The cost of doing business – where to draw the line

21 11 2013

“Not great”.
Things must be pretty bad for a Zimbabwean to say that to the standard question of “How’s business?”. And Lance looked miserable too.

I’d met Lance some years back when both of us had worked for HIFA (Harare International Festival of the Arts) and we’d got along well. Lance has a business supplying industrial cleaning chemicals to manufacturers and like a lot of us was having difficulties getting money out of them.

“Where do you draw the line?” he continued. “It’s not like I don’t want their business but I really need the money and I’m afraid that if I put pressure on them they will go elsewhere”. I could empathise completely. Everyone is chasing the same dollar in Zimbabwe right now and the bigger companies, like the one to which he was referring, know they can throw their weight around and keep their creditors waiting. I told Lance of one of my larger clients whom I’d had to get “nasty” with. They’d owed me some $5000 outstanding over 7 months and emails demanding they settle their debt had just brought the same old response of “Please bear with us…”. I arrived one Friday morning, unannounced, at their offices just out of town, sat down in the accountant’s office and told him that if I didn’t have the money by Monday the next week he could expenct the debt collectors on Tuesday. He got the authority to pay me from the managing director whilst I waited and the money duly arrived. I haven’t done business with them since and, to be honest, I haven’t missed them either. I could see this was cold comfort to Lance.

At the end of last week a representative from one of the biggest food processing companies in town met me to discuss supplying a large quantity of tomato seedlings next April for use in their line of tomato paste products. I quizzed him whilst climbing the stairs to my office (I am not a fast stair climber) on whom owned the company these days. He admitted the government owned the majority 51% and I recalled that it had been one of the first casualties of the “Indigenisation” programme that had, and continues to target the bigger companies. It is almost nationalisation but not quite. Unlike the BEE (Black Economic Empowerment) programme in South Africa, there is no compensation for shares ceded to indigenous Zimbabweans. Despite being born in this country and holding a Zimbabwean passport I am not indigenous – one needs to be black and of course “connected”.

I sat and listened to the rep who was quite honest about whom was going to pay for the seedlings and he asked me to send him a proposal which I have done. Is this going to be a worthwhile project? Will I end up losing money? It all depends on how much interference there is at the top level of management. I have grown seedlings for this company in the distant past and know that it has had a rough run since then but I was impressed by the forward planning and the honesty of the rep. Though he will not be signing the contract or making the payments.

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