Lt Col Guy Levene OBE - Ethiopia or Bust
Was it Benjamin Franklin who said something like; a person may see and be able to calculate his expenses way into the future - yet his income, only to the end of the month? When I met Guy our assets were few, our income streams exhausted and we were about to cut our losses. Knowing that our income over expenditure ratio was no longer tenable I had more or less decided to wind up the company.
I never had a contract which did not take at least six months to negotiate and yet, here was a man, who on the basis of personal recommendations alone was trying hard to convince me that working with him would be a game changer! That he could have something on the table, done and dusted within days. He appeared about as mad as me! I could not resist, took a punt and the rest as they say is history. CPMS completed three major contracts with Guy at the helm, two in his capacity as a British army officer and the best and most audacious being the Bale Mountain Eco-lodge; his own personal endeavour. I loved working with Guy. For all his personal hang ups, somewhat excessive confidence, brash nature he knew his stuff and at heart was a man of the people. His understanding of the project management cycle, the time, cost, quality triangle and risk management was unsurpassed. Most importantly he knew how to motivate people and how to build a functional, happy, single minded team.
The lodge itself probably represents the greatest opportunity I have ever had, to bring together in one place at the same time, the most comprehensive package of alternative, green and environmentally friendly technology in my 30 years of experience and learning in the developing world; technologies such as micro-hydro power, slow-sand water filtration, bio-gas energy, straw-bale walling, heat exchange pumps and more. And all of this was done in one of the remotest parts of Africa accessed only by a gravel-dirt road over the Sanetti Platteau at 14,000ft above sea level. No mean feat.
Click here to go to the Bale Mountain Lodge Website!
It all seemed like such a great wheeze, Ethiopia is beautiful, tourist numbers are rising year on year and the supply of good quality accommodation is virtually non-existent. Bit of a no brainer really. It was all a bit of a joke, just bouncing ideas around with a couple of like-minded friends, nothing serious, what would we do as a business if we had the inclination? Then the MOD dropped the bomb, 3,500 redundancies and 12% of my rank in trade. Suddenly the idea took off.
The idea of a tourist lodge came out of two things; firstly it had been a good idea in theory so why not in practice and, secondly, it appeared to be something that we could drive fast enough to give us a working business fairly soon after leaving the Army. With that in mind I started a site hunt. The first idea was Magdala, the site of the 1868 battle between Napier’s expeditionary force and the army of the Emperor Tewoderos. It was Easter and Bill, my elder son, and I decided upon a lad’s trip north to see whether the site would be suitable for a tourist lodge. The location was stunning, up in the Abyssinian highlands overlooking the battle site and with caves and culture on the doorstep. It could all be linked to a visitor centre and, perhaps, with a fair wind behind us, we might be able to persuade the UK to return some of the Magdala loot, borrowed in 1868 in true colonial style, to stock a museum.
After looking at a magnificent potential site the drive north from Magdala was adventurous in the extreme. Ethiopia’s breathtaking scenery has to be seen to be believed and we traversed deep gullies, river crossings and unmetaled hairpin bends with sheer drops either side. Frankly the realisation that Magdala was not yet an option depressed me; such a great location but no loop in and out and no access in anything but a sound 4x4. Maybe this was not such a great idea after all.
An overnight stop in Lalibela, home to the 1100 year old monolithic rock hewn churches of the ‘New Jerusalem’, served as a battery charger. The churches are hewn into the bedrock and are a must see for anyone’s bucket list. Each time I visit, the experience improves and I learn more about the history of Christianity in the region and the mindset which produced such a wonder.
The following morning we headed out in the car up a dirt road which climbed to the East over a 14,000ft ridgeline. We ascended into the clouds until they obscured our view and found ourselves surrounded by locals clad in layer upon layer of the local cloth to protect them from the biting cold of altitude. The descent brought increasing warmth and we ended up in the scrub desert of the western Rift Valley. Wow, what a spectacular country. As we turned north we were both high as a kite on adrenalin and hoping to motor quickly up north to Mekele, capital of the northern Ethiopian region of Tigray. We sped quickly along the dry valley on a bullet-straight modern road flanked by tomato fields and bustling agriculture. After this short hop along the valley we started to climb again, up an old Italian road with spectacular switchbacks and views over the rift valley floor beneath us. The road turned vertical as we ascended for 1,800 vertical meters in 10km of road (good old GPS). At the top we found Korem, a bustling little town with a dubious reputation as it had been the epicentre of the 1984 famine made famous by Bob Geldof and the BBC newsreels. Either side of the road were green fields of teff and wheat; hard to believe that the area ever suffered from drought.
We wove through the throngs of locals and along the bustling main road through the town, emerging at the other end into rural tranquillity. It was hard to fathom that we were in the vicinity of mass graves containing around 1,000,000 Ethiopians. The road here was excellent and as we still had 150km to go before nightfall we put the hammer down and sped along. That was until we breasted the sharp line of hills a mere 5km north of the town. As we did so the road turned a bend and there in front of us was a spectacular crater lake, 4 or 5 Km across and surrounded by high peaks, lakeside pasture and terraces of teff, wheat and sorghum. We were forced to stop and take in some breath; here at 8,000ft was the location we had been looking for and, not only that, the precise location screamed at us from the north shore as we set upon a small knoll further around the lake. After 10 minutes of wonderment we drove on to the north and found that the road passed within 500m of our fantasy site; that sealed the plan.
From then events took on a life of their own. I decided that a business plan was probably the best first step so I scoured the internet for a format and, in true military staff officer mode (I had served for 29 years), started to put my analysis on paper. What was I trying to achieve and why? How many rooms, what demographic, how much money did we have to invest and so on. I still hadn’t broached the subject with my wife but I wanted to get my ‘ducks lined up’ before I spoke to her. Having written 15 pages of thoughts I needed to discuss them with someone and, as a potential UK investor I thought I would approach the Department for International Development (DFID - affectionately known as Daft F.. In Dungarees). Sadly, DfID lived up to their reputation; a short conversation with the ‘business development manager’ to establish whether there might be government funding assistance for a ‘pro-poor, local development project’ resulted in a rather wet ‘well Guy, we don’t really have a mechanism for investors such as yourself’ response. To be frank I should have anticipated the answer and was annoyed with myself for wasting my own time.
What did come out of the experience was a potential contact, Philip O’Dwyer, an Irish business development consultant who had been working with the Irish Embassy developing links for Irish businesses in Ethiopia. We met for coffee at the Hilton and, for the first time, I had the chance to pitch my ideas to someone independent. With a little self-deprecation, and some obvious lack of confidence, I pitched my plan. Philip could not have been more supportive; he liked my business analysis, accepted my logic, agreed with my marketing plan and generally thought that the idea would work. On that basis I sent the plan to my father and to an old family friend who had been a business angel in the UK. Again the feedback was positive.
I still had my doubts; anecdotal evidence suggested that business in Ethiopia was difficult and unpredictable. Little did I know. At the time, of primary concern was the security of investment finance; what if the government seized my assets? Could I repatriate funds to UK? Would the bureaucracy simply prove too difficult? I turned back to Philip who did some digging and confirmed that money could be repatriated to UK as post-tax profits, dividends, sale or disposal of the business or in order to encourage further investment. That was a major step and a significant factor in continuing to push the plan. Philip also suggested the formation of a UK company as a method of controlling inward investment and through which to send profits and dividends in the future. At this point it all sounded somewhat hypothetical; profits seemed a long way off. 8 years later they still are…
I was fired with enthusiasm and wanted to drive the issue fast. I filed in my redundancy volunteer papers and submitted them through the British Army team in Nairobi; no going back, bridges were well and truly burnt behind us. By this stage I had, of course, discussed the plan with my wife and the anticipated push back had not materialised. She was surprisingly sanguine and far from negative; her only real concern was medical support for Max, our younger son, who had broken his neck 2 years earlier and is now tetraplegic and wheelchair bound. Max on the other hand was highly supportive and positive and after some work I thought that the risk was relatively low and that we could cope with most eventualities.
The UK administration was pretty straightforward; on line it took 30 minutes to form a UK based parent company, which we called Jember Ltd as ‘Jember’ means ‘sunrise’ in Amharic, the official Ethiopian language. We had considered Tarara (mountains) or even Injeera (the local staple food) but family preferences were canvassed and Jember prevailed. We then published a company minute stating our intent to trade in Ethiopia and to build tourist lodges. Philip became a 5% partner and the first stage of the plan was to solicit support from the Mekele Investment Office and local community. My analysis suggested that community support was the ‘centre of gravity’, for without it we would never be able to run a business in rural Tigray. I needed to inform the local community of my ideas.
I assembled a mixed team of five guys; the first four were myself, Philip as the business guru, Gary Campbell as construction project manager and Mulugeta who was Gary’s ‘fixer’. The final player was a real character, Colonel Leul Berhe Desta, who is a personal friend and who was a senior Tigraian army officer, very well known in the north, and who had supported Meles Zenawi (the then Prime Minister) in the fight for the independence of Ethiopia during the revolution against the communist Derg. Leul’s role was to open doors and to provide tactical advice on how to deal with Tigray and it’s bureaucracy. Frankly he was worth his weight in gold.
The presentation at Mekele Investment Office was a huge success. The administration had assembled a team of locals from the Kebele and Woreda, organisations which roughly equate to the district and parish councils respectively. Whilst much of the business plan was beyond the ken of some, the overall response was supportive, enthusiastic and upbeat. Leul attributed our success to my Scottish allusions; I wore tartan trews for the meeting and started the presentation with an explanation of my Scots ancestry. I had then gone on to claim significant similarities between our highland nations such as a strong family ethos, belligerence towards our southern neighbours and even a shared love for dance and alcohol (although I did point out that the Scots had marketed their whisky better than the Ethiopians had marketed Tela and Tej, the two local drinks of the highlands). The atmosphere in the car as we travelled south to the proposed site was electric. All five of us were buzzing with enthusiasm and ideas and I have seldom experienced such combined focus on making a project succeed. This was, however, only the first step; from here on things became increasingly bureaucratic and complex.
So much for the positive, things now took a massive turn for the worse and, considering that the whole process had started as a vague idea in April I remain amazed that we signed a contract a year later, considering the hurdles that we were made to jump in the intervening months. More of that later though as the plans took more than one U turn in the process.
I started to work really closely with Gary Campbell and CPMS, his company, and we assessed that the next important issue was to get an investment licence through the Addis Ababa Investment Office. “This is a 1 - 2 hour process and the office prides itself in its efficiency” I was informed confidently by everyone with an opinion. All I needed was my Memorandum and Articles of Association for Jember Ltd, a minute stating the intent of Jember Ltd in Ethiopia and a notarised Power Of Attorney to confirm that I had the right to act on behalf of Jember Ltd in Ethiopia. One snag existed, I found out that I had to be in UK to be present at the notarisation. I booked a flight and headed home, actually a good trip as I was able to combine the visit with picking up my wife and injured son Max from Cornwall in order to assist their return to Ethiopia.
One of the things that we have noticed over the last 10 years of living abroad is that bureaucratic inefficiency is not the sole preserve of Africa. The plan was to stay at my parent’s house in Cambridgeshire, pick up the original Jember Ltd documents and then to get the Power of Attorney notarised on the Monday morning before travelling, via the Ethiopian Embassy in London, to Cornwall. A couple of days at home would then allow us to sort out the bags before we would fly back to Addis on the Thursday evening. That was far too simple and it was silly of me to presume that things would move without a glitch.
Firstly, it seems none of the notaries in Bedford work on a Monday so I booked an appointment for Tuesday morning at 10am; they also don’t do early mornings. Over the weekend I mulled over the Power of Attorney which, frankly, could have been written in Serbo Croat and would have made as much sense to me. Having not seen my wife for 3 months, I kicked my heels all weekend, apart from a trip to a bank in Milton Keynes to try a dry run financial pitch to see if UK investment funding was an option. By the time Tuesday came around I was raring to go. At the Notaries office the solicitor was great; she advised me on the wording of the document, gave me time to make amendments on my laptop, nipped off to print a couple of copies and finally notarised the PoA, all before stinging me for £80; all in all a good 40 minutes. I immediately got on the train to London and said farewell to my folks with a spring in my step; all I had to do was to get the Ethiopian Embassy to acknowledge the document in London and I would have the necessary legal papers to present to the Investment Office in Addis Ababa.
The Ethiopian Embassy was equally helpful, surprised by my cheery ‘endemna wollachu’ (good afternoon) as I entered the office. In spite of their helpful demeanour they informed me that they could not ‘authorise’ the document until the notary's signature had been confirmed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Fantastic, how do you do that? Time was now short and so I hopped in a taxi to Whitehall and was informed at the gate that the FCO no longer authorised documents without a prior appointment, arranged, on line, at least 24 hours in advance. How the hell was I going to get everything done by Thursday when I also had to get to Cornwall to pick up my family? I was, by this stage, ready to scream and so, in true Levene family style, phoned my father to try and cobble together a plan. My father, ever the pragmatist, suggested that he could get the document authorised by both offices and could send me the original in the post. I wasn’t keen on trusting the African postal system and decided to get on the train and think it through.
In the end the solution was obvious; it was Tuesday evening so I would have a day to help my family pack the bags, sort out the freighting of specialist medical kit and get Max’s pre-trip medical issues sorted by the district nurse. As a taxi was taking us to Heathrow and the flight was not until Thursday evening, I had a whole day to manage documents if I left for London on the early train and could meet Yvonne (my wife) and Max at the airport later that day; hurrah! What a pain in the posterior but it would work and so Yvonne dropped me off at Truro Station to catch the 5.30am train to Paddington. I felt for her; later that day Yvonne had a 5 hour taxi trip followed by an overnight flight to Addis, all accompanied by Max, his wheelchair and myriad bags; no wonder she had a slight paddy at terminal 3 (with Max and myself giggling like naughty schoolboys in the background) as she tried to reorganise baggage to meet weight restrictions.
My day was no less stressful. I had booked to get the notary’s signature authorised at the Charing Cross FCO offices, accompanied by the notes that I had printed off the web site. A rather ‘cold war like’ set of instructions had informed me to approach the building down the service ramp, get my bags security checked in the basement and to move through reception to a lift that would only go to the relevant floor and which, in reality, had no buttons. I had been a soldier for 28 years but this was a rather clandestine experience and made me feel like George Smiley, all rather odd. I sat eating a Cornish pasty in the outer office whilst the necessary checks were completed and then, document in hand, grabbed a black cab in order to make it across town to Prince’s Gate in time to catch the Ethiopian Embassy (which, of course shuts at 3pm). It was going to work and I was confident again, right up to my meeting with the Embassy. ‘That will be £63’ I was informed and happily handed over my credit card. ‘Sorry sir, we only accept cash’. I felt like exploding, I knew that cash is king in Ethiopia but this was 21st century London, what were these clowns thinking? I had less than £30 in my wallet and 50 minutes before the Embassy closed so I grabbed another cab and sped to South Kensington to find a cash machine. 30 minutes later I was back at the desk and proudly handed over the cash with a look of ‘you won’t beat me, you buggers’ on my face. ‘Excellent sir, the document will be ready for you to collect on Monday’ came the response; ‘Noooooo! I am flying to Addis tonight and need to take it with me’. Finally, and for the first time in the process, I encountered a bit of sympathy. I was invited to take a seat whilst the secretary buzzed off to see what she could do and an hour later, well after the office had cleared of all other visitors, I walked out of the Ethiopian Embassy with my document. I met Yvonne at Heathrow as the Cornish taxi eased into the terminal 3 forecourt laden with our worldly goods; perhaps we could make this work after all.
The fun now started in Addis; all the UK documents had to be certified by the British Embassy, then notarised at the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then authorised by the Ethiopian government before presentation to the Investment Office for the aforementioned, approximate 1 - 2 hour process to take place. 2 visits to the Embassy, 4 visits to the notary’s office and 4 visits to the authentication office later, all over a frustrating 2 week period, I had everything stamped. Philip O’Dwyer, who had been conspicuously absent in Ireland for this whole fiasco, had organised a point of contact in the Investment office called Ato Ashenafe. What a prat. I was telephoned by the office to come and visit and, on meeting the desk officer I was informed that, whilst all the correct documents were in place, the desk officer was not happy with Jember Ltd’s Articles of Association which did not state the purpose of the UK company. Following Ashenafe’s advice, I left an appeal with the office manager confident that all would be accepted at a higher level.
On the following Monday I was called again to be informed that the Divisional Director would not accept my application. I phoned Ashenafe who said he would look into the matter. Three days later he explained the same problem back to me that I had explained to him on the Monday. He also informed me that he couldn’t really get involved as he was not permitted to intervene in individual cases; I was livid and marched myself into the office. After 30 minutes of getting nowhere I asked to see the director and was politely ushered in to his office where the same conversation ensued. This 2 hour process had now taken a month to complete; I had had enough and in sheer frustration I punched the director’s door and told him that his country was ridiculous, his systems were rubbish (or something similar) and that if they wanted foreign investment they were going about it the wrong way. I was summoned to the Headmaster’s office upstairs where the head of the Ethiopian Investment Bureau, who happened to be chatting to his legal advisor, was a sheer delight. The Divisional Director was dismissed to sort out the licence, I was offered coffee and a few grossly exaggerated military anecdotes later I left with an Investment Licence in my grubby mitt. Who says aggression doesn’t work?
There followed a pivotal period in the project. The local community had to support our plans and so we mobilised for a Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) exercise; one of Gary’s tree hugging ideas from his days as a VSO volunteer. I was a little sceptical but supported the idea. Leul, my tame senior Ethiopian, thought we had gone stark raving mad. ‘Why do you want to consult with peasants?’ he asked, ‘they know nothing and have no say in the matter’. We explained the need to work with the community rather than against them and suggested that we would learn a great deal about our working environment through speaking to villagers rather than local leaders, the theory being that we would get a different perspective from the women, children and farmers than from the Priests, Imams and Politicians.
On a glorious morning in mid August we stood on the proposed site of the lodge and watched the locals caving in to their curiosity and walking over the field to join us. Armed with tape, ping pong balls, rocks, coloured paper and interpreters we mapped the village, gauged the locals’ perspective and learnt about key locations and resources in the surrounding villages. We also established who worked the land within the boundary of the lodge site. There followed a discussion which I led by explaining my plans, only to find that the first response was, ‘we have not agreed to any of this, we have not been consulted, the site is sacred, there is absolutely no way you can build on this site and we accuse you of wanting to build a Christian church on our Muslim land’. I was livid with the local government for not consulting the very people I was trying to court and, in utter frustration, I kicked my briefcase across the hill, this really felt like the final straw. What the hell had the authorities been doing since we first broached the subject and got approval to continue, all back in May? I was ready to walk away, a feeling compounded by an email containing a very generous job offer in Bristol; the problem was that I couldn’t walk as my foot hurt too much from stubbing my toe on my laptop!
Throughout this process I had also been managing other aspects of the set up. If we were to mobilise builders on time then we needed a lodge design with which to obtain a building permit. Commissioning the design meant committing significant funds and yet so many aspects of the project were still unclear. I needed to mark out the land, sort out the issues with the local community, obtain a carté (land deed), transfer $100k into a bank account, establish the conditions of the lease and confirm how much compensation I had to pay to the local farmers who currently worked the land. I needed details about water quality, lake use, Ethiopian power availability and building materials, all of which were put in writing to the regional authorities, and I also needed to be really confident that the small mosque on the top of the site was not going to be an issue.
I was starting to carry significant levels of financial risk and I didn’t like it. The problem was that all the issues seemed to be intertwined with no individual action able to unlock the bureaucratic processes. Three trips north later and we were no further forward; on the contrary, the Mekele Civil Servants appeared to be finding more issues, each of which we thought had been clear beforehand, to add to the confusion and complexity. It now looked as though no supporting work had been completed whatsoever and there began a process of ratification at the Mekele Investment Office which was comically stalled by all the participants being absent on training for a week. After a further 3 weeks we eventually obtained a letter of consent from the President of Tigray and thought that surely this letter would free up the process.
No such luck; at the 11th hour the Environmental Protection Office (EPO) demanded an Environmental Impact Assessment and claimed a veto over the project. Over the course of an hour in Addis I wrote a 5 page document and presented it through Mulugeta, who was still chasing issues in the North, to the EPO. Everyone, except the EPO, agreed that we were as Eco-friendly as a business could be and that we would set the standard for the region. Two weeks later the EPO told us that the document was in the wrong format! I told Mulugeta that he needed to resolve this without me as a visit from me to Tigray would result in bloodshed. I had had enough.
Onwards and Upwards
Throughout this whole process I had consoled myself with the thought that if anyone could do this, it was me. A bloody minded streak took over and each hurdle became more of a challenge than an obstacle. Back in Addis Ababa, in response to the Muslim leaders’ objections I began to think of alternative sites; the first, a hot spring location near Bonga in the South West, was to be subjected to an immediate recce after meeting a local Bonga official who was keen to attract investment. If we couldn’t go to Ashange then we would go somewhere else. Word got out very quickly and a plea from the Ashange locals was received that same day. In short they believed that we could resolve the issues with the Imams if we discussed the matter during the Muslim conference in Mekele that week. I cancelled the Bonga recce, changed the direction of my car journey and went back to Mekele with Leul, Yvonne and Max.
By the end of the second day I was laughing, not through pleasure but out of sheer frustration. I must be mad. These men held religious power and my plans threatened to undermine the status quo, why would they support us when they might lose influence, even if the benefits to their community were obvious to all others. I effectively told the local councillor to ram his district up his backside and to stop wasting my time and money promising things he could not deliver, as the local religious leaders were clearly not on side. I was no longer angry, merely bored and fed up with being treated like the enemy when I was providing the drive and investment. Leul calmed me down and advised me to give it 24 more hours. As I was in a car rather than flying back to Addis, I really couldn’t justify backing away for the sake of one day. I had invested too much time, energy and emotion; it was worth at least a day.
The next day we convened a meeting on the hill at Ashange to establish the precise size and use of the Muslim site. Firstly, it turned out that the small mosque was one of 11 in the district and was only used twice a year for special ceremonies. Soon after it also transpired that, in the eyes of the Kebele, there was no legal ownership or right to the land. No legal documents existed and if the council wanted to lease the land to me then the Muslim community had no say in the matter. I rapidly vetoed that approach, acutely conscious that steamrolling the Mulsim community was not in my best interests. The main point of the day was that we needed to mark out the land that the locals believed was sacred. There followed a series of discussions reminiscent of a scene from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’. The Imams kept making the site larger and the farmers kept shrinking it back. The former group claimed dubious ownership to a ‘sacred site’ whilst the latter wished to ensure that their cultivated land was not deemed to be within the sacred site, thereby making it eligible to be sold to obtain compensation. We bounced from rock to rock and great discussions ensued, punctuated by arguments, much gesticulation and shouting matches between the Imams and the farmers. Not only was the atmosphere highly inflammable but all around the site was ablaze with wild flowers and beautiful lush green grass; to be frank, I really enjoyed the morning. I was reminded why I loved being here, nothing is simple, the raw emotion was palpable, honesty and direct speech prevailed and the utter confusion was captivating. Leul noticed me grinning at the farmer’s revolt and advised me to walk away before the Imams thought me smug. I duly obeyed.
The outcome from all this was that the Muslim site turned out to be a bit of a non issue. The sacred boundary was set to an area on which I had never intended to build, the locals agreed that they had no intent to conduct a call to prayer from the mosque as it was too remote for anyone to hear anything and the government agreed to write a letter restricting use to the current level of activity and to state that any further development and use would make the locals liable to pay me compensation for loss of business. Soon after the break though on the land, Leul had discussions that suggested an even greater softening of line. He briefed me that many of the locals thought their leaders were missing opportunities to develop a mosque elsewhere as a result of their intransigence about this site. Earlier I had offered to relocate the mosque and to improve the build. Following further advice from Leul we decided to play it cool and wait for the suggestion to come from the locals. The team was convinced that the mosque would move under the request of the local community; pity really, I was getting quite attached to our little garden feature.
By November other issues started to fall into place. The EPO backed down, the Investment Office reaffirmed their support and started to apply pressure and we had detailed architectural designs that would enable the building contractor to mobilise to the site and start work. We were convinced that all the pegs were starting to fall into the right holes. We were wrong. A final confirmation that the compensation payment could be made to the farmers ended with a realisation that the Worede had no long term planning capacity whatsoever; all they wanted was money and accordingly the compensation payment was raised from $19k to $165k. That really was the final straw. I sat down with Leul and suggested that we should start to work up some of our alternative sites as a primary plan. I made the decision to walk away from Ashange, in spite of its beauty. I had learned a number of lessons, had sound business and design plans that I could transfer and I was no longer prepared to tolerate the misinformation and inefficiency of local government.
The New Plan
In late November I conducted a ‘map recce’. Basically I looked at where Ethiopia needed better accommodation and prioritised my search plan. Axum, the site of the Ark of the Covenant seemed to be an obvious gap in the market and so Leul and I flew north to see if we could identify a good site. Google Earth had thrown up some real potential and so we nipped around in a local taxi carrying out detailed site visits.
A lake near Adwa was perfect. The site had clear water, no farmers to compensate, forward sloping land, beautiful rock with which to build and a good access road; all within 20 minutes from Axum airport. All we had to do was confirm whether the local government would support such a plan. We met with the key Woreda staff and had a positive initial meeting where it was decided that the critical path was the water authority which controlled the lake. Their reaction was comical; we could not build near the lake as we would undoubtedly contaminate the water supply to Axum. No amount of common sense, or examples of reservoirs being used for recreation rather than simple water supply, would dissuade them from that view and so we were forced to retire to fight another day. Perhaps this really was too much of a task, even for me.
Back in Addis we were invited to a function with the Irish Ambassador. I was still hopeful that my team could resurrect the Ashange plan but I was actively looking at sites in Adwa, Bonga and Dessie as alternative locations. My frustrating experiences to date were a major topic of conversation and resulted in a conversation with one of the guests, Ben Siddle. He informed me that the Federal Government was hunting for investors in the Bale Mountains National Park of south central Ethiopia and that, if I was interested, he could put me in touch with the Sustainable Tourism Director in Addis. I thought it was worth a visit and so arranged a meeting for the following day.
The initial meeting was very positive. I had visited Bale on a number of occasions in order to go fly fishing and had really positive thoughts about the area and it’s potential. When I first considered building a lodge I had considered the area but had been put off by the thought of dealing with the Oromo government, with their reputation for ‘sharp’, money driven, practices. This proposal was different; the Bale Mountains National Park was a federally run park and, as such, the people with whom I would have to deal were knowledgeable, aware of the environmental and conservation imperatives and able to make decisions without recourse to local government. After an hour’s meeting it was evident that this offered a real alternative to Ashange as the Ethiopian Sustainable Tourism Alliance (ESTA) had identified three possible sites for concessions and conducted a considerable amount of groundwork in order to attract investors. I headed down to look at the proposed sites the following day in order to conduct a recce and to see if any of the three options filled us with enthusiasm. The first option was the current Dinsho lodge at the north end of the park. I had stayed there before and have described it to friends as ‘indoor camping’. There are no showers, the beds all have lice and the single toilet routinely malfunctions. The site has potential but suffers from the current buildings and layout. We shelved the thought until we had a chance to visit the other sites.
The second site we looked at was the Katcha Campsite in the centre of the park. We met Thadaigh Bogale, a South African Frankfurt Zoological Society scientist, at the village of Rira, 4km north of the proposed site. We headed down to the site in convoy. The place is stunning, standing under the lee of the 3000ft Harenna escarpment and with a 1500m high volcanic plug dominating the views from the forest. The forest surrounding the clearing teems with primates and birds and is also known for large cats, wild dogs and various other rare fauna. The amphibians in the forest had yet to be studied in depth and offer real scientific opportunity and the plant life had yet to be catalogued and offers the possibility of new species being discovered in the depths of the forest. This was an exciting prospect and all within 40 minutes of the Sanetti plateau where the majority of the remaining Ethiopian Wolves, the world’s most rare canid, could be found.
Thadaigh was enthusiastic about encouraging investment in the park as the prospect of good tourist facilities offered opportunities to drive greater environmental protection measures, driven by tourist revenue and interest. He obviously loves the forest, a fact supported by he and Anouska naming their first daughter ‘Harenna’ after that part of the park. After a brief stop in the clearing we headed towards the plateau to see if we could spot some wolves. Max and Yvonne, buoyed by Thadaigh’s assurances that ‘you can see wolves almost every time that you cross the plateau’ were keen to spot this most elusive of carnivores. We were also keen to see the third potential site, this one located at 3800m overlooking the headwaters of the Tegona river.
The wolves never materialised but the Sanetti Plateau site was another stunning place and we left the park with our heads spinning and all options available on the table. We spent the night in the Wabe Shabele hotel, the best in the area but very tired and poorly run. During the night Yvonne called me through to her (and Max’s) room to deal with an overheating boiler, the result being steam pouring out of both hot and cold taps as I released the pressure by turning off the electricity and turning on both taps. Max, sanguine as ever, cheered his mother up by stating that he really wasn’t worried; he would never get out of the room in time if it exploded and, after watching a science programme about exploding boilers he was confident that he would be killed instantly so ‘no problems’.
The next day we considered all the options. Dinsho was the obvious choice; it was at the park entrance, had some facilities already there and could be developed into a good lodge site. The Sanetti site was amazing and, being sat at 14,000ft would be the highest hotel in Africa. The down side was that it would be cold, tough on oxygen for ferenji guests and would be hard to supply with water. Harenna was furthest from Addis, and deepest into the park, but was the best all round choice and a site which we did not want to lose. In the end the decision fell between Dinsho and Harenna; the former easier to develop but less interesting; the latter further from the capital but absolutely stunning. In the end we decided that we wanted both sites but that we could live with losing Dinsho more than we could cope with losing Harenna. The first lodge had to be Harenna; we would pitch for Dinsho as a second option.
On return to Addis Ababa I met with ESTA and stated our interest in developing a site in Bale. I immediately followed the meeting with a formal letter of intent and a request to proceed with detailed site survey and environmental impact assessments. At this time we were in competition with Omar Bagersh, the owner of numerous businesses in Ethiopia including coffee growing and, more relevantly, Bishangari Lodge on Lake Langano. ESTA would not commit to our bid until Omar had been given the opportunity to bid against us. We felt like poor relations, especially as Omar had not visited the sites and had no immediate intention to do so. I laid my cards firmly on the table. We had business plans in place, had finances lined up, were agile and ready to move. If EWCA wanted sound professional investment, in a reasonable timeframe, then we were the team to deliver it. They had a month to respond positively or we would walk away from Ethiopia and go back to the UK.
The initial response was positive. The ESTA team clearly wanted an investor but they were wary of an untried package and wanted to give Bishangari lodge the option. We suggested a meeting to thrash the issue through and, in the company of Ato Bedilu Shegen, the head of ESTA, and Brad Weiss (Mr Br“advice”) we met with Omar to thrash out the issues. I had expected to dislike the guy but he was charming and after an hour or so of discussions he stated that he really didn’t have the time to commit to a new lodge in Bale but would like to collaborate on a project to encourage more tourism to the south of Ethiopia. The route was now clear for our bid and the optimism returned.
Over the following 4 months we were asked to prepare an environmental Impact assessment, present business plans and provide designs and site survey details. This all went smoothly until, post EIA, we heard that the Ethiopian Roads Authority, without permission, had started extracting rock from the proposed site without permission. Initially I was livid. We had come so close, conducted extensive surveys at considerable cost and the bloody Ethiopian government could destroy our plans with one hand whilst supporting us with the other. What a mad and disorganised country.
In the end I was determined not to over-react. I spoke to EWCA and ESTA and instructed anyone who would listen to get the digging stopped immediately. EWCA was clearly embarrassed by the situation and my assessment was that this ‘unfortunate incident’ could add power to our case as the Government itself clearly had no environmental credentials whatsoever. I also phoned the Frankfurt Zoological Society and the US Peace Corps volunteers so that they could act as my spies on the ground and after a couple of days we had word that the quarrying work had been ordered to stop. I immediately planned a trip, in my ‘new’ 1974 series 1 FJ Landcruiser, to look at the damage.
The site remained stunningly beautiful but the eyesore of the quarry had undoubtedly become bigger and the roads authority had all but blocked the river through pushing topsoil over the side of the quarry in their desire to get to the bedrock. To me it appeared that the damage was repairable with some judicious landscaping but I was concerned that the quarry was now too deep for us to place the services within it as there was insufficient depth below the building site to locate sewerage and conduit facilities. The damage had also undoubtedly increased the landscaping costs but I assessed that we could cope with the additional cost. We immediately got a team together to resurvey the quarry and, theodolite in hand, re-measured the quarry base relative to the surrounds and the river. There remained sufficient depth to put the service area inside the quarry and so we made the decision to crack on with the plan without altering the site layout.
At the same time as this was happening we were getting very close to signing a formal lease and concession agreement. Multiple versions of the documentation had been submitted to the EWCA experts and, finally, we were starting to get positive noises from the bureaucrats who seemed to consider our documentation as an excellent template for future government concessions, not simply our own deal. Bedilu, from ESTA, undoubtedly acted as the key broker in this deal and it is hard to see how we would have navigated the mass of bureaucracy without his firm hand on the tiller. In the end, after some final tweaks to the documents I was summoned to a formal signing ceremony at the Authority where, in the presence of the National Press, we signed 10 original copies of the agreement, every page of a 38 page document, 380 signatures and 380 Jember Ltd stamps! It took some time and was not a great spectator spectacle.
I was elated. We had achieved the impossible in a very short space of time and the path was now clear to get on with the build. We had a small gathering at a local hotel to celebrate the success and we placed a press release in the local papers. I immediately planned a trip back to the UK to see my family, including Bill (on leave from Liberia) and, of course, visit the 2012 Olympics. I had done my bit and could afford some time at home whilst the team put together the mobilisation plan.
I had eight weeks in the UK and was like a cat on a hot tin roof. I couldn’t wait to get back to Ethiopia but had family commitments at home and so felt torn between the two places. Yvonne needed reassurance that everything would be alright with Max as he was off to University on September 23rd to study economics at UEA Norwich. She appeared to be under real stress and I didn’t help much as she just annoyed me by worrying about details that were of no concern to me. We argued and it was not a good leave. The boys worried that we had serious marital problems and, frankly, it was pretty torrid. I didn’t want to be unsupportive, in fact I wanted the opposite, but Yvonne wouldn’t relinquish any of the planning details related to Max and I became increasingly annoyed and argumentative. We rowed about Max’s investments, his care packages, issues to do with his new buy-to-let house and just about every other detail. The fact that we were living with in-laws did not help.
As an attempt to find a minor investor who would share some of the financial burden and increase the confidence of our main backer, African Wildlife Capital, I booked a trip to Dublin to meet with one of Philip’s contacts who appeared keen to take a punt on something a little different. I hoped that it would also provide a respite from family feuds and that we could all have a break together. It proved to be a great fun trip but entirely futile in terms of business. Philip’s contact was a dead loss; either he had changed his mind or Philip had simply misjudged the situation and not done his preparation work; either way we did not get to meet the potential investor and I was pretty livid. We did get to meet Irish friends for dinner and we also tested out a flight with a budget airline, Ryan Air, wheelchair, medical items and all; they were great and we learned a lot about short haul flights for Max so all was not lost.
The Olympics were also fun but the constant sport, whilst enjoyable to watch, only served to heighten my feeling that things were slipping behind my back in Ethiopia. I was pleased to get on the plane back on the 11th of August but, on my return to Ethiopia I immediately felt more alone and homesick than I had ever done before. Yvonne and I were able to speak to each other on Skype in a way that we had not been able to face to face and family pressures calmed down considerably. I really missed her and wanted her in Ethiopia. ‘Can’t live with her and can’t live without her’ sprang to mind.
The first week back consisted of running around town announcing my return to various interested parties. I was briefed on updated plans, had good news about local building techniques which would reduce the cost of the service area, more good news about the ability to extract 30 – 35kw of constant power from a micro hydro plant in the river and we had some fascinating discussions about kitchen process flows and facilities. We also registered for tax in order to start offsetting costs against future income. Whilst this was going on, we set up and furnished a Jember office in a spanking new building and reconciled the bills and available money. The ‘wolf near the door’ had now become the registration of the loan capital, from Jember Ltd in the UK, forward to the Ethiopian branch in order that we could legally extract interest and capital repayments in the future; that first meant registering the company’s capital before applying for a permit to bring in more money from abroad. Seed funds were getting short and we had to resolve this issue before I would commit any more money into Ethiopia. It had taken all of 4 days before we were back into Ethiopian bureaucracy; déjà vue set in.
The registration of capital proved to be very simple. Having written out a long list of items that belonged to the company, one which included site surveys, design specs, environmental impact assessments and various bits and pieces of company property, all to the value of $87,000, I marched off to the bank to register. ‘Thanks for the work but we just need the original deposit slip for $100k and the application letter’. Damn, nugatory work at a time when I was frazzled. Our assumption about the complexity of the bureaucracy had been proved entirely wrong and the process was simple and smooth.
There followed, however, a discussion about how to register our loan, with 8% interest liability, into the country. We received a somewhat negative response from the desk officer to the effect that the National Bank would be unlikely to accept a bank loan from abroad of 8%, it would most likely only countenance a 5 or 6% interest rate. This reaction was unexpected but I had become far more sanguine about such comments and, having had a short discussion explaining the export earning potential of high quality lodges for Ethiopia, and the inability to borrow at that rate internally, I left the bank wondering whether we had finally hit that ‘show stopper’ moment in the project. If I couldn’t repay my loan capital and interest then I wouldn’t have the funds to complete the build and set up. For the first time I woke up one morning and thought to myself that, if I ever make money from this hair-brained scheme, I will have earned every penny of it in perseverance, lost sleep and sheer bloody mindedness.
I refused to get depressed about the issue. My new accountant, Rakeb, suggested that I talk to one of her friends who was a manager at the United Bank. Perhaps we could establish a cheaper contingency plan to offset the risk that the NBE would not support our external loan. Philip had produced some excellent cash flow predictions which clearly highlighted the potential earnings from the business along with the tax and costs that would be incurred. I took the details and produced a covering letter to our application which basically stated that the business would earn around $650 - $700k per year in foreign revenue; in short pure export earnings for Ethiopia.
Before submitting the case to the NBE I decided to follow Rakeb’s advice and to take a trip around the local banks; all highly amusing. The United Bank was massively friendly and helpful. Rakeb’s friend offered me a ‘super deal’ where I could bring my foreign capital into the country, place it in a dollar holding account and then borrow in Birr against the sum for a mere 9.5%. My hoots of laughter were somewhat perplexing to the manager until I explained to him that he had basically offered me a 17.5% deal as I would still be paying 8% on my dollar capital whilst he charged me for his Birr. I didn’t take the deal. At the Awash Bank I was offered a short term, highly volatile, overdraft facility at 12.5%; I didn’t fancy that deal much either. The Zemen Bank offered me 15% but suggested that I might be able to get 8.5 or 9% if I could prove that I would bring in $1M per year. Finally I hit the Development Bank of Ethiopia where I had a chat with their senior loans officer, Ato Tsegay Genet. He explained that the bank could only loan to export businesses, and even then only to government priority areas such as agricultural production for export or export related manufacturing. I went through the same old arguments about foreign tourism being export, around 70% of the company’s $1 Million turnover would be staying in Ethiopia every year, that reinvestment on further lodges would reduce the extraction of capital yet further and that this made foreign earnings sense to Ethiopia, no matter how much capital or income I extracted abroad. A chink of recognition appeared in the corner of his eye. I left with the promise that he would look into a loan of 8.5% to Jember Ltd in Ethiopia but that he advised me to find someone senior in the NBE to whom to put the same case. He seemed convinced that the case was strong and that my 8% loan from African Wildlife Capital would be approved if we found the correct conduit through which to state our case.
Again I turned to Bedilu. Having rewritten the case over the weekend I went to the ESTA offices and presented it to Bedilu with the request that he finds a senior contact in the NBE to whom we could explain the case and demonstrate the fact that this was a collaborative approach with the Ethiopian Government. It became his priority but the government was somewhat distracted by bigger issues; the previous Monday the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, had died. It really wasn’t getting any easier.
For a Prime Minister whom many believed to be unpopular the outpouring of grief and sorrow was spectacular. When the body arrived back from Brussels, inevitably in the middle of a massive thunderstorm, the streets were lined with mourners and every bar with a television set was packed. The body lay in state for 10 days and mourners from across the country came into the city to pay their respects at the palace. The fact that the Ethiopian Pope had died a few days earlier added to the chaos and government became next to useless; nobody noticed the difference.
Amongst all this I was still looking for a sound individual to champion my case and Bedilu came up with a name in the loans registration department. Zeleka Haile was a personable, middle aged, bank clerk who had neither the power nor the inclination to make a decision. She instantly sloped her shoulders and decided to pass me upwards to the Deputy Director of Foreign Reserves, Ato Alem. Zeleka I could cope with; she was useless and I suspect she knew it. Alem was obstructive and arrogant. Not only did he fail to listen to my case he took my business card and pointedly tossed it into a group of other meaningless papers. I left before my urge to rip his arms off and beat him to death with the soggy ends overcame me.
The following day I decided to take the risky approach of writing an explanatory covering letter and submitting my paperwork without a champion. I was told that it might take up to 4 weeks for the process to be completed and this fear was confirmed when, two days later I phoned the desk officer to be told that the file was still on his desk. It had not even started the process. I had a furious rant to my accountant about her bloody frustrating country and decided that the time was right to bring in the diplomatic big guns.
I arranged a meeting with the British Ambassador and took along Nick Crane, the owner and manager of the Simien Lodge. Nick had suffered the same frustrating process as I was experiencing, only four years earlier. He now lives in France and manages his successful lodge from afar. Under the current circumstances the idea had a certain appeal. The meeting was arranged for a week later and Nick and I met for a pre-meeting lunch and a mutual whinging session. The discussion was fascinating and ranged from the inaccuracy of Ethiopian Government tourism figures, to their lack of national marketing, to the rise in corruption. I also discussed some of the details of setting up the lodge; tax regimes, training, occupancy rates and much more. Whilst he was a little jaded he fully supported the plan and welcomed assistance in marketing Ethiopia as a high quality destination. He was convinced that Bale would be a success.
The subsequent meeting with the Ambassador revealed that Greg Dorey was entirely on side and willing to assist. He understood the broader revenue generation activity that would come from professional marketing and high quality service and he was interested in Nick’s experiences of low level corruption, lack of service and financial management bureaucracy. Sadly his Department of Trade and Industry sidekick, Dessaleyn, informed me that he could arrange a meeting with the National Bank Governor at a cost of £750; all due to the need to make the DTI missions abroad ‘self-financing’. Frankly, if I had thought that a meeting would make any difference then I would have paid, but I had no confidence that such a meeting would have any effect whatsoever. I didn’t take up his offer but stored away the option for later battles. My first forays into the higher echelons of the National Bank would be solo.
Some good news followed, the National Bank had accepted my capitalisation and issued permission for me to take out dividends and post-tax profits. However, I still had to chase up the loan permit application (every other day). Frustration turned to anger and in the end I decided to identify the bank hierarchy and approach each rung of the ladder in turn. At the bottom of the tree was Endewalk, a slightly confused young chap who couldn’t understand why I was pestering him. His boss was the aforementioned Zeleka Haile, a diffident and quiet woman who was patently out of her depth. Above her was Ato Alem, the guy I could have killed two weeks earlier. Routinely he was not in the office but on the third visit I ambushed him. Unlike our first meeting he seemed a little more sympathetic but hid behind the process that was currently unfolding to set a new policy. My exhortations to continue making decisions against the current policy, whilst the new policy was being decided, seemed odd to him; he would rather sit on all the applications until things were resolved; most helpful. On exit I passed the Governors’ offices and decided to barge in ‘on spec’. The one occupant in the four offices was a secretary who informed me that the chap I needed to talk with was Ato Yohannes, Vice Governor responsible for foreign business. After parking myself in his outer office I first discovered that he would not be back until after Meskel a week later, and then that the architect of this madness was, in fact, Yohannes’ deputy, Ato Elias. I was pointed to his office downstairs. Elias was, of course, out, but the next day I managed to find and speak to him. To describe him as a fat useless knacker would be generous. He could not have been less interested and after three minutes simply turned towards his computer and dismissed me. I continued to explain why he needed to take note but the shutters were up and I was getting nowhere. The bank was in the process of setting a maximum rate of 5% on foreign loans (actually LIBOR + 3%, an even more idiotic benchmark) and no amount of common sense or logic was going to change things. I would be faced with a gross 3% delta between the actual loan interest I had to pay and the interest that the government was prepared to let me extract. I nipped back upstairs, took my file off Zeleka’s desk and stormed back downstairs. This time Elias reacted; sadly his reaction was to be angry that I had been rude and he told me that I could not act this way in his country. I felt like snotting the arrogant bastard and told him that he had little need to worry about foreigners getting angry in the future as his ridiculous policy would mean that none would be coming in to the country to invest in the first place. I left in a foul mood and went upstairs to apologise to a massively nonplussed Zeleka Haile.
This time I really felt like leaving Ethiopia. How could their systems be so poor and how could decisions rest in the hands of such a poor bunch of ‘old- school incumbents. I needed time to think and I needed to refocus on what I was trying to achieve. The first person to offer sound advice was Gary Campbell, after I unloaded in his office. His line was to say, ‘What did you expect? You know that logic plays no part in decision making here so don’t let it fluster you’. He followed that up by questioning why I was trying to play everything with a straight bat when I had been taking risk all the way through this process. It will sort itself in time just crack on and sort the paperwork afterwards. It sounded far more like the Levene modus operandus but another visit to Ato Alem proved that this would have been foolhardy as I would not be able to retrospectively register the loan money if I brought it in before the permit was issued; I dismissed the idea. The next port of call was Bedilu to solicit the help of the Minister and Director EWCA. Bedilu had helped me get into this mess so surely he had a responsibility to get the Bank to help me out. Bedilu was far too much of a politician to take the aggressive line that I wanted and, again, I left disappointed that nobody really cared about my business nor did they really care about Ethiopian development provided that their own pay cheque kept being cashed.
Finally, near defeat, I briefed Philip and my father. What should we do; get out, keep up the political front or suck up the additional costs and move on. Philip wrote a missive supporting the political line, advocating playing ‘hard ball’ and suggested setting a time frame for getting out. I was not comfortable backing myself into that sort of corner. My father was more pragmatic; he did the maths, worked out that the additional cost of the interest repayments was around 0.9% of projected turnover and suggested that we just suck it up and ignore any attempt to change the bank policy. It was like a blinding flash of logic to me. Why had I been bothered, I was not here to improve Ethiopian Banking but to set up and run a profitable business. The maths still added up, I was letting my ego get in the way of common sense and I was getting angry with idiots because they wouldn’t, or couldn’t see my line. Frankly, who cared, let’s just adjust the interest rate down to 5%, forget the bank and move on. The three of us agreed the line and decided that any approaches to the National Bank should be by way of ‘post engagement report’ through senior officials. To that end Philip took the case to the Ethiopian Ambassador in Dublin and I looked to revise the paperwork and let African Wildlife Capital know my line. With luck and a fair following wind we might yet make this happen.
Alongside this financial activity I was continuing to develop a design for the lodge and to deal with the technical decisions regarding equipment, power delivery and how to balance limited electrical supply with high hot water requirement. We had meetings about the micro hydro plant, others about heat pump technology and I looked at wood burning stoves to heat hot water. In amongst all of it Gary took me off guard and asked for some assistance in winning some business for CPMS. He wanted me to pitch to NYOTA Minerals for a job in rehousing around 1,000 people from a future gold mine site. I really couldn’t do anything about Bale until I had money in Ethiopia so I agreed and after a couple of meetings we secured a tender to conduct a construction recce which would inform NYOTA of the likely costs, options and implications of their decisions. $18k to Gary and $7000 cash in hand to me for a 10 day task; at least I knew that I could survive in Addis without Bale Mountain Lodge. Perhaps I should resort to being Gary’s marketing manager.
On the 23rd September Max started his Economics course at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Words cannot express just how proud and impressed I was that week. I was the father of a man who has faced death and adversity and come out of it strong, confident and capable. I had my fatherly worries of course but somehow his departure to University signalled a new dawn in our lives and rejuvenated me.
After the farce of the National Bank of Ethiopia, and my email discussions with Philip and my father, I decided to take dad’s advice and move on. On the morning of Friday 28th September 2012 I put in my 5% ‘revised’ loan application to the bank, admittedly with a bit of harrumph at the desk officer as I couldn’t hand it in without some form of grumpiness. I was told that it would take around a week and so I headed off to the NYOTA mine site with the mind-set that the plan was back on and that I may as well commit myself to the NYOTA task whilst I had a week’s hiatus.
At Tulu Kapi I had an unexpected bonus, above and beyond the $7,000 earnings, in that we investigated the cost and details of all the local building methods in the area. This task had direct relevance to the Bale Mountain Lodge site as I was able to look at costs and options for our construction. Chicka, local construction of Eucalyptus and mud, turned out to be simpler, more robust and cheaper than the team had thought and it became a real option for guest rooms at the lodge. We visited local worreda offices to discuss options and I had flashbacks from government meetings over the Ashange project. I knocked out a detailed 20 page report with options, costs, risks and recommendations and felt pretty good about the fact that there would always be work for me in Addis if things turned sour.
On my return to Addis I immediately went to the bank to pick up the loan permit and found out that the desk officer had taken the day off. Normality resumed. I was informed that all was in order and so I had a relaxed weekend and picked up the permit from the bank on Monday. My father, after some identity checks, then transferred $345,000 into my Ethiopian account and whilst the transfer was happening I went to the Harenna Forest to talk to the Rira Village elders, the Woreda executives, to identify the precise options for the micro-hydro plant and to map out the co-ordinates of the land on the ground. We had an excellent trip and had great support from the village and from the Frankfurt Zoological Society, with whom I camped on the Tuesday night. As an aside, we confirmed that there are definitely lions near to the lodge site, that the Giant Forest Hog is a magnificent beast and that the Harenna Forest is a fabulous bird watching area, having met with a bunch of researchers from Utah University who were netting, tagging and releasing birds as part of a health check and species investigation.
Things then moved on apace. The first tranche money transfer had taken place whilst I was in Harenna; all my own money, which definitely sobered me up. In late October I spent 1.3 million Ethiopian Birr in one day on a new 30 quintal (3.5 Tonne) Hyundai truck, various bits of construction equipment listed as ‘pump, mixer and vibrators’ (I couldn’t help thinking that would cheer up Yvonne when she gets out here) a 15KVa generator and various building materials. Zerihun, the MAFER site manager for the Bale Mountain Lodge Project, hired a house in Goba to support the build team and we sent the truck around town collecting equipment for the house and picking up building materials for the first phase of construction. We were on the move and I decided to take on Rakeb, my part time accountant, as my first full time employee. It really started to feel as though we were going to achieve the aim and build a high class forest lodge in a beautiful spot in an Ethiopian National Park. I was genuinely excited.
The build started in earnest in Late October. The team erected a site office and set up the site security. Labourers were employed from Rira and land clearances started on the spots where we had formally located the buildings. The priority was to build on site accommodation for the management team in order to negate the need for a daily shuttle to and from Goba, some 65km and 90 minutes away. To that end the phase one priority became the service quarter blocks and digging started immediately in preparation for the stone and cement footings of the first block. In celebration of the start we slaughtered 6 goats and had a BBQ on site with the locals from the village. Thankfully I was not asked to participate in the killing of the goats although I had feared that I would be included for some sort of ceremonial reason.
At this stage all was running smoothly. The site was established, the major equipment had been purchased as it was deemed cheaper in the long run to buy most of the capital items rather than opt for a daily rent, and we had money in the bank and building materials in the Goba compound. The next major outlay was the hire of an excavator to complete the bulk excavations of the main lodge.
It was now October 2012. The excavator contract was signed and the equipment set off from Addis on the back of a low loader. Morale was high and, in spite of the sobering costs, the project was on the up and we were definitely on our way. I had briefed Massimo Maroli, our building contractor that our primary focus was to get the project completed on time. After that cost was the issue and finally, if possible, we were to achieve the best quality. The trade off, quality for time, was essential as I was acutely aware that the business was earning no money until we had an operational lodge and paying guests. All that said, we actually achieved excellent quality, even with the time constraints and costs limits I placed on the Project Manager and contractor.
At this time Gary was a great sounding board. For starters he was realistic about project costs. My optimistic estimates were constantly challenged and I entered the main build phase of the project with a clear idea about the likely cost of the finished lodge. Starting the project with realistic aspirations was exceptionally important and helped in the end to ensure that the build was a success. Gary was also essential in sorting the wheat from the chaff. It is easy to get bogged down in the ideas and forget to deliver the project. We had to accept risk, not dwell on the issues we couldn’t immediately solve, and we had to keep the tempo and momentum high. Gary kept reminding me and was a good friend of the project as a result. Additionally Gary’s staff , primarily his junior PM Yekenalem, got our ‘ducks in a row’ in terms of a Bill of Quantity and initial project GANTT chart, sequencing our initial activities and creating an understanding of the ‘critical path’. They say that one should always know and acknowledge your own weaknesses. My greatest weakness is a loathing for detail – I can do it but it bores the pants off me. I need detailed planners around me but if I have them I am happy to make decisions and drive things along. Yekenalem was excellent on detail and was worth his weight in gold.
On site things were moving forward, albeit at a snail’s pace. I took the decision, somewhat counter-intuitively, to concentrate on two of the staff admin blocks as the first build priority. My reasoning for this was that the key project staff were having to travel 65km, morning and night, over the highest all weather road in Africa (4120m asl) just to work on the project. We had to get the staff living on site if we were to see some progress. We were losing 4 hours production a day and the travelling time was wearing on both staff and vehicles. Initially there was some ‘push back’ from the guys on site, who were trying to concentrate on guest facilities, but they soon accepted the plan and the early decision paid dividends in the long run.
At this time we had our first ‘industrial relations’ issue. At the time a daily labourer on a construction site in Addis Ababa was being paid 30 Ethiopian Birr a day (around $1.50). We took an early decision that we would pay 45 birr a day for the same task as we were keen to be seen as responsible investors rather than risk any suggestion that we were exploitational. We were working through the various project issues when a local delegation of self-nominated shop stewards approached the site office and informed Zerihun Negash, the contractor’s site manager, that the staff would not work for less than 100 birr a day. We were less than a month into the project and the labourers intended to strike! I was called and informed and I remember laughing. Staff costs were not our main cost driver but a 100% cost increase is a shock that no project needs. I was due to go to Addis early the following morning, was away from the site and was not planning to come back to the site beforehand; we had to think fast.
Yvonne was with me and was not amused. I remember her telling me that we had made a big mistake and that the project would never get finished let alone operational. I walked away and had a think. My solution was a little ‘ballsy’ but we couldn’t be seen to cave in at our first sniff of a challenge. I decided to let the staff strike. I was not convinced that the leaders of the rebellion carried the opinion of the entire workforce and so decided to ‘press to test’ the situation. I told Yekenalem to tell the staff we would pay no more than 50 birr a man per day. If they wanted to leave early that afternoon then that would be fine but I wanted them back the following morning at 8 am. Yekenalem was dubious about the tactic but I told him to hold his nerve and to take the names of anyone who arrived in the morning so that we knew who the loyal, realistic guys were. I decided to leave to give the impression of calm and disinterest but I asked Yekanalem to find some phone signal (coverage was at best patchy) and to tell me how many labourers we had at 9am, 10am and the 11am. We needed 70 – 80 labourers a day but I instructed the management team that, for the first day, once we had 30 labourers they were to turn all others away and say we had enough. At 9am we had 8 guys; at 10 am we had 18; by 11am we had our 30. We turned everyone else away. By close of play we had a delegation of village elders on site apologising for the disturbance and asking for us to employ more workers. I breathed a huge sigh of relief – my bluff had worked.
At this stage we were starting to consider the operational lodge. We needed to look at finishing materials and lodge equipment. It was November but I was concerned that, from experience, the wheels of the Ethiopian bureaucracy move exceedingly slowly. Massimo recommended using the ‘tried and tested’ logistic supply route through Rome; we agreed.
At this point it would be easy to launch into a long chronological list of issues that plagued us during the build but, suffice to say, this was not a straightforward build. A few examples of the types of problems we faced will be enough. Firstly, we were entitled to a tax free vehicle to support the build. We had the funds and so submitted the paperwork over the course of 4 or 5 meeting at the Investment office. We were told that our entitlement was valid but that we would have to demonstrate 30% of project completion. That condition was not laid down in the regulations nor was it specified what it meant. My enquiries fell on deaf ears. I couldn’t establish what 30% meant and so offered some options – 30% of project funds committed? Foundations laid for the buildings? The only response I received was that they would send an assessor in due course. In the end it took 6 months to obtain the import authority and then a further 2 months to take receipt of our tax free Toyota Hilux pick up. By that time we had hired vehicles for 9 months, incurred more cost in hire vehicles than we had saved in tax on the car and we only had 3 – 4 months of the build left! I love Ethiopia.
The aforementioned order of materials from Rome also became a saga. I must take some of the blame. My exhortations, as an Army Logistician, to get the order in place early, fell upon deaf ears and I didn’t kick the issue hard enough, early enough. Massimo seemed very relaxed and had experience so I let it drift a little before Christmas 2012. After Christmas we sent Yvonne to Rome to complete the order, which included all our finishing materials and our inventory items. I should have gone myself but part of my thinking was that I wanted Yvonne to be fully engaged in the project and she had been absent with our son in the UK for much of the planning and build period to date. I thought that by sending her alone I could show faith in her judgement and I could also maintain pressure on the project in Addis. Yvonne enjoyed Rome, she had never been before, and she made good decisions but I will return to this issue later.
Yvonne returned in late Feb, the order was agreed and we ended up with enough to fill four containers of equipment, two with building materials such as sinks, toilets, roofing waterproofing, tiles, wood burning stoves and all electrical items, the other two containers full of kitchen equipment, crockery, cutlery, glassware, bed linen and all other ‘capital’ inventory items. We had already established that we were permitted to import all these items tax free as part of our investment and so were confident that the shipping and arrival would be straightforward. We completed full lists quantifying each planned container, its purpose and its value, all broken down to the individual items. Then the saga began.
We took our detailed lists to the Ethiopian Customs and Revenue Authority for the necessary ‘routine’ stamps. For this we needed to produce all our project documents including UK company registrations, Power of Attorney, Ethiopian registrations, Investment Licence and my inside leg measurement (well perhaps not….). Each time for the first 8 visits we were sent away again, either because the correct official was not there, not interested or because we needed an additional stamp or document. Finally we managed to get them to look at our order but in doing so the customs officials were confused. Why were we moving scientific equipment in support of a hotel build? I was summoned to explain. The issue was a food probe – standard kitchen equipment to confirm that food is cooked by measuring the internal temperature. No amount of explanation resulted in any forward movement. I was sent to ‘the Boss’, Ato Samuel. He refused to talk to me but instead took my investment licence and declared it illegal, scribbling on it and then ripping it in two. I was aghast; this minor customs official had just ripped up my most important investment document. It transpired that he didn’t understand that the National Parks Authority had the right to issue leases to investors and, instead of investigating or listening, he simply felt he had the right to destroy the document and declare it invalid. I was livid and had to walk away to avoid the rising, by now rather familiar, sensation that I wanted to beat the life out of the idiot.
The investment licence took two weeks to replace with many embarrassed officials helping us out along the way. I returned to the customs and revenue office with a lawyer but was banned from entering Ato Samuel’s office with him. Comically my driver was allowed in and so I sent him in in order to hear what was said. Apparently, free from foreign ears, Samuel was duly bollocked and my initial paperwork was authorised. By this time it was Jun and so we placed the formal order in Rome and expected the containers to be dispatched forthwith. We hadn’t accounted for the Italian summer. We managed to get one container of building materials on route but in August Italy closes down! Nothing would leave Italy until mid September. You couldn’t write this stuff, nobody would believe it.
Meanwhile the build was moving on apace. The wooden buildings were starting to take shape and the groundworks for the main lodge were under way. I was trying to leave as much to the contractor as possible and not change things or get too much in the way. We had a few minor incidents but nothing that demanded my engagement beyond the odd decision here and there. We also had a couple of thefts, both of which were highly amusing. The first was the theft of some mattresses. I say ‘mattresses’ but the reality was that they were old USAID flour sacks stitched together and filled with straw. 3 or 4 went missing through a slashed plastic sheeted window. The local village was angry and upset as it affected their reputation. The local Imam was summoned and a council of war convened at the lodge site. All the labourers were lined up and each in turn had to face the Imam, kiss a bullet whilst holding an AK47 and swear on the Qur’an that they were not the thief. Everyone bar one did so – the mattresses were recovered later and the thief removed to the local jail.
The other theft was funnier still. We were pouring concrete into the main lodge foundations at the time and, as a result were using a significant amount of steel reinforcement bars. When the bars were cut and shaped for the build we were left with a significant amount of ‘off cut’ ends, each half a metre to a metre in length. We needed to dispose of them but in the meantime were creating a small pile of scrap metal. One morning I was informed that we had had a theft. I was initially angry but then found out that one of our Addis labourers had decided to steal some of our scrap rebar offcuts. I laughed, of all the things to take he managed to remove something I was trying to get rid of. Early that morning he had filled a sack with metal and our site guards caught him struggling through the forest with 80kg of scrap metal on his back, sweating and panting. He was arrested and removed - had he asked I’d have given him the scrap!
All in all the build went pretty smoothly. In spite of being 65km from the nearest town, itself a ‘one horse town’ (and the horse was lame), we were able to keep up momentum and ensure things kept moving. We had issues with the movement of plate glass over the long dirt road over the plateau, some issues in the construction of our Micro-hydro power plant and difficulties in obtaining stone and straw bales. One of our old cars was rolled on Christmas Day 2012 which could have been far worse as it contained Yekanelem, our PM rep on site, but even that proved to be a minor blip.
By spring 2013 the rains started – early. I have since learned about the Indian Ocean Dipole, an ocean effect which mirrors the El Nino in the Pacific and appears on a roughly 7 year cycle. It was just our luck to build during one of those years. It rained and rained from May onwards and when I say rain I don’t mean a bit of drizzle, it poured. Thankfully Ethiopians like rain, they see it as the giver of life rather than something to be avoided. Work was slowed but on the whole it continued pretty much on schedule. The guys proved to be amphibious.
By September we were looking at the end and considering the opening. We had started marketing and started taking bookings, albeit with some trepidation. Italy had reopened and so our 3 remaining containers were finally dispatched for the 6 week journey to Djibouti. We expected the remaining build materials, and all our inventory, on site by mid-late October. We had complete ‘bills of lading’ listing the contents of the containers, had cleared one container already and so went to confirm our remaining import documentation, confident that the groundwork we had laid back in June would mean that the process would be reasonably pain free. We were wrong. The Ethiopian Investment proclamation stated that we were entitled to import building materials and capital items free of duty. ‘Capital items’ were described in the law as ‘items required to render a service’.
When we tried to clear the items for import we were informed that we owed duty on the majority of our inventory items. This duty ranged from 15% to 200% dependent upon the item in question. I wasn’t angry, just confused. I was also confident that sense would prevail provided I explained the situation to the correct official. A further 15 meetings later and I was proved wrong. The Ethiopian Customs and Revenue Authority (ERCA) reclassified our capital items as ‘consumables’ and demanded tax. It didn’t matter how much I explained or ranted, a steel knife was a consumable not a capital item. We managed to get some concessions (5 litre and 1 litre plastic storage containers were fine, 3 litre containers were not – eh?) but we were asked to pay 860,000 birr in tax, equivalent to $US 41,000. I was livid, again.
One of our meetings was comical. I managed to get an appointment with the head of the foreign investment branch of ERCA, Ato Yohannes. Yvonne and I set up the meeting and were told that he would be available in 40 minutes time after he had the chance to have a quick lunch. I was delighted that he was prepared to meet us so quickly and drove to the office directly, accompanied by our lawyer Nardos Lemma. Yohannes was an important man and so had an office on the 6th floor of the building. The lifts were not working, it nearly killed Nardos who was 70 years old. When we arrived in the office I stated that we had an appointment and that Ato Yohannes was expecting us. The office manager said that Ato Yohannes was unavailable and would not be back that afternoon. When I told them that I had only made the appointment 40 minutes earlier I got the Ethiopian wave, a flat hand flicking me towards the door in an overt display of disinterest. To say that I was frustrated and at the end of my tether is a slight understatement and what I did next surprised myself as much as the rest of office. In response to a third ‘go away’ I refused; I took my briefcase, placed it on the ground in the middle of the open plan office and used it as a pillow as I laid down. I was told to get up and leave and responded by closing my eyes and stating that I was not leaving until ‘that bastard came back to his desk!’. If there is one thing Ethiopians hate most it is embarrassing behaviour. Yvonne was standing over me telling me that I was making a scene; Nardos was laughing but supportive. It took Ato Yohannes five minutes to get back, apologise and usher us into his office.
I needn’t have bothered. Yohannes said all the right things, was sympathetic and gave me a senior contact in the Investment Office. It was all in vain. The Investment Office passed the buck to Customs; customs said they couldn’t act without authority from the Investment Office and ultimately, in spite of a clear appeal letter and a further 7 or 8 meetings, I was told that my containers had been in Djibouti for 6 weeks, I obviously didn’t need them and so they would be confiscated if I didn’t pay the tax. Thieving, lying bastards, but I couldn’t win so paid up.
The containers arrived in November, by which time our ‘soft opening’ had happened. We had cobbled together pots and pans, crockery, cutlery and bed linen from home and in the third week of October opened Jackal House for business. James N’dungu, our Kenyan naturalist, arrived and was excellent. Our initial staff members had been recruited and were gradually working out what the mad ferenjis (foreigners) wanted of them. We learnt lessons from the very start. We celebrated our first guests with Champagne and were slightly surprised when their English tour guide took us to one side and asked whether the champagne was included in the price. We had offered the first group of 6 guests a free stay and had charged nothing – their Ethiopian Tour Company had charged them $200 per person per night; $3600 total. We had a lot to learn about sharp practice.
We unloaded the containers in the MAFER contractor’s yard and it was like Christmas. Bed linen, inventory and final finishing materials were all there and shipped to the lodge as quickly as we could load them onto the truck. We also had incredible amounts of ‘stuff’ that we had not ordered and didn’t want. Chafing dishes coming out of our ying yang, three times the glasses we needed, more crockery than we could store and all sorts of gadgets and equipment that we found hard to identify let alone use. My assumption is that the company was in a rush in Italy after the summer and so, instead of filing our individual order, had loaded what they had of our order plus a generic list of kitchen and inventory items that they were used to supplying others. What they shipped to us was fine but it probably cost us 50% more than it should have done for items we neither wanted nor needed. Whether my presence in Rome in February would have changed anything is difficult to know but I have a nagging feeling that I would have dotted I’s and crossed T’s, pushed the process harder and avoided the excess that we eventually received.
In December the Main Lodge neared completion. Stress levels were off the scale. The finishing of the main lodge was coming along but seemed to be taking ages. The place looked a bit like the Somme in 1916 as the landscaping was not complete and the grass, frankly, was not going to grow until the next rains. One of my clear regrets was that I severed links with Gary Campbell and CPMS in November as money was too tight and the additional link in the chain seemed to add complexity rather than reduce it. In retrospect I could have handled it much better. Gary had been instrumental in the success of the project and in my stressed state I ditched his company. Worse was that, after arguing with Gary, I didn’t invite him and Jill to the formal opening. Pretty shoddy really and one of my great regrets in life.
We were due to be full at Christmas and New Year and so had invited my parents out to assist and add a couple of pairs of hands. The intent was that they would be able to host and allow Yvonne and me to run around behind the scenes. As it turned out, to compound the stress, our new Chef, an Italian lady of 55, resigned after only 10 days. The place was too remote for her and she couldn’t cope with the remaining build chaos. The main lodge cookers had not been installed so we were using a 4 burner domestic cooker and a large wood burning bread oven to prepare all meals. Guests were happy, all pre-briefed about the situation to manage expectations, but the upshot was that my 69 year old mother was thrown a pinny and a set of pans and asked to cook. My father picked up tools and started helping with the finishing tasks. All hands to the pump. Yvonne was more stressed than the rest of us. She wanted things to operate her way and there were too many chiefs and not enough Indians around at that time. We nearly lost my parents when one morning my mother was basting eggs in a non-stick pan with a metal spoon. Yvonne took offence, an argument ensued and Yvonne’s parting line of ‘F*&$ YOUR EGGS’ as she stormed off didn’t go down too well.
We almost made it. Christmas week arrived, the guest rooms were completed, the power was on and we had hot water everywhere. The problem was communal rooms; we still didn’t have glass in the main lodge windows. A week earlier my father had told me to cancel the guests but I had confidently refused. My confidence was accepted but internally I was far less sure of myself than I had claimed. Guests arrived for Christmas and we were forced to seal off the archway between dining room and living room with blankets just to create some living space. Tables were laid in the bar and everyone was plied with copious amounts of food and alcohol. On boxing Day the glass windows went in. We had got away with it – only just but ‘just’ was good enough.
The formal opening took place on the 16th Jan 2014 with the British Ambassador cutting a ribbon and planting a tree. The bookings were good enough for our opening season and so we had some revenue coming through the books. The build was pretty much on budget and was ahead of time but we had sucked up our spare money into the build, not helped by the tax bill, and so were short of operating capital. My parents lent us a further lump and that got us over the hill. By late 2014 we had paid off the outstanding build costs, we had started to pay off our loans and the problems of the build had started to fade into memory.
I am often asked ‘would you do it all again?’ I would but my life has changed beyond recognition since 2011. Yvonne and I split up, as much because of a difference of approach to our son’s injury as due to the stress of building and running a lodge. My father, a man I respected and loved more than any other I have met, died in September last year. I have a new Ethiopian partner and two small girls to match my two, large, sons. It has been financially tough and operationally it remains stressful as we are still subject to the bureaucratic vagaries and inconsistencies of Ethiopian government which plagued the build. I have learnt to bend with the wind and be less angry but aggression remains a valid tactic in Ethiopia when you really need to get something done, albeit a tactic that ranks behind a smile and use of my far from perfect Amharic language skills to charm the birds off the trees.
This has not been ‘Wild at Heart’. Running a remote safari lodge is neither easy nor profitable, in spite of being featuring in the Financial Times under the title of ‘Dream Jobs’. Yvonne remains my business partner but we still have considerable debt having lost a couple of seasons profit to ethnic violence and civil unrest and we are now facing a complete shutdown due to Coronavirus. We have endured a staff strike, two fires, an armed mob attack, forest fires, canine distemper and rabies outbreaks in the plateau wolf population and many other issues. Over the course of 6 years we have generated over a million dollars for the local population in wages, taxation, pensions, donations and projects. We have been the champions of the Bale Mountains National Park in the face of deforestation, population growth and overgrazing and we have opened up a park with amazing levels of endemic mammals, birds and plants to a wide audience who otherwise would never have known of the existence of this very special part of the planet. I can’t think of anything I would rather be doing than this.
Finally, what cannot be taken away is that we have sponsored conservation research and, to date, we have a moth and a frog named after us as thanks for our support to research teams. The names of Prasinocyma Leveneorum and Ptychadena Levenorum will live long after I have passed off this mortal coil.
In one last crazy twist to the tale above, I finally got to direct Guy's multifarious talents - he was my 'Pistol' in the 'Merry Wives of Windsor' and got to remind us all that - 'the world's mine oyster - which I with sword will open'. How apt?