Doing smart business or digging a deeper hole?

The days that led up to Anna showing Swift, my Chinese friend, some figures related to the jewelry wholesale business that she had helped to set up in Togo months ago were nerve-wracking. The fear she felt and why she feared for her life have been discussed in previous blogs. My friend insisted that I checked up on her daily via WeChat, the Chinese social media that we’ve been using for communication, to ensure that there’s a response (pulse) from her end. For extra security, she started to lock her bedroom door at night. Her anxiety as well as the time difference between Togo and Guangzhou kept her from sleep (Swift was keeping Susan up-to-date about Anna’s response to her request for the sales receipts or account book). She tried to move out, but that didn’t work out. Given the precarity of the situation, keeping quiet while she waited was the best strategy Swift could think of.

Though I sympathized with my friend’s predicament, I amusingly asked if another local person could give her suggestions on how to approach Anna – after all, who would know a local person better than another local person? A local person would surely know the local laws best, too. Moreover, Anna had upset enough Togolese jewelry traders at the “big market” for underselling all of them, so surely she must have enemies, who wouldn’t mind that she receives retribution. “The people here,” Swift answered, “only know to call the police.”

Apparently, she and Susan have considered that possibility, but they’re convinced that Anna has protection from the police because her “husband” works in government. That didn’t deter them, though. Swift was still going to try to meet with the man alone to assess how much he actually knows about Anna’s jewelry business. Does he know about her debt to YC and Susan for the goods that she has been purchasing from them in Guangzhou over the years? Would he know about the money and goods that have recently disappeared from the jewelry shop that is technically owned by YC and Susan? From Swift’s explanation, it seemed that she and Susan were thinking that if he didn’t already know about Anna’s activities, then they would inform him and try to get his assistance to pressure Anna to regurgitate the money. These women had a sliver of hope that the “husband” has a sense of justice that would benefit them, especially since YC and Susan haven’t signed any contract with Anna up to this point.

Indeed, there’s no material evidence that Anna owes them money or has agreed to help them sell their goods in Togo as a means to pay off her debt. All that has transpired up to now have been based on YC’s trust in Anna. The depth of his trust in her continues to baffle my friend. Nonetheless, as a Chinese man, who Swift met in Togo when looking for someone to help her transfer other customers’ money to Susan in Guangzhou, warns her, even with a signed contract and lawyer as well as the judge ruling in their favor, those wouldn’t guarantee that they’d get any portion of their money back from Anna. According to this man, she could easily claim that she doesn’t have any money, and the judge would have to give her time to pay off the debt. In such case, they could forget about ever seeing any money.

Of course, I explored with Swift the possibility of the Chinese embassy in Togo assisting them. She did ask an older Chinese man, who she had encountered on this second trip to Togo, to help her inquire with people in the embassy. Because he works for a Chinese company and has been in the country for a number of years, he was able to explain her situation to someone at the embassy. He reported back to her that the problem could only be resolved legally, which they wouldn’t stand to win. That is, the Chinese embassy doesn’t have any special service to assist Chinese entrepreneurs, especially an ordinary businessperson with relatively little capital, who have been deceived in their business arrangements. There was no real way for them to recover their money in Togo. I’m still uncertain how serious they were about finding a way to persuade Anna to travel to China. The idea, when Swift mentioned it to me, was that once the Togolese woman was in their territory, they would be able to resolve the matter on their own terms. Whatever they could have done sounded nefarious.

Fortunately, Anna eventually gave in, agreeing to provide Swift an account of the business. Though she agreed to do that, she still prolonged Swift’s wait, telling her that she’d give her the account in the morning and then changing it to the evening. Her first message with some general figures was sent to Swift in the middle of the night via Whatsapp. Leaving out the monthly sales figures, Anna merely wrote out her expenses and the amount of money she had sent to Susan since July 2015. Because the account had to be

translated to Chinese for Susan to understand, Swift needed Anna to sit down with her to carefully go through each item to minimize misunderstandings. In addition to shipping costs, her salary as well as the salary of other employees, and rent, the list of expenses included, among other things, all sorts of transportation related costs, electricity, trash, telephone, wifi, toilet paper, and small nylon pouches to pack the earrings in. She included the money spent to pick up Swift from the airport when she arrived in December 2015 as well as the courier fee to send Swift’s passport to China to renew her visa for Nigeria. Anna also included expenses from her own trip to Abidjan, in Côte d’Ivoire or Ivory Coast. As for the money sent to China, the account indicated that nothing was transferred in November 2015. Of course, the logical questions after this would be: (1) how much did Anna really sell when all the goods are gone and the money doesn’t add up and (2) where did the money for November go? Her only defense was, Swift shared with me: “she no eat any money. She [sell] the goods at any price according to Susan.” So, in response, my friend chose to continue to remain silent on business matters and not raise any questions with the account until Susan had seen it.

Swift observes from Anna’s list of expenses that she’s been living very well at YC and Susan’s expense. It’s possible that she’s used their money to improve her own life, specifically to grow her supermarket and restaurant businesses. My friend concluded that YC, since he’s the one who completely trusts Anna and he’s the only person Anna would take instructions from (even though the jewelry wholesale business is technically Susan’s), has been supporting a mistress in Togo without any benefits that are normally attached to that kind of relationship. Swift also shared her observation and conclusion with Susan, who seemed more concerned about how to recover her money. After reviewing Anna’s account, Susan decided to come up with a new plan for them to continue to cooperate. In this new plan, Anna would no longer receive a salary. This would eliminate what she despises most, feeling like one of Susan’s employees. Anna would receive 20% of the profit instead. If the business doesn’t earn money, then none of them (Anna and Susan) would gain any money. If all goes well with the business, then, once Anna reached the 2,000,000RMB sales point, Susan would cancel her longstanding debt. Certainly, Anna, being a business woman herself, asked how the 2,000,000RMB would be calculated. The following was Swift’s explanation, which Anna found acceptable: “Susan will continue send you goods (market price) + the 80% profit in Togo market = 2,000,000RMB. You will send to her.” As if sensing my concern with their communication, she then added: “I show her like this. She understand.” There would be no monthly quota on how much money Anna would have to send to Susan in Guangzhou. “If she [sell] she will send. There is always money if the shop has goods,” Swift explained.

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