Cracking into the kola nut business: The flavor of the project
YAOUNDÉ, CAMEROON – We really didn't know what to expect upon coming to Cameroon. Contact with our client had been limited, as the Internet was not always reliable and phone calls were difficult to schedule with the eight-hour time difference. We understood the scope of our work – contributing to the marketing and business perspective of the kola nut enterprise – but we did not have any local context. None of us had even heard of the kola nut, let alone tasted it. We knew we were bringing with us our own biases for how businesses operate in the U.S., and we were prepared to learn another way of conducting business.
We stepped off the plane in Yaoundé after nearly 24 hours of flights and airports, only to wait an hour for our bags to arrive. But only two bags showed up. We spent another hour at the airport only to understand we would have to make another visit to the Yaoundé airport in two days to retrieve the missing bags, which were in Paris. This presented an instant bonding opportunity for our small group: the sharing of underwear and malaria pills. But it was the malaria medication's inducement of vivid dreams that made our first nights in Cameroon memorable.
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The busy streets of Yaoundé were filled with cars honking and people walking. Many individuals carried baskets on their heads, filled with everything from fish heads to tennis shoes to lumber. People moved with unwavering balance and agility, as if the object atop their heads wasn't even there. As we explored the streets, we received stares of amazement. "Monsieur le Blanc" (or Mr. White) was a phrase we commonly heard as we passed locals on the street. After a week of living out of our two-star hotel (complete with daily electricity outage and frequent pest control issues), our neighbors on the streets of Yaoundé began to wave and acknowledge us. They knew where we lived, and they respected us, if at times from a distance.
Pollution and the burger blues
The diesel cars filled the air with a heavy layer of smog that disappeared only when one got far enough into the bush. Garbage littered the street landscape and finding a public garbage receptacle was a nearly impossible mission. We found that the people of Yaoundé never thought twice about throwing a wrapper on the ground. And never did a day pass without seeing a man relieve himself on the side of a busy road. Such things were commonplace, and the shock value slowly wore off during the time of our stay.
After days of surviving a steady diet of chicken, plantains, and rice, our team ventured to a nearby burger joint, a self-proclaimed American concept restaurant. We were nearly convinced the meat in the burgers came from the mangy dogs that seemed to hang out at the smelly garbage heap near the entrance of the restaurant and our hotel. The subsequent sickness of two of our team members became known as the burger blues, and to the unfortunate dismay of two of us, the burger blues never went away for the remaining two weeks of our trip.
Headed to kola nut country
Getting into the bush was no easy task, as the terrain was harsh and the road wickedly bumpy. Even the mightiest of SUVs had a hard time navigating the potholes through the jungle path. But once we arrived in a particular village deep into the bush, life seemed to slow down. Families were large and people and homes were simple. Young boys had strong muscles; these farms were places of real work. We also sensed a feeling of community. Some farmers offered us food and drink, and some said a prayer before breaking bread and initiating our interview process.
Traveling around Cameroon provided an amazing display of cultures of languages. Here the Anglophone and Francophone cultures cohabitate with little apparent problems. Traveling from Yaoundé, in the Center and Francophone province, to the Northwest and Anglophone province, we were amazed to discover Cameroonians' versatility in languages. Many were bilingual, speaking English and French; and a subsequent number of people were trilingual, speaking a combination of English, Pidgeon, and a local dialect, or English, French and Pidgeon.
Bubble gum, Frisbees, and Google pens
Before we left Berkeley, we raided the pile of trinkets given to the school from local businesses, from sponge globe balls to notepads, to pens that lit up when one pressed a button. We intended to present these items to farmers and their small children as gifts after our visit to villages in the bush. We also brought a Frisbee and lots of sugarless bubble gum, which were a big hit among the kids. We taught a large group of half-clothed children how to play Frisbee, and this was perhaps one of the most special moments of our trip. The Google pens were a big hit among the farmers, and at the same time, perhaps the greatest irony as many of these farmers had likely never even heard of the Internet, much less recognized the name of the most popular search engine on the planet.
My throat is dry
After conducting interviews with farmers or wholesalers, we learned there is a cost to performing market research. Most of those we interviewed complained of having a dry throat after our litany of questions. Surely money provided for beer or wine would cure the ailment. We had learned in our coursework in Berkeley that Cameroon was one of the most corrupt places in the world. Our experiences in the field were only a snapshot of the established system for getting things done in Cameroon.
Reaction to our efforts
The reaction to our work was very positive. Our audience was engaged, and asked questions throughout our presentation. One scientist in particular lauded our work, which was a huge compliment to all of us since this scientist is a known expert in agroforestry in the region, who, "wrote the book" on scientific/economic subject matters we discussed. All expressed a desire that additional resources be allocated to continue the work we had begun. In fact, the meeting closed as if the chapter we had written was a new beginning for business and marketing efforts in the organization.
Last day misadventure
Our last day in Cameroon was filled with unwanted adventure as we attempted to get to the Yaoundé airport to leave the country. Our bus was stopped at a major roadblock set up because the president of Cameroon was transiting the area.
Our first attempt to get by the roadblock – by means of a gift to one of the guards and a taxi driven by an off-duty police officer – resulted in two armed guards forcefully entering our vehicle. We were told our passport documents were invalid and we were headed for jail. We negotiated a phone call to our ICRAF constituency in Yaoundé, and after paying a bribe, we were let go. We proceeded to the Douala airport where we tried to change our flight. With some savvy persuasion, we were able to convince Air France to let us board the plane in Doula with the receipt of our passports from an ICRAF representative who would be flying on the first segment of the flight from Yaoundé. But an hour later we learned the flights had changed course; the flight to Paris would be originating in Douala and we would therefore have to get back to Yaoundé since we could not get on the plane in Douala without our passports. So we commissioned a cab to get us to Yaoundé, in hope that the roadblocks had been removed.
We had little time to spare, but the driver still stopped to buy chocolate sauce – to mask numbers on his taxi that revealed he was not allowed to leave Douala. The treacherous journey by car to Yaoundé tested our nerves. First a flat tire, then an onslaught of rain and dangerous turns negotiated at high speed. And just when we thought our senses could not be tested further, our driver smashed into another car in the opposing lane, shattering his driver's side rear view mirror, and sending glass into the car! All of us remained silent, and our driver continued driving as if nothing had happened. And then, as if matters could get no worse, we faced another roadblock just 10km from our airport destination, the clock still ticking. After another round of negotiations and a sizable bribe, we were allowed to pass. We could see our destination in the distance now, but we were so close to missing our flight that we were sick to our stomachs. Running madly into the Yaoundé airport we rushed to the counter in the nick of time, found our passports and baggage brought by our gracious representatives at ICRAF … and made our flight out of Cameroon.