mainstream in Senegal – and she’s realised it’s delicious. She also provides cafe touba – the liquorice like local coffee and kinkillyba, the local bush tea.
We can live comfortably here, but regular family visits to UK will be problematic unless I can get an extra income – whilst I’m ever hopeful that my book (to be published Jan/Feb 2015) will be best seller, I’m also a realist so I’ve also started up a new business with a local friend.
It seems that everybody is doing the same thing – all tried and tested ideas that will support subsistence living and that’s about it. Four years ago when I first came here I barely saw any motorbikes – to get to Abene from the main road required waiting hours for a bus or a long walk. Now there are twenty or thirty motorcycle taxis – someone had the bright idea and made a killing until everybody else copied and now they all scrape by. Yesterday I saw a new building going up and was told it was a new hardware store – I can think of 6 or 7 in the vicinity, all selling exactly the same stuff. There are now at least nine internet cafes, and this is a small village.
You could say the same about guesthouses – where we differentiate ourselves is our marketing – primarily this blog – we very rarely have passing foot traffic but are kept fairly busy with advance bookings from readers as I’m one of the few local places with a web presence. We have 14 people staying in the festival week and supposedly tourism is way down due to ebola (and there’s no ebola here, but don’t get me started…#Unite4WestAfrica).
Again I digress…back to my new business. There’s a big problem in Abene with car maintenance. There’s a couple of decent mechanics, and a bunch of less decent ones, but they mostly operate under mango trees with a couple of spanners. Invariably you go, they look, poke around, stand back and tut (some things are the same everywhere).
“The rubber is finished.” It’s always the rubber.
“So where do I get a new one?”
And thus follows a trip to Gambia where I get ripped off by the Lebanese car part traders or I give the money to the mechanic and pray that he’s not ripping me off, knowing he probably is, but at least it’s cheaper than if I went myself.
Whether it’s a tiny part or something serious, there is no car part dealer in Abene or nearby Kafountine. Even in Ziguinchor I was told to go to the Gambia. Here is a map I drew for my book, in case you don’t know the geography:
Even when we get the parts, the mechanic will say “Simon, we need grease”. And I have to drive a couple of miles to one of the six or seven hardware stores (or walk if the car is incapacitated – well, at least I can now get a motorbike taxi!) to buy grease.
“Why aren’t you selling and profiting from the grease?” I asked.
So, my regular mechanic approached me with his idea.
“I want to open the first car parts store – the first will be the most powerful, this is a good business, no one else is doing it, all the mechanics waste their time and money going to Gambia – every week.”
It was a compelling argument. I’d previously thought about doing this, but had figured it would be too expensive. He had a way, the details of which I won’t bore you with, but it’s all above board and low risk for me.
What can possibly go wrong?
And another thing before I go for a snooze (self employment)…
Alfies scalp is a little flaky, so I suggested she use a little e45 cream (a moisturiser used for dry skin conditions).
Khady had a better idea:
“We can take the contents of a freshly killed sheep’s stomach and plaster that all over his head,” she suggested.
Rather him than me.
Here’s my new office: