How My Startup Got Me Locked Up in an African Jail (Almost)
Last winter in Zambia, three large strangers were shoving me into the back of a truck. That’s when I decided to kill my African startup.
This is my story—of wild failure, of corruption, bush mechanics and betrayal by a once-trusted employee bent on having me locked up in jail. The lesson? Do not cut corners in Africa. Maybe you can learn from my missteps.
Here’s how I burned $50,000 and made a mess of working in an emerging market:
1. Forget about remote control.
Early in 2014, my business partner Tom and I launched LightSeed Energy. Our lofty mission: to bring solar lighting to African villages. We flew to Zambia for three weeks and found a promising market, so we hired two local managers, bought a truck and stock to sell. Back home we scraped together $50,000 and quit our jobs.
For three months, we sold off personal assets while operating the company from across an ocean. We were wildly naïve about what we could accomplish through “management by email.” Messages to our staff went unanswered for weeks. And when responses came, they were cryptic. We tried regular conference calls, but punctuality is rare in a country where many still tell time by the sun. When we did connect, line static killed all hope of productive talk. Sales trips were postponed for weeks with weird excuses like, “I need a special license to drive on this highway,” or “The whole village is at a funeral this week.”
Our employees were great at spending our money and collecting salaries but weren’t selling enough to cover their lunch. When I landed in Zambia, we were three months closer to bankruptcy.
2. Make sure your partner’s all in.
Sales were slow after my arrival, but we were planting good seeds. Then, while driving between villages, the noise of grinding gears filled the valley, and our truck died. Our local manager, Mr. Mbewa, hitchhiked to town for help while I steamed in the shade of a villager’s front garden, one of his seven children bringing me a pail of water that my Western stomach could not drink. Mid-siesta, my cellphone rang, my business partner Tom on the line. I scattered chickens as I ran across the road seeking higher ground and better reception.
“I’ve decided to pull out of the company. I’m not coming to Zambia in January anymore.” Was I sun-stroked? “You haven’t sold much in three weeks, and I don’t see us making money anytime soon.”
We had agreed to take turns in Zambia, three months at a time. I was happy to have the first shift but expected him to follow through, too. Did he have one foot out the door all along?
Alone atop a giant anthill in the wilderness, I thought about how I might attract a replacement.
“Hi, my business partner quit because he thinks we’re doomed. Want to replace him?”
“Can you elaborate?”
“I fly home in six weeks, so you’ll need to move to Africa for three months.”
“It might be possible, but…”
“We’re also burning money because revenues are half and expenses three times what we expected.”
“How will you survive?”
“We have to ask you to invest another $10,000 so we can last for two or three months, long enough to find a real investor.”
“What percentage of the company do I get?”
“Is there a salary?”
“We could pay you, but that would speed us into bankruptcy.”
3. Expect everything to take 10 times longer than you planned.
Roadside assistance in Zambia equals any idle vehicle you can find. Mr. Mbewa returned with a 20-year-old, half-ton flatbed truck that had no brakes and needed a push to start. Our rescuers brought no towing cable, no chain or rope, but razor blades so we could cut the seatbelts out of our back seat and lash the vehicles together. Six push starts and one torn shirt later, I arrived at the home of a bush mechanic.
“Is he a real mechanic?” I asked Mr. Mbewa. He laughed but assured me the teenager had grown up at the foot of the retired village handyman. In the West, our problem would be a three-hour fix. Here, everyone agreed that the needed clutch plate would not be found anywhere in Zambia.
Without a vehicle to crisscross our territory, company-wide sales stopped. I was trapped in a non-air-conditioned guesthouse watching the Zambian News Network, on the outskirts of a town that a local told me was “so hot because it’s close to hell.”
After three days, the spare part arrived from the capital—but was useless without a new pressure plate. Two more days passed and a package arrived, but it was the wrong plate. I joined the truck in breaking down. Two weeks passed before we were back on the road. That month’s cash flow statement was ugly.
4. When you fire someone, prepare for heat.
To cut expenses, we had to lay off our country manager, Musonda. It made me sick, but he was bringing in no businessand we suspected he was stealing. On a Monday I bought him a beer and broke the news. But the next day he failed to return his company phone. He avoided my calls until Friday afternoon when he was desperate to meet.
At a restaurant table he handed me a phone—at least five years old and badly beat up.
“Musonda, this is not the $400 smartphone we bought you two months ago.”
“I had to sell that one because it wouldn’t run these apps…”
Before I could press him, two large men joined us at the table. Were they the military buddies he always talked about? The shorter man produced his identification, a card that looked like it was made with a dot matrix printer and laminated at home. Zambia Department of Immigration, it read. I wondered if jeans and a polo was the standard uniform.
“Hello. This man tells us you are in the country illegally. Let’s go to headquarters.”
“Gentlemen, I fired this man and he’s just trying to make trouble. He’s wasting our time.”
“Maybe. Let’s go have a chat.”
“I’m happy to chat here.”
“No, we must take you in.”
“I have no way of knowing you are who you say you are. You could be criminals hired to kidnap me.”
The men took offense and for a moment I decided I was being paranoid. So I cooperated. Outside, they asked me to get into a truck.
“Umm… why don’t I follow you in a taxi? One of you can come with me but I’m not getting into that truck.”
“But you have to.”
“Are you arresting me?”
I moved toward a taxi. The short man’s nails dug into my bicep and he began shoving me at the open back door of the truck. I moved to release his grip, and he pushed harder. I struggled. The second man grabbed my other arm. I was caught out of reality, in a strange mode between survival and not wanting to cause a scene. I got over that fast.
“Police!” I yelled.
I considered elbowing the short man in the face, but we’d never be friends after that, and it would bring the driver into the fray. Limbs out like a cat over a bathtub, they couldn’t lift me into the van. My abductors tired, but held me fast.
With a crowd in tow, we walked to the police post, Musonda alongside, smiling at me. The police sergeant confirmed the men’s identities while I called my lawyer, who advised cooperation. Back in the parking lot, I surrendered and stepped into the truck.
Several men were waiting for me in the immigration office lobby and started squeezing my shoulders and grabbing my neck. “You like to fight, do you?” Someone had radioed ahead with news of the parking lot rumble.
Upstairs in an interrogation room, the short man, my would-be kidnapper, looked at his watch. “It’s past 5 on Friday. Can I trust you to come back on Monday morning or do I need to throw you in jail?”
“Oh you can count on me, sir. I will absolutely be back first thing on Monday morning.”
I did not bother questioning the irony of wrestling me into submission only to let me go, but I did race back to my hotel to book the first flight out of the country. Naturally my lawyer chose this moment to stop taking my calls. Had Musonda paid him off?
5. Don’t forget about permits, permits, permits!
The earliest escape flight was Monday afternoon. When I failed to show up, they might send someone to find me, so I planned to leave my hotel before dawn and hide out until departure. I gambled that nobody would alert airport security.
But on Monday morning I woke with a fight in me. I can’t let Musonda get away with this. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ll go to the meeting, sort this out and head to the airport.
In a familiar interrogation room, I gave my statement:
I’m here bringing solar lights to the villages. Here’s a brochure. Oh you’d like to buy one? I think we can give you a discount.
No, I don’t have a work permit but we filed the papers with your office weeks ago. I can’t believe you have no record of this.
Who filed the paperwork? That was the man I fired.
Yes, I gave him $500 to pay the fee.
No, he never produced a receipt. Oh… that evil lowlife.
When I politely refused to sign a confession, they threatened jail time. My new lawyer arrived and told me, “It could be six months before the courts will hear the case. Zambian jails are very bad. Confess and you will only pay a fine.”
“Where do I pay?” I asked.
I was forced to drop my passport into the abyss of the Zambian bureaucracy and watch my flight lift off with one empty seat, like it was the last flight out of Saigon. For three days, my file was “missing.” Then computer problems turned the office into bedlam. I decided to start the weekend early with a beer by the pool. On day seven, I was thrust repeatedly through a gauntlet of uncooperative officers who all could not remember me.
Then I received a text message from Musonda. “Where are you? I have a summons from the labor board.” If I didn’t escape soon, this man would trap me here indefinitely, or my heart would give out from the stress.
“This is serious,” the Canadian Embassy representative told me. “You should have come sooner.” He casually told me of a countryman who failed to secure the right permits, and how dank his jail is.
Musonda knew where I was staying. I feared that if I wouldn’t walk into his next trap, he would bring it to me. I checked into a new hotel under an assumed name, shut the curtains and sat in the dark until sleep came.
On the eighth day, I held my breath at the pickup counter, and finally got my stamped passport back. Expecting Musonda outside with more goons, I tried not to run to the exit. And I was shocked when I walked to freedom, after ceaseless setbacks.
As the airplane lifted to the sky, my body unclenched and I realized it was my birthday. I let joy and cheap scotch fill me up.
I might have escaped, but I knew my company was finished, the lessons painful. At least now I’m five steps closer to making it work the next time around.