The African Procurement Journey – European Leg

Thomas Kase is chairing the East Africa Procurement Summit in Nairobi, Kenya this week. Spend Matters is featuring his live dispatches and reflections from the event.

Last Saturday evening, I headed to the airport in Atlanta, passed through the various hurdles, and eventually got to my cramped seat aboard an Air France flight to Paris for continued travel with Kenya Airways to Nairobi. The plan was for my luggage to be checked through all the way to Nairobi.

The arrival in Paris began with a slammed (unusually hard for a full-size plane) landing. After a circuitous tour-like bus ride around what felt like most of Charles de Gaulle, we got to the right terminal for the next leg. Coming from the world's busiest airport (Atlanta), I can't say I was impressed with de Gaulle (despite all the job "opportunities" for all the bus drivers and employees who shuttle passengers around the airport).

At the next terminal things started to go south, and not as I had hoped, toward l'Afrique. After boarding, the plane door wouldn't close - somehow it couldn't quite slide into its locking sockets. I was seated right by the door and was 'entertained' by at least two hours of various attempts by first the crew, then the immediate ground staff and finally Delta's Parisian maintenance crew (Kenya Airways has a maintenance staff sharing agreement with Delta in Paris) trying to fix the (over time more and more disassembled) door into place.

As an engineer, it was quite fascinating to see. I had no idea there was so much empty space above the ceiling in these airplanes, nor what the inflatable chute inside the door looked like. (Later, speaking with French ground crew, I was told that even Delta's Atlanta-based maintenance specialist were flabbergasted - these doors just don't behave that way, and there didn't seem to be a quick standard procedure to troubleshoot.)

Oddly enough, the door slamming exercise didn't pan out, so we had to disembark. This process included taking our carry-on bags, going through French immigration (which turned out to be a problem for some transiting African nationals without EU visas) and then picking up our checked-in luggage. My main suitcase, of course, wasn't there. Somehow (and I blame Air France for this), my bag had gotten lost between Atlanta and Paris - on a nonstop flight - I believe merde is the technical French term for that.

After a few hours of waiting for news on how to proceed, I was told that there were no more flights to Nairobi that day, and that I would be sent to Amsterdam the following day for a KLM flight to Nairobi, eventually arriving exactly 24 hours after I was supposed to be there.  Better late than never, I guess.

Clearly my trek to Nairobi had come to a temporary halt, so I emailed the conference organizers in Kenya to let them know that my Monday presentations will have to be moved. The evening was spent in an airport hotel with a fairly decent restaurant (hey, it is France) where my voucher got me a three-course prix fixe menu with duck and foie gras as a starter, seared fish with an interesting (gigantic and mild) onion-like vegetable, finished off with creme brûlée. I had to pay extra for some wine and coffee. The room itself was complete with kitchenette (including a dishwasher), high-tech toilet and a separate bath with both a tub and shower stall in a cruise-ship like efficiency unit. It reminded me of living in Japan. After hand-washing my clothes (no luggage…) and hanging them to dry on a neat electrically heated towel rack - I was off to bed.

Yesterday morning, Delta emailed to say they'd found my luggage - yay - so let's see if there will be a happy reunion down in Nairobi.

The layover had some "benefits" (other than the foie gras). I befriended a Japanese man who has worked in Nairobi for the past 3 years for a UN-affiliate NGO of sort who talked about working on UN projects in the East African region. In his opinion, South Africa is the best developed (nearly European standards - depending on location) and Kenya is not at that level yet. Thanks to the British influence, he thinks there is a good deal of potential in Kenya, but also that the veneer is fairly thin - when things go wrong (like with our airplane) there isn't much of a backup plan. In other words, it goes "African" quite quickly once plan A fails - don't expect American or European contingency planning (his words, not mine). He also told me that on a scale of development, Kenya is better than Zimbabwe, which is better than Uganda, which in turn is better than Congo - the last one being the worst he has seen in the area. It's all relative, I suppose, and he was of the opinion that by and large, Kenya is OK.

I also met a retired US Lt Col now employed as a civilian contractor working for US Africa Command (if I caught the organization's name correctly) on his way to Uganda to assist in an "advisory" capacity. He said these days it's a lot more pleasant to be in Africa: back in his active duty days, he handled extractions of US (and other nationalities) citizens out of trouble spots in the region.

I wrote this on yesterday's KLM flight to Nairobi - so by the time you read this I will have gotten there! One passenger next to me works for a Johns Hopkins owned charitable arm, focused on family planning (aka making contraceptives broadly available in Kenya) and he's going home to Kenya after being in the US for a few weeks. Another one is a young Kenyan going back (from his university studies in the UK) over Easter break to see his mother - he plans on moving back to the region after graduation and he is quite optimistic about his employment opportunities there.

More to follow from the conference itself...

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