Dash Across China

February 27, 2010 - Leave a Response

I crossed China by land in about a week.  I’m not exactly certain how long it took because I lost track of time following several all night bus trips.  My visit coincided with the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday, so travel was a bit of a problem, which is an understatement.

My preference was to travel by train, but I soon had to abandon that plan because the trains were sold out after my first and only train trip.  After that  I had to rely on cross country bus service to reach Shanghai on the east coast….a 3,000 mile journey from the Kazakhstan border.

My sampling of China is roughly equivalent to a Chinese traveler seeing the US by taking a Greyhound bus from San Francisco to NYC with overnight stops in Denver and Chicago.   In my case the stops were, from west to east, Urumqi (the city farthest from the sea in the world), Jiayuguan (the western terminus of the Great Wall of China), Xi’an (the Ancient Chinese capital and the beginning point of the Silk Road), and Shanghai on the China Sea.

I realize this does not qualify me as a Chinese expert, but I certainly saw my share of China “up close and personal” traveling on public transportation day and night.

Here are a sampling of pictures from my China crossing:

"Welcome to China", a cold grey morning outside the Urumqi train station

Great Wall of China, Western end

Terracotta army in Xi'an

Newly discovered terracotta Army General

On the Bund in Shanghai

The view from the "World's highest observation deck", Shanghai World Financial Centre

You’re Deported, Round 2

February 27, 2010 - One Response

If you read my previous post “You’re Deported” about nearly being sent back to Dubai from Kabul, you know how close I came to being deported early in this trip.  I never thought I would have a second major border crossing incident, but sure enough there I was at midnight on the frozen Kazakhstan/China border being interrogated like a terrorist by the Chinese. 

Here is the story;

The train from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Urumqi, China is operated by Chinese employees and was 100% sleeper cars (about 8 of them) with no dining car.  The sleeper cabin has beds for 4 people, two lower and two upper.  During the day, all 4 sit on the lower bunks.  I shared my cabin with only one other passenger, a 60’s Kazakh lady who lives in Urumqi.  She spoke no English and insisted on repeating words (either in Kazakh or Chinese, who knows) to me over and over again in hopes I would miraculously gain linguistic enlightenment and understand her.

My roomate, the burper

She (I never even learned her name, that is how tortured our language barrier was) turned out to be somewhat of a eccentric roommate.
 
I knew we were in trouble the first night, when she prepared for bed with an extremely long series of burps.  It seems that’s how she prepares for sleep.  I don’t know what she ate for dinner, but it produced a lot of gas.  It didn’t bother me because I was still keyed up and not ready for sleep, so I watched the moonlit steppe pass by our window to the accompaniment of her digestive sounds.
 
At 2 am I walked down the passageway and noticed all the cabin doors were shut except ours.  SHE wanted our door open to the lighted passage way.  Sensing a security issue, and bolstered by a sense of conformity, I closed the door.  When it clanged shut behind me, she uttered a verbal objection of some sorts, but I didn’t reopen it.  Next thing I know she was sitting up staring out the window, burping and humming a song.  I hadn’t realized it, but she must have been claustrophobic.  I fell asleep to her humming sounds, and when I awoke, the door was cracked open just slightly.
 
The next day our train motored northbound all day.  I could tell this by the rising and then setting sun.  I didn’t have a Kazakhstan map with me, but I knew China was northeast from Almaty.  Sure enough we were running parallel to the border. 
 
At about 6 pm that day we approached our first major city and entered a rail yard where our whole train was lifted up, passengers included, by hydraulic jacks and the Kazakh wheels were replaced with Chinese wheels.  It took several hours, and when we started down the track again the former “klakidy…klak” of Kazakhstan was replaced by a smooth rhythmic shuddering of the new Chinese undercarriage.  Don’t ask me how or why, but the new wheels, or maybe a combination of the new wheels and a new track ahead of us, made a big difference in the sound and feel of the train.
 
At about 10 pm we approached the Chinese border, which is when the fun really began. 
 
At first it was very friendly.  There was a squad of newly minted green-suited Immigration officers waiting for us at track side. They were standing at attention in ranks in front of a pretty young TV news reporter who was being filmed by a cameraman.

Chinese TV Reporter outside our cabin

 
When they entered the train I figured out this was the graduation exercise for the rookie Immigration officers.  The young woman officer who entered our cabin was obviously confused by my US Passport, especially the yellow fever certificate I have stapled to it. Her instructor showed her how to conduct a proper interview, and the next thing you know the TV reporter and her cameraman entered to interview the only “white guy” around. 
 
Of course they spoke no English, and my burping roommate was no help, so our neighbor in the adjoining cabin, a 20 year old Kazakh student on his way back to Shanghai University, was pressed into service as an interpreter.  Ansagan told me to say something about Christmas.  I was aware the Chinese New Years was about to happen, but I knew nothing about Chinese Christmas.  Thinking Ansagan may have mixed up the two holidays, I looked into the camera and jabbered away about both Christmas and New Years and wished all of China a happy holiday.  Then the senior immigration asked me to say something about the quality of the interview I had received.  Ansagan interpreted, but I could tell what he wanted without translation.  The woman reporter was just holding the microphone at this point.  I made some nice comments about the female  officer’s thoroughness and politeness.  That ended my 30 seconds of fame on Chinese TV.
 
Then things got serious.
 
The camera crew departed and the here-to-fore friendly Senior Immigration office solemnly entered my cabin and asked to look at the Lonely Planet China guidebook on our table.  He went right to the colored map in front and pointed out that the city of Taipei in Taiwan had a star, as did Beijing.  “This could not be correct” he said.  “China is one country and there can only be one capital.” 
 
I really didn’t think it was a big deal, but I was dead wrong.  Just the fact that he could explain this problem in English should have tipped me off that this was a government priority issue.
 
After quite a long time and visits to our cabin by a number of green-suited immigration officers, including one woman who searched my suitcases and located my computer and another map-bearing book (“China Road” by Rob Gifford), I began to sense this was getting serious.  I did what seemed to be the logical thing to resolve the issue; I took the Lonely Planet guide from the officers hands and summarily ripped out the map.  His eyes got big and he seemed to be shocked.  This was the wrong move.  I had crossed the line from being an uninformed tourist to some sort of an anti-government subversive trying to hide my true intentions.
 
About the same time the woman officer booted up my computer and found a file on the desktop labeled “Aman” which contained pictures from Afghanistan taken by my Bangladesh associate from BRAC named Aman.  It contained all sorts of photo’s of me surrounded by obvious Muslims.  The Chinese officials at the border of this semi-rebellious predominantly Muslim region of Western China were all Han Chinese.  Things were going from bad to worse.

Incriminating photo from the Aman file

 
Finally the senior Immigration Officer, who services I had just praised on TV, told me he would allow me to keep my books, but warned me the Custom’s officers would seize them.
 
Sure enough the green suits departed and a wave of blue-suited Customs Officers descended on the stationary train next.  Several came straight to my cabin like bees returning to the hive, obviously well briefed on my subversion.  They came not as friends.
 
The succeeding interview took so long that one official had time to leaf through almost all 1,000 pages of the guide book looking for offensive maps of Taiwan and Tibet.  He carefully looked at the UPC symbol on the back cover to see where the book was published (I presume that is so, because we were speaking different languages, except for the scripted comments in English about one country and one capital).  He was obviously frustrated at not finding the map until someone informed him of my map ripping and he discovered the incriminating remnants of the torn pages.  I could tell he didn’t like me.
 
The computer came out again and the Aman file was opened which resulted in much Chinese chatter. 
 
At this point I had to make a stand.  I was about to enter China and then cross the whole damn country by land.  They wanted to take my only guide book and leave me with just my large China map, which passed inspection because Taipei was shown as a provincial capital.  I knew I was about to enter a country where English was not spoken and the alphabet was different, so I had to have a guide book.  There is no way I would be able to find a conforming English language guidebook in Urumqi where only Chinese and Uighur were spoken. Without my Lonely Planet I was S.O.L,, as they say. 
 
On the other hand, I was on the extreme western border of China and my flight back to Chicago departed from Shanghai on the eastern edge of the country.  If I was denied entry, I would have to take the train back to Almaty and buy a ticket home from there, from half way around the world.
 
I stuck to my guns and insisted on keeping the guidebook, which after all, was cleansed of the offending map.  In their defense, I suspect the customs officers presumed the unintelligible English words in the 1000 page text must have claimed Taiwan (or Tibetan) independence somewhere.
 
The next thing I know I was ordered to gather up everything, luggage, computer and all, and follow the blue suits off the train to the station.  It was now midnight and cold and dark.  I asked Ansagan to confirm that I would be allowed to return to the train before it departed across the border.  He said the train would wait for me, but remembering the New Years vs Christmas confusion, I wasn’t confident about his interpreting.
 
Inside the station I was ushered to a bench in a Soviet style scene outside an drab office.  The station was empty except for me and a whole bunch of blue suits.  They were chattering busily, I presumed about my cartographic subversion and Islamic friends. 
 
There were 4 or 5 Chinese officials in the room when I entered.  I was told everything would be searched, including me.  One guy, who seemed to be the English speaker in the group asked about another book I was carrying…Marco Polo by Laurence Bergreen.  “Who is Marco Polo?” he asked.  Here we are, smack dab in the middle of the Silk Road, which the whole reason for me being there, and this Han Chinese brain surgeon doesn’t recognize the name Marco Polo!
 
One of the officers turned on my computer and after about 5 minutes turned the screen toward me with a throbbing red STOP warning.  Somehow they had opened a critical Dell file and were about to do something very wrong to my hard drive.  I kind of lost my temper at that point and demanded “no one touches the computer again but me”.  The Marco Polo questioner pointed to the “Aman” file on the desktop, so I opened it to another round of excited chatter.
 
The officer behind the desk was entering information from my passport and visa into an official hand written ledger all the while.  When I told them the Aman file was from Afghanistan, they all seemed to repeat “Afghanistan” in unison.  I figured my goose was cooked at that point, but suddenly the senior guy said I could repack my suitcases and go.  He stamped my passport and I returned to the train, waiting impatiently for it to move across from the border. 
 
So that is my second “You’re Deported” story on this trip.  The first one, in Afghanistan, was all my fault.  I arrived two days early and the officials there would have been just enforcing the law if they sent me back to Dubai. 
 
In this case, I had no warning of my offense and the repercussions of being denied entry would have been very expensive.  In retrospect, I don’t really think they were going to send me away, particularly since my visa was in order (tourist) and I had no contraband in my luggage.  But at the time it was all unfolding and I was insisting on keeping the map-less Lonely Planet guide, I was quite concerned about being stranded at midnight on the frozen western border of China, which is a very long way from home.
 
Eight hours later I disembarked at the train station in Urumqi.  It was cold.  I had no Chinese money, and, as I anticipated, no one spoke English.  After some effort I was able to find an ATM machine several blocks from the station and then get a cab to the recommended “Super 8” hotel.  For the first time on this trip I was all on my own, and thankful I fought to keep my Lonely Planet Guide. 
 
Ever since entering China I have been unable to reach my blog “Drew Kinder in Asia” or even search Google for the term “Drew Kinder”.  Its probably a coincidence, but who knows what secrets are held by Chinese state security.

Kazakhstan

February 15, 2010 - Leave a Response

I arrived in Almaty on a late night flight from New Delhi.  I really didn’t know exactly what to expect, and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

First, after 6 weeks of travelling on my own, it was nice to be with family.  My niece Erin and her husband Sean and daughter Caitlin live here.  Erin and Sean work in Almaty.  It was a real pleasure to hang out with them; drink beer, eat outrageously large American style meals, meet their expatriate neighbors and travel to the countryside.

Almaty is the polar opposite of Dhaka; uncrowded (1.5 million spread over a large area), clean, well paved, disciplined car drivers who use their horn for emergencies only, and cold.  Many of the people look like they would blend in easily on the east side of Buffalo, where eastern Europeans settled early in the 20th century.

The weather here is cold, but very manageable during my 5 day visit.  The wind never blew, so the chill factor was the outside air temperature.  I have been colder in Buffalo on a windy day, and a lot colder in Minneapolis.

Below are some pictures of downtown Almaty and a natural area about 4 hours from town.  We stopped at a world-renowned falcon farm on the way there.

With Erin at an Orthodox Church in Almaty

Me and my new Kazakh friend

With Erin, Sean, Caitlin, and the Park Ranger

Overlooking the canyon

Beautiful Canyon

Park Ranger's unheated office and Russian built vehicle, with steppe in the distance

 I depart in a few hours on the midnight train to China.  I’ll try to update the blog from Urumqi or beyond.

Nepal, What a Surprise!

February 15, 2010 - Leave a Response

When I planned this trip, Nepal was not part of my itinerary.  I finished my writing assignment a week early in Bangladesh so I had the opportunity to go wherever I wanted for 6 days before rejoining my planned itinerary.  Some people recommended Thailand, but in my heart I have always wanted to go to Nepal. 

Nepal was an excellent choice.  I had this misconception it was an icy cold mountainous kingdom.  I got the mountain part right…they dont even talk about mountains unless they are at least 8,000 meters tall (25,000 feet) and there are plenty of them. 

I was way off on the temperature part.  In Kathmandu and Pokhara it was in the high 60’s-low 70’s every day and maybe high 40’s-low 50’s after sunset.  It was clear every day, except the last day when it rained. 

I checked with Biman Airlines, the Bangladesh flag carrier, and found I could fly to Kathmandu the next  day and return 6 days later.   That morning I ran into another American volunteer in the BRAC headquarters who recommended the Courtyard Hotel in Kathmandu, a nice medium priced hotel in the Thamel neighborhood.  I booked a room on-line and left for the Dhaka Airport. 

Courtyard Hotel Kathmandu

The best thing about the Courtyard is the owners, Pujon and his wife Michelle.  Michelle is a native of Seattle where she met Pujon, a Nepali, at U of W.  Since this trip was totally unplanned and I didn’t even have a Lonely Planet guide for Nepal, their help was invaluable to me. 

The hotel driver picked me up at the Kathmandu airport and that night Michelle and Pujon took me out to dinner with them and two other hotel guest to Pujon’s uncle’s restaurant, which was excellent. 

Lunch in Kathmandu

The next day I followed Pujon’s hand drawn map of tourist attractions in the historic Palace area of Kathmandu.  The following day I departed the city as a guest of Pujon’s sister’s family for an 8 hour drive to Pokhara, the second most popular tourist destination in Nepal.  Vinnie and her husband Sudan and two sons were great fun to travel with.  The boys attend Jesuit boarding school in Darjeeling India.  It was great to travel in a comfortable car with a very friendly English-speaking family. 

My host family on the drive to Pokhara

 Our first assignment in Pokhara was to see the sun rise on the Himalayas.  That required a 5 am wake-up followed by hour drive to a village outside of town, followed by a walk up a steep path to the military post on the very top of a mountain overlooking Pokhara in one direction and the Annapurna range in the other direction.  The teenage boys opted to sleep, so Sudan,Vinnie, and I set off by car.  

Sunrise hike

Another misconception I had about Nepal was the meaning of trekking.  For some reason I thought it involved climbing to the top of mountains, which my 62-year-old knees are not willing to do.  I learned that trekking actually involves walking around the base of mountains, with porter and a guide, and staying in a bed at a lodge every night eating 3 square meals a day.  Now that is something I can get in to! 

Sunrise on the Himilayas

The trek that caught my attention is the Annapurna Circuit, and 18 day trek around the base of the 8,000 meter Annapurna range.  I was able to see some of these mountains from our sunrise vantage point outside Pokhara and that was enough to get my interest. 

My Yeti Airlines plane

After I returned to Kathmandu from Pokhara on Yeti Airlines (scheduled 30 minute flight vs 8 hour drive) Pujon set me up for a day of sightseeing in the historic Kathmandu Valley before flying back to Dhaka. 

Sightseeing in Bhaktapur, the City of Culture

Getting Around in Old Dhaka

February 15, 2010 - Leave a Response
Old Dhaka in Bangladesh is like a museum of transportation equipment.  I saw double decker busses that once may have graced the streets of London or Dublin;

Double decker bus in Old Dhaka

 And bicycle propelled rickshaw’s:

A whole family in one rickshaw

And men carrying so much weight balanced on their heads it took two men to lift it up and back down again;

Man carrying freight on his head

 Old Dhaka is absolutely flat, and labor is cheap and plentiful,  so hand carts are used instead of forklifts or pick-up trucks.  Then there are the energy efficient 8 passenger vans pulled by 2 little horses;

energy efficient 8 passenger van (2 horsepower engine)

and the ubiquitous three wheel motorcycle jitney;

standard transportation in Dhaka

But my all time favorite antique transportation device is the DC-10 that flew me from Dhaka to Kathmandu and return on Bangladesh’s flag carrier, Biman.  I haven’t seen one of these babies in the States for over a decade;

Biman Airlines DC-10

This is not exactly what I experience as a commuter in Western New York, but I have to say I enjoyed the change of pace;

Rickshaw Self-Photo in Old Dhaka

War and Peace in South Asia

February 15, 2010 - Leave a Response

Looking back on my travels through South Asia, I found it interesting to observe how countries transition from war to peace.

Afghan Security Guards

Of the 4 south Asian countries I visited (Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal), Bangladesh is the farthest removed from armed conflict.  They fought a very serious and deadly “war of liberation” with Pakistan, but that was in the 1970’s.  Since then Bangladesh has lived in peace.  Interestingly, this is the least armed and most argumentative country of the four.  I witnessed several loud and very animated street arguments in Dhaka (which I could not comprehend) and thought to myself, “I’m glad these dudes are not armed”.

The Nepalese seemed to me to be more laid back than the Bangladeshi’s and equally unarmed.  There was more police/army presence than in Bangladesh, but interestingly the former Maoist insurgents in Nepal are now part of the democratic system.  They seemed to have abandoned their guns and favor of toll booths.

Security in Kathmandu, Nepal

As I travelled around and between Kathmandu and Pokura our vehicle was stopped at a number of toll barriers manned by men in civilian clothing collecting fees without providing receipts.  Sudan, my Nepalese road engineer host, never failed to grumble about “thugs” when this happened, but it seemed to me to be a cheaper and safer alternative to war.

Sri Lanka is the closest of the four countries to outright warfare.  I was absolutely amazed by the police/army presence in the former Tamil controlled areas on the eastern shore.  I was there just a week before the first presidential election since the March 2009 end of the 30 year insurgency, so security was heightened.  There literally was a lonely soldier on guard every 1/2 mile on the highway in the countryside.  In the more populated area around Batticaloa there were cops and other heavily armed uniformed personnel everywhere. 

Our vehicle was checked frequently.  The army couldn’t care less about me, but our driver was quizzed to make sure he was Sinhalese and not Tamil.  Ethnic profiling is the first line of defense in Sri Lanka.

I thought to myself  “Is this what it must have been like in the Deep South after the Civil War.”  I seriously doubt the Tamils will regroup if the Sri Lanka government continues this level of vigilance.

Afghanistan is a whole different story.  While peace has theoretically been in place since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, peace has a different meaning there.  Everyone is armed, and I mean everyone…police, army, security guards, and male civilians.  I presume the women are unarmed, but who knows what is underneath that birqa.

Hoodlims and common thieves are potential threats.  So are family feuds.  Add to that so-called Taliban insurgents and al Qida, which can easily be confused with the other potential shooters, and then throw in US/Nato troops fully armed head-to-toe travelling in 3 vehicle convoys, and you have a picture of a warrior nation armed to the teeth. 

Interestingly, I witnessed no Bangladesh style  arguements in Afghanistan.  I think that would be unwise.  They might shorten the dispute process and go right to the guns.

It’s All About Progress

February 13, 2010 - 2 Responses

For 33 year old Champika, an agricultural entrepreneur in the Kurenegala Distirict of central Sri Lanka, progress means breaking free from financial dependence on your husband.   She was so intent on independence that she opted to take a microfinance loan not from the government run Samurdi Bank where her husband works as an assistant manager, and instead opted to do business with BRAC where she could sign for a no-collateral loan in her own name.

Chanpika with a package of Kathmina Mushrooms

Champika is the owner/operator of Kathmina Mushrooms, where she grows and packages white and black mushrooms for distribution to local food outlets.  The mushrooms are packed in 200 gram sealed see-thru plastic bags with a paper label identifying the Kathmina brand.  One bag retails for 35 Rs. ($.30) and costs Chanpika about 15 Rs. to produce.

BRAC and Champika met through BRACs survey process, when the Branch Manager of a newly established BRAC Branch in the Kurunegala Area came down her dusty rural lane conducting house-to-house interviews to find poor women in need of financing for small businesses.  Champika had just completed a training course on growing mushrooms at Peradeniaya Agricultural College, a 5 hour round trip bus ride from her home.  She needed a loan to get started.

 She joined the BRAC village organization and was granted a no-collateral start-up loan of 20,000 Rs. ($175) which she used to buy building materials for two 10 X 12 ft. mushroom houses and one dark room as well as ingredients for her first batch of mushrooms.  Her husband and a friend built the two houses.  A windowless space in her 3 room mud brick house was converted into a mushroom dark room.

White mushrooms growing in the mushroom house

Chanpika is a very bright woman. A grade 11 plus graduate, you quickly gain respect for her intelligence as she methodically explains the complicated process of growing mushrooms.  It starts with four basic ingredients.  After completing 15 discrete steps, each of which must be done correctly and in sequence, she produces a crop of mushrooms which can be harvested every other day for about 3 months.

The mushroom dark room

 Chandika has been very successful.  Demand exceeds her ability to produce mushrooms in her two mushroom houses.  Once she pays off her first BRAC loan, she intends to apply for another loan to build a third mushroom house and purchase additional raw materials.

Chandika's sewing machine and child

Chandika has boundless energy.  This mother of three; a 6 month old baby, a 2 ½ year old girl, and a 6 year old boy in school, began a second income generating project in her spare time.  Using cash from mushroom sales, she purchased cloth and a sewing machine.  Now she and another mother from the village organization sell clothing in the weekly village market.

Thanks to her BRAC loan, a mushroom brand named Kathmina, and unlimited drive and determination, Chandika is well on her way of realizing her potential of financial independence.   That’s real progress, or as they say in her native Sinhalese language, real Kathmina.

Fathimanirisla in Batticaloa Sri Lanka

February 13, 2010 - Leave a Response

Fathimanirisla is a 23 year old tailor who takes great pride in the housecoats, skirts, shalawars (scarves) and pajamas she and 2 co-workers manufacture in her home in Batticaloa, Eastern Sri Lanka.  She brands her items by sewing a distinctive black and white checkerboard pattern just below the neckline in front.  Much like the famous Nike swoosh, and the Ralph Laurent polo pony, Fatimanirisla’s checkerboard is intended to be a mark of consistently high garment quality.

Fathimanirisla at her sewing machine

Fathimanirisla’s was in business when the 2004 Tsunami struck Batticaloa.  The tidal wave filled her house with 4 feet of water and left behind a residue of sand.  Although her tailoring business was smaller then, everything was lost; supplies, finished goods, and equipment.  She joined a BRAC village organization and in 2006 obtained a 15,000 Rs. ($130) loan to purchase a sewing machine and a cutting machine.  In 2007, a 20,000 Rs.($175) BRAC loan financed a zig-zag machine. 

cutting fabric

Fathimanirisla markets her clothing two ways.  Her husband operates a woman’s clothing store in downtown Batticaloa that sells her checkerboard brand clothing exclusively.  In addition, she manufactures clothing to the specifications of merchants for sale in their retail outlets.  Often they bring popular Indian clothing for to her to copy. 

She can compete with large Indian clothing manufacturers because the Sri Lankan government charges a higher import tax on finished clothing than on the cloth she imports.  Also, local merchants value her ability to provide the best selling garment sizes.

Her profits have been growing.  A typical housecoat that costs her 325 ($2.82) Rs. to make, sells wholesale for 350-400 ($3.13-$3.47) Rs. and for 500 ($4.35) Rs in her husband’s dress shop.  The output of each of her employees is approximately 20 housecoats a day and 30 skirts a day.  She pays them 7 Rs. ($.06) per skirt and 15 Rs. ($.13)per housecoat.

Like many entrepreneurs Fathimanirisla is reluctant to reveal her income.  When asked how much her business earns a year, she hesitated, and then slowly shaking her head she said “That’s a secret”.

She did reveal that business is growing and more and more commercial buyers are approaching her to make dresses.  When ask how she markets her products, she said it was done by old fashioned word of mouth.  “When one merchants visit another merchant’s clothing stall, he always looks at the clothing.  When he sees my dresses and examines the quality, he will ask where they came from.  That is how I get my new customers” she says proudly.

Fathimanirisla is positive about the future of her business.  It has completely recovered from the Tsunami and is bigger now.  With the final resolution of the Tamil insurrection in March of 2009, security and freedom of movement is now available in the area formerly under Tamil Tiger control from Batticaloa north up the east coast of the island to Jaffna.  Already she has attracted buyers from Tricomalee, a port city 100 km. north.  She is hopeful that buyers in Jaffna will eventually become customers too.

She is supplying six commercial customers now, and when asked if she plans to supply more she replies “God willing”. “I can make more clothing” she adds confidently.

This 23 year old entrepreneur is very grateful to BRAC.  They helped her realize the potential of her business.  She freely admits “Without BRAC there would be no business”.  BRAC gave her a no-collateral loan to restart the business after the Tsunami when banks demanded collateral.  She also likes doing business with BRAC.  She says “I can pay at my weekly Village Organization meeting, so there is no need to stand in line at the bank”.

When asked about her goals in life, Fathimanirisla said she and her husband want to have children and to be successful in business.  “Having children is not in my hands” she says, “so I will concentrate on doing well at business”.

Monitor Brand Shoes

February 13, 2010 - Leave a Response

Most entrepreneurs have their hands full building a successful business from scratch under “normal” business conditions.  If you add the extraordinary conditions of a devastating Tsunami that takes the lives of countless people and heavily damages the market area and then add armed insurrection that disrupts public security and stops the free movement of people and goods, the odds against starting a successful business are slim at best.

Nahitha, Owner of Monitor Brand Shoes

This was the business environment BRAC found when it opened its Batticaloa Branch on the Eastern shore of Sri Lanka in 2005.  Tamil Tigers controlled the streets and damage from the December 2004 tidal wave remained unrepaired.

Nuhitha was typical of the women to whom BRAC lent money.  Her husband had operated a fleet of three 3-wheeler taxi cabs for ten years.  Demand for taxis evaporated in the twin economic devastations of storm and war.  When asked about his business he would only say a “money crisis” had occurred in 2005.  Bankruptcy may be too harsh a word for this proud man in a conservative society.

Left without income, Nuhitha turned to the only trade she knew, shoemaking, to support her family.  She had first learned to make shoes from an “Indian man” who worked in a shoe factory.  In 1997 she started making shoes on her own.

The Tsunami flooded her house and destroyed the shoe workshop, including stitching machines, unsold inventory and raw materials.  She joined a BRAC village organization in 2007 and took out her first uncollateralized loan of 15,000 Rs. ($130).  She paid that loan back and her second loan was for 30,000 Rs. She recently borrowed her third loan of 40,000 Rs. ($347).

Nuhitha is a very talented shoemaker.  With a woman’s eye for fashion, she designs many of the woman’s shoes she sells under the Monitor brand name.  The brand has a growing following in the Batticaloa area and sales have increased every year.  She employs four women to manufacture her shoe designs.

two employees making shoes

Last year her in-home factory produced 30 pair of Monitor brand shoes per day.  This year her production has increased to 50 pairs a day.  Last year she supplied to 6 commercial buyers who resold Nuhitha’s womens shoes in their shops.  This year she has 10 commercial buyers.

Some of the commercial buyers specify shoe designs for Nuhitha to make.  Others sell her proprietary Monitor shoe designs.  She sets her prices, makes sample shoes, and then her husband presents the Monitor programme to commercial buyers.

Profits margins are fair, but Nuhitha is quick to point out that the market is very competitive.  A typical woman’s shoe costs about 200 Rs. to make. She sells it wholesale for 230-240 Rs, which is a gross profit margin of only about 15%.  The same shoe sells for 300 Rs. ($2.60) in the retail shoe store.

Nuhitha plans to use the proceeds of her BRAC loan to purchase bulk quantities of shoe heels, which are the most expensive component of the shoe.  She can save 20% on her cost of goods when she buys large quantities direct from the factory in Colombo rather than 100 pair lots from the local broker in Batticaloa.  This allows her to increase profit margins without increasing her selling price in a very competitive market.  These savings also allow her to buy a higher quality heel for her Monitor brand shoes, which will be good for long term business.

Nuhitha is very positive about the future of her business and the future of Batticaloa in general.   With the cessation of hostilities and the establishment of government control over the entire country, business is bound to get better for her.  She can do business with suppliers from outside her area more easily and new markets are now open for her Monitor brand shoes.  She is particularly interested in the Jaffna market, which like Batticaloa was under Tamil control, but the road between the two cities had been closed for years.  It is now open without restrictions.

The end of the Tamil conflict also is expected to usher in a flow of international reconstruction funding to restore the infrastructure of Eastern and Northern Sri Lanka to match the higher level of the remainder of the country.  This will make doing business much easier for all BRAC microfinance beneficiaries in Batticaloa and potentially attract customers from a wider area on newly paved roads and rebuilt bridges.

Most people would rest on their laurels having realized the potential of building a successful and sustainable business in the face of so many obstacles.  Not so for Nuhitha, who has a grade 5 education.  Her main focus is their 6 year old son. 

Nahitha and her son with his report card

Dressed in a neat blue t-shirt, he climbed into his mother’s lap and began reading aloud in English.  Nuhitha patiently continued answering questions in Tamil while he read.  When asked about her son, she excused herself and returned with a big folder from his public school showing a grade of 99% in English. 

This bright young boy is the true unrealized potential of his parent’s lives.   With BRAC’s support and his mother’s extraordinary business skills, his parents will one day achieve their goal of having a medical doctor in the family.

Check the Ledger

February 13, 2010 - Leave a Response

Most microfinance loan beneficiaries to have an intuitive sense of the profitability of their businesses.  These impoverished women watch every penny and know what they pay for item and what they sell it for.  The problem comes when trying to determine the profit of the business over a period of time.  In many instances business cash is used to pay personal household expenses such as buying food for the family.  Most proprietors have a difficult time determining profit when the cash drawer is empty.

Hemalatha with her ledger

This is not the case for Hemalatha, who operates a plant nursery in Dickwella, Sri Lanka.  When asked about the monthly profit of her business, she excused herself and returned with a hand written ledger. Across the top three columns were labeled “sales”, “cost” and “profit”.  Down the side she listed every month going back to the beginning of her business years ago.  Hemalatha not only knows her monthly profit, she can tell you the trend in sales, cost, and profitability and can compare any given month with the same month in a previous year.  She selected one month in 2008 at random which showed sales of 35,000 Rs., cost was 6,750 Rs., and profit was 29,355 Rs ($255)

Hemalatha’s nursery sells floral plants and food plants grown from seed in pots.  Located on Highway A-2, the busy two lane paved road that runs across the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Hemalatha has about an acre of land between the highway and the beach.  The nursery and her home were completely destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka.  Fortunately she and her husband were away from home when the tidal wave hit.

Horticulture runs in Hemalatha’s family.  Her husband, who helps out at the nursery, is employed full time as a hotel gardener.  Their oldest child, a 30 year old daughter, works for the government in Colombo in the Forestry Department.  Their other child,22, also lives in Colombo, about 5 hours from the family home.  He is attempting to find a position abroad and will emigrate if successful.  The son has a grade level 11 education and the daughter completed grade 12 plus.

Hemalatha found BRAC when she heard they were loaning money without collateral to businesses damaged by the Tsunami.  Her first loan in 2006 for 10,000 Rs ($87) was used to help start up her nursery again from scratch.  She took out her second loan in 2008 for 30,000 Rs.  She used that money to expand the nursery to satisfy a growing demand for plants as the area recovered from the Tsunami.

Hemalatha in the Nursery

Hemalatha is thankful for BRAC.  In 2006 they were the only place where she could borrow money without collateral or a guarantor. Now her business is profitable and growing.  She knows because it’s all right there, in the ledger.

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