The Barabara Tales: Stories of the Road

Habari! We’re Mark van der Waal (l) and Jens Gronheid (r), two recent grads in Entrepreneurship in Life Sciences (VU Amsterdam) and Sustainable Development (Utrecht University). Our common passion for entrepreneurship and adventure takes shape in an entrepreneurial adventure itself: over 6,000 kilometres, crossing 7 nations, in 100 days. By bicycle! During the daring journey that took us from Nairobi to Cape Town, we’ve shared‘The Barabara Tales’.

The Swahili word for road, Barabara should be interpreted both literally—we cycle on it—and metaphorically. Over the course of our journey we’ll share our (undoubtedly bumpy) ride towards the Southern Cape, and the stories of African entrepreneurs, the challenging roads they travel towards entrepreneurial success, and the supporting roles of the Dutch Good Growth Fund

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FACTS                                    

TRAVEL TIME                                           100 days 

KILOMETERS                                            6368

KILOMETERS CYCLES                            4535

TOP SPEED                                               69,8 km/u

LONGEST DAY                                          156 km

BUSINESSMEN INTERVIEWED              16

FLAT TYRES                                             32

STOLEN BIKES                                         1

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Note the lack of tan and the spotless equipment. This was February Schiphol. First major challenge…getting our stuff to Nairobi in the same state! With a little help of a lovely check-in lady (because we were clearly overweight), we finally managed. So excited! Because now we only needed to pedal. We’re Dutch. How hard can it be?! Little did we know …

 

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-It took Africa only 2.5 days to knock us down. This is when we started to think we overestimated our physical abilities. And underestimated the sun. Two very successful first days of cycling have obviously made us overconfident. On for Day 3, in the full African sun, with nothing in our panniers that could go for lunch. Let’s just buy something on the road like yesterday and the day before. Oh and let’s try to shortcut Arusha by taking an off-road trail directly to Moshi. After 2 hours of agony, working our way through rocks and volcanic sand, we had to give up and head back for the main road. It appears we’re going to Arusha after all (…and some claim we might have enjoyed the comfort of a far too expensive matatu (minivan) for the last 10 kilometres.) Lessons 1: Bring lunch. 2: Stick to the main roads. 3: Once properly heated, Tarmac tends to stick to your tires.

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Regardless of our knockdown on day 3 we kept reminding ourselves of what still lay ahead: Total freedom, interacting with local people and reflecting on our busy lives in NL

 

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This picture shows married couple James & Phyllis of Phyma Fresh Produce in Nairobi, Kenya (full story see: Blog).

Other than pleasure (freedom, travelling, physical challenge, interacting with local cultures) the trip was about business & entrepreneurship.

We are both passionate about entrepreneurship and interested in the stories of successful, or future/ambitious entrepreneurs. We ask them about their motivation, their drive, their talents, their success but also their challenges. Small business owners often have very inspiring stories and positive attitudes. Stories that could help improve the general image of Africa in the West. Stories that deserve attention.

The Dutch government invests in small business owners in developing countries over the world with the investment facility “Dutch Good Growth Fund”. On the road we interviewed a number of investees of that fund (in East/Southern Africa coordinated by South Africa-based impact investor GroFin) and published their stories.

 

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So: time to reflect and contemplate, as we had expected? Well, not on the TanZam highway (the busy road from Dar es Salaam into Zambia/Congo. Only thing on our mind: avoiding buses…and wildlife

Good time to take out our (outdated) map, which clearly showed a ferry connection from Mbamba Bay to Nkhata Bay. We want a boat experience! To get to the lake we had to diverse from the beaten tracks: that mostly brought us good things…

For starters: we became true bike mechanics

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Twenty kilometres of down-hill, off-road cycling with Lake Malawi in sight at the horizon makes us reach idyllic Mbamba Bay in an euphoric state. A deserted beach, no tourists, sunny weather: this must be paradise on earth. Right? Expecting to be able to cross the lake the next day, as shown on our (apparently outdated) map, we are told to see Mr Dula, who supervises all incoming and outgoing vessels, later that night.

“There might be a boat leaving for Malawi sometime the next month” (- Mr Dula) is not something you want to hear after three days of off-road cycling on the only possible road in. Luckily, we learned the next day that a small cargo vessel is bound for Likoma island, just off the coast of Mozambique, in 3 days.

Not really where we planned to go but hey, we’ll get there eventually!

Strangely, having to wait a full week instead of three days, eating rice with brown beans three times a day, and realising you still have to do some 3,000 k’s of cycling, even paradise gets on your nerves.

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Luckily, a small cargo vessel was scheduled. “It will only take 8 hours”, Mr Dula said

Apparently, by 8 Mr Dula meant 25. And after 25 hours on the water, enduring some pretty heavy rains that soaked ourselves as well as our phones, our Mbamba Bay best-friend had one lovely, final surprise. We weren’t dropped at the Malawian island of Likoma, but at the Mozambican shore. At 4:30 in the morning. Without the necessary documents to legitimise our presence. Quickly hopping on a fishing boat, we safely reached Malawi after 30 hours in total. Well, I guess it’s all part of the adventure! You can imagine how happy we were to finally arrive in Nkhata Bay, after taking some other boats.

But coming in via this alternative route: money problems. Some little advise to future travellers to Malawi: make sure to not only bring a MasterCard, but a Visa card as well. Coming in the unusual way via the water, the first ATM that would accept our cards was on a sugar plantation in Dwanga, meaning we had to spend our first days in Malawi borrowing money from the lovely people that trusted us with paying them back as soon as we would have working phones and internet connection again!

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Quite an abstract picture. What are we looking at?

It is more about what we’re not looking at: a bike

You can imagine how happy we were to finally reach Lilongwe. Working ATMs, super markets, the luxuries of a capital city.

But then Jens’ bike was stolen of our guarded and fenced camp site. This picture shows the breach in the fence.

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-We ended up taking a bus to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital Chibamba, investment executive of GroFin welcomed us. First thing he said: HOW DOES A BIKER LOSE HIS BIKE? Luckily, Grofin’s slogan is ‘support beyond finance’. They take it very seriously.Chibamba and Ernest linked us with a skilled craftman.

-While we visited local GroFin/DGGF investees, he built Jens a customized bike.

-In the picture you see Mukupo Sichula, entrepreneur and business owner of Spaka a type of cordial/juice. For full story on his company click here

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The customized bike. This man from Lusaka is a ‘shimano dealer’. He imports second hand material from Germany and China. In the outskirts of Lusaka he and three of his fellows work in bike repair and construction. Three garage-box sized spaces were filled with bicycle components. One full of wheels and tires, a second one full with frames and a third full with nuts, bolts, chains and whatnot. I could select any requirement I wanted for my bike. My bike should go fast, but also able to carry the weight of my luggage. Wheels are 28”inch, It’s got 9 gears, hand brakes and bullhorns (useful when cycling long distance, you want to be able to switch positions.) I also asked him if he could mount a 1.5L bottle carrier. I (Jens) measure 1m87 which is quite tall for African standards. The frame is actually much too small (I forgot to look at the frame size when I selected it, stupid mistake J) but I was fortunate that I could set my saddle very high so in the end I rode the bike home quire smoothly! I only got “quite a few” punctures, haha.

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Two friends of ours flew in to cheer us over the finish line. However, they missed our arrival because they thought shark-diving was more exciting! (can you believe it?!) Nevertheless, we arranged ourselves an affordable bottle of champagne at a local petrol station.

Fortunately our arrival in CT did not go unnoticed, thanks to the lovely people of the CG. We spent a full week in Cape Town and also Stellenbosch and had a great, relaxing time.

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