Saturday, October 2, 2010

Thank you for your World Vision-less

I was watching American Idol last night, yes, I know…I noticed they blurred the Coca Cola cups sitting on the judge’s table. This is presumably because Coca Cola didn’t pay for an advertisement. It reminded of me the BBC’s induction week where they took us thru the history of the BBC and during the week, they gave a talk about the lasting power of images, even when you are exposed to them for few seconds. The speaker showed a BBC clip with a blurred image of another popular brand and explained why the image was blurred. Apparently, there are studies made about how images we see daily influence our choices or ideas subconsciously. I was intrigued by this and from then on I walked around London paying attention to the number of images I was exposed to and tried to figure out how they might influence my choices as a consumer and my thoughts.

If the BBC would go out of their way to control an image a viewer might be exposed to for just few seconds, how about the power a billboard has? One particular photo campaign that bothered me a lot was a “World Vision” poster at the time plastered all over London bus stops. It had life-size picture of a desperate-looking black child with flies on his face and a pot belly. And the pathetic line that accompanied the disturbing picture was something sadder even, “with your help we can combat poverty”! I found it incredibly offensive. Anyone remembers those horrid old Tin Tin cartoons with darkened faces of white cartoons and bright red lipstick? It reminded me of that.

These kinds of degrading images of Africa and Africans have partly contributed to my decision to leave Europe, together with the weather, potatos and the London Underground.


Things are changing faster than I can put them down on paper and I am trying to follow that Buddhist teaching, "observe life and don't get too involve." Bloody hard, I tell ya. So, I am observing that I have to move to a flat, finally! Yipeeee. I am moving with Maria and even tho it is not the palace I wanted to live, it is a good start and gives us both (the wondering nomads) that much needed stability. We move on Sunday, I hope, but I am going to terribly miss living with Emilie at this cool part of town, right next to the beach. Emilie has been super kind and let me and Maria crash at her place, it feels like girls boarding school! I don't think I could survive Maputo's ups and downs if it wasn't for friends.

Sharing house with Maria and Emilie has been very interesting. We have found a way to negotiate TV-watching plan. I watch English programmes, Emilie watches French TV and Maria, Portuguese. So we all get couch-potato moment and are happy with the arrangement. Oh, did I tell you about Emilie's maid's cooking skills? She is the most talented cook I have met in Maputo and she is so creative in the kitchen she makes most delicious dishes and every day of the week there is a surprise!

I am going to miss this place.

On a totally different subject but change-related...After writing something on Facebook about never ever ever working for someone again, I accepted a radio job! Well, I couldn't say no to an opportunity like this. I get to work with the only English radio in Maputo, learn lots about commercial radio and do a bit of DJing, broadcasting, interviewing, selling radio advertisement, and more. Something I realise I should have done years back but better late than never. How ironic, right? I have been struggling like hell to make ends meet for nearly 3 years in Maputo and when I finally find something I absolutely love (Pili Pili Designs), I get offered my dream job! I have accepted the job and started on Wednesday already so let's see how it goes. I have no idea how this will workout but I have decided not to make any fixed plans about life anymore, I am going with the flow and will find out where it takes me.

Great thing about this job, apart from being paid for doing what I love, is that the radio guys will sort out my residency permit! Did I tell you couple of months back residency permit fees increased by like %%%%%! Yep, it went from $200 to $800, mad no? But like the note on Carolina and Helen's bathroom says "keep calm and carry on".

Friday, September 24, 2010

Evolution of African fashion.

Posted by Picasa

Grew up hating African colourful prints and only now do I realise why. Some of the prints are actually beautiful, it is just that some unimaginative tailors and designers got hold of these and made awful curtain-like dresses out of them. Thank goodness finally the right designers have arrived and we can appreciate African prints again. Just love this stylish dress and I want to have a massive collection of African dresses.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Bra nightmare

Is it just me or is it impossible to find a decent bra? I have tried everything and every shape but I am yet to find a comfortable bra. This picture is how all my bras become after only a month or 2 of wearing them! It doesn't matter how much money you spend on a bra it doesn't seem to make a difference to the quality.

Imagine having to wear this torture instrument every day in the name of decency? I am on a bra strike but I wish I had the courage of Charlie Dimmock. Remember that British "Garden" TV presenter who refused to wear a bra even on Tele? The tabloids were obsessed with the poor woman and had shots of her dangling twins on the front page more often than I could count. Still, I want her life. Even at the risk of walking around with unsightly droops all the way to the floor. Or maybe I should just settle for a breast reduction surgery free myself from the monsters with fangs!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Stupid for government

If you haven't got a clue how to deal with discontent against your policies and can not control riots, go ahead and switch off SMSing! That will totally sort out your problem, if you are an ostrich government, that is.

I thought we were beyond the days of Mugabe ranting stupid stuff like Britain is a nation of "faggots", in response to a question about Zim being kicked out of the Commonwealth...Or the late Yassir Arafat totally losing his cool on live TV and screaming at the female journalist calling her..."Stupid woman"!

Is there a "what not to do" TV programme for goon governments? I strongly recommend one.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

How to lose weight and find peace.

I don't think I have ever paid a close attention to the link between my bloat episodes and the outwardly 'stable' and 'happy' life I led at the time. You know, the imagined bliss that supposedly comes with having found the love of your life, work/financial stability, having a car and sorted work/residency permit, all stable and balanced life. Soon as life is 'comfortable' and I have nothing to worry about, my body goes on a freaky strike and I have to dust out the size 12 denims and my tummy-concealer black tops! I jump from my usual size 8 to size 12 without a warning...Well, I get few month's notice but I am too slow to pick up the signs till the normally shy cashier lady at the supermarket 'compliments' me in a typical Mozambican style: "wow, you look so fat."...WTF!

Then I have to undo the damage caused by stability and comfort, and run myself to the ground again. My 6-steps-detox-from-happiness goes like this:

1 - break-up and move out
2 - drink like a fish till skin and hair get truely fucked up
3 - close down business or quit job
4 - work myself into a homelessness, no money, then sell the car and spend it all
5 - Skip 6 months visa stamps at the border and become illegal immigrant
6 - Socially withdraw, isolate myself and chop off hair.

Then magic happens, I fit perfectly into size 8, I feel more alive and content with life. I then turn around my life again and in 4 months, I have a place to live, a second business, my hair grows, I cut down alcohol and get into serious yoga.

There must be a less taxing way to feel and stay alive.

If your visa runs out, just breakdown and cry

At my last visa run to the border last month, I was asked to go to the immigration office after 30 days to explain why I have been in the country for 2.5 years on a tourist visa! Fair question, no idea how I was going to explain. They suggested I took a lawyer along as things were serious enough to be kicked out of the country if I can't justify my "over stay"...Shit, I thought.

I never met this 'lawyer', the guy dealing with our company registration process provided him and said he is "very good". We sit in this cold room with a stiff-looking immigration officer and the lawyer and my hangover makes me super patient, I was proud of myself for looking totally unmoved by the whole thing. I calmly explained to the officer that I had my old passport stollen and it had a residency permit (a big lie and praying he doesn't dig into my file to look for the evidence), and I act all victim and poor-me, I have worked damn hard to set up companies in this country with no support and created jobs and the visa and residency permits have gone up a 1000% and what am I suppose to do now, bla bla bla. I figured if I am gonna get kicked out, I might as well exit with a bang (pathetic loud cry, in my case).

Poor officer fell for this and was totally kind and sympathetic and asked if there was anything he could do to help!! What? This is so cool. He was trying to calm me down and offered to charge me the old visa price of $25 instead of the current $82 fee!! Wow! My day is suddenly much brighter and I feel like I have just won the lottery. One more worry-free month in Maputo. Gives me time and space to focus on a more basic challenge of sorting out a housing arrangement.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Something I wrote last Ramadan.

I hope this Ramadan is different.

I just read the British Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary’s Ramadan messages and I was both impressed by their decision to send such a touching message to Muslims around the world and felt the need to reply.

According to their messages, “Ramadan is a time for family and friends. A time when Muslims around the world focus on more than themselves. It is a time for charity and giving – the outward expressions of faith through acts of kindness and love, to complement the inner devotion and prayer.” I agree it all a time for all the above and equally wish all the Muslim everywhere a blessed Ramadan.

Having said that and speaking from experience, Ramadan is not necessarily a blessed month for every Muslim. I wish I experienced any kind of blessing growing up in a Muslim family. Sadly, Ramadan was more like a cursed month for me and probably for many other Muslim women and young girls around the world. In the house I grew up, it was a month from hell for the younger girls, we cooked, cleaned and slaved for all the adults sometimes for more than 16 hours a day with little rest! We worked under harsh conditions while fasting in the African heat.

Every time I think of Ramadan instead of missing it and wishing I was a practicing Muslim, I am so grateful I never have to cook and clean after almost 20 adults while fasting and in a way if is partly why I have not fasted for the last 10 years. I have a nasty memory of it all and it is a real shame I associate pain with a month that is suppose to be a spiritual and cleansing experience.

I can’t think of a crueller thing than making a fasting child shop for food everyday of Ramadan and walk for miles to the market, carrying a heavy basket back to the house to spend hours in the hot kitchen cooking in over 35C heat! What is so giving and charitable about that? Growing up we were brainwashed with stories like all ‘kind’ acts, including cooking for fasting people is supposedly a religious act and God will reward you for it. I always wondered why it was that adults did not volunteer to get a share of this reward by doing some of the endless domestic chores.

The work load was punishing. It started early in the morning around 2am cooking “Suhuur”, the last meal before sunrise. We cooked anything from: rice and stew, pasta and source, rice and yogurt or maize meal. We made coffee, tea and variety of natural juices, in the middle of the night! After cleaning up we took few hours nap before getting up again around 4:30 to wake everyone up and feed them. Imagine the responsibility not only to cook but also to make sure everyone is woken up before 5 and then served, one by one. No one ever showed up in the kitchen to pick up their meal either. They would reluctantly get up, wash their faces and pick a seat in the living room or outside and wait for their meals. Once we finished serving everyone between 4:30 and 5:00, we ate our meals and of course, cleaned all the dishes as no one was going to clean theirs. Especially the boys, they practically had a free life with no responsibility beyond looking after themselves.

On top of the cooking and cleaning duties, we did all the household chores while fasting. There were no machines to make the work load easier, no washing machine, dish washer, vacuum cleaner, nothing. Everything was done manually by the youngest and physically weakest, the girls. Act of kindness, did they say? Is Ramadan really a time of giving spirit and thinking of others and those less fortunate or has it become a routine thing you do without thinking the harm your actions might do to others? Looking back I can not believe this was (and still is) an acceptable practice among some Muslims. I am sure not every Somali or Muslim families behaved that way.

People looked forward to Ramadan but us girls dreaded it and could not wait for it to end. We had to steal sleep here and there to make sure we got at least 5 hours sleep in 24 hours.

I hope this Ramadan, no little girl will be weighed down with domestic work and deprived of sleep looking after the grown ups in the name of Allah while everyone else focuses on ‘cleaning their sins’ for the previous 11 months.

Ramadan Karim to you all and especially to all the little girls out there.

Poverty and 4x4s

Wealth in Maputo might not make it to the pavements and public trash collection system but you can tell there is money just by the number of flashy 4x4 creating traffic havoc during rush hours…And yes, there is a rush hour, even in the “poorest country in the world”.

Isn’t it funny how majority of the 54 countries in Africa are all referred to as “the poorest country in the world”? Surely even 40 countries can’t take that same award home, there must be some more befitting of the title than others. But hey, I stopped watching news so who doesn’t care.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Homeless again!

I am homeless again! Well, I am sleeping at friends’ houses while they are away on holidays, buying myself time to search for a place. Good thing about this experience is that I am getting better at handling it emotionally. After all, it is a choice I am making and I am glad to be out of that beautiful prison. Shame things had to end like that but life goes on. In a way, there is nothing personal about it, apart from losing a friend. Shit happens and you learn to stay focused on solutions and try not to dwell on the past.

I think if you are not happy about a situation you do something about it at any cost. So last Wednesday after a couple of heated SMS exchanges with my housemate I finally had enough and decided to hell with the house and him. I packed my stuff in 2 hours not having a clue where I will go. I called friends to see where I can leave my bags and maybe camp while I looked for a place. Not the ideal way to deal with a fall-out but sometimes you hit a wall and there is no happy ending.

Having said that, I am constantly kicking myself for being impulsive and impatient, putting myself thru difficult situations. I guess I will never change and when I am fed-up I need to act and deal with the consequences later. It is hard but I am slowly learning to accept who I am.

I crashed at a friend’s house first 4 nights as his new roommate didn’t move in till Sunday, just in time for my other friend to go on a week’s holiday! It is a bit rough moving 3 times in a week but at least I have a bed and time to search, so am grateful.

Great thing is I don’t really have time to wallow in this and feel depressed about it as Pili Pili Designs must go on. In the middle of these moves we managed to organise 2 sales and promotion events and they went really well. One was a private sales dinner party to 10 visitors from Spain and they bought lots of stuff. Better even, 2 of them liked our bags so much they want to be our agents in Barcelona and Madrid! How cool is that? Who cares about homelessness when things are going this well with business? And on Saturday we had a Pili Pili picnic at a really cool underground venue. The turn out was OK but that was coz I didn’t have time to publicise the event well with everything going on but we had a great day and almost everyone who turned up bought stuff. I think we will repeat the picnic this coming weekend with a better publicity.

An eventful week with ups and downs but pressure is important to get me focused and do better. I am excited about what happens next!

Friday, August 6, 2010

An African entrepreneur

I read Sylvia's story on the BBC News website and I am inspired. I guess the only difference between her and the million other African women working just as hard is in her self believe.

Sylvia Banda, Zambia
Sylvia Banda's first restaurant had no tables. She now owns 16 eateries.

My advice - persevere.

I remember very well the first day I opened my restaurant.

I did not have any chairs. I did not have any tables.

My customers had to eat in a standing position. I told them - you're going to have a "standing buffet".

They laughed and continued eating, and that's how my catering business was born.

Today, we have 16 eating places in Lusaka and we have opened a college training students in hospitality.

It is important to say to yourself - I am as good as the other person. If that person can do it, then so can I.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Derelict Delight Tour of Downtown Maputo

Today was a venue hunting day as we have realised we need our own space where clients can buy directly instead of only supplying shops. This will also work as a show space for our new Pili Pili Home collection. I actually enjoyed the 6-hour walk thru countless derelict buildings. There is something both stunning and ugly about downtown Maputo.
I found the ideal place, totally perfect for Pili Pili but I know it will be way out of our budget but it is good to dream. And I know one day that place will belong to Pili Pili, maybe not this year.
I spent the day with Stelio, our informal estate agent. We have very different style of working. He likes to talk for 10 minutes asking all about the receptionist’s and her family’s well-being before he asks the simple question of whether a building is for rent! I had to be very patient not to snap at him. On the other hand, I can get too direct that it comes across rude sometimes. Maybe together we do a better job.
I spent 3 hours on my own walking around downtown Maputo (Baixa) to find an interesting place and to make sure some meetings I attended alone, couldn’t bring myself to bring Stelio to important ones. He joined me for the next 3 hours, after I had already identified the buildings I like and wanted him to find the owners and negotiate on my behalf. In Maputo, as soon as you speak English or appear foreign, the prices shoot up. So, better to find what you like and send a ‘local’ to speak for you.
One of the places I fell in love with is on Rua Bagamoyo, the red light district and an obvious brothel hotel probably with hourly rate but just too beautiful to pass up. I love the building and that whole area of Maputo and I find it intriguing that right next to that hotel is the biggest mosque in Maputo, my kind of neighbourhood.
I walked in before Stelio joined me and spoke to the person at the reception, a one legged black man with smart glasses and a walking stick sitting on his own. I spoke to him in my pathetic Portuguese and he replied in English! He said he was from Namibia and was living in the hotel for a month. He is here to explore opportunities for a family run second-hand car import business. When I told him I am originally from Somalia, he switched to Swahili! I speak Swahili but most Somalis don’t so I didn’t get why he assumed. It turns out he lived for a long time in Nairobi trading in cars with Somalis there and he travels between Kenya, Namibia, South Africa and now Maputo. Interesting character, I thought. The kind you would find in Blood Diamond. I didn’t want to ask how he lost his leg, am sure there is a fascinating story behind it.
Oh yeah, he is Muslim and his name is Ibrahim. Don’t you just love Maputo? A Muslim one-legged Ibrahim living in a brothel doing car import business but doesn’t have enough credit to call an estate agent friend of his who could help me.
We go upstairs and Ibrahim wakes up Thomas, the son of the owners who can open doors, he tells me. Thomas is disorientated but is polite enough to tell me there is no space left for rent but I can have his phone number and call him at the end of the day…What for? He doesn’t have a space is all I need to know. But I took the number anyways, I might be able to make a deal with him to leave his room for Pili Pili Designs.
In a typical Maputo style, soon as you start speaking to someone few people gather around and all offer to help. 2 guys joined us and called someone on their phone to ask if so and so is renting that space behind the Ministry of something. No, that space is gone and besides it was far too expensive for our budget…Which we still have no clue what it is.
I figured there was nothing more to discuss at the brothel hotel and I better move on to a place with less characters and more people. So, I went to the train station, one of my favourite venues in Maputo. After chatting with 4 stuff members we find the right person to speak to. He is polite and speaks English with a heavy borrowed American accent. He tells us there is no space for rent at the train station but the company owns a lot of warehouses, if I know which one he can check if it is vacant. I inform him that I didn’t know they had other spaces and if he gave me list of the buildings I could check them out to see which one we like. To my surprise, he tells me they don’t have a record of all their buildings and which ones are vacant!!! I am amazed by this frank admission about something that serious. If they don’t care maybe we can squat in one of them and they won’t know? I also got another business idea talking to him, what about a property management deal with them and maybe the Moz government with massive collection of derelict buildings?…There is a free business idea you are more than welcome to run with. We parted with nothing more promising than a business card and a promise to try to find more information for me.
I feel a bit exhausted and hungry from all the empty talk and long walks so I ask Stelio if we can have a lunch break. He agrees and we find the cheapest place we can eat. For 65 mets (1.9USD), we get a large plate of rice, decent sized fried fish and salad! And it is really tasty. I know where to eat when I am downtown next time. The place wasn’t that dirty either. You would be surprised how being broke impacts on your hygiene standards, lol. When the bill arrives, Stelio doesn’t offer to pay for his food and I am surprised. I don’t want to make a fuss out of this since he spent hours walking with me so I pay for it and we silently resume our derelict delight tour.
Stelio tells me there is another place on 25th September and he knows the owner. It is a short walk from where we eat so I happily agreed to check it out. It is on the other side of 25th September and I realise it is a more pleasant part of downtown and cleaner. The building is clean and newly renovated. This usually means crazy prices. The guy is asking for 700USD a month for a place big enough to have 2 desks! Fuck that.
I walk out and walk into a Pakistani-owned stationary shop and the loud and gold-clad woman behind the counter says there is a large shop space next door for rent. Price? 1000USD! What is up with this place? The shop is run down and filthy with over the top bling bling tiles, a horror. After 6 hours walking, my patience runs out and I walk out. The Pakistani guy I was speaking to comes after us and says he has another place much bigger for 800USD if I want to view it tomorrow. OK, that sounds more honest. I follow him to his office to get his business card and he shows me a picture of the “Palm” in Dubai and tells me he owns a house there…Nice to know but I care more about what price he is going to charge for the other place. Let’s see what he says tomorrow.

Friday, July 30, 2010

1000% increase in residency permit fees!!!

Mozambican government decided to increase tourist single visa fee from 25 to 85 USD overnight without any kind of prior notice. I am told the residency permit has also gone from couple of hundred dollars to 1000USD! That is a 1000% increase! A really bad news for small businesses like ours with not much cash flow and I am still on tourist visa. Our business is growing fast but still, it will be a while before we can cover our costs properly. I mean, I haven’t been able to pay for the rent this month and now I am suppose to raise all this money for visas and a residency permit? What a waste.

I am going to have to get creative in dealing with this. I am curious as to what happens next. On the other hand, this little obstacle might just be the kick in the backside I need to push the business to the next level. I suppose every obstacle is an opportunity.

Pili Pili Designs' first trade fair

Last week we had our first dealings with the Mozambican authorities and it was interesting. We met up with IPEX, Ministry of tourism’s department of trade promotion. The fact that this body exists is impressive enough, you will understand why the low expectations once you have tried to run a business in Maputo.

We had a meeting to see what services/support they provide to start-ups like ours. First thing they said was “we don’t give financial assistance”. We didn’t ask for money but good to have that off their chest, seemed like it was weighing them down.

So, what do they do exactly? Well, they book and pay for stands at trade shows and encourage businesses interested in exporting products to attend. That sounds great and we are def taking the offer.

We signed up for the next trade show in Johannesburg and this was a perfect timing coz that was our next market target anyways. We also have friends there so we can hopefully stay with them and save some much needed cash.

IPEX informed us all we needed was to have a formally registered company and then register with them to attend this fair. This forced us to formally register our company, something we should have done a couple of months back. We had 2 weeks to register and it is not enough so we found a guy to register the name at least and get us some basic documentation.

2 days before the fair I meet with IPEX reps to find out more info about the fair. It will be the first trade fair experience for both of us so we wanted to be well prepared. However, IPEX guys had no info beyond, the address, show up with your products and get some table clothes for your display! OK, fair enough, don’t know why we expected more.

Two friends decided to join us on the trip and do a bit of sightseeing. It was a great idea, only thing was, one of our friends who was driving decided to put “the shortest way without toll gates” on the GPS, which meant avoiding the quickest highways from Maputo to Joburg. Instead of the average 6 to max 8 hours drive to Joburg we took 14 hours to get there!!

The deadline to show up at the exhibition and display our products was 8pm and we arrived at 7:45! Well, we showed up at least.

Soon as we get there we find out our stand is a skeleton with no display units or a signage because it hasn’t been paid for! I get into a heated debate with the organisers telling them to deal with CPI or IPEX or whoever booked the stand next day but to let us into the stand. While we are busy debating, Sindy and B go around stealing some tables, chairs and enough furniture for our double stand! I was impressed and realised this is the only way to sort this mess out, the nice talks weren’t getting us anywhere.

We arrange the furniture and start displaying our product then one of the security guards tells us it might be better to lock our products somewhere and only display the following day as he can’t guarantee security! Damn zoo, so much for the “biggest Southern African Trade Fair”, big name and a bigger mess. We put the stuff away and I show up early next day to set up. To my surprise, there is a signage saying “CPI Mozambique”, not the best name but it says Mozambique and we are not being kicked out so we are cool with it.

The fair was starting at 10am and at 11, two other exhibitors from Maputo show up with an explosion of colours. Displaying Capulana products, which the IPEX guys decided it wasn’t important to inform us so we can coordinate (after all, we are promoting the same products).

We displayed our bags carefully and used plain table covers on the tables to make sure the colourful Capulana products we are displaying do not assault the sense of those not familiar with these colourful Mozambican fabric. Our neighbours decided to totally undo our work and not even bother to display products but just pile everything up on the tables we stole the night before. To add a finishing touch to the mess, they put up maps of Mozambique on the walls! Just what we needed to look totally out of place and a pile of mess.

Our hall was dominated by Chinese, Turkish and Indian stands with machinery, perfumes and medicine products that totally clashed with our out-of-place-and-disturbingly-colourful-stand.

First day of the fair was busy and we made a couple of good contacts. Second day was totally dead! We didn’t sell or make any contact and we decided since we have only one more day in Joburg to take things into our hands and spend our last day visiting select shops we thought might be interested in our products. It was a good move and we made more contacts and sales in that day compare to the previous 2 days waiting in a stall hoping for a good luck.

One of the shops we have approached on our last day has placed orders already and we have Pili Pili products in their shop starting today! On our last night in Joburg we organised a dinner as a thank you to our super generous friends who hosted us and we managed to sell lots of our bags to almost everyone who showed up. Better even, one of our friends decided to come on board and be our agent in Joburg! We couldn’t have asked for a better outcome from our 3-day trip to Joburg. All in one day we escaped the stuffiness of an old-fashioned trade fair.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Belt bag/Hip Slinger

This is my favourite bag! It is cute, different from any other hip slinger or belt bag I have come across and as usual, Nelsa has a beautiful way of mixing colours to produce a funky and super cool accessories. It is great to be doing business with someone I totally admire her creation and want one of every bag she makes.

I little reminder to myself for when I want to give up.

One day you wake up and realise you are 10kgs heavier, frustrated at not having gotten anywhere fast in life. Instead of the picture perfect little life you imagined yourself living, you hit a wall, no job, no money, lose hair, and can't fit into your fav jeans. A smart person would have gone to the gym and asked the right questions. I, took it all out on the bar. Hit bottom with a nasty-looking skin from all the alcohol and prawn abuse....And realised I was barking at the wrong tree all along!

Feeling sorry for yourself when you get stuck in life is just not original. So, you are fat and sad, who cares? Tough luck! Clean up and start all over again and if you don't survive this rough patch, there is a guy who worked damn hard to earn a living and made a cute little coffin just for you.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Posted by Picasa
I have met someone very talented. Her name is Berta and currently she works as a housemaid. What a waste. She makes stunning jewellery from anything: glass, plastic, wood, whatever she can find and they come out elegant. She is also a very talented cook. She makes the most delicious home-made jams, samosas and other foods that can be sold frozen. Berta has 2 kids and a grandchild and she looks 28!

Imagine what someone as talented as Berta can do with a thousand dollars? Just a thousand dollars can transform her life, give us elegant jewellery, way better samosas than the crap that is being sold in restaurants in Maputo. A thousand dollars and most probably 5 people will be out of poverty in a short space of time: her, her 2 kids, her grandchild and her husband.

This is not an emotional blackmail Christian Aid-ish begging campaign for Africa with pot-bellied picture of a black child. I am not asking you to raise funds for Berta either, she is way too proud for that.

It is just that it feels horrible for her to have to make my bed and cook my food with the talent and bright mind she has. My business partner, Nelsa, and I will be supporting Berta by selling her jewellery with our products and find shops willing to sell her food. So, do buy these stuff not because of sympathy but because they are very good quality products that are beautiful and made by someone talented, who is working very hard to live a better life.

Africa is full of Bertas and if we find them, recognise and support their talents, we won't have to listen to "making poverty history" songs anymore.

Capulana heaven

So, I have officially sold Pronto to a friend and I know he will take a great care of my “first born”....And, I have just started another business with my favourite Mozambican designer, Nelsa Matavele. I feel very lucky to be in this position and am grateful for the opportunity (I don’t even mind being totally broke). I first saw Nelsa’s bags and accessories in a shop and was very impressed with her designs and finishing touches. If I saw these products in retail shops in the UK, I would have bought them. I bought few of her bags and tried to get in touch with her to see if she might be interested in doing business together.

After months of asking around and looking for her on Facebook and other social networks, I finally found her on Flicker, of all places. I sent her a msg with my phone number. She replied 2 months later! I had given up on her by then but was so excited to hear back from her.

Nelsa uses local popular Mozambican fabric (Capulana) to make bags, accessories, kitchen stuff and a lot more. I love the fact that every item she makes is so hard to part with and I want to keep them all for myself. I will keep one of each item she makes in the future, for now, I am staying cool and focusing on business. It is an exciting project and I can’t wait to see how far we can go with this.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

My on/off affair with a glass of wine.

New country, new start, no idea where to start from? Well, I started from the bar with a chilled glass of wine to celebrate my freedom from grey sky and freezing winter. It started innocently enough, I deserve to celebrate after all, it has been almost 20 years of dreaming to come back to Africa. I gave myself a month holiday before I had to start planning what to do with my new life. Maputo social circle is very small and it is an easy place to meet people and make new friends. I think what contribute to the easy and fun social life is just how much alcohol people consume, and without noticing it, I slipped into the habit.

I was once told by – I can’t remember who – that I had an addictive personality. Well, I am not sure how they came to that conclusion but I have to agree. It is either the gym, the bar, or something else. Gym addiction I don’t mind but I never imagined I would be addicted to alcohol. And it is puzzling how the initial excitement of new life turned to stress and anxiety about what to do next and the celebration with glass of wine into 6 glasses to escape stress. You convince yourself that you are having fun and of course when you are out the night before it all makes perfect sense just to wake up with the worst hangover and feeling lower than ever. What fun?

If I managed to free myself from oppressive cultural and religious upbringing, how much harder can it be to get rid of coloured liquid out of my life?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Saved by google translate

Starting Pronto, I knew if I had to properly think through how every bit of the operation would work, I would have doubted my ability and never started it. I worked out the general plan of the business but had to just jump in and learn the rest as I went.

I employed 2 delivery guys (thankfully, one spoke English) and 3 other staff for cooking, packaging the food, shopping, and cleaning. Since the English-speaking delivery guy was always on the road I had to find a way to communicate with the other 3 staff who spoke only Portuguese. Thank goodness for internet connection and google translate! When I needed to give instructions from cooking to hygiene rules I used google translate and got the staff to read. Then I found out the young girl I was training as a cook couldn’t read!! Hmmm…Things got a bit complicated with having to get both of them to stop what they were doing and one to read the text and explain to the other! That was hard and we were losing valuable time. So, I had to think in advance about everything I needed them to know. I wrote detailed instructions of how to make all the food, hygiene regulations, list of daily routine and tasks for each staff member. I translated them using google and posted them on the kitchen wall to minimise confusion and make sure we didn’t run around looking for translators at peak trading hours.

Before starting the business, I had these romantic and cute ideas about running my own business. I was gonna turn the small bedroom upstairs overlooking the sea into my office and calmly workout all my marketing strategies and future expansion from there while the staff I have trained worked downstairs to produce delicious meal that is well presented and packaged. It would take me about a month to train them and it will all be like a clock-work. Yeah right! There was no time for strategy or expansion planning, it was like a headless chicken daily routine of running from 7am to 6pm with no lunch breaks till 2pm. Shouting instructions and calling the delivery guy 50 times to make sure he delivered the food to clients on time and found the address.

Me, Ms no-sense-of-direction, was now in charge of training the delivery guy about Maputo delivery routes, short-cuts, rush-hour bottle-necks, etc. I would never have thought in a million years I would be a delivery-man, imagine that? I learnt when you need to figure out something, you just do. No such thing as I can’t do this or that, everything depends on you and you just have to make it happen.

Running a start-up in a sector you don’t know much beyond love for cooking, in a country where you don’t speak the language and choosing a delivery business with no sense of direction is a good place to start facing your fears.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Setting up business in Maputo

I have always dreamt of setting up and running my own business in ‘Africa’ and when I finally got the opportunity to do exactly that in 2008, I jumped at it. Working 9-5 felt like a prison, something I have decided I will never go back to unless I am desperate.

First, I needed to find a low cost business idea that would bring in cash immediately since I had small savings. I immediately found out there is no information or support for low-cost start-ups in Mozambique. You have to go out there and do your own market research to find out gaps in the market and the legal requirement to setting up a business. This was further complicated by the fact that I did not speak or understand a word of Portuguese, Mozambique’s official. So, I spent about 5 months speaking to expatriate community, local people and business owners to see if I can identify a gap in the market, a service or product that is not already provided. This is a totally random and inexact science, and it was risky to base a business on unreliable and sometimes contradictory information I received. I had to use the information I gathered and spend hours visiting shops and businesses to see what was already available so I could workout what was missing. I also spent a lot of time with my ex boyfriend at the time to find out what he missed the most from his life in Europe, he thought there was not enough choices for lunch for office workers. At first, I didn’t recognise this as a potential business idea but kept talking to him and few other friends about all the potential business ideas I have thought about thus far. This shortage of lunch options kept coming up in conversations and thought maybe it was an idea worth exploring.

As part of my research, I spent a lot of time eating in different restaurants and cafes and realised there is definitely a gap in the market for light and healthy meals. An alternative to either rich fried meat dishes or the greasy Portuguese-style toasted sandwiches. I approached a friend and she agreed to come on board as a minority share-holder and we immediately started working on putting together a healthy light meal business concept with a menu and company brand. We were very lucky and a graphic designer friend agreed to help us design the logo and the menu for free, an extremely generous offer which saved us a lot of money.

The process of going from an idea to actually creating the company was very exciting and one of the most enjoyable projects I have ever been involved in. We started with a company name and a brand style. We googled lots of similar concepts in Europe and we knew what we wanted was close to EAT, a similar business based in the UK, with fresh, simple and locally-sourced ingredients. My business partner had a full time job with 2 kids and she didn’t have lots of time to be fully involved so we communicated on email and phone and I worked on developing the concept full time with the graphic designer friend. We worked for hours almost everyday and we started with names like:

The Lettuce and Tomato, Red Tomato, The Right Bite, The Artichoke, Upper Crust, The Bread Box, The Sandwich Box, LA BAGUETTE, and Pronto.

We went back and forth with the names and at some point realized it is probably better to have a Portuguese name given that we are in a Portuguese-speaking country. That was a bit tricky as my business partner, our graphic designer friend and myself are all foreigners and between us we only spoke enough Portuguese to order a greasy toast and glass of wine!

We crossed out most names and in the end we all agreed Pronto was the best name, simple, Portuguese, and reflected our business concept perfectly. Once we agreed on the name, it was easier to play around with colours, fonts and style to create the brand and company image. The next step was to figure out what kind of packaging to use and we decided that given our tight budget we didn’t have enough money to set up a proper cafĂ© and would run a home-based lunch delivery company instead.

Sourcing packaging in Maputo turned out to be a lot more complicated than we had anticipated. We found out there was absolutely no sandwich and soup packing material available in Mozambique that was suitable enough for delivery. Everything was imported from South Africa, including simple things like grease-proof paper to wrap sandwiches in. We even went to paper factory based outside Maputo, in Matola, and learnt that they only produced paper packaging for local milk and juice cartons. We met with the director and he informed us our only choice is to source from South Africa. We were very disappointed that we had to source basic things from South Africa as we really wanted to use only locally-source products. We went to the nearest South African city to Mozambique called Nelspruit and to our further disappointment we only found plastic packaging instead of our paper and environmentally-friendly packing idea. So, we returned to Maputo and to the paper factory to see if we can work with them to design our own paper packing. The director was very helpful and promised to identify South African companies that can design our own packing for us. He gave us large sheets of papers for us to make models and my business partner did a great job cutting out professional looking cute sandwich and salad boxes and the director sent them to a South African packaging design company in Durban, South Africa. I thought the models were so good that they were only missing top plastic window to display the food, we didn’t need anymore design work done. We just needed the Durban based company to reproduce the models with simple plastic window. After few weeks, we got back the reproduced models with the plastic windows we requested and we were really pleased with the finished work. Only problem was that the company, to our surprise, have cheekily patented our design and put little stickers notifying us that we could not reproduce our own design!!! We knew since we have designed this in Mozambique and the luck of developed patent law, we could not do more than being pissed off with the company and decide not to work with them. They also asked so much money to produce a simple paper packing. So, that was a dead-end and we had to settle for plastic packaging until we had enough to afford paper packaging.

Next step was to register the company and make sure we reserve the Pronto name before anyone else does. There are two ways to register a company in Maputo. One is to use a company-registering service and pay them a reasonable fee, the second option is to register the company yourself. I wanted to experience the whole process of setting up a company in Mozambique to learn how it worked so we went for the second option. Looking back, I should have just given this job to someone else to sort it out and freed myself to focus on the mountain of work needed to launch the company.

We faced our first hurdle at the first stage of registering the company name. We explained to the officer ‘in charge’ our business concept and told him the name we wanted to reserve. Neither of us spoke Portuguese well and we used lots of gestures and few words to explain. The officer politely informed us we could not use that name for our company! We asked if the name was already taken, he said no, it wasn’t taken but that the company name had to be related to what we were trading in!! Apparently, Pronto was too general a name and didn’t say anything about food therefore we couldn’t use Pronto for a food delivery company!!!. We asked if there was a specific written rule somewhere that stated that? He said no but that he will not register the company unless we added something about food in name. We thought he was joking, but no he was really serious. This took us by surprise and we were not prepared for it. The officer agreed though that publicly we can trade with just the name Pronto. So, we discussed about what else we can add to the company name and the officer shared his ideas. We thought since it is a ready-lunch business idea why don’t we call it…wait for it...Pronto Almoco Ja. With our poor Portuguese, we had no idea just how bad this sounded, lol. Of course, the officer was happy with the name and finally agreed to register it. Later, we found out this literally translated into: Ready Lunch Already!! Hehehe…I decided to keep the rest of the name a secret and only use Pronto. I was glad most people were never going to find out the full name but when we catered to big companies and organizations we needed to give them our bank account details and of course we had to give them the full company name! It helps that people in Mozambique are so polite and no one laughed in our faces, just the odd remarks from some secretaries. Once I improved my Portuguese and learnt a bit more about how things work in Mozambique, I found out if we stood our ground and just insisted on registering the company name we would have been able to register our original Pronto name. I still cringe every time I think of the full company name but it is also a big lesson in not following ignorant advice of those supposedly 'in charge’.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

One year in Mozambique

February 2009.

It has been a year since I packed up my life in London and randomly decided to move to Mozambique. Well, it wasn’t that random, I had planned to move to Nairobi in January 2008 but the riots following the 2007 December elections put me off and to be honest, I have become super sensitive to African political violence after experiencing the Somali civil war. So, there I was in London all packed, quit my job, let go of my temporary accommodation and only 7 days before my planned departure to my new life in Kenya. And then I was watching the news just to learn that there was a riot in Nairobi and the UK government warned people not to travel to Kenya…My first thought? Shit shit shit!!! Two days glued to the TV watching the violent images broadcasted from Nairobi convinced me to start thinking of plan B. I was certain I wanted to return to Africa but no idea what country, so I sent an email around to friends to share my dilemma and see if anyone had a suggestion of where in Africa I should start my new life. I got few suggestions including Johannesburg, Marrakech, Sao Tome but the one that got my attention was Maputo, Mozambique. I am ashamed to admit the only thing I knew about Mozambique at the time was that it was in Southeast Africa and on the Indian Ocean. After googling it and seeing the pictures of pristine sandy beaches I knew I could easily live there, I just had to worry about the cost of last minute flight change.

After couple of days of back and forth email war with the travel agent I finally gave in and paid extra £300 pounds for change of destination from Nairobi to Maputo. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life (3rd most exciting…after running away from home in my teens and winning a scholarship to study at the end of the world). I was actually going to do it, start a new life, without a job or solid business plan, but armed with small savings and no idea how things would turn out. Still, I was thrilled to be leaving grey and freezing London behind for sun and life outside the prison of socks and winter boots.

Now that I had a ticket, it made sense to try and find a place to live. Given that I didn’t speak Portuguese (I still don’t, so embarrassing) and would be too stressful to just show up at the airport with nowhere to sleep. So, back to emails to friends again asking if anyone knew anyone in Maputo. It really helps to have friends who have either travelled the world or went to London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and met some random British person who happens to live in Maputo and also happens to have a spare room to rent…That was easier than I had anticipated. I got in touch with this someone and she was kind enough to agree to rent a room to a stranger for a month and then take it from there. Oh! How exciting it was to already be having a place to stay. It was all becoming very real, I was actually going to a random country to start a new life...I was as excited as I was terrified of the unknown.

The culture shock started even before I arrived at my destination. I travelled with Kenya Airways with the plan to travel to Maputo and only stop over Nairobi for an hour. Well, as u probably guessed already, things didn’t workout that smoothly. I got to Kenyatta airport around 6am after 8 hours flight and really tired as I can’t sleep on long flights. I don’t know why I was shocked with the airport shops and the whole arrangement – it was like somebody built illegal shacks inside the airport and got away with it. Everything looked shabby and just out of place. And this was suppose to be one of the most developed countries in Africa? Did someone tell people who run the airport about first impressions and the importance of presentation?

Worst thing was our waiting area for the connecting flight to Mozambique was smelling of cow dang!!! How that happened was a total mystery. It was so unpleasant and we had to spend 3 hours there instead of the originally scheduled 1 hour wait. There were so many people in the room who were waiting for different flights and there was no information apart from when they randomly called a destination and some people got up and went out of the gate to board. I got frustrated with the luck of information and the fact that we were sitting there for so long with no clue what was going on. I went to what looked like information desk and asked the ladies sitting behind the desk about my connecting flight. All I got was “mum, please go back to you seat and wait”…I don’t mind waiting but for what and for how long? How rude, bloody hell! I am not asking for much, am I?

That was my first moment of panic. I thought have I just made the biggest mistake of my life for returning to ‘Africa’? Will it all be cow dangs and frustration from this point on? Have I over-romantasized about life in Africa? Will I be tough enough to settle in such a chaotic and different place after all the comforts I got used to in London? Well, I told myself to keep it together at least until I get to Maputo and then see what happens. One thing that I was so glad about was my decision not to return to Nairobi. Boy, was I glad I was just passing through.

Some other poor souls waiting for the same flight overheard the conversation and told me they were just as confused but that this happens so often they are used to it. They reassured me that I haven’t missed my flight but warned me to not expect much and be patient till the plane decides to show up. It did 3 hours late but then they announced that we will be stopping over Harare before Maputo…What? I didn’t know we were suppose to stop over at Harare. I was furious I could have punched someone. What shocked me more was just how no one else seemed to be bothered. Don’t these people know that this airline would be out of business if they do not allow to be treated like goats? Same people who advised me to just chill apparently knew about the destination and it seemed like I was the only one from the London flight to catch this connection. I guess then it is OK for Kenya Airways to treat their international passengers much better than their domestic passengers. The service standards were so different that it felt like two very different airlines.

We get to Harare and we were not allowed to get off the plain for the whole 45 minutes while some passengers got off and new ones join us for our final destination. By this time I was so tired it felt like I was going to pass out. I tried to sleep with no success. I wished I could even just step out of the plane to smell the Harare fresh air after all the fuss and negative news on British TV and papers about Zimbabwe and Mugabe. But no, all I could manage was looking through the window, and it looked surprisingly green and pleasant. I was expecting a deserted city and dead bodies lying around. Who said Africans and even those who have been through a civil war are not affected by media stories and stereotypes?

We finally got to Maputo around 2pm, exhausted hungry and sleep-deprived but still elated to be in this new and strange country I knew nothing about. I had a glimpse of the sea when we landed and Maputo looked beautiful from the air. It was freezing cold when I left London the previous day and in Maputo I was greeted with intense humidity that felt like it was 50 degrees Celsius with 90% humidity. I knew then that I made the right choice.

Home sweet home, in a strange country.