Thursday, 19 January 2012

Divide and sell

One Wednesday afternoon the fixed line telephone in my Chennai home died. Suddenly. The broadband internet connected through the same cable was working.

I called the customer relations number. "This is Madhav, how can I help you sir?" asked the voice on the other end politely. The human voice came after 5 minutes of computer-talk that took me through the significance of numbers 1, 2, 3, 4. I explained the problem. I heard him typing into his computer. He gave me a request number and assured that the engineer will come on Thursday morning.

"We are collecting feedback from our customers, sir," said Madhav. "Can I take a minute?" I assured him that I will give feedback as soon as my phone is repaired.

Thursday afternoon I called again. It was Sheela at the call center. "What's the problem, sir?" I repeated the problem, I gave her my service request number. She assured somebody will come next morning. "We are collecting feedback ..." My response was the same.

Friday afternoon and Saturday morning we spoke with Raghav and Kumar. "Server linkage problem", "outage", were among the many reasons that they gave us. The problem, I felt, was affecting more than our line and the engineers at some end, somewhere, were working overtime to sort out this major issue. I felt bad for being impatient while the company's engineers were finding the solution to a larger telecom problem affecting thousands of customers.

On Saturday evening my wife Raji and I went to the relationship center. At 7.30 in the evening Lakshmi was visibly harassed. She must have been answering many like me. She took down my complaint again. I said that our complaint has been recorded innumerable times before; our phone is still dead. She said, "now that you have come to us we will send an engineer tomorrow." To pacify us she asked us to use the house phone and call somebody, somewhere. Raji went to the phone booth and I could hear her having a not-so-pleasant conversation with somebody at the other end.

Flash back to 1986. The television boom after the 1982 Asian Games had reached Thrissur in Kerala and my father, after much market research, bought a television from Mr Thomas's shop. To catch the airwaves it was necessary to hoist the ladder-like antenna from a 40-foot iron pipe harnessed to the wooden rafters of our house with tiled roof. Though secured with stay wires to all the coconut palms in the vicinity, the slightest breeze would shift the antenna's alignment and the spots that appeared on our TV screen would grow to become ever-bouncing tennis balls and obscure Neethi Ravindran's face and voice.

This was not all. Unlike the robust units of today, the television sets of the mid-1980s were temperamental and had frequent breakdowns. Suffice to say, my father made innumerable phone calls and Thomas made as many visits to our house on his Vijay Super scooter to repair the delicate contraption.

Though the transaction ended when my father carried out the television from Thomas's shop the relationship had only begun. And in the then small town of Thrissur, Thomas did not want to annoy an existing customer and put off future customers (asking the opinion of friends and neighbors was part of the pre-purchase ritual those days). The transaction had a name, face and person associated with it.

I don't remember to whom I spoke when I ordered my fixed line and broadband connection in my Chennai home 30 months ago. Neither do I remember who came to install the connection. My link with them was severed as soon as the transaction was completed.

Perhaps the two of them representing the same brand may not know each other and may be working for two companies that have contracted from the main company - one company marketing the product and the other installing and servicing it.

The call center which took my complaint calls (located in Bengaluru to service the requests from all over the country) would possibly be owned by an entirely different contractor company, with no power over the doings or undoings of the sales or servicing companies.

Poor Madhav, Sheela, Raghav and Kumar at the call center or Lakshmi at the relationship center, who are at the receiving end of the customers' ire may have no way of coaxing, cajoling or threatening the engineers employed by the servicing contractor company to visit my apartment to rectify my problem. Their domain is as large as the computer screen in front of them - typing messages such as "customer called again, wants the fault to be repaired by this evening." This is as unfair to them as it is to me, the customer.

Epilogue: On Sunday forenoon the engineer came to our house, checked the telephone, went down to the main junction box for our apartments, fixed the line that had jumped off the point and presto our phone was working. His investment: 10 minutes of his time. Our cost: 100 hours of down time, more than a dozen phone calls navigating through a maze of recorded instructions, a trip to the relationship center costing three hours and fuel, and increased adrenalin flow.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Colonial cousins

In August 1999, I attended a workshop for environmental journalists at FOJO, the journalism school of Kalmar University in Sweden. There were 20 of us, mid-career practicing environmental journalists from developing countries across the world. We talked much about how it is to be an environmental journalist in our countries.

What struck us more than environmental discussions was the fact that all of our countries had gone through a colonial past. It showed me, graphically, how a handful of West European countries had controlled the lives and destinies of almost the entire world.

“Colonialism” is a rather academic word for Indians of our generation. Maybe for our parents it would have been a palpable, tangible concept. But for us it was in textbooks. I remember it being repeated in the rallies of the Students' Federation of India at my college in Thrissur. You would know how "seriously" colonialism was referred to if I told you that we even had a strike, then, in Sree Kerala Varma College, Thrissur, to demand that the South African Government release Nelson Mandela from prison.

I felt colonialism in my bones when I lived in West Africa. Like how “Gulf” money hangs in Kerala, colonialism hangs over the air of many of these countries.

West Africa is predominantly Francophone – Benin, Togo, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Senegal, Chad and Senegal. The Anglophone countries (those that were former British colonies) are like islands in a sea of French-speaking world – Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone and the tongue-shaped The Gambia. The two former Portuguese enclaves are Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde.

A lazy afternoon at a roadside eatery in Kpalime, Togo.
Almost all the countries in the region got their independence between 1955 and 1960. Ghana was among the earliest – in 1957. Benin, Nigeria and many other countries celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2010.

Half a century is a long time for any nation-state to take charge of its own destiny. Driving through Ghana, and through the streets of Accra, one can see a country that has taken stock of its own needs. Ghana is far more self-reliant in agricultural and industrial production than its neighbors. The markets sell domestically-produced products at competitive rates. Arterial roads are world-class. As the national football team climbed through the ranks in the 2010 World Cup matches, proud Ghanaians drove their cars with flags fluttering. When Asamoah Gyan stood to take the penalty against Uruguay, an emergent nation cheered and prayed silently.

When I landed at the Abidjan airport in Ghana’s western neighbor Côte d’Ivoire in early 2010, I saw French soldiers guarding the hangar.  The French are still involved in the politics and economy of Togo, Niger, Benin and most of the other Francophone countries.

The British left when they left; the French stayed back. And that essentially marks the difference between the Anglophone and Francophone countries of West Africa.

Ghana has its own currency – the cedi. You needed a few thousand cedis to buy a US dollar. When this value touched 10,000 in 2007, Ghana issued the Ghanaian new cedi, which was US$ 1 to cedi 1. Currently the value of the new cedi has fallen to around 1:1.62. At this realistic exchange rate, which reflects the size of the Ghanaian economy vis-à-vis the US economy, the country is regulating its imports, exports and domestic production.

With the exception of Guinea, all Francophone countries use the Communauté Financière d’Afrique (CFA) Franc as the common currency. Since this currency has the support of the French treasury, each of these countries have to deposit 80% of their foreign currency with the French treasury. In other words, sovereign governments have control over only 20% of their forex earnings. The return – French backing ensures convertibility across the globe and stability that a common currency can give in comparison to the volatility that multiple national currencies could have created in the region.

The flip side is rather severe. The CFA is locked to the Euro at a fixed conversion rate of CFA 655.96 to a Euro. This means that it can swing anywhere between 450 and 520 to a US dollar, depending on the greenback’s health vis-à-vis the Euro.

Let’s put this graphically. US$1 = 1.62 new Ghanaian cedis = 16,200 cedis. Benin, whose economy is a fragment of the Ghanaian economy, the rate is US$1 = CFA 497. You get my point?

No wonder that my Indian friends in Cotonou are predominantly importers – bringing in rice, oil, commodities and FMCG products. They do export cashew nuts in which Benin has quality advantage. But predominantly the Francophone countries are importers with absolutely no competitive advantage with exports, given the artificially overvalued CFA.

During the period we were in Benin, Raji and I have a standard repartee. “Is product X available in Cotonou?” one of us asks. “If it is available in France it will be available here,” comes the reply.
What did this mean to us? Blowing up US$ 100 while shopping is as easy as snapping one’s fingers. The smallest currency note is CFA 1,000, the equivalent of Rs 100 but in real terms worth Rs 10. When I got air filled into the tyres of my car I paid CFA 500, the equivalent of Rs 50. I earned in dollars, lived in a good part of the city. Half of Benin lives on less than two dollars a day.

If only Sahir Ludhianvi’s words could be translated to French, Fon, Adja and many other West African languages – “Wo subaha kabhi to aayegi.”