Wednesday, May 11, 2011

No shortage of shortages

As I have been coming to Tamale for years, I have been confronted with it on a daily basis, but there is definitely a difference between the experience of coming here as a 'visitor' or as 'someone who tries to run a business'.

Unbelievable, no day goes by without us being confronted with the shortage of one product or another. Try to run a restaurant when the first week there is no water coming out of the pipes, the following week the electricity is down for two days (making it difficult for freezers to keep things frozen, for example) and the next week there is no beer to be found in the whole city.

Let's say that this is an ongoing frustration. Don't get me wrong, it makes running a business here quite "spicy", every day something new and never boring. You can't imagine the rush you get when it appears that you encounter that one shop that still has a bag of pastry flour for sale. But sometimes this lack of certainty tends close to being unbearable. The shortage of one product (that I would call 'basic' and take for granted in the West) after the other, how can the inhabitants of Tamale stick up with this the whole time? This is not just a sporadic event. This is ongoing, daily reality.

The ever recurring 'shortage' of something vital is one of the two biggest frustrations for setting up a business in a country like Ghana (I won't spell out the second one, but I will give you a hint: it starts with a 'c' and ends with 'orruption').

But ok, back to our main topic. Already since the start of this year, water has become scarce in whole Tamale. I shouldn't have to tell you that a hotel needs water. Talk about the bathrooms of the guests, the cleaning and the kitchen. Fortunately, we have a big water reservoir, but it isn't copious. We have come to the rhythm now of refilling that reservoir by a water tanker every week. It came to a day that all water tankers started to charge double price, purely because they could afford it. There was more demand than supply and even our regular provider charged us double with a straight face (not that we bent for it).

Then during the storm last week, some electricity poles got pushed over and we were out of electricity. The electricity company started working on it immediately, and that is a hell of a job, but still: no power for the whole weekend.

Nevertheless, we have been talking about public utilities up to now. Their defaults can easily be explained and we should not forget that on some aspects, Ghana is indeed still a developing country. Many villages are stll without water or electricity connection, so we can't expect that everything would go "fluently".

So I saved the best for last, here are the really frustrating ones!

Coca Cola (and Pepsi) has the widest distribution network imaginable. In the Indian Himalayas around Dharamsala I even saw a trail of donkeys supplying the small shops at a viewpoint at the top (like this one, although this picture has been taken in Morocco). ColaLife is working togeter with Coca Cola to use their distribution network to bring medication to places that are hard to reach. Everywhere on this planet, you can find cola, and it is always both Coca Cola and Pepsi.

However, here in Tamale, Coca Cola manages to have a shortage in supply. Imagine a customer, annoyed because he wanted a 'Coke' and we don't have any in our fridge. Not because we are lazy or too stupid to keep stock, but purely because Coca Cola claims to have no more Coca Cola at their depot for the past week.

Then what the hell are you doing? There is only one concern for Coca Cola suppliers: to supply Coca Cola.

Still, once every five months, that one task appears to be too difficult. And if it isn't cola that is short, then it is one of the other products. Not some gloomy short-lived one-day-wonder kind of drink like Pomelo or some similar drivel, no, we are talking the regulars like Sprite or Fanta.

Do you want to know the solution that Coca Cola offered for this re-occuring problem? To buy even more stock, so in case the supplier has a problem, you still have a whole cellar filled with Coca Cola goods.

Dear Coca Cola,

if you recommend me to keep a stock as big as your own depot, then by this I am applying to become your new depot in Tamale.

Yours sincerely,


Give me a break...

You want to hear my solution? When this happened for the second time, I went straight to Pepsi.

I sat down with the manager of Pepsi and had a great chat, wonderful guy. He promised to come and supply even on a daily basis, and they would never (imagine him sticking his finger in the air) have a shortage in stock. Never.

moi: So which goods do you have?
Pepsi: We have the whole range: Pepsi Cola, Mirinda and some pineapple juice brand X.
moi: What about SevenUp?
Pepsi: The factory in Accra has some problem with botteling it for the past months now, but I am sure that we will have it by next week, so you have nothing to worry about!

This conversation actually took place, I only shortened it for ease of reading.

Now, apart from water and fizzy drinks, what else do people like to drink in restaurants? Beer! (Forget about coffee, people drink the instant type here. We are the only place in Tamale that sells real coffee, and proud of it.)

Again, the golden brown liquid can only be provided by (do you feel it coming?) two suppliers here in town. Problem is that they both have different brands, the one is Club, the other is Star. Both of them have several products, but as a self-respecting restaurant or bar, you better have both in stock because a Club-drinker doesn't like Star and the other way around. There is always something to disagree on in a two-party system, isn't there :-)
There are some small distributors of other, more obscure kinds of beer, but we can disregard those in this discussion as the demand is not high enough to put them on the 'wine beer list'.

Club is brewed by "Accra Brewery", other products are Stone, Shandy, Chairman and Castle Milk Stout. Star is made by "Guinness Ghana" (owned by the Dutch Heineken International), also proud producer of Gulder and of course: Guinness.

Well, first there was no more Gulder in the whole Northern Region, then there was no Malt(a) (being the most popular soft drink for Ghanaians that don't drink alcohol, that is a problem) for a month time. Followed by a shortage of Club and a shortage of Star (both being the most popular beers nationwide). At this moment, Alvaro is impossible to get.

This is not "small beer", these are large corporations which can't handle logistics in Ghana.

As I am ranting anyway, it might be worth mentioning that there is a general shortage of most common products (be it food, drinks or non-food) around Christmas time. Every year again.
Most pubs and restaurants are used to this and start massive stocking of chicken and beer from the end of November going. After that, it is plainly impossible to get any of the popular drinks (Star, Club, ...) until January.

How is it, that local managers here don't see that this would be the perfect opportunity of brewing more so that they are able to sell even more and boost there profits? (*shouting in the desert*)

By now, I guess you get the general idea of my frustration.

There is always a shortage, the only thing that is never short, are the shortages themselves. But wait, I am not done yet.

For two three weeks now, there is no gas available in this city. If you keep in mind that all restaurants here cook on gas, fortunate households included, this could become is a problem. By now, most of the stock of gas that restaurants had built up, is finished. My neighbours had to close their kitchen and we are only able to operate because we were fortunate enough to buy gas of private people who we could convince that they can use a charcoal fire to brew their meals.

Every day I see motorbike upon motorbike passing in front of ourrestaurant, an empty gas cilinder tied at the back, visiting every selling point to see whether there is gas today. Everywhere they will hear a similar response: "come back Monday". When Monday has come, they are asked to return on Friday. Ad nauseam.

In one way, I admire the laidback attitude of the Ghanaian, not being worried about the situation at all and trusting that it all will be solved tomorrow (and else the day after) is the perfect medicine for stress. But we should not take this incompetence of big companies. Their attitude makes it impossible for a hotel or a restaurant to offer good service to its customers. I hear "ah, it is not life threatening" and you might be right. But if a restaurant has to close because there is no gas to be found or (to talk about another type of business) taxi drivers can't offer their service because there is no more fuel in town, then it is simply the fault of the nonchalant behaviour of the providers of these products that you and your family members are technically unemployed.

How long can this be tolerated? Where is the feeling of responsibility from a supplier to his customers? Where is the honour of keeping your customer content and to build a lasting business relationship? Why does nobody step up?

People are saying: "Ah, we need gas, we should go to Bolga and buy it". But up to date, there is nobody that has actually started a new supply chain of gas cilinders from Bolga to Tamale. Does nobody see this opportunity?

I really wish I had the cash to start up a new business, a logistics firm or a supply chain that would not fail you.
(unless when there is too much rain fall, because then our trucks don't drive up north)

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