Chinese knives and Moroccan couscous

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Chadtraders The flow of markets has beautiful potential, maybe especially in the dusty streets and vast stretches of Chad. Today I am assisting in a meeting with a potential Chadian supplier to ExxonMobil. The man in front of us is a trader. He is over two meters tall, he wears a light blue boubou, and he jokes with us throughout the meeting. He almost manages to keep his terror just below the surface: to him this contract means his future.

I love working with Chadian traders, I find them beautifully adept, masterfully linked to networks throughout Africa, Europe, the US and China. I watch as they command the flow of goods, brining everything to this country landlocked in the Sahara. One day I decide to jump into the action and help a man get the price on a cleaning cart from France. I say, "it's easy - let's go online, pretend to buy it, and right before we check out, just look at the price." A few clicks later I am running frantically into my colleague Cheick's office waving the confirmation email in the air, "Cheick, call this number in France right away. Tell them not to ship!" Apparently I am not cut out to be a trader.

Trading is the pulse of the economy here, from the women who line the street at night with kerosene lamps selling baskets of fish, to these men who command vast networks of goods. Granted some of the goods are junky crap - like cheap Chinese knives that barely cut after a day of use or packets of couscous that reek of insecticide - but goods nonetheless. There is a culture here that those of us with more traditional ideas of entrepreneurship, with our focus on value addition, know little about. I've seen the trucks piled three times their height, stuck in the sand in the middle of the night, with broken axles even, but these men and women manage to get the goods through (more or less).

I remember studies in business school that showed that actual trade has little to do with the efficiencies of lowest price, highest quality, and fastest delivery. People trade with people they know and like: others who speak their own language, those who live close, who they feel comfortable with. Despite the clean theories of benefits of open trade, real trade happens along the well-worn lines of friendship and habit.

It's precisely because markets are so creaky and inexact that we're here in Chad to try to bring openness. During construction ExxonMobil relied on European and US contractors: fast, generally reliable, and expensive. And now, why not something new? The government wants to build long roads; how about breaking the contract into pieces and giving it to many Chadian companies? A non-governmental organization wants to provide clean water to remote villages; why not hire Chadians to drill tiny wells throughout the country?

This work appeals to me because it's a puzzle to crack - I get to help break open a system, to usher in a new generation of Chadian business people. But mostly it appeals to me because I like to work with Chadian entrepreneurs - they teach me something about how to piece life together, how to survive. Highest quality, lowest cost, and fastest delivery. We'll let you know how it works out.


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