Time for an update on the new taxis. They are still not running, but it’s getting close now. The lead time from buying the cars to actually have them running have been frustratingly long:
(1) Buying the cars – Finding a suitable shipping company – Having the cars picked up at home: 1 month
(2) Car leaving home – Arriving at Abidjan Port – 1.5 months (including a long stop in Antwerp)
(3) Getting the cars out of Abidjan Port: 1.5 months
(4) Repairs, reconfigurations, inspections, registrations etc : 1.5 months and still counting
So it’s practically half a year. For next time though, I know what shipping company to use so (1) should be reduced to a week or so, and (3) was unusually long due to the overflow of cars in Abidjan Port. Point (2) is hard to do anything about without increasing the shipping cost – at the end it was more to do with waits in ports than ships slowing down because of high fuel costs.
As to (4), one issue has been that the headlights were stolen at port and as they are expensive in Abidjan, an attempt was made to get new ones in Ghana. However, the ones obtained in Ghana didn’t fit, so to pass inspection headlights were rented.
The thing with these car inspections is that whether the car passes is a bit of a function of both the state of the car and how much you pay. I’ve been told that even if you have a brand new car inspectors are still going to find/invent some problem with it to make more money – we are talking petty corruption here, of a type that could be tricky to root out as it can be covered by the inspector’s technical car knowledge. Maybe one way forward could be to separate the inspection from the handling of the payment for it – though that wouldn’t stop a car owner from paying to pass the inspection.
Giving a taxi-compteur a try
One of the two taxis will become a so called “taxi-compteur” (Taxi-meter) which is like a normal taxi unlike “woro woros” which are more akin to cars doing bus service (see the taxi finally running post). Basically a taxi-compteur have revenues that are 50% or so higher than a woro-woro, but they are harder to control and there’s a greater risk of the driver selling the car and claiming he drove it into the lagoon or something like that.
Now I got one driver which seems suited for a taxi compteur so I thought I give it a try with one car, even though I heard quite a few stories of people trying to run taxi-compteurs from abroad, and giving up due to having too much problems to handle.
For taxi-compteurs there also are more onerous registration requirements and fees to pay, plus an extra inspection and you have to buy the actual meter, even if it’s rarely used as fixed prices are negotiated in advance. All of this is delaying the start, but we’re getting there!
I was going to write about my growing concern for the two Toyota Corollas stuck in Abidjan Port, but the very long process finally came to an end today, and both cars are out. They arrived on the 6th and 11th March so it took one and a half months to get them out. No bribes were involved and the price was the same as last time. The problem is just an inefficient process partly involving a private company given a monopoly that couldn’t handle a surge in incoming cars due to – I guess – other people thinking like me trying to import cars before a possible import ban.
As usual things take longer than expected, but increasingly, my experience is that they also work out at the end.
Now the cars just need to be registered, fitted and painted for taxi service and pass the vehicle inspection, and then they can hit the road. Last time these things took a bit over a month, but were never a problem. The big thing is getting the cars out of the port.
So given that I bought the cars in January, it will be almost half a year from buying them to them starting making money. That’s an annoyingly long time, but if they perform as well as the first car it’s clearly worth it. The first car is now at 58% of break even, and has had about as much problems and issues as I had expected – latest was that the battery needed changing – but the issues are cheap and quick to fix, and the car has had only four days not running since it started in September last year. In my budget I had estimated three down days per month.
Latest news is that both cars have arrived to Abidjan Port and the import process is underway. So it looks like they will make it before any import restrictions take effect.
The thing is, ex Prime Minister and ex Rebel Leader Guillaume Soro is to become Chairman of the Ivorian Parliament. There is a rule saying that the Chairman most be at least 40 years old, and Soro happens to be 39, so it’s looking like the Parliament elected in December is waiting for Soro to turn 40 to start sessions. Things like this happen when you have a culture that reveres old age, but is in turbulent times where coups, revolutions and wars propel young people to positions of power they wouldn’t otherwise reach.
No parliamentary sessions means that no import restrictions are enacted. It seems I’m not the only one taking advantage of this, as the Port of Abidjan is overflowing with cars and the import process takes longer than usual. I’m expecting it to take another 10 days or so to get the cars out.
Before any import restrictions are enacted (if they will be at all – it’s not written in stone yet), I thought it would be interesting to do a comparison of second hand car prices in the Ivory Coast vs Western Europe.
The largest used car sites I’ve found in the Ivory Coast are auto.ci and automobile.ci. For Europe Im using the pan-European site autoscout.eu. For each combination of model, year and fuel type there is usually one or a couple of cars on the Ivorian sites and several hundred on autoscout.eu, so I’ll be using the average asking price on the Ivorian sites, and median asking price from autoscout.eu
Toyota Corollas, asking prices as of 18/03/2012:
Fuel | Year | I. Coast Price | I. Coast Price | Europe Price
Diesel | 1990 | 1.8M F CFA | 2,744 EUR | 990 EUR
Petrol | 1992 | 2.8M F CFA | 4,268 EUR | 1,350 EUR
Petrol | 1995 | 2.8M F CFA | 4,268 EUR | 1,450 EUR
Petrol | 1996 | 4.0M F CFA | 6,098 EUR | 1,550 EUR
Diesel | 1997 | 4.5M F CFA* | 6,860 EUR | 1,825 EUR
Diesel | 1998 | 3.0M F CFA | 4,573 EUR | 2,300 EUR
Petrol | 1998 | 2.99M F CFA | 4,558 EUR | 2,290 EUR
Petrol | 2000 | 3.8M F CFA | 5,793 EUR | 2,699 EUR
Diesel | 2001 | 4.1M F CFA* | 6,250 EUR | 2,500 EUR
Petrol | 2002 | 4.5M F CFA | 6,859 EUR | 5,690 EUR
Petrol | 2003 | 6.0M F CFA | 9,146 EUR | 6,250 EUR
Petrol | 2007 | 7.0M F CFA | 10,671 EUR | 12,450 EUR
Petrol | 2009 | 7.68M F CFA | 11,707 EUR | 14,800 EUR
Cars marked with * are diesels with 4 doors and thus suitable for taxi use, something that I believe warrants a premium in the Ivory Coast. An exception could be for the 2000 and 2001 models which have Peugeot engines as the Toyota engines didn’t meet EU emission regulations. The Toyotas Im sending happen to have Peugeot engines – I wasn’t quite aware of this issue when I bought them (another rookie mistake). I have heard that Peugeot engines don’t last as long (2 years or so) for taxi use in Abidjan, but I shall see.
There is a big premium on cars in the Ivory Coast as expected, and it’s mainly due to import duties. The surprise here is that for newer cars there seem to be a discount in the Ivory Coast. Not quite sure why this is, and if there really is a discount – it’s only based on a handful of datapoints. The set of people who deal with very new cars are a wealthy small minority. Maybe asymmetrical information comes into play, if you are selling a relatively new car that you have imported recently to Abidjan, there’s got to be something wrong with it.
Let’s look at another popular car in Abidjan:
Toyota RAV4, asking prices as of 18/03/2012:
Year | I. Coast Price | I. Coast Price | Europe Price
1993 | 3.5M F CFA | 5,335 EUR | None
1995 | 4.0M F CFA | 6,098 EUR | 3,490 EUR
1996 | 4.05M F CFA | 6,174 EUR | 3,500 EUR
2001 | 7.0M F CFA | 10,671 EUR | 7,450 EUR
2002 | 6.85M F CFA | 10,442 EUR | 7,945 EUR
2004 | 6.1M F CFA | 9,299 EUR | 9,900 EUR
2006 | 13M F CFA | 19,817 EUR | 14,900 EUR
2008 | 12.5M F CFA | 19,207 EUR | 17,990 EUR
2010 | 18M F CFA | 27,439 EUR | 24,000 EUR
Ok, here the Ivory Coast premium includes the newest cars. It could be a fluke for the Corollas.
Ok, this is taking a turn I never would have guessed when I started blogging about mainly investing in real estate in the Ivory Coast. Just got the photos of the first chicks born on the farm. How can I not post them:
It’s taken a while, but Car #2 and Car #3 – two Toyotas I’m sending to the Ivory Coast to become taxis – have reached West Africa and should be in Abidjan in a couple of days. I’m tracking the container ship “Grande Argentina” that carries the cars on http://www.marinetraffic.com:
So, right now, it’s off the coast of Guinea Bissau doing 17.5 knots which is slow for a container ship, but at least faster than 19th century clipper ships.
News from the Chicken Front
On the chicken front, the construction is finished, and the first chickens and roosters are in place. Now the idea is that they are going to reproduce so that their numbers increase to a maximum in about nine months. Already in a couple months it should turn a profit though, and it will be very interesting to see how far away reality is from the seemingly to-good-to-be-true original budget projections.
One worrying sign is that I have received indications that the construction – while cheap, and roughly in line with budget – shouldn’t have costed as much as it did. This is the type of trust issues that are very hard to avoid – despite precautions – when investing in Africa while not living there. And the handling of it can be make or break of the whole investment.
No Slower Steaming as Container Lines Run Like Clippers: Freight
Container ships can’t go any slower.
Shipping lines are running out of options to stop losses as sailing speeds reach their lower limit, exhausting a solution that helped restore profitability in 2010.
The global container fleet is now cruising near record-low speeds after slowing 11 percent from August when the freight rate market collapsed, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and Lloyd’s Register.
“Some of these container ships are now so slow that they’re close to the speeds of the old sailing ships. The clippers might actually have been faster.”
Slow-steaming, pioneered by A.P. Moeller-Maersk’s container unit, Maersk Line, helps carriers cut costs when times are tough. By sailing at lower speeds, ships need less fuel and can offset capacity stresses by using more vessels to make up for the longer sailing times.
Maersk Line says it may be able to bring its speeds down even further. The company cut its average speed to about 17 knots last year from 20 knots in 2008, according to Morten Engelstoft, Maersk Line’s chief operating officer. The company’s whole fleet currently sails at about 16-18 knots, he said.
“There is still some potential for slow-steaming, both for us and probably for the industry,” Engelstoft said in a Jan. 23 interview. “We are looking into the possibility of super slow- steaming. That would be 12-16 knots.”
The 19th-century clippers, the fastest ships of their time, transported tea to the U.K. and U.S. from China and India, according to the website of the U.K. Tea Council. The ships, which had three or more masts and dozens of sails, could reach a peak average speed of more than 16 knots.
Well, guess doing business is rarely entirely straightforward, and that the real test is how one handles the hurdles and snags that inevitably come up along the way. In this case I have already changed shipping company to one that isn’t affected by strikes in Nigeria, so one down.
There is not too much to be done about the speed of container ships, but it only means the cars will arrive a couple of days later to Abidjan and that, hopefully, shouldn’t matter. The upside is that shipping stuff around the world is going to get cheap for – it seems – a good while going forward.
The Baltic Dry Index which tracks worldwide international shipping prices of various dry bulk cargoes has dropped sharply over the last month. It’s a bit of a bad sign for the world economy and for rubber prices, but it also opens up opportunities.
Ok, I have bought cars #2 and #3, Toyotas of year 2000 and 2001. Thought I might as well try to get a few ones in before the import restrictions take effect.
It’s a bit of a gamble, but in a worst case scenario the import restrictions takes effect while the cars are en route, and they get blocked at port. In that case I’ll lose the purchase amount and the transport, which would suck, but I think it’s worth the risk.
In Senegal when they introduced similar restrictions and too old cars arrived, I think the owner was asked for a very high penalty fee, and if it wasn’t paid, the car would be auctioned off. In Senegal though, there was over a year from the announcement of the restrictions to them taking effect. Ivorian authorities are likely to move quicker.
One of my favourite blogs is James Altucher’s. In a recent post he writes about what he has learned from poker. Now, I don’t care much about poker, but Altucher practically always has something interesting to say:
D) Poker is a skill game pretending to be a chance game. Many things in life are like that: sales, negotiating, entrepreneurship, etc. All of these things have the element of chance in them but the ones who are skillful will take all the money from the ones who aren’t. The problem is: most people think they are good because it’s hard to rank yourself and many people go into denial when they lose money. They tell people, “oh, I broke even” when they lost money most of the night. How do you get better at any skill game:
– study and think about your mistakes. Don’t regret your mistakes. You’ll always make mistakes. The better you are, the less mistakes you make. The only way to get better is to thoroughly analyze your mistakes. So the more mistakes you have, the more opportunities you have to get better. Of course, this applies to everything you do in life.
– talk to people smarter than you. Try to learn from them anything you can.
Looking at my investments in the Ivory Coast I have indeed made lots of mistakes and had setbacks. I quite agree with Altucher’s approach of not regretting, but acknowledging and analyzing mistakes, and being real about setbacks as opposed to pretending to break even.
So, here are mistakes I’ve made in the last year:
Not checking the equipment (like triangle and stuff) of the car before sending it to Abidjan to become a taxi.
Getting the wrong person to manage the works on the Cocody house. He was perfectly honest, but somewhat out of his depth managing the project. Guess I focused too much on integrity and not enough on competence. The real estate agency that’s in charge of letting the house took over the managers role and finished the works without hiccups.
Not insisting enough on keeping advances small and not giving last chances to the carpenter who took money and never finished his work. A combination not being there in person, having the wrong manager, and following a law firm’s advice instead of my gut feeling, is to blame here I believe.
Not acting early enough when rents go unpaid. I haven’t written about the Yopougon apartments in a while, but after the crisis I’ve had a few problems with non-paying tenants and am in the process of replacing them.
None of the above has caused any material monetary setback. The one material setback I have had since starting investing in the Ivory Coast, was when the two shops I had in connection with the Cocody house were looted and destroyed in a fire. I learned about it at the same time as Gbagbo’s fall, so the bad news were overshadowed by much greater good news reducing the psychological impact.
Still, the shops always paid their rent on time with no hassle, so it sucks to have lost them. The rents I collected during the 10 months or so the shops were in operation do not cover the building costs, so it’s a definite loss, no other way around it. Here’s what’s left of one of the shops:
And since I’m a sucker for insightful/inspirational quotes from dead (or sometimes alive, but mostly dead) people, here are a few of those:
“Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have.”
— Louis E. Boone
“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
— Bill Cosby
“The majority of people meet with failure because they lack the persistence to create new plans to take the place of failed plans.”
— Mark Victor Hansen
“A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.”
— John Burroughs
“Ninety-nine percent of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.”
— George Washington Carver (American Botanist and Chemist 1864 – 1943)
“Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
— Samuel Beckett, playwright and novelist
“Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in pursuit of the goal.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche
“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way.”
— Christopher Hitchens (sadly among the dead ones)
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”
— W.C. Fields
The chicken farm is now in full construction. Here are a few photos:
[And, yes, I am aware there are parliamentary elections under way in the Ivory Coast. There’s not at all of the same nerve or importance as the presidential elections last year, but it will be interesting to see what the final turnout amounts to (might well be higher than the 33.1% of 2000) and the split between RDR, PDCI and others. ]
When starting out with the taxi project I thought the budgeted numbers looked too good to be true and wondered where the catch was.
Now I have three month of data and it looks like naysayers are (tentatively) proven wrong, as I’ve not encountered any show-stopping catch. The only major surprise to the downside was custom costs at Abidjan port to bring in the car turning out to be more than twice the budgeted figure. Even with that, the projected internal rate of return for the taxi investment, with a conservative estimate of the taxi running for only two years, and having no residual value at the two year point, is still a fantastic 65%.
Having naysayers (or dream killers as Ismael Coulibaly calls them) can actually be pretty good for one’s motivation. It jolts you out of complacency, makes you take a careful look at the downside, and spurs you to put in extra effort to prove them wrong. For the chicken farming project I have so far only gotten positive response. I’m almost wishing someone comes along and says it’s never going to work / it can’t be done / they have never seen anyone make any money out of a chicken breeding /that I’m going to lose all the invested money.
How long will it last?
With the taxi I have actually had a surprise to the upside as well; the repair and service costs have been much lower than expected. The car bought originally for 450€ was in pretty bad shape, and it’s been patched up progressively during its first months of running in Abidjan without any significant impact on the profits. The thing is, everybody in the taxi business are using Toyotas and especially Toyota Corollas, so spare parts can be found in abundance keeping costs low. And as always in the Ivory Coast labour costs are low.
Given that the taxi is continuously serviced and repaired, I’m starting to hope/think that it can last more than two years. Beside avoiding accidents, I guess it’s up to the Toyota engine and well, here I trust that the Japanese know what they are doing. If it lasts three years the internal rate of return jumps up to 90%, and for four years, it’s above 100%.
Back in May I bought two plots of land in Bingerville just outside Abidjan. I figured it was a good investment and a safe store of value, but hadn’t quite decided what to do with it. Now I have!
It’s going to become a chicken farm. I got somebody I trust who can set it all up, it’s a product for which there will always be demand, and well, it’s a 10 minute drive from a fast growing city with 4 million people.
The numbers on paper are as usual too good to be true. In the taxi case the real numbers turned out to be not as fantastic as budgeted, but still very good, so I’m betting it’s the same thing here. Not counting the land, the whole thing costs about as much as buying and sending a taxi from Europe to Abidjan, and it does look like a better investment.
It also has the additional advantage that it just keeps going, whereas a taxi needs to be replaced sooner or later.
As to concerns or worries, one is that I’ll be competing with imported frozen chickens produced on an industrial scale with EU subsidies. The Ivory Coast is planning to lower the import duty on chickens with 70%, which probably is a good move for the Ivory Coast as a whole, but less so for chicken farmers. It’s a weird feeling to be on the side that benefits from protectionism.
The other concern is that I have lived my whole life in cities, and even the countryside at home in Sweden is exotic to me. My knowledge of agriculture and breeding is pretty nonexistent, so I’m pretty much depending on specialists, at least at the start.
“Go and Get a Farming Degree!”
The timing seems to be good, as for the first time in, well, centuries agriculture seems to be “in” and described as a business for the future. Hedge funds are buying farmland in the US and China buys farmland in Africa.
Legendary investor Jim Rogers makes a pretty clear case for agriculture. Here’s an interview with BBC from August this year:
Jim Rogers: At some times in history, the financials types have been in charge; at other times in history the people who produced real goods have been in charge. It’s the way the world has always worked. The key of course is to figure out what’s coming next and go there. Become a Chinese farmer, that’s what you should do, Justin.
Justin Rowlatt (BBC): You say farming, why do you think farming will be such a crucial sector in the next couple of decades?
Jim Rogers: Farming has been a disaster for 30 years, Justin. The average age of farmers in America is 58 because it’s been such a horrible business. The average age of farmers in Japan is 66. In Australia, it’s 58. I could go on and on. In 10 years, those farmers are going to be 68 if they are still alive.
Justin, we have huge shortages developing in agriculture and great fortunes are going to be made by the people who address those problems.
Justin Rowlatt: And commodities is the other sector you said we should look up. Now hold on a second. If the world economy is entering a period of slow growth that you think is going to last not one decade but a number of decades, why on earth would you put your money in commodities?
Jim Rogers: Because you asked where the best areas of the world economy are going to be, that’s where the shortages are developing. In the 1970s, most of the world’s economies were in the tank, but commodities boomed.
Justin, we had one of the great world markets of history in commodities for about 15, 20 years in the ’70s, between the ’60s and the early ’80s in commodities, because we had huge shortages everywhere and because governments everywhere printed money.
Well, governments are printing money again. It’s a wrong thing to do Justin, but that’s all they know to do. So between shortages of supply and money printing, if you want to be in the dynamic parts of the world economy, don’t get an MBA and go to Wall Street, go and get a farming degree and move to Asia.
Better Than Gold
Rogers talks about money printing, and to protect from inflation (and other reasons) many people seem be into buying gold lately. Doing a hypothetical comparison between buying gold and putting the same amount into the chicken farm in Bingerville, it seems the chickens win hands down:
The chicken farm provides a return, and hopefully quite a good one, whereas gold incurs a storage cost (at best, usually it’s a hefty ETF fee of which the storage cost is only a small part).
It could happen that central banks don’t print as much as the market expects, and in that case the gold price could plummet. The chicken farm’s value is likely to hold up much better.
The chicken farm is a business that can expand and can be improved and that provides experience. Gold just kind of sits there, and going long gold is a bit like going short human ingenuity.
Time for an update on all the rest beside the land purchase:
Keeping on blogging
Got a new job which means more money to invest in the Ivory Coast, but less time to blog. Posts will probably be less frequent and mostly on weekends going forward, but I have no intention of abandoning blogging.
The tax officer got back to me via his yahoo.fr email, but only to confirm reception. Not sure what happens next.
I have asked the taxi manager to provide bi-weekly updates by email, and I got the first one, but only after calling him about it four times. Calls to the Ivory Coast are very expensive so I’m hoping he will start doing it by routine from now on. The manager says he had a skype account but that he cant get it to work. Unfortunately, I never had time to help him with that.
Anyhow it’s amazing how modern IT-technology helps in running a business in West Africa from Europe. 20 years ago much of what I’m doing would have been inconceivable – for example, there were no cellphones 20 years ago, and very few people had landlines so you couldnt reach people. And both faxing and calling to landlines was very expensive and marred by poor quality and unreliability. Actually, even 10 years ago things would have been difficult. The SAT-3/WASC fibre optic submarine cable wasn’t yet operational meaning there was no cheap broadband and little internet penetration. At that time the taxi manager probably wouldn’t have had an email address, and the Ivorian bank I’m using didn’t have internet banking. The latter is really handy by the way – the taxi manager has a bank office close to where he works so he puts the taxi cash there, and I can see it coming in straight away and access it via a visa card.
There are news from the house in Cocody too. The tenants moved out and took everything they had added to the house with them, leaving it in a quite bare state. So I had to undertake some work to put it in order, like re-painting it, installing lamps, mirrors, a kitchen sink, a water heater and a few other things. I had to go back to Europe in the middle of these works, but it turns out it is possible to keep the works going from a distance. The land surveyor is overseeing the works, and then the real estate agency checks in from time to time and sends photos of the progress. And that’s without me asking about it – they are really great.
The works on the water heater arent actually done yet, even with the walls and being in a good neighbourhood, the heater needs to be in a steel cage for protection against theft. The theft risk became quite real when I noticed that somebody had hacked away on the concrete on the outside of the wall to steel the interphone.
I’m still in all-in mode. Last time in Ivory Coast (two weeks ago) I bought a new plot in Cocody next to the one previously purchased. It’s in an empty area surrounded by urban sprawl. It works like this, that the village that originally held the rights to the land has decided to give up those rights and sell most of it using a contractor. I’m dealing with a subcontractor that sells plots in a part of the area and who is quite a character. He is really an army guy but since he is of dioula ethnicity he was sidestepped during the Gbagbo years, so he went into other businesses including land deals with much optimism but maybe less expertise.
On his desk he has a computer monitor, but it’s not connected to anything – no cables at all. Before I noticed that the monitor was for show (isomorphic mimicry I guess), I naively asked if I could use the internet. Oh well. He is also pointing out that he’ll use the profits he makes on land deals to get a third wife. Now polygamy is not uncommon in the Ivory Coast, but it’s a bit old school. It goes from being the norm among older generations in the countryside to less usual among younger people in Abidjan.
The biggest scare in the buying land process came when it became clear that the plot layout and numbering plan had changed and it was unclear where my purchased plot was on the new plan. The subcontractor set a meeting for 7am to sort it out, but turned up at 9:30am. Waiting, the notary that works with me and I joked that we always get a new surprise every time we meet the subcontractor.
Anyhow, we went to the area in question and found a well-suited plot. The subcontractor said it was reserved and suggested other plots. I and the surveyor walked around one of those other plots to estimate their size and found them to be too small. Confronted with this the subcontractor said the well-suited plot was actually reserved for himself but that I could have it.
At the end I bought the plot next to it as well. The thing is, the purchase process is a bit messy, but by keeping veryfying things, using a notary, a surveyor and a law firm to check out the plots and the paperwork, I feel I’ve done what I can to reduce the risk of getting ripped off or getting in any sort of legal issues.
No snags we hope
And if there are no snags with the land purchases, it looks quite like a slam dunk as it looks highly likely that land values will increase – and that’s without counting on expected demographic and economic growth. The whole area is planned and set to become quite attractive. There is water and electricity access, and roads are traced in the dirt. The government is expected to give the go ahead for construction in December – though, in my experience everything usually takes longer time than expected – so it might be later, but it’s going to happen and then the land prices will go up. And then I hope to be starting the construction of an apartment hotel. Also the dirt roads will be paved sooner or later which increases the value, as will turning the purchase certificate into a title document.
So having cash upfront, patience and not getting ripped off, should be what it takes to make a good land deal.
Two days ago I was at the Ivorian tax office in the Cocody Municipality to sort out some real estate tax matters. Quite an interesting experience.
According to the tax code an owner-occupied house has a tax rate of 4% on the potential rent, and for a rented house the rate is 15%. However, in practice I’m not sure how many of Abidjan’s 4 million residents that actually pay this tax, and I have a feeling the understanding and acceptance of the tax is pretty low especially in poorer areas.
For a buy to let investor, there is an obvious and direct benefit of paying the real estate tax, in that the letting agreement must be registered at the tax office to be valid.
Anyhow, at the tax office there were no queues. At the reception I was told that they had run out of the form I was supposed to fill in, but that I could go directly to room no 26 and sort it out there. At room 26 I was told to go to the reception to get the form and that I should really go to room 14 to handle my errand. I know this sounds like the start of a Kafka-esque African bureaucracy nightmare story, but fortunately that’s not at all the way it turned out.
I was shown the way to room 14 – and all along people were very friendly and helpful and there were no waiting times. At room 14 there were three tax officers at work, each with their own desks and computers, but no phones or internet connection. They got me the form, helped me to fill it out, and then I discovered that I had left one document that I was supposed to hand in at home in Europe. Not at all expecting a positive answer, I asked if I could possibly send them the document by email. The tax officer ( who had no internet connection at work) said “yes, please email it as an attachment”, and gave me his personal yahoo address. Not quite sure if he did it because he wanted to make a good impression in front of foreigner or something else, but I liked the initiative, and sent him the document by email today. The attachments are 2 jpg files of 1Mb each, and that could be a problem if he – as I suspect – is receiving my email at an internet cafe with slow connection. Well, I’ll see how it goes and report back on the blog!
Am I the only one paying?
I also have a nagging suspicion that I’m the only one in the neighbourhood around the Cocody house paying the real estate tax. At the tax office they said they’ll go out in the field starting in March 2012 and catch non-payers, but to me it looks they are a bit under-staffed and under-equipped for a very big task.
On the way out a lady in the reception asked me repeatedly to give her my pen as a gift. I kind of needed it so I kept it, and I still don’t know if it was a subtle request for a bribe, just an expression of African solidarity of sharing things or something else.
“I’m convinced that to give away a dollar effectively is harder than to make a dollar. There are some simple reasons for that. One is that in order to learn how to do something well, you have to fail sometimes. In order to fail, there has to be a measurement system. And that’s the problem with most philanthropy – there’s no measurement system.
You give somebody some money to do something and most of the time you can really never measure whether you failed or succeeded in your judgment of that person or his ideas or their implementation. So if you can’t succeed or fail, it’s really hard to get better.”
I would add that when you give money, you risk creating dependency, twisting incentives, and creating a whole range of negative unintended consequences that are hard to measure and don’t need to be attributed to the action of giving money.
Also, most aid involves spending other people’s money on other people. The person doing the spending may be very well-meaning, but is in a situation where his or her best interest is primarily to look good within the organisation and only – at best – indirectly to ensure effectiveness of the money spent and its long term impact.
In a owner-managed business on the other hand, the business owner spends his/her money on himself/herself making effectiveness and impact top concerns.
I’m not saying that aid can’t be done well, just that’s hard, and like Steve Jobs says its easier to make a dollar than to give away a dollar effectively.
Looking at the economic impact of my business activities in the Ivory Coast, I believe I have created the following so far:
1 long term full time job (the taxi driver’s – assuming I’ll replace the taxi when it eventually breaks down)
2 long term part time jobs (the person that collects rents in Yopougon and the taxi manager)
Affordable housing for 6 families
Middle class housing for 1 family
Assignments for the foreseeable future for an ivorian law firm I use to vet plots of land I’m buying, draftcontracts for the taxi and real estate businesses, and a few other things
Work for an ivorian real estate agency that I am in the process of hiring to manage the Cocody house
Temporary work for notaries and firms involved in selling land
Real estate taxes and import duties paid to the Ivorian state (which under Gbagbo was questionable if it was anything to be proud of, given that a big chunk seem to have gone to arms purchases and to personal bank accounts of FPI bigwigs)
Slightly more competition contributing to keeping transport prices down for woro-woro rides in Abobo
And I have done this with quite low costs. I fly to the Ivory Coast in economy class (got no big international organisation paying for me), get around in Abidjan by taxi (not in brand new Toyota Land Cruisers) and live at a friend’s house (as opposed to a luxury hotel).
Here’s the taxi in action in the Abobo municipality of Abidjan:
It just made a quick stop so the manager and I could meet up with the driver and check out the taxi. It actually looks better than most other woro-woros in Abobo, many of which are semi-wrecks.
One of the things dealt was that the driver wasn’t present when the lamb was sacrificed for the good fortune of the taxi. The driver said he took these things very seriously, so we had to reassure him that a lamb was really sacrificed.
I’m finally in Abidjan, sadly only for a brief two-weeks sejour this time.
A technical note
The Ivorian Internet Service Provider I’m using is filtering traffic through a so called transparent proxy. This has the side effect of disabling stylesheets on wordpress making blogging pretty difficult. A way around it is to use SSL, ie to use https://hotelivory.wordpress.com/. Since I just figured this out today I have a bit of a backlog to deal with. Let’s start with the taxi business:
The continuing taxi saga
Yesterday, I met up with the taxi manager and got the first positive cashflow consisting of 129,000 CFA Francs (196 EUR) for the first half of September – quite a good a feeling really. If it keeps going like this it’s great, but people say that often around the six month mark of running, taxis start having mechanical problems, so I’ll see.
As for the taxi bumper, there’s still nothing written on it. Suggestions are welcome!
Thoughts on the taxi business
From a Swedish perspective doing any kind of business in West Africa is quite original, but that aside, owning a taxi is actually unoriginal. It feels like every male I know of dioula ethnicity in the Ivorian diaspora is in the taxi business. It’s a mature fragmented market with high competition, low barrriers to entry and little room for innovation. It is still to be seen, but in theory at least, margins should be low, or at least low relative to the Ivorian/African average. On top of that, in the taxi business one doesn’t benefit much from projected economic growth in Abidjan. Increased demand is likely to be met quickly by more taxis on the streets resulting in margins staying the same, while traffic jams increase. And unlike the real estate business there is no asset that can appreciate in value over the long term.
So, why did I buy a taxi?
There are a few appealing traits:
The cycle from making an investment to start seeing results is pretty short – much shorter than buying land and building stuff for example – making things more exciting.
It’s relatively passive income, when everything is set up, brief weekly check-up calls over skype should be enough
The initial investment is low, and unlike when building a hotel, the investment can be ramped up incrementally by adding more taxis.
Having an organisation of competent and honest Ivorians is I believe a great competitive advantage. Setting up a taxi business is a low cost way to do the trial and error and learning needed build up such an organisation, and that organisation can later on be used for other business opportunities.
Margins might not be amazing, but they can still be decent and likely much higher than for a taxi in Europe. I can still only guess what the final result will be for the taxi, but the following factors should contribute to bringing up margins:
-The modest capital required is still a barrier to entry. Not that many people in the Ivory Coast have access to the sums required, and among those who do, I would guess that some consider running a woro-woro in Abobo beneath them.
-To make it work, one needs the people and organisational skills to handle drivers, mechanics and (optionally) managers. Altogether not straightforward at all.
-Buying a Toyota Corolla in Europe, sending it to Abidjan and paying all import duties is cheaper than buying one in Abidjan. The Toyota coming from Europe is also likely to be in better shape than the one bought in Abidjan. People that have the opportunity bring in cars from Europe will thus have higher margins plus the option to sell the car at a profit which puts a floor on the risk taken.
Finally, the taxi business is squarly in mediocristan, which is not necessarily a bad place to be. The classic example of the difference between mediocristan and extremistan is if one imagines 1,000 random persons in a row, and then the tallest person in the world is added to the row. The average height of the row is only going to be affected very marginally – that’s mediocristan. On the other hand if Bill Gates is added to the row, the average wealth is going to be dramatically increased.
In the same way as height, the taxi revenue or profit from a single week/month/year is not likely to have a big impact on the overall profit or revenue (assuming the taxi business comprises more than a couple of taxis that are continuously replaced). Profits and revenue are variable but overall it’s robust, both to surprises to the up- and downside, much like a dentists practice, but unlike banking or venture capital firms.
The bad news is that the taxi will generate 3,000 CFA Franc per day less than I had budgeted, that there were a quite few extra expenses I hadnt planned for, and that it took over a month from the car’s arrival to Abidjan to it actually starting to run and generate income.
The extra expenses were to register with the taxi union, with the national land transport comapany (Sonatt), have the car inspected, get some missing safety equipment (which I’m not sure ever was in the car originally, or was stolen somewhere en route – rookie mistake not to check), and finally my favourite unplanned expense – I kid you not – costs to sacrifice a lamb for the good fortune of the taxi involving paying for the lamb itself and a small fee to the (fittingly) albino imam doing the sacrificing.
Each expense is quite reasonable, but together they add up, adding about 1½ month to how long time the taxi has to run before break-even.
Taxi update – the good news
The good news is that the taxi is running, and that there is a functioning framework in place with a driver, a part time manager, a designated mechanic workshop and a trusted party that can check on the ground if there are any problems with the aforementioned three. Now in theory this structure should be able to handle 10 taxis, just as well as one. More drivers would need to be recruited which doesn’t seem too problematic, and then there are some economies of scale with regards to compensation to the manager and possibly for the mechanic workshop as well.
So if it starts looking as if it is a good investment, I’ll add more taxis. But that’s a big if – it depends on how long time passes on average before something goes wrong, and – here’s where the lamb comes in I guess – there are many things that can go wrong: an accident, theft, breakdown of something expensive, dishonesty among the driver, manager or mechanic, and stuff I can’t even imagine. We’ll see!
Taxis in Abidjan
Here’s how it works in Abidjan. There are three distinct types of taxis:
Taxi intercommunal or clandestine – These are ordinary cars not registered anywhere and entirely illegal. (What we in Sweden call “svarttaxi”.) This is what most taxi owners in the diaspora I have talked to seem to be running. They say that with the new government the days of these taxis are likely numbered, but many have chosen to keep going until the government takes action, and then switch to woro-woros.
Woro-woro – Literally means “six-six” in dioula language – not sure if it refers to six francs or six seats (cramming in four in the back). These taxis go on pre-determined routes with pre-determined prices, and take on multiple passengers on a hop-on hop-off basis along the route. Quite bus-like in other words. They never leave their respective municipalities and are colour coded by municipality. From an owner’s perspective woro-woros have the advantage of being trackable, as they share routes and gathering points with the community of drivers in the same municipality. For example if there is a rule – as in the contract I’m using – that the taxi should stop at latest at 20h every day, it’s possible to check with the community of drivers whether a particular car was on the roads after 20h. Also, the set routes and the community of drivers looking after each other serves as a protection against car theft, something that’s according to well, hearsay, is a more common problem for taxi-compteurs.
Taxi-compteur (Taxi-meter) – This is what residents of Abidjan mean by taxi (Woro-woros are woro-woros and not taxis), and what a western visitor to Abidjan would be using. They are red, free to go to all of Abidjan’s municipalities, and take one client (or group of clients) at the time. They have meters which are rarely used, instead the price is usually negotiated ahead of each ride. Rides are more expensive than for woro-woros and the daily fee paid to the owner is greater.
Abobo it is
I have opted for making my car a woro-woro due to the trackability and community mentioned above, plus that it seems more difficult to run taxi-compteurs from abroad due to their higher degree of freedom. If a taxi-compteur driver claims his car is stolen (or lost in the Abidjan lagoon or something), but instead sells it, it’s hard to check, and difficult to sort out when living abroad. I had a talk with a guy in the diaspora who had tried taxi-compteurs, but given up due to tons of problems, and made a good case that you have to be in Abidjan to own taxi-compteurs.
I had initially thought of Cocody, but my woro-woro is actually running in the poorer municipality of Abobo. The thing is that the manager lives and works in Abobo and I think success or failure depends to great deal people managing, so if I have somebody good in Abobo, Abobo it is.
One thing with the taxi business in Africa, unlike say electrical engineering, is that everybody seems to have an opinion about it – and often contradictory opinions. Here are examples of two comments I have received:
I would not recommend at all to start TAXI business […] Normally all people I know who ever sent a car to Africa have never seen a cent out of the business. Its very difficult to have a business in Africa and be successful.
Taxi’s are a profitable because everything can or could be be arranged: car papers, insurance, drivers license, repairs, etc. A friend of mine […] is planning to convert it into a woro-woro. His only problem is the reliable driver. If you have one, he says, owning a taxi is most definitely a profitable business.
My take here, inspired by author Peter Sims, is that the world is a complex and changing place, and you can’t always figure out and plan everything in advance, so a good approach is to make a small, not too costly, experiment, see what happens, draw lessons, and adapt from there.
Here’s Peter Sims outlining this and other ideas in a pretty interesting 45 minute speech:
On board the Salisbury in 1747
Another great example that sometimes you have to make an experiment to get good data and figure out how things work, comes from the book Adapt by Tim Harford:
Naval surgeon James Lind wanted to find a decent treatment for scurvy, a nasty illness that leads first to spots and gum disease but then to open wounds, internal bleeding, and eventually death. The disease, which still afflicts malnourished people around the world, was then especially common among sailors. Various cures had been proposed. The Admiralty, which commanded the Royal Navy, favoured vinegar.
The Royal College of Physicians took a different view: in its expert opinion, sulphuric acid was just the tonic. Other suggestions included sea water, nutmeg, cider and citrus fruit.
In the spring of 1747, after eight weeks at sea on the warship Salisbury, Lind chose a dozen sailors out of the three dozen then suffering from scurvy. To make his test as fair as he could, he tried to pick men whose illness seemed to be at the same stage. Then he divided them into six pairs and gave each pair a different treatment. The pair being given oranges and lemons made a good recover; those taking cider, acid or brine did not fare so well. It was not a perfect randomized clinical trial by today’s standards, but it did the job. Scurvy, we know, is caused by lack of vitamin C, so oranges and lemons are a sensible treatment. Ships started to carry greater stores of them, and many sailors on subsequent voyages owed their life to Lind’s experiment.
Lind’s trial highlights, however, some of the difficulties with collecting and reviewing evidence. For a start, if Lind had been tempted to rely on data collected by someone else for some other purpose – which is quicker and cheaper than organising a bespoke trial – he might have come unstuck. Good data are often just not available: we know from Lind’s account that thirty or forty sailors suffered from scurvy and six men died during that voyage, but official records note only two illnesses. Sometimes there is no choice but to perform an experiment yourself.
Out of Abidjan port
Admittedly, figuring out the details of running a taxi business in Abidjan, seems a bit mundane compared to finding a cure for scurvy, but both endeavors face similar problems in obtaining reliable data.
For example, I tried everything to figure out how much it would cost to get a car out of Abidjan port. Online there were many stories of problems and issues with getting a car out – including warnings of thefts of parts from cars parked in the port – but no hard official data on prices. And people who had sent cars to Abidjan reported wildly different costs, including a top mark of 4 million Cfa franc for a relatively new Mercedes brought in by a European guy with little experience of Africa and no knowledge of French.
The price, which includes getting Ivorian number plates, seems to depend on who you are, your negotiating skills, how expensive the car is, how old the car is, if you are using a “transitaire”, how long time the car stays in port, and well, luck.
I have now gotten my car out of the port, but since it’s old there’s one more check that needs to be done – probably just a bit of “isomorphic mimicry”. Anyhow, without the last check (which should be maximum 100,000 Cfa francs) and the payment to the “transitaire” it has so far costed 823,000 Cfa francs which breaks down as follows:
400,000 import duty
250,000 fee for the car being old
18,000 storage fee for one day
So it means that in my case, getting the car out of Abidjan port will cost about three times the value of the car (450€) which is well, ridiculous, but I had budgeted with it costing twice the value of the car and it was a budget post I was very unsure of. Even with this get-out-of-Abidjan-port cost, the figures for the investment still hold up fine. As long as figures for profits, revenues, and repairs aren’t markably worse than budgeted, and the driver isn’t too dishonest, it should work out. But that’s to be continued in future posts!
Today at the airport in Stockholm I met a happy Swedish couple flying out to their new investment abroad! They had renovated and opened a hotel on “Ihla”, the historic capital in northern Mocambique. Obviously done the right thing to do.
My feeling here is, by golly I hope Hans is right, because I have just bought two plots of land in Abidjan, whereof on one I plan on building an apartment hotel. So this is it, not only will the name of the blog start making sense, but if it works out I will reach the “within 3 year” goal set out in the mission/vision post last year.
There aren’t that many plots of land available at reasonable prices in areas that are sufficiently central and upscale to be attractive to people (including european tourists) that are prepared to pay budget hotel prices for their stay in Abidjan. So when finding a plot that met all the criteria, I had to go for it, but only after a lot of due diligence including double and triple checking the paperwork – the key check is that the seller really owns the plot, checking that it isn’t in a flood prone area, and pretending to be a customer at nearby hotels to see how they were doing.
One the nearby hotels actually turned out to be one of those that are rented by hour, which is surprisingly common in Abidjan and not an indication of a bad neighbourhood, but still not quite a line of business I had intended to embark on.
Despite all these checks, encouraging remarks from Hans Rosling and the likelihood that the investment will have a strong tailwind by demographic and economic trends, it’s still a plunge into the unknown and I can think of an awfully great number of things that can go wrong, so I got to admit that fear is one of the emotions I associate with this project.
Thus, it’s a good time for a mixed collection motivational quotes and other wise words:
“All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“A goal properly set is halfway reached.” – Zig Ziglar
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
“What you get by achieving your goals is to as important as what you become by achieving your goals.” – Henry David Thoreau
As Randy Pausch said: “It is not about how to achieve your dreams. It’s about how to lead your life.”
Basically it is all about the curiosity to experiment and explore your dreams. Mistakes made are not about being good or bad. Don’t be afraid to pursue your dreams. Opportunities occur randomly. If the environment is favorable there is a great chance that these opportunities will be favorable. Work to create this environment. If you are not happy, change. Do something. Don’t whine. Do things with passion. Exploit and realize your potential and talent to the maximum extent.
“Peter Sims buries the myth that big talkers with brains and big ideas move industry and science forward. This modern masterpiece demonstrates that the most powerful and profitable ideas are produced by persistent people who mess with lots of little ideas and keep muddling forward until they get it right. Little Bets is easily the most delightful and useful innovation book published in the last decade.”
Laurence Peter (1919-1990):
“There are two kinds of failures: those who thought and never did, and those who did and never thought.”
Indira Gandhi (1917-1984):
“There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.”
John F. Kennedy (1917-1963):
“Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.”
“Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”
“We should not let our fears hold us back from pursuing our hopes.”
John Cage (1912-1992):
“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
Robert Heinlein (1907-1988):
“Most people can’t think, most of the remainder won’t think, the small fraction who do think mostly can’t do it very well. The extremely tiny fraction who think regularly, accurately, creatively, and without self-delusion – in the long run, these are the only people who count.”
Anais Nin (1903-1977):
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
Harold MacMillan (1894-1986):
“The man who trusts nobody is apt to be the kind of man nobody trusts.”
Aldous Huxley (1894-1963):
“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
“Experience is not what happens to you. It is what you do with what happens to you.”
Christopher Morley (1890-1957):
“The real purpose of books is to trap the mind into doing its own thinking.”
“There is only one success – to be able to spend your life in your own way.”
Harry Truman (1884-1972):
“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
George S. Patton, Jr. (1885-1945):
“If everyone is thinking alike then somebody isn’t thinking.”
H. L. [Henry Louis] Mencken (1880-1956):
“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us that someone might be looking.”
“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”
“Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making enemies.”
-Voltaire, on his deathbed, to a priest asking that he renounce Satan
Winston Churchill (1874-1965):
“We shall never surrender.”
“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
“A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”
“You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
“The pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.”
“I am ready to meet my maker, but whether my maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”
“Once in a while you will stumble upon the truth, but most of us manage to pick ourselves up and hurry along as if nothing had happened.”
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970):
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”
Thomas Crum (-):
“Our quality of life depends not on what happens to us, but on what we do with what happens to us.”
“What would it be like if you lived each day, each breath, as a work of art in progress? Imagine that you are a masterpiece unfolding, every second of every day, a work of art taking form with every breath.”
“When I was a kid I used to pray every night for a new bicycle. Then I realized that the Lord doesn’t work that way so I stole one and asked Him to forgive me.”
-Emo Philips, stand-up comedian
“To believe a thing impossible is to make it so.” – French Proverb
G. M. Trevelyan:
“Never tell a young person that anything cannot be done. God may have been waiting centuries for someone ignorant enough of the impossible to do that very thing.”
“So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”
Sir Walter Scott:
“To the timid and hesitating everything is impossible because it seems so.”
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”