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.