Sunday, September 13, 2009

last post

August 18th, I passed through airport customs, immigration, more bag searches, until I sat in the red plastic chairs overlooking the airplane yard. I called each member of Ability Bikes on the phone, to let them know I am safely beginning my journey, to hear their voices, and to acknowledge with them that I’m leaving their country, but that our work will continue, that I’m so proud of them, that I’ll call them when I reach the US. Now sitting in the café in Somerville, I reflect, recount, and project.

Back in July, Ability Bikes experienced the smoothest container clearing to date. Working Bikes Cooperative in Chicago sent us a box of 520 bikes, primarily 26” Mountain Bikes, our product with highest demand. Ability Bikes hired a private clearing agent at an acceptable rate. Since Ability Bikes was not yet registered as a cooperative, there was no certificate, no legal entity and therefore no tax id number. Emmanuel agreed to let Ability Bikes use the name and number of his organization EEFSA, which was a tremendous support at a critical time. The container got shipped June 2nd. Around the time we were expecting the Bill of Lading (original container document) by courier, I called Martin (EEFSA administrator) to ask if it’s in. He said not yet, but that he’ll let me know when it comes. I relax, but call every few days to check. Not yet, still time. Wednesday evening comes, he calls, it’s in. I come to Accra the next day, meet the clearing agent, pick the Bill of Lading, send it right to the destination inspection company to value the goods detailed on the bill. Submitted, this could take a week. Timing is still good, the container is due to arrive in about 5 days. The agent planted a few critical bribes which we gladly provided. 5:00 pm the same day, I’m in the car traveling back to Koforidua, and the agent calls me, and tells me its done. I say are you kidding me?! Its true. We were ready to clear before the container even hit the ground.

The next week, the day the ship docked, we got the invoice, processed the customs fees, paid them, paid the shipping company and cleared the container two days later. It took two days because we were too early, the container was not yet ready. I waited for something dire to happen and it didn’t, we rock. This last container clearing required very little work from me actually, because Torsutsey (Ability Bikes administrator) was the primary Ability Bikes representative in the process. I explained to him the expected process, guided him through the paperwork and the Tema offices, he carried the money, dealt with the clearing agent and did all of the talking. I actually got pulled away from the port due to other responsibilities of working on my visa in Accra, and on the last day because an overzealous port security guard saw me with my camera out. I then spent three hours in the office of the head of security explaining that I don’t have the hundred dollars I was being fined and that he should let me delete the footage taken related to the port rather than confiscate my camera. Finally, due to his need to go to a meeting, he agreed to fine me 40 dollars for indecent behavior, let me delete the footage, and take my camera go. I got out, met up with Torsutsey, the container just out, on the truck, we got it. Took it up to Koforidua.

The next morning, we meet at the shop at 6am, and started the unloading. In order to fit a higher quantity of bicycles in the container, Working Bikes removes the front wheels and packs the bikes tight, the wheels fitting in remaining space. 520 bikes, mostly adult mountain. For the unloading, Ability Bikes had their first official Ghanaian volunteer, Ben from Abompe, a bamboo bike framebuilder, currently in secondary school for mechanical engineering, a great friend. Ben took the helm inside the container, in the heat of dis-integrating the density of bikes and wheels. Some of the paid assistants conveyed bikes to the mouth of the container, with Sule and Torsu just outside bringing the bikes and wheels down to the ground. Then other paid assistants, the pseudo-volunteer bike sellers, and myself carted the bikes back to the courtyard next to the shop. Agyen was on front wheel organizing duty, and did an awesome job. The bikes were arranged and piled by wheelsize. Once unpacked, we sorted the bikes for the shop and the bikes for the wholesale. The wholesale then commenced, with Maud in the chair, calling the names, Torsu in support, Mirriam, and Julius in general security and support roles. The wholesale quickly erupted into the usual arguments over the prices, which resulted in a heated negotiation that inevitably turned in acceptance, AB standing firm of some prices, relaxing on others. The bike selection was orchestrated by Maud, who maintained control despite arguments among the sellers. I supported Maud and Torsu when the tension became overly challenging. Then, almost suddenly, the wholesale became peaceful, orderly and efficient. Every bike seller just accepted how it was going, ceased to forcefully exert influence, and just moved with our system, which we set up very well. Once each seller had their bikes, we put front wheels on them, matched to the quality of the bikes. Late in the day and we were done. We sold about 230 bikes and fetched an average of 30 GHC per bike, which has consistently been the wholesale average, making over GHC 7,000. This money went right toward paying back the bicycle sellers who made advanced payments helping Ability Bikes to clear the container, toward paying back the debt to the landlord, and to paying back the start-up loan made by Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah (which is now more than 50% paid). The remaining money was kept to pay for other things – internet connection for the front store (critical for the physically challenged administrators, because traveling to the internet café each day is unrealistic), the purchase of new parts in the Accra market for resale at Ability Bikes, the payment to the sign-painters for making our signboards and painting a mural in the front store, and the Grand Opening Ceremony that we held just a few weeks ago on August 8th. Major thanks to Working Bikes Cooperative for helping Ability Bikes to pay these critical expenses, leaving the business with roughly 290 bikes in store for individual build-ups and sales, building the functional operations of the business.

Since the wholesale, Ability Bikes engaged in continued basic operations, with a focus on developing continually more effective systems of operation. The mechanics built bikes, Maud and Torsu sold them. As a group, we worked on improving workshop/retail store communication regarding bike sales and repairs as well as developing a paperwork system for any customer bikes (sold bikes / repairs), we established thorough systems of controlling the quality of build-ups and repairs, and set bike pricing based on bike quality and the local market.

As another push for operational efficiency, I focused on workshop leadership. My advice to the workers was that the shop needs leadership and some form of structured management. Some person must be responsible for scheduling bike builds and repairs, managing the flow of customer bikes through the workshop, organizing the shop space, making sure that every done bike is fully done, controlling quality. The alternative is that these responsibilities can be shared cooperatively. If all the workers communicate well, take initiative, and hold each other accountable, then maybe they can cooperate effectively enough to make the shop run well without a person in any formal management role. At subsequent meetings, the workers decided to continue working cooperatively, one member one vote. They unanimously don’t want a boss and don’t want structured management. I told them that this will work only if they can cooperate and communicate well and if the rate of production and quality are maintained at high levels. The efficiency and effectiveness of the workshop and sales operations relates directly to the amount of money the business will be able to make. At this point in the business, making money is not optional, its necessary, its survival. The workers are now independent. Now is their time to work, to cooperate, to build the business, to make the money to pay for the extra storage space and shipping obligations.

Ability Bikes is working toward renting two additional stores for extra bike storage. The two stores directly adjacent to the workshop are available. The landlord has agreed to rent the stores to Ability Bikes and to receive the 10-year lease deposit gradually. (It is customary in Ghana to receive this deposit in full before keys are given to the renter.) The landlord has repeatedly emphasized his commitment to support Ability Bikes to grow and to have an ideal workspace. Ability Bikes has made a small deposit on the stores, but is waiting for the arrival of the next BNB container to make a more substantial payment. Once the two stores are acquired, Ability Bikes will have the capacity to easily store at least one full container of bikes. Once the storage space is fully paid, Ability Bikes will be freed from the necessity of wholesaling bikes upon container arrival – the wholesales are currently required to generate bulk cash for large expenses while reducing the quantity of bikes so that they can fit in the current storage space. Long-term vision: Ability Bikes will have two workshop stores fleshed out with workbenches, tools, parts and fluid bike storage as well as two stores for storage that will have the capacity to pack down a full container (and in times of less bikes, to organize bikes accessibly), a concrete patio with roof extending the length of all four stores enabling space for outdoor bike organizing, bike parking, and space for outdoor workbenches and bikestands, all with 6-8 mechanics employed. Ability Bikes will also have one street-side retail store and office with at least 2 employed administrators, stocked with bikes inside and out, with bikes on display packed along the driveway leading to the workshop, drawing more customers, making more sales. Ability Bikes is considering the possibility of establishing additional sales locations (as funds allow) to strategically increase the number of bikes sold in one day, which would include accepting additional salespeople into the cooperative. More jobs for physically challenged people could potentially result in the build-up and sale of bicycles at a significantly higher rate and more overall profit for the business.

Finances will be very tight for the next six months. All of the shop developments are important, but more importantly, Ability Bikes needs to focus on paying shipping costs to Bikes Not Bombs, which will be sending another container to Ability Bikes in the end of August, to arrive in Ghana mid-October. Finances must be regulated, production goals must be met, budgets must be kept.

One week later:
The next BNB container for Ability Bikes Cooperative has been packed, and now is sitting in the yard of Building N to be picked up tomorrow morning by the trucker, to be shipped on September 8th, and to arrive in Ghana in mid-October! Thanks to all of the relentless BNB volunteers who consistently make this happen! I’ve communicated with Maud and Torsu regarding the payment schedule for the overseas shipping costs due to Bikes Not Bombs, and they have committed. We will be in discussion regarding a fiscally responsible way of dealing with the pending rent payments on the additional storage space.

I’ll back-track briefly.

Ability Bikes now has signboards and a beautiful mural. Toward the end of July, Ability Bikes contracted out some local artists to make signboards and a mural. We were originally going to print a digital signboard, but realized that in a short period of time the color would fade. The alternative is sticker cut-outs for the letters over high quality paint that will retain color for many years. We went with that, sent the sheet metal and square tube to manpower for welding, who was still working off a trade we made with him. As a way of receiving his services while not having a lot of cash flow, we traded him the Schwinn tandem for his welding services. Now his two children ride it to school each morning. The signboards then went to the artists. One will be posted along the main street above the retail store, and one will get hung high above the competing signboards on the side street leading to the workshop. There was a great open wall directly behind the desk in the retail store, perfect for an inspiring mural. Together, we put our ideas together, made some rough sketches for the artists and they set to work. The idea was an empowering image that is beautiful and communicates dignity and strength, with bicycles and tools. We took a picture of Agyen in a wheelchair, arms stretched out, strong, to use as the model. Over the course of two weeks the mural was completed. There was also a bare white wall on the carpentry shop right next to the workshop that was perfect for a large painted sign. We asked permission from the main carpenter and before we finished asking the question he responded: absolutely. That sign was painted, and now Ability Bikes is seen from the street, bold and bright.

Just after the signboards and mural were completed, Ability Bikes held the grand opening ceremony, a gathering of supporters, friends and family to celebrate the development of the business, and to publicly consider its nature, as owned and operated by physically challenged people. It was also a time to publicly show gratitude to Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah and the members of his organization for the role that they played in supporting the development of Ability Bikes Cooperative. This role included initial project development work in Koforidua, such as identifying the stores and negotiating the lease with the landlord as well as offering a business start-up loan, and general project support such as letting Ability Bikes clear containers using the name and tax id number of EEFSA until Ability Bikes gets registered and gets and their own tax id number (Ability Bikes is now registered, but it has been a beurocratic challenge to acquire a tax id number as a Cooperative – the Department of Cooperatives says the Registrar should provide it, the Registrar says the IRS should provide it, the IRS says the Department of Cooperatives should provide it, and so on. My own research, after talking with the heads of these agencies before I left Ghana, is that the IRS is responsible. Torsu is on it, but Emmanuel is helping in the meantime.)

The Grand Opening started well – the signs were painted, the t-shirts were printed in an all night job for the artist, the malt drinks were flowing and meat pies for everyone. The workers were excited – this was their program. We used the church building directly opposite the workshop, which along with the church was decorated in elaborate balloons and ribbons in red, white and blue. The chairperson for the event was Kofi Wayo, friendly bicycle seller, who also happens to be a pastor. The guests start coming – first the Koforidua bike sellers, then some of the food seller friends that sell near the front retail store, family members, other friends and then Emmanuel with the members of EEFSA. Once we had about 70 people, we began. There were extravagant formalities, which go along with most Ghanaian events, that included introducing each important guest, rounding up the important guests to sit at the head table, and then the speeches. Emmanuel and I shared the podium. He spoke first expressing his pride in the project, and his commitment to support it. Then I came in with a brief history and a formal statement of gratitude to Emmanuel and EEFSA. We shook hands and felt positive. Then I introduced the workers and described the work that they do. Everyone then went over to the workshop, where a beautiful ribbon was tied across the entrance to two of the metal pipes holding-up the roof. Emmanuel and I held the scissors over the ribbon, and cut, formally opening the business. There were media folks there – one television station and a newspaper. Finally, I handed over the business to the workers with a symbolic gesture, which for me was the most important part of this event. As a group, Ability Bikes and I needed a ritual to signify this transition. I spoke briefly on the capacity of the workers to carry-out the operations of the business, I held up the huge 15” adjustable wrench, symbolizing the work we accomplished, the business we built, and handed it Sule and Torsu, who accepted it on behalf of the workers. They received the wrench with heightened emotion. Then interviews with the media, chatting with friends, and that malt and meat pie.

Lastly, the event we were all working toward, the formal registration of Ability Bikes as a Cooperative with the government of Ghana. Toward the end of July, Ability Bikes and I pressed the Department of Cooperatives more urgently to lead us through the paperwork processes of registration. It seemed that for previous months, the Dept. of Coops was not giving us a clear path toward registration. There were ambiguous applications that we had not yet seen. Finally, we were transferred to a different Coop officer who laid it all down for us. We needed 10 members to be formally registered, and currently had six. We needed to fill out a basic application, and needed to provide financial reports for 6 months of operation, among other documents that needed to be drafted and signed to make the process official. We got to work on the first condition of 10. Since there are six full members of the cooperative with the intention to increase, we considered it valid to open the coop membership to four new members who were part of the original training group and who can benefit from membership as well as contribute to the growth of the business. One of these members is Kwame Fosu, the next in line to be hired as a mechanic. Kwame missed half of the original training, and I was uncertain of his seriousness, so he was not originally selected. I later learned that Kwame’s absence was in part due to financial burden and communication challenges. Kwame does not speak English, lives off the beaten path, does not have a cell phone and is in a wheelchair. During the training, however, Kwame was excellent with tools, has enormously strong arms, the propensity to DJ reggae music, and was unabashed to get deep into the bike, on the ground if need be. Kwame is not financially independent, depending on his family members for even the 35 pesewas it takes to join a car into town. This job would be an incredible opportunity for Kwame. As soon as the coop is stable financially, Kwame will be welcomed to join.

Next is Dorothy Tutuwaa, the seamstress and bike cap-maker. Dorothy works in a seamstress shop at the top of the hill of Koforidua, near the Chief’s Palace and near the huge Roman Catholic Church. Dorothy works there with her elder sister and about 4 other young women. The shop is close to her house, so she can get there independently. There is also a wheelchair ramp going up to the shop. It’s a good employment situation for a young woman in a wheelchair. Dorothy’s family house is also nice, but is built into a hill, so the courtyard of the compound is about 13 steps lower than the doors to the rooms. If Dorothy will enter or leave her room, she must use her arms to walk herself up and down the steps. She manages it though. I last visited her to discuss putting the BNB logo on the caps. I met her in the common space of her two rooms. We chatted with a DVD playing in the background, some low budget US action flick. I asked Dorothy what she will do the rest of the day (Saturday no work), and she said she is just going to relax, watch films, talk to friends. During our conversation she had a few calls. Dorothy is interested to be a part of the coop to maintain the cap-making connection and also to run a satellite sales location at her seamstress shop. It is an excellent place to display bikes, and Dorothy could get a commission on bikes sold there. If Ability Bikes can increase the productivity of the workshop, and build bikes faster than they can sell them from the shop, it is a marketing strategy to increase the locations where bikes are sold each day. Ability Bikes therefore plans to work with physically challenged people in different areas of the city to sell bikes, giving an income opportunity to them as well as establishing the potential to sell significantly more bikes per day. The other two coop members that were included were Elizabeth Viditor, who is interested to be a mechanic, and Daniel Nyarko who would work with sales.

We held meetings with the ten members that would be registered, and after discussing issues of roles and shares, were in agreement. Then the ten met with the coop officer, asked questions, received explanations, and we were given the details of the application from the officer, and over the next few days, filled it and signed it. We also began preparing our financial reports, digging into our financial records. We prepared a trial balance, profit and loss, and balance sheet that were very complicated, even for us who prepared them. We tried to include all of the relevant financial info, including the stores for extra storage that Ability Bikes intended to pay for within the next year. When we gave this to the coop officer, he smiled and said we need it to be more simple. If we wanted the application to be accepted by the national registrar without further inquiries and delays, we needed to essentially give them what they wanted which were clear and uncomplicated financial reports. Over the following two weeks, Maud, Torsu, the coop officer and I worked to develop appropriate financial reports. It was an excellent training that the coop officer indirectly gave Maud and Torsu in the process of developing these reports. There were many areas of accounting that were clarified including the process of using the trial balance to develop the trading profit and loss, the profit and loss and then the balance sheet. After these reports were finalized, other documents were drafted and signed, and all were submitted to the coop officer. In order to expedite the four-week process to a few days, Ability Bikes gave the coop officer GHC 100 to send the application to the registrar personally (a large portion of that money undoubtedly going into the registrar’s pocket), to ensure that the registration is done without delay, and to personally return with the certificate. On the day that I flew from Ghana, the coop officer received the approved certificate of registration for Ability Bikes Cooperative.

Moving forward, Ability Bikes Cooperative is legally recognized and is approaching financial solvency. The workers collectively make decisions and rely on each other to maintain and continue to grow the business. They rely on each other to overcome challenges, and must take the necessary action to keep this business moving. They are trained, they are empowered, they are able. Bikes Not Bombs supports their independence.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

15 july 2009

Hi y'all. New pics on flickr -
Just finished clearing and unloading the container sent from Working Bikes Cooperative in Chicago. More description to come.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

June 9

pics to come pending fast internet....

The sustainability of Ability Bikes Cooperative is gradually becoming more practical and realistic. Future uncertainties such as containers of bikes, extra storage, financial solvency potential are gradually being defined. And the tools to envision this future and practically build it are being utilized, which include the system of cooperative meeting and decision-making, the financial accounting system for the business, the increased skills and efficiency of the workshop mechanics, and the recognition that Ability Bikes Cooperative is not alone, that there are networks of support that will engage Ability Bikes to step up to new levels of effectiveness and professionalism.

Ability Bikes will be given the opportunity to independently manage their cooperative sometime in August or September, when I return to the US. There have been open reservations about this among the AB members, doubts if they can stay together and cooperate well without supervision. I responded to them that they will by all means face challenges. Learning to ride a bike requires being allowed to swerve and maybe crash. They will swerve and may possibly crash. And they will pick themselves back up, get on the bike and keep trying. They will learn to steer their direction and keep that bike moving and upright. Because the local and international project relationships have become too strong, the personal investment has become too important, the motivation and skills have developed too far. Not allowing Ability Bikes the chance to ride on their own may withhold from them the right to their own empowerment, self-reliance and confidence that could grow in that situation of uncertainty and challenge. I am entirely confident that in 2 or 3 months Ability Bikes can ride without a hand on the seat, a bit swervy, with minor crashes, but will grow stronger with greater resolve in their ability to lead themselves. I am also not naive of the issues within the dynamic of the workers that could destabilize the cooperative, such as difficulties making decisions, potential clashing of certain male personalities, and any one member (or group – aka administrators) claiming more power than appropriate. These issues must be brought to the surface and creatively and positively discussed.

An enormity of changes and developments have occurred in the past two months. There were times where it felt that I was working hard everyday on so many things, but not getting substantial work accomplished, and other times when all of that work matured and accomplishment was tangible. Time when I felt overwhelmed and disillusioned, and times when I clearly understood my role and acted without regard to adversity. All in all, we’ve made substantial progress toward our goal of financial and operational self-sufficiency in relationship with an international bicycle community.

In the beginning of April, Maud and Torsu (Ability Bikes administrator/salespersons) along with myself received training in small business accounting and basic administration. The training was 6 days spread out over 2 weeks. It was very effective in the sense that it introduced us to a business accounting system that effectively works. It was less effective in the training style – the majority of the time spent with the trainer reading and copying notes on to the flipchart, Maud and Torsu assiduously copying the notes into their books, me scheming on how to apply these systems in practice and writing questions. Once the copying was done, there was explanation and questions. Practical exercises were interspersed in the latter 4 days of the training with more intense practice in the 4th and 5th days. It was during these days that the cash book was used to record transactions from a hypothetical business month. The cash book is a very large book with 17 columns on each page. Opposing pages displaying the oppositional relation of income (left side) and expense (right side). Income and expense broken out into separate accounts (eg. for income: used bikes, used parts, new parts and accessories etc). Each page tracking either the income or expense from the cash and bank accounts, which get resolved at the end of a cash book period (1 week) detailing the amount of money that is in cash or in the bank at that given time. A comprehensive collection of source documents (receipts for both income and expense, payment vouchers, sale and repair invoices, vender invoices, timesheets) back up the cash book details. All of these documents get files in the new filing cabinet in a system of labeled and organized hanging folders. Once the cash book is totaled, the totals from each account get transferred to the ledger book, that has different sections for each account. These totals accrue over the weeks and months, and after a specified period, get totaled, and detail the amount spent or earned for each account. These ledger totals are used as the source data to produce the trial balance, the trading account, the profit and loss account, and the balance sheet. We learned how to do all of this, but currently, we are at the level of the cash book and ledger. Once the data accrues, we’ll practice preparing the more complicated reports.

Around the same time as the training, we set our minds and hands on the development of the front store. Drew up some plans, had discussions with Manpower *the welder*, finalized the design and set to work. By this time, we had already built a nice desk, set up the filing cabinet and small porcelain sink (the one sent in the first container bought from the Building Materials Coop near JP). The plan was to build a structure that can hold lots of wheels, lots of tires, and a row of bikes along one wall. We decided it best not to break into the walls to anchor the structure, but rather to support it with 4 legs of 1 ½ inch galvanized pipe with heavy metal plates welded to each foot to protect the floor. The frame hangs 68 wheels high to the ceiling along perimeter, hangs 100 tires on four lengths of pipe that fill the inside area of the frame, and hangs 15 bikes on a galvanized pipe extending 7 ft high along the left side of the structure welded to each leg with a central supporting leg and foot. We took two days and built it. Then we packed it, clearing up huge amounts of space where the wheels and tires were packed. This still left large amounts of overflow parts for sale. (We have separated out the nicer parts organized and stored in the workshop for bike build-ups and repairs, and the overflow of unnecessary parts to the front store for individual and sometimes bulk sale.) The plan was then to build a freakin heavy duty shelf to organize and hold these parts. We had a large pallet of some of the heaviest wood I’ve ever experienced in the back of the store. A few weeks later, Torsustey and I set to being carpenters. We bought a crowbar (useful in many applications) and disassembled the pallet with more testosterone than necessary, and big hammers, and teamed up to measure, cut, and nail wood. The result, a mega shelf unit with three shelves that can hold 2 milk crates deep and about 7 long. There’s more plans in the mix to build a good sales display for parts and accessories. Currently, the majority of the purchasers of these parts are bicycle sellers, the minority individual customers. It is intended that with better advertising (the finalizing of the signboard) and with a customer accessible sales display, individual customers without the time or the desire to sort through crates of parts can see what they need easily and buy it, increasing sales to individual customers.

Continued organizing of both the file cabinet in the front store and the parts cabinet in the workshop has occurred. For the front store, the filing system had previously been a pile of folders, papers, notebooks etc. When you need something, you sort through it and find it. We decided to improve the system with hanging folders categorized with subcategories of manila folders inside to make everything have a place, which it now does. We’ve separated the drawers into four sections: information, personnel, operations, and invoices/receipts. This is a system that I masterminded, and worked with Maud to create. If it works well for Maud or Torsu into the coming years, wonderful. If not, at the very least it offers a model for organization and could be adapted to the changing needs of the office. Our previous organization of the parts cabinet had ended with cartridge and loose assembly bottom brackets, leaving five open drawers. We left crates of other small parts waiting in the corner. After a discussion of the best way to subdivide the drawers, Sule, Julius and I realized that we need to use thicker plywood that can be nailed into place through the thin metal walls of the drawers. We set to work, Sule cutting and shaping the wood, Julius and I organizing and measuring the space needed for drawer divisions. Currently, we’ve thoroughly organized headset parts, 1-piece bottom bracket parts, bearings, axles, stem bolts, seat clamps among others. The workshop is doing fine. Awaiting the construction of a fourth bench for Agyen, and also a matrix shelving system for organizing seatposts by size and another one for spokes, as well as a work order board, another bench and a local material bike stand for the outside roofed area.

For the past two months, the bike stock has been low, and has recently finished apart from about 8 frames. I’ve encouraged the mechanics to practice truing wheels, which Miriam and Julius were enthusiastic about and Agyen and Sule less so. Miriam had been truing wheels for Agyen and Sule’s bike builds, so she has gotten very good. One day I was replacing major rusted spokes on a wheel for a bike Sule was building, and Miriam observed. She said let me do one. I said sure. We got out the spoke ruler, found some spokes from our spoke box (pending organization) and I helped her set up the wheel. When she finished, she did another on her own. Yeah, I was impressed.

The second week of May, Arik Grier the office manager at Bikes Not Bombs came to visit for a week. Arik moved right into Ghana as if he had been here for years. Together we were immersed in intense Koforidua experiences and together we learned a lot. Arik came to visit Ability Bikes Cooperative in order to see the project first-hand, to enter into relationship with the workers giving the workers a friend and contact person in the BNB office, and to aid in developing the administrative procedures of the Ability Bikes office. The visit was very effective on all fronts. It started however with a first night at the beach – time to chill, talk, breathe, see one of the most beautiful night skies ever, watch a kora player practice, stand in the shallows with a cider and shout down the foundations of Babylon. Next morning with a bath in the ocean and up to Kof. Dinner with Maud and Torsu, good times. The next day spent with an impromptu lunch party at the house, everyone from Ability Bikes but Julius. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday at the shop, in the office. Arik helped us to look critically at our cash book procedures and the payroll system and offered advice on how to improve them. There were also many discussions between Arik and I about the history of the project, various analysis of project dynamics, of future growth potential. We discussed at length the development of the cooperative system of accounting and the process of the first annual meeting. Since Maud and Torsu still need to fully understand in practice the complexities of the business accounting system, how can they be expected to process the cooperative accounts on their own at the first annual meeting? This meeting is critical, because it will be a presentation of the years profit and loss, balances, and the distribution of the profit (or loss) to both the business account and to the individual worker accounts. Potential dividend amounts will be decided upon, with the remaining amounts in the worker accounts to be reinvested in the business. The previous year’s financial performance will be analyzed, decisions will be made regarding the next years budget and any other policy decisions will be made. To be done well, it’ll be a lot of work, and could use some guidance. The question of guidance for this annual meeting will be revisited in BNB / AB discussions. A cooperative expert, Ghanaian or other, consultant or volunteer… The last night in Accra, rooftop, looking into the sky again. Great to have Arik here, but I knew he was off to more goodness in his Ethiopian musical journeys.

There was a bit of a lull in the schedule of cooperative meetings for Ability Bikes. This was due to the intention of developing an action plan and budget to be presented at the meeting. One distraction after the other, one important work priority taking priority over the last. Time went. About a week and a half ago, we had the best coop meeting to date. It was a full day meeting. The thing that made it so incredible and extraordinary is that many things were discussed, many decisions were made, and there were no negative feelings expressed. The entire meeting was orderly and respectful. At certain points, criticisms of individual members were expressed in positive ways with positive responses. An important policy that undoubtedly influenced the peace and productivity of the meeting is that of a revolving chairperson. The coop has 6 members. Usually the 2 administrators chaired the meetings by default, developing the agenda, projecting un-intended hierarchy, increasing tension. Sule chaired the meeting and did an excellent job. Torsustey respected this position and assisted in Sule’s meeting role. Among the discussions and decisions were meeting schedule, meeting structure, preparation of meeting agendas, cooperative membership fees and dues, assessment of options for extra storage (land with containers or other rented stores), signboard and t-shirts, the pending container from Working Bikes Cooperative in Chicago!!!! (awesome new space – saw the pics, damn), hiring a contract clearing agent, the grand opening ceremony, and behavioral discipline in the workspace. We ended the meeting at 5:45, said peace to each other and felt good that another productive step was taken.

The system we’ve decided upon for the payment of the workers, the membership fee, dues, taxes etc. is this (***feedback welcome***): Each worker gets a monthly salary which is currently 70 GHC per month (better than average in Koforidua). Once taxes begin being paid, the gross salary will be increased to accommodate the taxes while maintaining around a 70 GHC net income. Taxes include 10% income tax and 5% Social Security, with 12.5% Social Security paid out by the business. The essence is that at the end of the year, the monies paid to each worker in salaries (not including the 12.5% SS paid out from the business account) are totaled and subtracted from the total income allocated to the individual worker’s account that year. The total allocated income per worker is based on the percentage of hours worked by that worker in relation to the total number of hours worked by the coop workers that contributed to the total profit for the year. (50% net profit for the year gets sent to the business account, and 50% gets allocated to the worker accounts.) If the allocated profit is more than the monies paid to the worker that year in salaries, the worker’s account will be positive. If the allocated profit is less than the monies paid to the worker that year in salaries, then the worker’s account will be negative. This potential loss will not affect the agreed upon monthly salaries for the workers the following year, but will just leave their member account in the negative. The number of enormous expenses this first year such as rent and payback of loans has reduced the business potential for profit. It is expected that any negative accounts will balance positive in coming years because profitability potential is strong. Regarding the membership fee, since it would financially affect the workers for AB to take a direct cash payment for the membership fee from them, it was decided that we can increase the gross monthly salary by 10 GHC, deduct that 10 GHC each month for 10 months making 100 GHC. This 100 GHC will be included in the total monies paid for the year and will be deducted from the workers allocated profit. After 10 months, the increased salary will remain. Dues will be cash payments made on behalf of the worker to pay for coop specific expenses (such as any expense incurred in printing, photocopying or refreshments at meetings).

About three weeks ago, Maud, Torsu, Sule and I met with a clearing agent and discussed the clearing of the next container. We agreed on a mutually beneficial pay rate, and we are currently waiting for the bill of lading. Due to the impossibility of Ability Bikes Cooperative getting a tax id number until registration is complete, Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah graciously agreed to assist Ability Bikes Cooperative to clear the container under the name and tax id number of his organization EEFSA. Thanks Emmanuel! – offering this critical support to the project. Once the bill of lading is in, the clearing agent will set to work processing it with the inspection company, that will value the goods based on certain standards and will prepare an official document detailing these values. This document is taken to an independent clearing agency that has access to the customs online database. The values are processed in the database and an official document is produced detailing the bill to customs. Since bicycles are already exempt from customs, the taxes and duties will be minimal, however the taxes at the shipping line and the container terminal will be a significant amount. At the point that this customs document is produced, Torsutsey and I will meet the clearing agent in Tema, go to customs, pay the fees, go to the shipping line, pay the fees, and then go to the container terminal, pay the fees, get the container, the driver, and get the hell out of that industrial pollution back to the mountains man. It is expected that there will be no demurrage (late) fees to pay, as we are going to act on this bill of lading process with unprecedented speed.

This pending container is from Working Bikes Cooperative in Chicago (, which managed to pack and send us a container with 500+ bikes very soon after moving into a new space which must have required significant effort. These efforts are offering the critical support Ability Bikes needs at this time. AB still owes a debt to the landlord and has a significant loan to pay off before AB can begin to pay toward acquiring extra storage. Ability Bikes is not responsible for paying overseas shipping on this container. Thank you Working Bikes for helping us out critically.

Ability Bikes is managing financially, but for the past two months there has not been significant income due to the reduced stock of bikes for sale. AB has kept afloat through the sporadic sales of our remaining bikes, used parts sales, and repairs (which are increasingly more frequent). We also sold the fence!!, I mean, we as in Ability Bikes.. ok, Maud sold the fence. She rocks. 5 pieces of US quality 8’ x 12’ fence sold at 130 GHC each making 650 GHC. We been trying to sell that damn fence for the past year, and now in the time of need, providence. So this leaves us with about 1000 big GHC, and lots of wheels and parts that can be wholesaled, along with bikes (including about 4 high-end bikes we built up from frames made possible by our increased wheel building). We can get at least another 1000 GHC from that minus this month’s salary amounting to around 400 GHC. This money will not be sufficient to clear the container. We estimate that it will cost around 2,500 GHC to clear this container, but we need to have at least 3,000 accessible in the bank. Loans from the bicycle sellers. Ever since the last container was cleared 5 months ago, the Koforidua bicycle sellers have been trying to give us money that will be credit toward the next wholesale. We refused because we don’t prefer debts. But we are going to approach this strategically. Nearly every wholesale has major tension and heightened male aggression in the hot sun – arguments abound, potential fights barely averted, it’s a rough day yo, but enables AB to avoid potential storage problems and to make large payments on debts, which is a very freeing experience, so we love it. We are developing the Ability Bikes Distribution Network (ABDN) that will allow bicycle sellers having their own physical workshop and point of sale to register as a member to be an official buyer during the wholesales. Registration will be a contract relationship with certain policies that the bike sellers must abide by to maintain membership. One major one is that only one representative from each shop at the wholesale, final. This will hopefully build a positive and professional relationship between AB and the bike sellers and may possibly reduce the tension and challenge of the wholesale.

I’ve worked with Maud and Torsutsey to develop an action plan for the remaining three months. We are trying to critically look at all the goals that must be accomplished by this time, break that out into tasks and responsibilities. We are going to work through it systematically to make sure that enough critical tasks get done in time. It is a goal of mine that Maud and Torsu will make this planning process their own, and as a result of this planning, experience the results of systematic task accomplishment, which will be in the form of a financially and legally stable Ability Bikes, an accomplishment for them to behold and say they did it.

On the long-term agenda is the search for extra storage. There are so many possibilities, but none seemed to be ideal so we just kept moving on. The most promising possibility over the past few months had been a piece of land, owned by Ghana Railway Company, about a 10 minute walk from the shop. A bit far, but doable. Large enough to hold 3 containers comfortably. The land is easily accessible by a 40ft flatbed truck and a crane, but is slopes, so would require a significant foundation built up about 4-5 ft on the back end. This particular situation of the slope would probably require a crane, which is crazy expensive. We schemed how we could make it happen, but we don’t even know the cost of the land, and this could be a very long process to find out, requiring substantial bribes. In the back of my mind had been another possibility, that I did not feel ready to inquire upon until recently, until I could tell the landlord exactly when we will pay him the balance we owe him, now that the container is confirmed, and on some enormous boat floating over the Atlantic at this very moment. Next to the two workshop stores are three stores in a row that are connected without walls on the inside, a veritable warehouse. I knew that the landlord used part of that space for his own borehole water pumps (his personal business), and that a friend of his used the rest of the space as a storage facility. I called the landlord and asked about those stores, prefaced by the statement we will pay you in 4 weeks. He told me that his friend’s interest in the space dwindled and that he would call this person, and if he no longer needs the space, the landlord could give us two of the stores. Satisfied I discussed this with the other workers. This is the most ideal storage space ever. It’ll cost another load of money, but the lease is ten years with the majority payment up front. On the phone the landlord said he would agree to a gradual payment schedule. He informed me that he always wants to support Emmanuel’s work, and now that he sees the character of Ability Bikes, he wants to support the work for physically challenged people. So the next day, he called and asked if we want all three stores, I said, ideally, swallowing the words: but the money, and he said he’ll try to find another space for his goods and will get back to me. All three stores would allow Ability Bikes to operate so comfortably, so effectively. Oh the visions I’ve had since those conversations. Anyway, we’ll see how things work out.

These past two weeks have been particularly exciting for Ability Bikes, due to new relationships, new possibilities, new stimulus. We agreed to support Craig Calfee and a team of bamboo bike frame builders that work in a small town near Koforidua to build up 7 frames as part of a bicycle mechanics training for the framebuilders. A full set of parts got shipped through VBP for the bikes – all new parts, beautiful stuff. We plan to do the training the end of this week.

Also, we’ve begun to work with Wisdom, the man aka “The Boy” as he is known in Accra. He’s a damn good Ghanaian bike mechanic, now 46 years old. He joined the business in his youth – made a bike completely out of wood that he rode to school, later exhibited in Ghana and then moved to a museum in France. Bicycles became his life at an early age. Wisdom learned how to do virtually all his mechanics through practice, critically exploring the principles of each component, understanding its system. During his 2-day visit, Wisdom taught us many things, but we focused on wheels. Let me just say that I have been the principal trainer for the Ability Bikes mechanics. All other experienced Ghanaian bike mechanics in Koforidua are competition. Wisdom came to Koforidua as an experienced Ghanaian mechanic who knows his job, and who shared this knowledge openly to the AB mechanics. Fireworks. They connected so well. I asked Sule who said, Man… he’s a cool guy. Miriam and Agyen now call him Uncle Wisdom. Wisdom gave the nickname “The Girl” to Miriam. Good times with a great friend. Wisdom focused on wheels during the two day visit. He showed his methods of straightening pretzeled rims, truing wheels, building wheels, spoke calculation on the fly, and finally freehub overhaul and repair. This was my first time overhauling a freehub, and now I can repair them as well, psyched. A shaky freehub probably indicates wear on the bearing races. A set of 3 washers separate the cup and cone, one washer ultrathin. Depending on the degree of shaking, one of the washers can be removed to shorten the distance between the cup and cone thereby reducing the play and correspondingly the shake. Also worn pawls can be ground back to shape. Wisdom took his job of mentor seriously, the workers became his students, he set an example for work ethic, offered business advice. What a great visit, bringing new energy and new possibilities, let alone new skills. Miriam and Julius have taken to Wisdom’s method of wheelbuilding, as opposed to my own, and I’m cool with that, it works for them and I’ll help them with more theory. The wheels are well built, and they are cranking them out with joy. All of this wheelbuilding and wheel repair has increased the amount of usable 26” wheels and is allowing us to build up those remaining frames into some solid high end bikes. Anyway, looking forward to more relationship with Wisdom.

Ability Bikes is expecting two more nearly confirmed containers in 2009. Income from these containers should pay off debts and the potential expense of renting the 3-store warehouse next to the workshop, leaving Ability Bikes the opportunity to save subsequent income in an offshore dollar account to be used for payment of overseas shipping on subsequent containers. Further income will allow Ability Bikes to purchase new parts for sale in bulk and pack them down in the warehouse, making more profit per item. Ability Bikes will also be able to purchase new bikes in bulk (there is a high demand for Japanese upright 3-speeds), pack them down, assemble, and sell them in addition to the used bikes. If the time is right, Ability Bikes can accept new members as mechanics, and it the bike stock grows past the immediate demand of Koforidua, can develop a system of selling bikes in rural areas around Koforidua. If the money is there, Ability Bikes could potentially order higher quality tools from Taiwan for sale and distribution. Further income could mean seed funding another bike shop for disabled people. These are just possibilities. The real work is the day-to-day operations, keeping things moving, growing. The goal however is to do one thing very good (this one bike shop providing 6 jobs), before looking into any other directions. But we’ve got so much potential, it doesn’t hurt to dream.

Friday, March 13, 2009

new pics

March 13

We been busy. I’m ultra excited about recent developments cause now we’re able to see how the structure’s gonna look – we’ve got a strong enough foundation and now we’re building above ground. We’re seeing our earlier visions of business and space design come to pass. We’ve been organizing and reorganizing, renovating, breaking walls, welding, repatching, brainstorming, building, taking action, relaxing, enjoying work. The workers are taking more responsibility and holding each other accountable to the collective. The stores are gradually, physically, becoming our ideal. Project relationships seem to be coming into place.

The week after the January container was unloaded, my body proceeded to adopt a mild cold, a welcome rest, but we had a meeting with Augustina, the Koforidua Department of Cooperatives Field Worker! So I braved the day with Maud and Torsutsey and went to the Cooperative office, which with Maud was like a 30 minute walk in the hot sun, but we collected oranges along the way. We arrived and then climbed 3 flights of stairs in this crazy organic government building that looks like a habitation for bats, with lots of big-leafed vegetation surrounding it. This was our first meeting with Augustina, and she stood at the top of the stairs looking very empathetic toward Maud, who courageously climbed the steps – her message to the world that she can do things most people think she can’t. We arrive in the office sweating, are offered water, and then begin the discussions. We explained the mission and purpose of Ability Bikes and emphasized our commitment to worker ownership and equal power in decision-making. We were told that our bike shop does not match the common model of cooperatives in Ghana, and that there are certain requirements for cooperatives that we don’t meet (such as a ten member minimum), but were given the opportunity to further explain the nature of the business and the system of cooperative accounting we wish to employ. We were promised a visit by Augustina. About a week later, Augustina came to the shop and met with the workers for a few hours. She agreed to register Ability Bikes as a cooperative, but only after we complete the business and accounting training and work with her to establish our cooperative accounting system. Its exciting for all of us.

We have begun to act as a cooperative during meetings and daily operations, but there is so much more to be understood and accepted by some of the workers about cooperatives. One of the major proponents of the cooperative system among the workers is Sule. He seems to understand fully that worker ownership is freedom and also an extraordinary chance to generate member income. He is also such an outspoken advocate for equality that the cooperative system matches his ethics, which corresponds with him being a great leader at meetings and in daily work. Sule will grab the important issues, talk about them and make sure that people express their opinions and that progress is made toward a resolution before the issue is put down. Decision-making at recent meetings has been a great development. When the workers meet, they have been peaceful, efficient and effective, as compared to early meetings where a difference of opinion would pose a social challenge resulting in tension, I suppose based on the norm that a different opinion aims to dominate its opposition. Constructive criticism is occurring more often among the workers than ever before – they are becoming more comfortable as a group – like a family.

Regarding cooperative accounting… money is cash that can be seen and felt and not money amounts written on paper or computer screens – some workers have expressed their distrust of conceptual money. This is the next challenge. We’ve got to establish our accounting system and detail the member shares. All the workers need to be involved to check on their shares and to review the accounts. The business needs to be looked upon as a form of investment. The average market tomato seller needs to continually reinvest cash into tomatoes, which are as good as money until sold and turned into a cash return. In this same way, the workers will be reinvesting in the business that will transform operations into member shares, which are split into monthly personal income and reinvested income, which is the member’s share of the profit and belongs to the member but is governed by an established system of accounting requiring the reinvestment, which helps the business grow and generate more profit. It’s a matter of trust. Once we set up the accounting system it will be easier to have trust.

We recently had too much fun on our trip to Kokrobite, a hip beach place just west of Accra, an Ability Bikes workers retreat. We had a meeting and simply enjoyed being together – it was so awesome. It was Agyen’s first time seeing the ocean. At night, he went alone out by the docked fishing boats, sat on the sand and just looked out into it. We arrived on a Saturday, chopped food together, rested, I took a swim, then had our meeting where the objective was to detail the cooperative policy toward the workers. We discussed many points such as meeting schedule, decision-making processes, systems for dealing with wrongdoing such as theft, new worker membership, penalty for lateness, behavior expectations, as well as other issues such as signboards, customer relations, etc. It was a good and productive meeting, but everyone’s attention was soon turning to enjoyment. We had beers, and then the reggae band came on, and we danced-o. At first, we had our little circle outside Maud and Miriam’s room, where we all danced free. Everyone bringin their moves. Then Agyen and Miriam grabbed me to dance in the pit. We found our space and felt the positive vibrations for a while, synching the pulse of blood and music. So awesome to be with the workers in this way. A different context of enjoyment and not of task accomplishment. The night led me to crash hard and sandy. The next morning was a walk on the beach, collecting shells, visiting the fishermen and eyeing their catch. I went out with empty bottles into the ocean to collect water for each of the workers to bring back to Koforidua (I think for medicinal purposes). Then chop (eat) time (food has been and still is such an enjoyment in Ghana). There’s a bunch of local vendors set-up on the beach – I opted for banku and okra stew and I chatted in my old Peace Corps language with the seller, who then gave me free fish.

Agyen, Haruna (our physically challenged friend), and I rode our bikes from Koforidua to Kokrobite, about 120 km each way. The ride to Kokrobite was great, but crazy going through northern Accra. Theres a whole stretch of road in Achimota that is under construction, and is dust, rough roads, no lanes, and about a thousand cars and trucks all trying to get “there” before the other. Yikes, adrenaline, survival – we got through the gauntlet after being coated with dust and exhaust externally and internally. Then through La Paz which is a major commercial stretch of road, an obstacle course of steel, concrete, street venders and awareness. Then out of Accra, facing a strong headwind, we pushed toward our future, the ocean. That Sunday morning, while saddling up our bikes, I chatted with an excellent guy from Ireland, Julian, who is on an incredible trek from Ireland to South Africa on his bike, a Thorn with a 14 speed internally geared rear hub, front generator hub. He and a friend he met on the road have been riding together since Mali or so. According to him there is a whole culture of people touring the length of Africa on bikes, and meeting up randomly and repeatedly in different countries. I try to imagine moving through countries and cultures rapidly like that for such an extended period. An awesome meeting. I decided not to bathe cause I was going to get dirty again. We posed for pictures, and then north. After Accra there was one stretch of road that just felt like it went on forever, until we reached Suhum, a town about 25 km away from Koforidua, which is the common destination for our regular training rides, a familiar face. We rested small and felt a surge of accomplishment over our journey. Did I mention that Agyen and Haruna are both physically challenged? And that Haruna carries his walking stick between his right hand and his grip when he rides, shifts both right and left grip shift with his left hand, and has only one strong riding leg? Haruna definitely slowed us down, but that guy is slow and steady. He doesn’t quit. Just keeps going. Last Tuesday, he embarked on a solo journey to the Northern Region, which takes five days one way. Incredible. He is going there because he has a group of physically challenged friends there who want to start a riding club. Agyen and Haruna are great friends, and intend to establish disabled cycling as an official sport of Ghana Society of the Physically Disabled (GSPD) and to train disabled cyclists in all of the ten regions of Ghana. I love it. So Haruna is probably in the Northern Region as I write this, but we have no idea how he is faring cause he lost his phone a few weeks ago and hasn’t called us yet. When he returns he will be a superhero. In Suhum, after our basking in the energy of fitness, we raced to Koforidua chasing the remaining light from the setting sun.

Since the beginning of the project, its been the plan to make major renovations to the stores to support bike shop operations. There were just too many expenses that drew our income after the first container, and it was necessary to conserve what we had to complete the training and save money to clear the January container. We recently have been sitting on about two thousand cedis (revenue from the January container wholesale) and have been using this money to make all of the critical store developments. We recently constructed a superb wheel and tire hanging structure in the workshop, capable of holding 64 wheels and about 90 tires. We also put money into the plumbing (the shared church toilet), into the electric wiring of the workshop and the front store, and we are now working with a carpenter to build a desk for the front office and a large sales-counter with display. This is all so critical. The workers are doing their jobs, and they need the physical space to enable them to do so. We’ve also been preparing to make beautiful signboards – in the design stage. Once these developments are made, it will change the public face of Ability Bikes, that will no longer be the nondescript bike shop in the back lot that people know as the best place to get a bike “if you know about it,” but will become the established professional bike shop in Koforidua that is publicly and authoritatively the best place to buy or fix a bike. It was an early reservation of mine that the shop would out-compete the small bike sellers. I absolutely see this now in another light. Ability Bikes has become the hub of the bicycle community of Koforidua. Bike sellers receive much of their stock from the AB wholesales, and come to us for the wheel or cassette to complete a bike. Each day, we’ve got about 5 bike sellers visiting us, hanging out, helping sweep in the morning and unpack bikes, joking, being friendly. There is definitely a business motive in these visits, but it doesn’t boil down to that – the bike sellers love Ability Bikes. Even when established physically and publicly, Ability Bikes will draw lots of customers, but I’m confident that the demand for bicycles is ever-growing and that each bicycle seller operates in his or her (one female bike seller in the lot) domain, and since (it seems) that many Ghanaians shop locally and are loyal to local businesses, the bike sellers’ businesses will not suffer but will thrive in relationship with Ability Bikes. In time we’ll develop our customer base and person-to-person advertising network, and we’ll hopefully maintain a mutually beneficial bike market symbiosis with the bike sellers.

Scrap metal yards are cool. I’ve been into them lately. The #1 place for affordable wheel and tire-hanging structure materials. We bought the heavy metal brackets and the long lengths of angle iron from the official store, but we got the heavy metal bars and small rebar pieces for the remaining hooks from the scrap metal yard in Manpower’s neighborhood (Manpower is our fantastic welder). The scrap metal yard is located on the outskirts of the neighborhood next to a huge garbage dump that is also used as an early dawn toilet, so there’s a mild scent but manageable. On the ground outside the place is strewn metal, from pieces of dead cars to white-coated refrigerator shelves. Then there’s the fenced-in lot (fence and doors made from welded scraps) that has the slightly more valuable metals (unorganized and strewn), heavy metal plates, bicycle frames, rusted gates, and then the inner room (that leads into the living space of the scrap metal yard owner) that has the organized stock of rebar, brackets, sheet metal. Manpower and I first came into the inner room and got this 1 ¼ inch by 4 ft solid metal bar bent into hooks on either end (heavy metal), and the small rebar lengths. We later returned for a thick and heavy flat bar (some old industrial artifact) that we found bolted to these huge lengths of wood. It was perfect for our needs – got it for ten cedis but worth it. The operation: we break into the high corners of the walls as well as the high centers of each side wall, expose the rebar, weld the brackets and pieces of the heavy bar for added strength, repatch the walls with concrete. We measure, cut and weld the long lengths of angle iron, weld the hooks (thanks for making the hooks that distant container loading ago – they’re getting used now) – we chose 7 inches apart, about the length of a long rear axle to space the hooks (alternating one low one high), and burn holes in the ends of the angle iron to bolt them to the brackets. We weld the flat bars to the center of the angle iron, and burn holes in one end to bolt into the center brackets. We weld three 2 ½ ft lengths of angle iron each perpendicular to two longer lengths of angle iron, and weld these (stretching across the front and back walls) to the overall structure for tire hanging. The structure is complete and very strong. The only weakness though is that we couldn’t find the rebar in the high center of one of the side walls, so we just welded an anchor to the bracket and used concrete to hold it in. Its holding fine (just a relative weakness). That done, we had a workshop in major disorder, and have been working day after day to order it.

In another scrap metal yard, I found metal cabinets with drawers, and bought two, one for the front store files and one with eight subdivided drawers for the workshop to organize smaller parts such as bottom brackets, headsets, axles, etc. I see this as critical for accessibility. Its not easy to pick up a heavy bucket of bottom bracket spindles, dump em out, sort through em and find what you need, refill the bucket and replace it on the shelf. It is easy to open a drawer and sort through the five or ten 3T spindles categorized and labeled among the other sizes, find one that works for the bike and close the drawer. For convenience and space efficiency, we’ve been categorizing all of our parts large and small and sending the ones we don’t need to the front store for storage and eventual sale, the ones we can use we keep and have been systematically tediously arranging them in proper containers, with proper access. We’ve still got lots to go on the small parts, but this will have to be a gradual development cause it takes time. Today, we will put enough away that we can clean up the benches and get back to building bikes. We’ve been getting more repairs lately, and freely doing them cause it seems like we’ve got enough money, but the reality is that we’ve got to make the most money out of the remaining stock in order to make the final payment to the landlord (which is now only 1000 Ghana cedis) as well as have enough down to clear the next container from Working Bikes in Chicago coming in April.

Need for finances is definitely an issue, but Ability Bikes is gradually becoming less in debt, and this is a very liberating feeling. As soon as the business is capable financially though, it will be responsible for paying overseas shipping costs, which will replace enormous debt repayment with enormous expenses, but combined with the revenue from the containers will make for a sustainable business. There will be enough profit after the shipping expense to pay the workers, to operate the business, and to save money down for gradual expansion. If Ability Bikes can hire a few more mechanics, the pace of production will increase as will the pace of profit.

Our front store is also reaping the benefit of our renovation efforts. We have hired a carpenter to build an appropriate desk with drawers for Maud and Torsutsey to sit, meet, work, and a sales counter spanning the breadth of the front of the store with parts display shelves. I brainstormed with Torsutsey a couple days ago about building a wheel, tire and bike hanging structure for the back 2/3 of the store with parts storage shelving and some open space in the center for bike packing potential. The structure we are planning will not break into the walls, but will be supported at the four corners and at the left-side center by 1 ½ pipe. It will hang about 100 wheels around the high perimeter and 17-20 bikes along the left side at an accessible height (this can serve as a finished bike sales display along with the 10-15 bikes we can display street-side). Along the right side and the back wall we will build heavy wooden shelving to pack and store parts. We may be able to integrate tire storage into this structure (dependent on space) but the ceiling is so high it may be possible to have a row of wheels, then a row of tires, before reaching the shelving along the right and back walls… If not (or in addition), we will build another structure utilizing the high ceiling in the front 1/3 of the store for tire storage. Such an exciting time, building our workspace, our work environment.

Back to building-up the remaining bikes in storage, and letting the money flow. Maud, Torsutsey and I will attend the accounting training next week (its frustrating cause its systematically rescheduled by the trainer, but is so critical, and this guy knows his work, and holds a key to our future, so we need to be patient while pressuring him to make it happen – he’s a great and busy guy, but we’re determined). After this training, we will work with Augustina, establish our system of cooperative accounting and become a legal entity.

Ability Bikes Rules! – themselves –

Thursday, January 29, 2009


new container pics on flickr site

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

January 28

Tuesday January 20

Woah. Clearing this container is actually more complicated and difficult than the last. One challenge after the other. Strategic decisions that are second-guessed when luck seems to turn against us. But there’s light at the end of the very expensive tunnel – we’re almost through. One more day I believe.
The blow by blow:
Almost 2 weeks ago the container arrived. At that point, we believed that we could process the container exemption on customs duties and taxes under the nonprofit status of Emmanuel’s organization. On the 22nd of December, I submitted the exemption application letter with the bill of lading and the commercial invoice to the Ministry of Manpower that writes the initial letter recommending exemption for the organization. Due to the holidays and the presidential election re-vote on December 28th, we did not receive that letter until Wednesday, January 7th, the day the new president of Ghana was sworn in, and the day of formal administration change. I arrived in Accra through Achimota, a northern suburb, came down to Kwame Nkruma Circle, right about the center of Accra, and then needed to get down to the Ministries down by the coast. Grid lock traffic. Wish I had a bike. I walked (booked) about an hour (faster than the traffic) amidst NDC supporters also going toward the coast to the main square where the inauguration took place. I arrived soaked with sweat at the Ministry of Manpower, told them I walked fast, got the letter, took it right to Ministry of Finance, and they told me Friday. I came back Friday, and they told me Monday. At this point, I went back to Koforidua to wash clothes and prepare for the next week in Accra. Monday morning I go to the Ability Bikes shop and am feeling fine – everyone is on task, setting up for the day. I discuss the container clearing with the workers, also briefly discuss the accounting structure for cooperatives, share the new cable tips, housing ends, crank extractors, chain tool pins (thanks Carl!) that my friend Johanne brought to Ghana for us. I then called Ministry of Finance to let them know I’m on my way, and was told that the old ministers from the old administration have gone, and that we need to wait until the new ministers are appointed by the new president before we can get a letter exempting the container. Disbelief. No way. Oogh. (profanity of your choice).
Ok whats next. I call Hilda the Secretary of EEFSA and let her know that we’ve got to clear the container without the exemption. Reasons being that the first week the container is in the port is free- January 7th to the 13th, the second week is $24 a day- January 14th to the 20th, and from the 3rd week going the demurrage is $60 a day. There was no telling when the exemption letter would be processed. Also (making the exemption letter less realistic), after looking more closely at the letter written by the Ministry of Manpower, the Bill of Lading number referred to in the letter was incorrect. We would have to start over again at the Ministry of Manpower. Its better we just clear the container, pay the duties and taxes, and then avoid the heavy demurrage. I was told that the duties and taxes on the goods would be a minimum. (This container however is different from the others cause it has computers, books and wheechairs/walking aids.) Hilda tells me to call her friend Bebo, so I call Bebo, meet him, have slightly shady negotiations, and he agrees to help us expedite the process of valuing the goods at the inspection company before the duties can be paid at customs. He promises by Thursday. Then Friday. Then Monday. Eyes popping out of my head feeling powerless, waiting. Tuesday (today) at 12 noon, I got the paperwork, we make some corrections in the “long room” the main customs room in the Ghana Ports and Harbor Authority building filled with clearing agents, customs agents, unofficial cash transactions and paperwork. Then to a clearing agent office that processed the paperwork online. Back to the long room to finalize customs. We paid the duties and taxes (an exhorbitant amount) and then finalized our customs paperwork. Paying 10 Ghana Cedis to the customs agent for expedited processing – a half hour in what could ordinarily take between 3-5 hours. Yeah Bebo and Hilda for knowing the system. Hilda and I then rushed to the shipping line to pay the invoice, but were told to come back in the morning cause we were too late. Tomorrow is the day. We’re gonna pay the shipping line, process the paperwork there for clearing, go to the container terminal, pay them and bribe the officials, and get the container up to Koforidua. I’m hoping that the nonspecific physical weirdness I feel now is the result of dry heat, industrial pollution and comprehensive exhaustion with the slight residue of beer and coffee, my two stops after the shipping line, and not some devious tropical opportunistic germ. Saw the Obama inauguration today at the bar, with about 30 other Ghanaians hooting and chanting “Obama.” Left central Tema in a shared taxi listening to talk radio about Obama, with the discussion topic: “would two leaders of opposing parties in Ghana be able to sit next to each other in the same car? Oh America.” Got an early morning tomorrow, so I’m gonna have some water and crash.

Monday January 26

Woah again. Got the container Thursday, unloaded it Friday, fixed wheelchairs at the hospital on Saturday, crashed yesterday, still freakin tired today, but ready to continue the process. I’m in the house now after fetching some water, coffee cookin on the stove. I need to recount everything before more things happen.

Last Wednesday, I expected to get the container out. I arrive at the shipping line at about 7 am to ensure that we were the first in line. I enter the air conditioned void – a modern building with white walls, windows that don’t open, and uniform chairs. It was actually relaxing to just sit, but soon became a holding cell packed with frustrated (though confident looking) clearing agents, whose faces told the amount of time they were waiting there. Hilda came just before they opened and we submitted our paperwork and paid our invoice. We then waited. Then we bribed one of the workers. We waited. Finally we bribed the security guy to go put our paperwork on the top of the pile. In about an hour (about 3pm) we were out of there, rushing to the container terminal to start processing the paperwork to expedite the clearing process the following day. We hire a taxi and get there quickly. As we walk to the guard booth, we are told we can’t come in because we are wearing sandals, that we need shoes that cover out toes. We grab a taxi and rush around looking for shoes to buy, taking us all the way into central Tema. We stop at the market, jump out, separate. I find a jammin pair of used white sneakers without insoles, Hilda some brown leather shoes. Back to the terminal. We walk in, pay the one cedi fee, plus rent a reflective vest for 1 cedi. Hilda goes and talks to some people, and finds out that its too late to start the paperwork and that we must come back the following day. Hilda leaves the paperwork with one of the workers, as well as a 20 cedi bribe, to start the paperwork for us so that the following day we will rock the container. We each go our separate ways.
Next morning, Thursday, we meet at the container terminal at the same time as if synchronized – weird. Wearing our shoes, we wait to be let in. Upon entering, I go sit at the waiting area while Hilda works her magic, going from office to office, offering bribes with a smile (more bribes this time than the last. I think because we were told by some others at the container terminal that they had been waiting there 3 days to even get their container down for examination.) In about a half hour, we pay our fees, and shortly after are called to the container to prepare for examination. Amazingly quick. When I get there, about five guys are already pulling bikes out and packing them. I’m saying to them why are they doing this, let the customs official come and we’ll talk to him first, cause maybe he won’t make us unload. They relent. I sit and start thinking damn, all the bikes and computers and books will probably not all fit back in. I call George, the recipient of the books and computers, and I ask him to come to Tema, and to hire a truck when he gets here, cause they’re gonna unload it all. And I don’t want to leave any behind. George says he’ll be there very soon. The workers come back and Hilda tells me we could probably take out half, that the customs official will definitely want to see whats inside the boxes, and will want to see that there’s no more boxes behind the bikes, halfway will be enough. I say lets do it. The workers start unpacking the boxes, and we differentiate book boxes and computer boxes for an easier count. Bikes are also flowing out, the workers and everyone around eyeing them up. Asking me how much, cause they want to buy. I say not for sale. Random customs officials walk by, open some of the book boxes, sort through the books, take a few, walk on. We keep unpacking. George comes, we communicate information, he gets a truck. Finally we are about halfway in, and its good enough. Two customs officials come to examine our goods. We start cutting open all the boxes to let them see inside. They seem relaxed in some insane euphoria. Power. Hilda tells me that they probably want to count all of the computers (which puts us in an uncertain situation, cause the man we hired to process the inspection company paperwork did some guesswork on quantities to help the goods be valued, and if his guesswork doesn’t match the real deal, there’s either added fees or substantial bribes.) I keep opening the boxes with a zeal that communicates we’ve got nothin to hide. Finally one of the customs officers tells me its ok, I can stop. An internal sigh of relief. I hang out while they discuss the computers and books with George. I’m called over, and George tells me that the officials will be taking one CPU. I say, oh. The officials then tell me that they will be taking two bikes for their children, and asked me if I have a problem with that. I hesitate, and say, no problem. They select two very nice Gary Fisher 20” mountain bikes. Then one customs officer tells me that they will be taking a third for their colleague. I consent while resisting. Hilda tells me that this is how they survive, by getting these goods to supplement their income, which is not enough for their families. She tells me its all part of the system, there are formal payments and informal payments. They look in the container, say ok, and the workers set to packing the bikes in. Cool. Our driver arrives. In about 45 minutes, the container is packed, and then George’s goods start getting packed. At this time, I start chasing the crane operator. (The cranes are these enormous and amazingly agile machines, man, and they’ve got these crazy expandable electromagnetic pincers.) The terminal has two cranes. After about a half hour of waiting I realized I’m chasing the wrong crane, the one designated for pulling containers down rather than putting them on trucks. I find the other, give him the paperwork, show him the receipt of payment, and he puts our container in the queue. In about 20 minutes, our container is on the truck, George’s goods are packed, 2:30 pm. I met another woman (who I had seen waiting with us the previous day at the shipping line) chasing the first crane operator. She told me that she had paid and processed all of her paperwork the day before, but that she still hasn’t been able to get her container down for examination, that she was tired and hungry. I realize that we really moved fast, and I wonder if the bribes made this happen. In terms of finances, you pay less in bribes than you do in demurrage. We get out the main gate, George’s truck goes to his destination, Hilda gets in Georges car for a ride home, I hop in our truck. I relax into gravity. The driver tells me he’s going to do some small work on his truck before we go. I say ok, cause I’m hungry and this gives me the opportunity to rush into Tema and get my bag, as well as more money from the bank. I complete my movements, and the driver tells me to come back to the truck yard. I do and see that one wheel is off. I tell the driver that we absolutely need to get to Koforidua tonight, cause we’ve got people coming at dawn. I could only sit in the truck and be happy that at least we got the container. Over the past few weeks, I’ve learned to adapt to extreme disappointment and uncertainties, so despite the possibility that everything might go wrong, I knew that we could once again adapt to it, so I felt good. By 8 pm we were off. Stopped by the bourgeois gas station market, got a candy bar and a guava juice, and some phone credit, and we moved. I made calls to the Ability Bikes folks that we are on for the next morning. I also received many calls of excitement. We did it. About halfway to Koforidua, an air hose blew, and the truck stopped. Fortunately we were stopped for only 30 minutes. We moved on. Twice more the air hose blew, with the last 50 kilometers the incessant sound of escaping air, but we got there. Pulled in around 1 am. I leave my bag at the shop, grab a 3-speed, and go home for a nap. We did it.

Tuesday January 27

Woke up the next day with a call from Julius at 4:15 am. I told him, Julius I’m sleeping, I’ll see you there at 5:30. A few more calls from the workers before I got out of bed at 5:20. Threw on clothes, grabbed the bike and off to the shop. Arrive to meet a few Ability Bikes workers and some of the hired help. We make a quick plan of action, open the container doors, and begin. Soon everyone is there helping either to carry bikes or to stand watch.

This container was a breath of fresh air. It’s the first container that arrived at all for Ability Bikes that the workers were involved with. The early stages of the June 2008 container was mostly controlled by me and EEFSA, and at that point, the workers were not even selected, though Sule and Julius helped sort through the tools and parts and to organize the workshop early on. This container however marks an extremely important step for Ability Bikes. Now the workers themselves organized the cash to bring the container in, organized the stores to hold the bikes, organized the day of unloading, organized nearly everything related to this container. There is a certain sense of ownership that is now felt at Ability Bikes that was not felt before. The worker roots have extended and have taken a better grip of the soil. This container is theirs, they’ve earned it. And their going to make the best use of it. This “container” that so much time, energy and money has gone into reeling in, is no longer abstract hopes but physical, present.

We continued the unloading in great spirits. It was like a reunion between me and the workers, cause I had been in Accra and Tema for just over two weeks, seeing them only that one Monday morning that I got the Ministry of Finance news. One new development that corresponds with their sense of ownership is my own changing role. When I started, I was the organizer, then the trainer, then the manager and director, and now the stage crew, cause its not me on stage leading the action, it’s the workers, and I’m just making sure they’ve got what they need for a smooth performance.

Maud, Torsutsey and I sat down to discuss the wholesale of the bikes for us to get the critical money needed to pay back debts, or at least to exchange purchased credit for bikes. I don’t think that I mentioned it before, but the day I was running around Tema bearing the shock of how freakin much this container clearing is gonna cost us (after I got the bill from customs), I called Maud and told her yo, we need money if we’re going to be able to get this container out of the port, this is extremely serious. Maud said lets take advance payments from the bike sellers. In two hours 1,500 GHC (which is something like $1,300) was deposited into the account by Maud. I was amazed that this could happen so quickly and in such large quantity. I was impressed by Maud and Torsutsey’s quick response. I relaxed cause no matter how much over-budget we were, we had the money to do the job. The next day another bicycle seller gave Maud another 800 GHC to deposit in the account. So, these bicycle sellers who helped us seriously, need to have their credit exchanged with bikes as soon as possible for there to be peace, so, wholesale. It dawned on us that instead of packing the wholesale bikes and then unpacking them on another day, we should do the wholesale that very Friday, save ourselves the energy, and appease the sellers. We inform the 5 bike sellers that supported us. As we were separating out the wholesale bikes, about 15 other bike sellers showed up. Our system of group wholesale is this: everyone puts their name on the list, each person’s name gets called in order and they pick one bike. This prevents one bike seller from getting all of the high quality bikes. In this case however, we let those bike sellers that supported us with cash take two bikes at their turn. Then came negotiations on the price. We provided a price list that was turned down, and were given the sellers prices which were ridiculous. We reviewed our prices, adapted them, presented them. Again they were refused. We tweaked a few numbers, consensus, let the wholesale begin.

I then did a rough count of all the bikes and the prices we were selling them at. I estimated that the average price we were getting was 28 GHC per bike. This was 2 GHC less than the first wholesale. When we have more storage and more money, we can be more strict with our wholesale pricing, but selling 200 bikes (the lower-end half of the container) we were going to get 5,600 GHC. We ended up getting about 5,800 GHC cause we sold a few higher end bikes at on-the-street market prices, for the bike sellers’ personal use.

Man, this wholesale was tiring. We all were on point for the whole day, and there was barely a minute to eat. I ended up eating two pieces of fried yam the entire day (until I chopped heavy after the whole affair). Most of the workers also hadn’t gotten the time to eat. And it was hot and dry. We were running off of so much adrenaline and commitment though, that we could handle it. It was an incredible day. Once the bikes got sold and were moved out of the compound, we started packing our own into the stores.

Wednesday January 28

Last Friday was the first day that we moved into the new store. It felt like a new life for the business. Suddenly we had 50% more space, on a streetside with heavy pedestrian (and car) traffic. Things are gonna change. We’re gonna sell more bikes with our new visibility, and we are gonna gain a widespread reputation. We packed two rows of bikes two-high (for accessibility) filling about half the store. We then brought in tires, tubes, crutches, wheelchairs and all the wheels, just to pack them down so they don’t crowd our workshop space. There’s also an old sales counter in the store that we can rehabilitate and use. We are psyched for it – to get the front store operational – I’m dreaming developments, cause now we’ve got money to work with.

After that Friday of unloading the container, we had a weekend to recuperate. Saturday, I assembled some wheelchairs at a local hospital with Agyen, and chilled on my favorite corner in town. Sunday I crashed. Monday we organized the parts and packed them down for further organization, and Maud and Torsutsey accounted for all the money we made and spent. Yesterday, Tuesday, we had basically a day-long meeting (with a few hours break in the middle) at which we had important discussions on sales policy, employee discounts, current financial position of the business, and the pending registration of the business as a worker-owned cooperative, as well as the basic accounting system of cooperatives. These discussions were critical, but there was not always a uniform position. I feel that the most important system that can be developed is collective decision-making. I’m going to provide space for this to occur as much as possible, for the system to develop in practice, before I go. Yesterday, we also deposited all of the cash and made a deposit to the landlord on the front store. We had to reschedule the business admin training to the week of February 9th. It was scheduled for this week, but we rescheduled it last week due to the delay on the container. The 9th is the earliest NBSSI could take us. I see this as fine, and it will allow us to prepare more fully for the training, as well as initiate the process of cooperative registration, which will take a few months. We will visit the cooperative representative in Koforidua today.