Monday, March 24, 2008


The Binkolo Pickup

Well the Binkolo vehicle is off and running, already finding uses for its practical hauling ability even though the food processing plant is not yet operational. Local people here in Makeni are amazed at the new motor gracing the streets (a non NGO vehicle here is quite a rarity and attracts a huge attention as I am finding out). Ismael Bangura the food processing manager beams and crows as proud as a peacock to the crowd walking and vending on the streets. The “official” hand over hasn’t yet taken place but the anticipation is building. I just need to give some instruction and practice on the gear shifting to the manager. Thanks to all those in Canada who contributed.

The vehicle is needed for the Binkolo Growth Cenntre a new food processing plant so that raw goods - cassava and palm can be brought to the centre and that the finished products can be taken to market. In addition the “Growth Centre” teaches artisan skills such as blacksmithing, tailoring and carpentry and the resulting goods are then sold, so the vehicle is also useful transport for the entire project.

The Binkolo vehicle was found in Freetown, the only place in Salone where vehicles are bought and sold. It had found it’s way from the Netherlands and was clearly not a new vehicle, a rather unusual pick up, a Nissan Cabstar. The most popular line seen on the streets are white ex-NGO Toyota 4 wheel drives that typically fetch a premium. The Binkolo ugly duckling stuck out like a sore thumb but I liked it. The main reason was that the ugly duckling would be difficult to later convert to cash. My “paddy” Desmond seemed to have good experience at repairing and maintaining old vehicles - a good skill to have in Salone since there are very limited new cars. So a deal was struck and the dealer was happy to have the space on his lot.

Desmond undertook some repair work; sprayed for rust protection, and did the usual servicing and we took delivery. Driving around Freetown is a bit scary since there are few rules, very narrow roads, enormous traffic and so Desmond was my instructor. The vehicle was soon put to work gathering palm fronds to roof a market. A bunch of VSO volunteers had organized a market on the beach for some of the local clothing sellers and some wood carvers etc. The intended customers being the wealthy UN and NGO personnel and this lot seemed to have good interest although not much to spend. Perhaps another time. The market structure was taken down and hauled by our Binkolo pick-up to be stored for another time.

I drove the vehicle to Makeni early one morning when the traffic was lighter, a 4 hour journey. I arrived to an excited Ismael Bangura waiting at the City Hall. It was impossible to hide his emotions and pride as others at municipal office were looking on. We took a spin through town to shouts of amazement and on to rural Binkolo about 6 miles away. The village seemed to be expecting us somehow and came out to greet the new arrival. An obvious delight to all, the shining vehicle was shown off to the paramount chief and other dignitaries. I presented the key attached to a Canadian flagged lanyard and this signified the hand over to an appreciative crowd. I was informed that this was not the “official” presentation and that there would be a larger formal affair to be arranged. Saloneans love their formalities and long speeches – I cant wait (not).

As we all know fuel is a major cost of running a vehicle and in Sierra Leone at $5 per gallon it is huge, especially when it takes most people 5 days to earn enough to pay for a gallon. I recognized the problem in the morning when I found the gas tank had been siphoned of its content. I immediately went to the Binkolo blacksmith and had a chastity belt type of arrangement put around the tank; and the battery housing. A discussion with one of my VSO colleagues about the problem revealed that she had some bio-diesel production experience in her native Philippines. For Binkolo this could be a huge boon and an additional industry. Maria is employed in an agricultural community near Moyamba but suggested that she could help us. The plant to be grown is called Jatropha and is common here, used for medicinal purposes but not a usual crop. Maria came to Binkolo and gave instruction for the demonstration of the planting and cropping. I went to investigate the machinery needed for the seed crushing. We then went on a treasure hunt in Freetown for the chemicals needed (Methanol and Potassium Hydroxide) to convert the oil to diesel. No luck so far. The chemicals are common and used in laboratory testing – as well as bomb making I am told. A developing country such as Salone has such poor facilities that everything needs to be imported and this seems to be a huge problem. I can import from the UK but the transit time is several months – too late for me. I am still hopeful of finding a supply in Freetown but it is only a feint hope. Nonetheless from what I have read and learned bio-diesel seems to be a worthwhile venture for a country like Salone to ensure security of supply and at a reasonable production price, I estimate at $2 per gallon.

Having a vehicle here is a huge business advantage in that the impression of the operation is enhanced considerably. One of the outcrops is that customers see the Binkolo Growth Centre as having the facilities to organize and deliver. Certainly having the name advertised on the side of the vehicle works I believe. CARE a large international NGO has now ordered 2,000 pieces of farming implements that can be made by the blacksmiths. I know the people at CARE and they were impressed that the growth centre has a vehicle and they much preferred to have implements made here rather than import from abroad.

Yesterday (Good Friday) we had a wonderful day transporting by the vanload a local female football team to a match in Binkolo. I became a “hockey Dad” again. I met then team last year and have sponsored the things they need. Ibrahim the amputee coach I have written about previously was keen to take the team and I agreed to offer the transport. The kids piled into the back of the pickup and off we travelled to Binkolo, with much chanting and singing. Wonderful.

Lastly the progress of the food processing facility is moving along but slower than I had expected. The people at UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organisation) have now a requirement for adjustments to the building, a small amount of work but a delay of several weeks since all work takes much longer than in “The West”. I met the UNIDO official yesterday and she was helpful but would not release the equipment needed to start production. However she was keen on the bio-diesel production and she pointed me in a different direction for my quest for the chemicals. Off to Freetown again.

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