Saturday, June 27, 2009

Great Expectations (Dashed)

Yesterday I visited a Kampala supplier of power and water equipment to purchase items needed for a power backup system at HEAL Africa (I'll detail the system in a future post). Davis & Shirtliff is a Kenyan company with distribution outlets all over east Africa: Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and Zambia. Their ads are dotted around Kampala, promising solutions to all your water and power needs. Just the kind of stuff I'm looking for.

I decided to purchase from Davis & Shirtliff because it seemed to have the qualities one needs when making a large purchase - informed salespeople, professional outlets and quality equipment. It certainly appeared that way from looking at their website and their sales catalogue. After looking over the second-hand equipment sold in Mbarara, the prospect of purchasing from a reputable supplier was reassuring.

So I walked into the store on Jinja Road with great expectations. After waiting a while I met a sales representative and explained to him exactly what I wanted to do. He detailed which products I would need and priced them for me. I hesitated when he told me I could use a charge controller designed for a DC solar system, when I explicitely stated I would charge the battery using the AC grid. But he assured me the model (Sundaya Apple 15 amp) could do both, so I agreed to the purchase. I left the store agreeing to buy a charge controller, battery and inverter. I planned to come back the next day to pick them up.

I arrived the next day expecting to just walk in and walk out. But looking over the battery, it turned out that it wasn't exactly what I'd asked for (unsealed, when I needed sealed. The sealed battery is necessary because it's maintenance free, which is very important in Goma). It then turned out there were no sealed batteries in stock at 50 Ah, which is a common size. The rep called a different retailer across town, but they didn't have the exact size. And then it turned out the other retailer was closing because someone hadn't shown for work. So no dice.

However, I still could buy the charge controller and inverter and get the battery from a supplier in Kigali. But now comes the part that really gets me: the charge controller was not the one I needed, after explicitly asking 3 times. I almost walked out of the store with the wrong equipment (a big deal when traveling to Kampala takes so long). When the rep eventually did find a model for my application, they only had one left, which was slightly scuffed and missing a cable. The rep sent someone across town to get a new one, and when he couldn't find it tried to buy a US plug and file down the ends to fit into the charge controller's DC outlet. Umm, not going to work.

And so after leaving the previous day excited with my pending equipment purchase, I walked out of the store empty-handed. I had chosen to go to Davis & Shirtliff explicitly to avoid a series of events like this.

The phrase "TIA" (this is Africa) was rattling in my head. One has to go with the flow or you'll never fit in and never get anything done. Things take time, and mess-ups will happen. True, and when appropriate I hold that expectation. But when doing business, one should expect a certain level of professionalism. Expecting an African business to be less professional than any other would be condescending. Building trust in a brand is a critical part of being successful. When that trust is broken, it's terribly hard to repair.

This small series of events is just one experience. Based on their size, Davis & Shirtliff appears to be a very successful company. But my trust is temporarily on hold, and I will be much more wary the next time I approach a seemingly professional company.

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