How to Send Stuff to Africa, or The Joy of the Supply Chain
Sibylle Peters, Moritz Frischkorn & the African Terminal
The people who are working together in the African Terminal group are very different.
Some came here from Ghana.
Some came here from Munich.
Some came here via Libya, working there to earn their passage across the Mediterranean.
Some came here to write a PhD about the movement of things.
Some studied logistics in Nigeria.
Some read loads about the crisis of citizenship today.
Some risked their lives to get here.
Some are traders, some are researchers, some are artists.
However, all these people are interested in the same thing, something called the
Together, by trading in used goods, we are trying to build one: a supply chain that connects Hamburg and West Africa. And as we are trying to work out our supply chain, we learn about supply chains in general and what they really are.
So, what is a supply chain?
Since the 1980s the focus of business education and management has largely shifted from the company to the supply chain as the main unit of economic consideration. The reason for this: in globally connected markets, it is not companies who are competing against each other, but associated supply chains, which consist of several, often very different, companies. Imagine the multitude of regulations, infrastructures and practices – from customs handling to packaging techniques to money flow, which all have to be synchronized to get a supply chain working.
Then look at the things that surround us here – clothing, furniture, technical equipment. Make a guess: How much of it has been shipped (before)?
Rose George turned the answer to that question into the title of her book: 90 Percent of Everything.
In critical theory, this shift to supply chains has been described as capitalism taking a logistical turn. In a paper entitled “Extraction, logistics, finance: Global crisis and the politics of operations,” Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson write: “Logistics is the art and science of building networked relations in ways that promote transport, communication and economic efficiencies. Stemming from military practices, it organizes capital in technical ways that aim to make every step of its ‘turnover’ productive” (Mezzadra/Neilson 2013, 12) . Capitalism itself has become the movement of movements. UPS, a global player in logistics, describes this as follows: “Everybody loves something. We love logistics. We love its precision. We love its epic scale, its ability to make life better for billions of people. Each day, our customers count on us to choreograph a ballet of infinite complexity played across skies, oceans and borders. And we do. What’s not to love?” (cited in Lecavalier 2012, 90)
The supply chain is for our time what the assembly line was for Fordism.
It is the figuration of the global.
Anna Tsing writes: “Supply chains are not new […]. What is new is the hype and sense of possibility that supply chains offer to the current generation of entrepreneurs. […] This rush toward outsourcing relies on new technologies that make it simple to communicate at a distance and send commodities with reliable speed. It depends on new financial arrangements that make it easy to move money around and on new regimes of property that guarantee global profits. […] I call the subcontracting possibilities that elicit this new phenomenon of excitement ‘supply chain capitalism’.” (Tsing 2009, 149)
One could understand the African Terminal as an exploration of supply chain capitalism, but starting from the dead ends of supply chains, starting from the outside, literally from those places where supply chains never make it.
Tsing writes further:
“Supply chains thrive because capitalists want to avoid high labor costs. […] In the mixing and mating of these two strategies, nonwork tropes – particularly tropes of management, consumption, and entrepreneurship – become key features in defining supply chain labor. Here, the new styles attributed to capitalism become entangled with the experiences of workers. Chain drivers control some but not all of this subjectification. I argue that workers learn to perform within these tropes. […] Such performances entrench the niche structure of the economy, reaffirming the profitability of supply chain capitalism. Yet perhaps, too, other possibilities can be glimpsed through these performances.” (Tsing 2009, 151)
Workers learning to perform as entrepreneurs, as new subjectifications not controlled by the usual supply chain drivers? Other possibilities to be glimpsed? Does Tsing speak of the African Terminal here?
Migration and the supply chain
Let’s stop theory for a moment and look at a simple model of a supply chain: such a model usually describes the movement of things from the first supplier to the end user.
For example like this:
– Supplier – Production – Product – Distribution – Trade / Sales – Customer
It is used to visualize the different steps, partners and possible costs. It is a line that is supposed to be read back and forth and crosses, and it binds together a multitude of differences: differences of wealth, of laws and regulations, of infrastructures, of cultures.
When looking at this model, one of the first things that comes to mind is the fact that the supply chain focusses on the movement of things rather than the movement of people. The supplier, the worker and the customer are local entities in the chain that is meant to make things move from one (of them) to the next. The movement of people is therefore not central to the supply chain and lies beyond its focus.
Yet, if we were to put a map of global supply chains with their hubs and connections and a map of global migration on top of each other, we would see that they match: people are migrating away from those places left out of the global supply chain networks in order to move toward the hubs of supply chain traffic.
This is definitely true for some of the traders in the African Terminal association. Notwithstanding other reasons for fleeing their countries of origin, they came to Hamburg specifically because it is a hub of supply chains – a chance to become entangled in the movement of things.
The global systems of supply chain management do not take migration into account. And the global systems to monitor migration are not interested in the migration of things. Though entangled, the two are kept apart – systematically. Keller Easterling, one of the thinkers of the logistical and infrastructural turn, states:
“Global infrastructure space has perfectly streamlined the movements of billions of products and tens of millions of tourists and cheap laborers, but at a time when over 65 million people in the world are displaced, there are few robust ways to facilitate the migrations of people in response to political, economic, or environmental crises. The nation-state has a dumb on-off button to grant or deny citizenship/asylum. And the NGOcracy offers as its best idea storage in a refugee camp – a form of detention lasting on average seventeen years.” (Easterling 2018)
In her project MANY, which was invited to the architecture Biennale 2018 in Venice, Easterling suggests applying some of the principles and tools of global logistics to the context of migration. She created a model database to connect migrants, projects and enterprises. The African Terminal is included in this list. The idea to start building a supply chain based on the expertise of migrants seems to be promising.
So, let’s have a closer look at the specific supply chain the African Terminal is working on, a supply chain based on the expertise of migrants. Represented as a classical supply chain, it would look like this.
Used Goods – Collection – Storage – Shipping – Distribution/Sales – New Customer
Whereas the classical model of the supply chain seems to suggest that things (raw material, components, products) are set in motion at the very beginning of the supply chain, in the supply chain the African Terminal is trying to build, everything is already moving. Things are not conceived as mere resources to extract, they are always already part of some circuit of consumption. To get this supply chain running is thus not a question of sourcing things that have not yet been transported in order to bring them into circulation.
Rather, things are in motion already, and we, as moving people, are trying to connect ourselves to this movement of things – trying to find things that are stuck as leftovers at the end of a supply chain in one place, such as Hamburg, but that can be useful in other places, like Gambia, for instance; and that is where we have shipped them.
Our supply chain therefore does not start with the extraction or production of things; it tries to attune the migratory movement of people and things to one another. Practically, therefore, it starts with bringing migrants into a position with access to supplies, i.e. things that have become stuck within our wealthy Western lives. Based on their own expertise on mobility, they can thus make things which were stuck and out of use move again – transporting items to places to where they might still be useful. Therein, people with migration expertise become uniquely productive in two ways: they carry knowledge of sales markets that are beyond the scope of Western publics and, more generally, their own experience of apositionality, i.e. the “standpoint of no standpoint” (Harney/Moten 2013, 93), as Fred Moten and Stefano Harney write, allows them to be attuned to the movement of things more easily.
So, who is the supplier?
While the supplier (or several suppliers) usually is the starting point of a supply chain that ends with the distribution of a new product, in our case, the suppliers are the consumers at the (alleged) end of all kinds of supply chains. Millions of supply chains end here in Hamburg, constantly pouring out things that are sold and used, but not used up, because supply chains are already blasting out the next upgrade. In our Western consumer society, many things are simply stored away, never to be used again.
And this is when the forgotten ends of already existing supply chains become the beginning of our supply chain.
Obviously, there is an abundance of supplies, i.e. used or discarded goods that are not in use in Hamburg anymore. However, for a variety of reasons, it is a challenge to access them. Some consumers, who we would like to address as suppliers, simply do not want to be addressed as such. They want things to stay as they are, which – in this case – means to be owning and often storing away a plethora of consumer objects that they never use. They sent us messages like: “Don’t send them boats, we don’t want more of them to come here.” For others, sending used goods from Europe to Africa doesn’t seem to be the right strategy to help the African economy evolve. Rather, they hope for more diverse industries to be established, and demand that the externalization of recycling and refurbishing costs to the African continent be stopped. For the time being, this is not the case, and the European Union is protecting its market with complicated regulations and high taxes. Which is why the African Terminal tries to make the best out of the existing possibilities and has decided to rely on the expertise and entrepreneurship of people who have spent most of their lives in Africa.
Transport & storage
In a next step, things have to be collected, transported and stored. It sounds simple, but at this point it already becomes complicated. Nine members of the African Terminal drove cars in Africa. None of them has a valid driver’s license in Germany or any hope of getting one. And storage has to be rented, which is a difficult cost factor in a city like Hamburg.
However, there actually are huge storage spaces in Hamburg and in just the right place:
since 2014 the large warehouse of the old Afrika Terminal, at the Baakenhafen in the HafenCity, has stood vacant. As part of the festival “Theatres of the World” in 2017, the African Terminal was able to open a shipping point for a few weeks at the site. In this “Transaction No. 1,” our group suggested turning the Afrika Terminal into a truly African Terminal that would support the migration-driven micro-trade between Hamburg and Africa. The suggestion hasn’t really been heard by city authorities – so far. However, it became clear that by publicly setting up the African Terminal at a site of colonial history – it was from the Baakenhafen itself that German troops were sent to Namibia in order to brutally defeat the revolt of the indigenous Nama and Herero in 1904/1905, an act of war that was later termed “the first genocide of the 20th century” – the association created some kind of surplus: a cultural surplus. Extracting and sourcing things from Hamburg and sending it to West Africa, the African Terminal quite literally turns things around: by appropriating places that are entangled with the colonial history of the city of Hamburg, though without clearly being marked as such, and handing them over to migrants and their expertise of apositionality, we address coloniality and its contemporary repercussions on multiple levels. In fact, former colonial sites are marked as such and may be reappropriated by people who suffer, still today, from the ongoing violence and exclusion that characterizes logistical capitalism and its associated regimes of migration management. Maybe the Terminal could even help to decolonize museums? And most importantly: by creating this cultural surplus the African Terminal can access cultural funds, which makes up for disadvantages such as invalid driver’s licenses and a lack of support for African micro-trade while also giving the African Terminal the luxury of failure and therefore of learning.
For the members of the African Terminal who carry a German passport, it was all about shipping in the first place. To join forces with the African traders brought the chance to actually ship something – to make use of the Hamburg harbor for once, and to make use of this huge infrastructure that completely seems to pass by the city and its citizens these days. We wanted to learn how to actually ship stuff. And we did.
This is how it works:
A private person or group – in effect, everyone – has the right to send up to four loaded 40-foot containers every year from the Port of Hamburg. There are many shipping agents in the port who sell passages combined with services of different kinds. After comparing prices, we decided for one agent who rented a container from Grimaldi Lines and transported it for us to a loading site; in Transaction No. 1 this site was the Afrika Terminal, and in Transaction No. 2 it was a space in front of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe. Once positioned, the container can stay in this location for a maximum of two weeks. Then, once loaded, it should be transported by the agent to the port for loading onto the ship. We, the client, have to provide a complete list of everything that was put into the container. Moreover, when used goods are sent, a functional test of all electrical devices meant for export has to be conducted and documented by a certified electrician. On these grounds, the agent issues the “Bill of Lading for Ocean Transport,” the main document for transportation. While a copy of this “Bill of Lading” travels with the container, the original “Bill of Lading” is posted from the agent in Hamburg to the agent in Banjul, Gambia. Only with the original “Bill of Lading” will the recipient agent be able to take the container out of the destination port.
In Transaction No. 1 the Africa Terminal’s container was supposed to travel with the Evelyn Maersk, a container ship built in 2007, which in 2014 rescued 352 refugees out of the waters of the Mediterranean Sea. However, the Evelyn Maersk arrived in Hamburg one day before schedule, so our container did not make it on board. It was left in the Port of Hamburg for another ten days. The passage to Banjul, we were told before, would take 30 days. And indeed, the ship reached the Banjul harbor after about one month. But then it stayed offshore, unable to dock at the one terminal of the Port of Banjul, which was blocked for another three weeks by other ships. In total, it took our container more than two months to finally reach the city of Banjul. So much for the quality of the logistics going that way.
The African Terminal traders are from Gambia, Ghana and Nigeria. Before we decided on sending stuff to Banjul we discussed at length what the best destination for our supply chain would be. Lagos, the huge metropolitan center of Nigeria, seemed to be the self-evident choice. But then the naira, the Nigerian currency, collapsed and made it impossible to make any meaningful amount of euro-convertible earnings from sales in Lagos. In Ghana, it turned out, taxes on incoming things such as the items in our container, were so high that again there was no chance of making any transferable earnings. Which is why we decided for Banjul, the capital of Gambia, although it was a considerably small city – a town, or even a village, compared to the megacity of Lagos.
Our agent in Banjul is a friend of one of our members. A lot of trust is needed to find and rely on a friend like that. If he happens to disappear – with our “Bill of Lading” or the rented container – the costs would be immense.
The agent is an all-in-one deal: he knows how to get the container through customs and out of the port, and he knows how to transport it (which is a whole trade in itself). He unloads the container’s contents into a shop that he rented for this purpose in Banjul’s main street. In this shop, all the stuff we have sent – mattresses and chairs, flat-screen televisions and bikes and tires and toys – is laid out for display. And then it is sold. For doing all of this, he receives a fee plus a percentage of sales.
Five months after we shipped our container out of Hamburg, sales in Banjul were still ongoing. The group of traders talked to distributors in Gambia via WhatsApp. In this dialog, God was asked for help a lot. Nevertheless, there was some money earned, enough to send some back to be distributed among the traders of the African Terminal.
To prepare for that, the German members opened up a bank account only to find out that sending the money through banks would eat up another 15 percent of profits. Which is why that account was never used. Instead, the African members organized money flow differently: they collect the money of friends and colleagues here in Hamburg who wanted to send money to Gambia. Instead of sending and converting those euros into to dalasis, they had the dalasis made through sales in the African Terminal shop delivered to people in Banjul, and the euros collected in Hamburg given to the traders. Money has neither travelled across borders nor been converted. No losses here. Migratory expertise also includes different kinds of money flow.
Imagine if cultural production didn’t look at migration as a chance to make migrants participate but was instead used as an alternative mode of production at the service of migration. Imagine migration no longer being seen as a journey from beginning to end, leaving one country behind to ideally become a member of another, but as an endless entanglement of people and things in motion. Imagine migrants finally being acknowledged as experts in this kind of apositionality. Imagine the multitude of alternative supply chains that people with migration experience would be able to build. Imagine if they weren’t constantly being stopped from but supported in doing that.
Easterling, Keller (2018): MANY, see http://dimensionsofcitizenship.org/participants/keller-easterling-with-many/index.html.
Harney, Stefano and Fred Moten (2013): “Fantasy in the Hold,” in: The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Wivenhoe: Minot Compositions, pp. 84–99.
Lecavalier, Jesse (2012): “The Restlessness of Objects,” in: Cabinet no. 47 (Fall 2012), pp. 90–97.
Mezzadra, Sandro and Brett Neilson (2013): “Extraction, logistics, finance: Global crisis and the politics of operations,” in: Radical Philosophy, no. 178 (Mar/Apr 2013), pp. 8–18.
Tsing, Anna (2009): “Supply Chains and the Human Condition,” in: Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society