Information = access = money

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Alex1 Reports of fighting in the east of Chad seem far away, N'Djamena is fairly calm, our work moves forward. The promise of oil wealth is little by little becoming real, at least for a few. I don't know if we'll change the country, or even build a semblance of what Chadians imagined liquid gold would bring, but one by one, we are linking Chadian firms to new opportunities.

I came to Chad to run an Enterprise Center, a place to train Chadian firms, but now I see our work very differently. The concept for our center was developed by Nkosana Moyo (former deputy director for IFC Africa) and based on the idea that small firms need four things to grow: access to information, access to training, access to finance, and a strong business enabling environment. Here's an example of another center in Kenya, based on the same idea. The theory makes sense: businesses need information, training, money, and a good context to thrive.

"Access to information" always seemed to me like the throw away member of the group. Yes, yes, I know, we live in the information age. Last week I met a representative of the Chamber of Commerce and he said: "Alex, we must have money for a resource library!" "Ok," I said, "for a start, has anyone even cracked open the five books we bought a few months ago?"

Another rep. wants to create a cyber café, "give people knowledge!" In the past few years I've taught countless people how to use the internet, but to those who aren't accustomed to computers, they use email sometimes (especially when I remind them in person there’s a mail in their box), or occasionally check a website.

So much to my surprise, as our program has evolved, "Access to Information" is turning out to be our most important role. Let me explain.

On the one side, Chadian businesses need information about how to access opportunities with ExxonMobil and other large firms. This is a classic example of access to market information, but it takes an unusual form in Chad. First of all there is the cultural divide between large firms and Chadian companies — people like to work with those they know and find familiar: for Texans, Chadians are probably not top of the list. Large firms also have unfamiliar standards to which Chadians must adapt and adhere. There is also the sheer problem of communication in a country that has no street addresses, few fixed phone lines, and paltry electricity (at last count World Bank Offices in Washington DC used more electricity daily than the whole country of Chad).

So what does access to information for Chadian firms look like? It means our team rides their motorcycles for days on end tracking down entrepreneurs, delivering them invitations to an ExxonMobil meeting. It means our staff knows that the red door down one alley is Oumar's transport business, that Madme Sonja now runs her shop at the far end of Shangua. It means endless cell phone bills, our team acting as intermediaries: problems with a contract, how about this payment?, how to do I approach the large firm? It means sharing information on foreign firm rules, how to structure bids. It means we are a physical place where entrepreneurs can come to find out what’s what.

On the other hand side, there is also an incredible need for large firms to have information on the range and quality of potential Chadian suppliers. Next week we are hosting a major ExxonMobil subcontractor who has never worked in Africa, and they are asking where do we start? International agencies knock on our door: "I have a road construction project, who does good work in this area?" "I have a transport problem, who can help?"

What does access to information for large firms mean? It means we have spent two years creating a database by hand of over 1,000 Chadian firms, information that you’d find in a phone book or on the internet in many other countries. It means we have an evaluation system, where we visit firms one by one, rank them, help them grow. It means we have the gritty knowledge of who’s who and what's possible here. In a place like Chad, this information is gold. Banks knock on our door: "Can we please have your lists?" It's a delicate area, I've locked our database, how do we manage this information fairly? Access to information. Access to information.

Somehow it works, even if only in our own small way. Information to connect Chadian businesses with large firms, and large firms with Chadian suppliers. Some people say I have little hope for Chad. Not true. I think Chadians are perhaps smarter than a lot of people, I think they are proud, I think they are resourceful. This country is a crossroads between the Muslim nomadic north and the agrarian Christian south. We have got caught in the violence of the region, Sudan, Central African Republic. This is not a place of stability or ease of communication and therefore we are building a means to connect the country, to link people through information, despite war, excess, and violence. I hope we are providing a structure to build a future on.



Photos are of an ExxonMobil supplier "Diagnose Auto." Photo credits Esaie N.

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