The past couple of weeks have been the most major learning experience I have had here, so far. For weeks I bounced around among three farms and the ministry office, asking questions, listening, and trying to learn. I did learn a lot – but I felt scattered. I had nothing on which to focus my energy.
I finally started on a project. My goal was to find potential suppliers of agricultural inputs. I started with a list of about 50 products (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, vet supplies, and feed), who the current supplier was, and what Watoto Ag is currently paying for the product. Where else could we get them, and for how much?
Where do you start? I have yet to see a Ugandan phone book, but I figured the best place to start was the World Wide Web. Generally, I’m pretty good with Google, probably because of the practice I’ve gotten through my weird compulsion to learn the answer to any question that pops into my head.
First of all, dealing with Ugandan businesses is totally different from dealing with people within the ministry or with western businesses.
I started searching and collecting business names, phone numbers, locations, and email addresses. Some of them had web sites.
Some of those websites were not very helpful at all.
Marketing here is very different from in North America. Websites here are generally only good for getting locations and phone numbers. Sometimes.
I started calling phone numbers.
Some of the phone numbers were outdated. Others were correct, but the person I spoke to could not understand what I was saying. The connection was fine and we were both speaking English – but I had one of the most confusing phone conversations of my life the other day trying to find out what this guy charged for soybeans.
“Be clear. What are you asking about?”
“I do not know what you are saying. What do you want?”
“SOY. SOYA. SOYBEANS.”]
He finally understood I wanted soybeans and gave me a price nearly three times the amount we’ve been paying.
And so it went.
Surely, I thought, emailing must be better. Accents don’t cause trouble in emails like they do in spoken English.
I started emailing the companies that had email addresses listed.
None of them replied.
I started wondering if there was a problem with my email account. Maybe mail from my Oklahoma State University email address was being filtered to spam folders. Then I got a reply from a UK company I had contacted about another issue, and I started wondering if there was a problem with my approach. Maybe you have to write emails completely differently when you cross cultures? I meant to send respectful and concise messages inquiring about specific products, but maybe I came across as demanding or rude. Maybe my “Texan accent” was transported through cyberspace and the recipients of the emails are staring at the words, uncertain of my questions.
I asked Alex about this. Should I change my approach? Take a course in writing emails to Ugandans? He was not surprised that no one responded to me, simply because there’s a good chance they don’t check their email. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
- There’s an internet café on pretty much every corner here. Everyone and their mother-in-laws have cell phones. Seeing someone walking or riding a Boda Boda while talking on the phone is just as common here as seeing someone talking on the phone and driving in the US. Telecommunications is a huge industry here.
- These people run businesses, and those businesses depend on selling products. They provided email addresses for business purposes, obviously to help them sell their products. Then they don’t check the email.
I can’t make anyone check their email, but I was confident that I could go talk to them face to face to get the answers to my questions.
I gave Alex my list of companies and asked him where they were. We spent all day last Thursday, the 4th of July, driving around the spider web of crowded roads that is Kampala, and walking into office buildings and shops.
Some of the locations were wrong.
Of the 10 places we actually found, I made real progress with four.
At one place, we made accidental progress. I had a name and address for a chemical company. We drove down the correct road until we saw a sign for a company with the exact same address. Not the same business. It was a seed company. We parked and went inside to ask about the chemical company, but the girl knew nothing of it. So we stayed and asked about their vegetable seeds.
One of the companies was located in an office building. I had an address and a room number, so we parked and went in. The security guard made us sign in before we went up the stairs to find Room 2. We found it, but there was nothing in sight with the name of the company we were looking for. Signs for a bus company were plastered on the wall. We asked the guy behind the desk if we were in the right place, and he looked at us incredulously, like “Of course this is the right place. Why would you question that?”
Another company was in a different office building. We went inside, and asked at the front desk where we might find that company. They were confused – had never heard of that company.
“I have an address and a phone number for _______________ company, located here under the name of Mr. ________ ________. He doesn’t have an office here?”
“Oh, ________, yeah we know him!” and they led us to his office.
He wasn’t there.
Business hours are extremely flexible here. At three of the places we found last Thursday, the addresses and phone numbers were correct, but no one was in.
Accents cause the same trouble talking in person as they do on the phone. I’m lucky I have Alex driving me around, because there were many times when he had to translate my English into English.
When you travel, you have to keep an open mind. If you are so sure that the way you do things is right and everyone else needs to adapt to your way, you will end up extremely frustrated and bitter. I couldn’t make business owners update their phone listings, or make them answer their email, but I can treat them with respect when I finally get to talk to them.
Moral of the story:
If you want a cross cultural experience that doesn’t involve eating grasshoppers or something, try being a mzungu looking for potential suppliers and price ranges for 50 products in Sub Saharan Africa!