Diamonds, Road Graders and Dodgy Deals
Being paid in Ethiopian ‘Birr’ – still a
‘soft’ currency in the global markets – was a serious impediment to the
establishment of profitable foreign businesses in Ethiopia. Having to pay our
bills and staff salaries, before the receipt of any earnings in local currency,
exacerbated the problem enormously. This time lag between payments in and
payments out eventually forced the company to transfer in, large sums of hard
currency to cover our local commitments. Late payments, made in birr, could
neither be used to settle expenses nor exchanged for dollars to be exported.
The company was left with a whole pile of useless ‘soft’ currency in its bank
account. Incidentally, the word ‘soft’ was actually used as a euphemism in
Ethiopia to describe toilet paper. Finding a way to turn oodles of soft
currency into hard currency, dollar or euros, was always difficult if not
Nowadays this problem has been extensively
eradicated from the continent as Africans began to realise the true value of
their labour, gold, coffee, oil and other resources yet back in the day these
problems taxed our minds and added spice to the working day.
On the back of our formal contract with the
Addis Ababa Water and Sewerage Authority and through the deft manoeuvring of
our somewhat fly commercial agent, we applied for and received a loan facility
for one million Ethiopian Birr. However time was against us and a first round
of payments had to be made for the renting of vehicles, accommodation, hotels
salaries and other equipment and hard currency had to be spent. Ultimately we
ended up with a massive loan facility and nothing to spend it on.
Personally I would have left it at that but
our commercial agent saw an opportunity. He had other clients in desperate need
of cash and there was a profit to be made somewhere in all this mess. I only
ever wanted a job working within the aid sector, helping vulnerable communities
with the basics – water, sanitation and hygiene. I was not out to make a profit,
just a living but alas hard times had got me into the private sector and my
bosses wanted results. And so we made contact with the Chinese Road and Bridge
Building Company, a recent entrant to the Ethiopian market place. They could
use our facility and would be happy to pay back in hard currency – just what my
company were looking for and the commercial agent could take a significant
slice out of the deal for his efforts. Supposedly there was something small in
it for me too but I was yet to develop that cut-throat edge that one needs in
business to make it big.
The scene was set. My boss was on the end
of a phone line to Belgium. Opposite me and our commercial agent sat the head
of the CRBBC and he had his boss on the end of another phone line. Mobile
phones were still a luxury item none of us could yet afford. In principle the
deal was simple. We just needed some collateral. I asked the question.
“What collateral can you offer us on the
“Wha sor of co-atoral are you rooking for?”
I transmitted the question back to my boss
in Belgium and he answered with a British accent. He was British and educated
at Cambridge University so I assumed he did not really know how to seal a
ruthless deal with his Chinese counterpart. And how right I was.
“Do they have any diamonds they could give
us to store in our Hong Kong Office safe?”
“Pardon me! Are you serious?”
“Yes! Go ahead and ask him.”
This was all looking rather surreal to me
but I went ahead and made the proposition.
“Do you have any diamonds you could give us
to store in our company offices in Hong Kong?”
“Pahdon me?” and I repeated the question
which he finally transmitted to his boss in China. Clearly he was thinking this
was all a little surreal too and wondering if all European businessmen regularly
traded in diamonds across multiple borders.
“No!” was the answer but he then offered an
equally perplexing alternative. “No. But we do ave road grader that we can reave
wiw you as secu-ity.”
Now if you do not know what a road grader is, just know this; it is usually yellow, is very big with six enormous wheels, a driving cab and a sizeable steel blade slung beneath the chassis. They are indeed articulated but are not known for their manoeuvrability around residential areas. The length of an average sized road grader was greater than the length of my house and there was definitely nowhere to park one up in the family compound. Besides this I explained to my boss it might be difficult for me to flog it off should we need to recoup our losses. I was woefully unaware the trading regulations and pricing differentiasl for second hand Chinese road graders, coming as I did from the NGO sector.
We called the deal off and I went to meet
Jill at the Hilton swimming pool with some of her colleagues for the afternoon.
Describing to them what had just transpired I confided once again that ‘I only
ever wanted to be an aid worker’. Sometimes things don’t quite work out the way
we planned but I have always enjoyed this particular anecdote and any chance to
try out my mangled Chinese accent!