Four Personal Experiences of BAM in Hard Places

The BAM Global Think Tank Report on BAM in Hostile Environments shares numerous personal stories and cases from BAM companies in hard places. Here are four brief experiences:

Boat Building in East Asia

In 2009 Josh was living in East Asia and had an opportunity to buy a boat building company there. He saw the opportunity to own a company in an unreached area and use it for ‘triple bottom line’ impact: to be profitable and sustainable, to create jobs, to live out ‘Jesus’ and to make disciples of Jesus among the Muslim and Hindu population. Josh was a fully qualified architect; he had 25 years of boating experience together with experience of teaching design and construction technology; he had lived in country for five years and spoke the language fluently; he had made several disciples of Jesus on other islands. While Josh brought considerable assets to the table, he did not have a business background, he had no money and he had not rubbed shoulders with the cutthroat business world of the country. While the company for sale had proven profitable, there were several hostile factors: the previous owner had not paid taxes and had a system for smuggling profits out of the country; the owner had some debts and potentially serious liabilities against the company; the country’s tax and other typical business laws were not obvious or easily known and Josh knew of no place in country where he could go for honest help; the location was isolated for a family with three children.

A BAM Consulting company sent a consultant to the site and another devoted his energies to tax and legal issues from the USA. This later effort resulted in retaining a trustworthy accountant in country to help determine what a fair tax structure would look like and if profitability was attainable. Another consultant ascertained how this company could operate in an integrated manner so as to simultaneously achieve business and missional goals. Josh was determined to do business in an ethical way in an environment where that was ill defined and dissimilar to his experience and training. Consultants helped him process this and to raise capital in a very high-risk investment environment. Since the company existed in a hostile legal environment, the consultants determined that the best way was an ‘asset acquisition’ and a renaming of the company with a similar name for marketing purposes to avoid the old company’s liabilities and ill-defined laws. Josh had a family with a wife and three children who were now living in an area with few or no foreigners that were English-speakers, and no believers. Isolation, children’s education and communication were issues that needed consulting and coaching expertise. However, the business did reach profitability and intentional disciple-making began to have an impact. When a Hindu man made a decision to follow Jesus hostility was expressed by the extended family of the man and the team mobilised international prayer for that situation.

Pizza Business in the Greater Middle East

The story of a pizza company illustrates the reality of the problems for a startup in a country recovering from war; and what it is like to live and do business in an environment without infrastructure such as electricity, water, sewage disposal, transportation – and without safety. Due to the ravages of war, there was a shortage of property that could be rented at an affordable price, so the pizza business opened its doors in three adjacent shops, like garages with a roller door. Water needed to be piped in from a neighbouring property and plumbed into a sink with waste disposal to the outside. Electricity was scarce and only available four hours each night (and not at all during the day) so a generator, inverter and battery were purchased to run shop lights and power the temperature gauge for the gas oven light. Without electricity and street lighting it was difficult and often dangerous for the pizza boys to deliver pizzas as the roads were badly damaged with many potholes and obstacles for them to negotiate with the motor bikes. They were also unable to go home at the end of the evening as no public transport was available and so accommodation had to be provided for sleep after they finished work.

There were no pizza ovens available in the country so one needed to be purchased and shipped from an adjacent country. The oven was not able to run until the correct gas regulators and quality of gas were found in the local markets. Also other supplies like pizza boxes had to be shipped in as there was no place that could make a box in-country. Sourcing the raw materials for the pizza’s was a struggle as there were no consistent supplies of cheese. Storage of cheese was a problem without a good supply of electricity for refrigeration. Therefore, there tended to more availability of cheese in the winter and none in the summer. Even quality flour was hard to find in the quantities required. Simple items like pizza pans and delivery bags were not available and were brought in from outside by visitors into the country.

Inn and Business Center in Africa

Crossroads began in the first stage of business as a café and restaurant service. As soon as a larger building was rented, with additional rooms, it became a small inn and centre for business catering for the humanitarian sector. Shortly after this, the business started to become more of a centre for the arts and culture as they were able to hold special events. A business objective was to become a hub where business people and humanitarian workers ate, met, worked together, trained staff and networked and this objective was achieved. Another goal to become a commercially viable business had not yet been achieved by 2009 due to factors such as: low profit margin after taxes, recession, and international sanctions due to coup d’état and terrorism. However, the centre was beginning to attract 200 clients a day, averaging $1,100 in revenue per day. Special events and holidays would bring in approximately $4,000 of revenues per day. Christian faith informed the way the business was run. Believing staff were encouraged to meet weekly for prayer as time allowed. Visiting workers reported interest among some Crossroads staff to share what they were learning about the gospel. The values of honest and transparent service and business practice were foundational to the business.

In 2009 Crossroads became a target for terrorism in the area. The centre was going well, and on its way to becoming a commercially viable business, despite the hostile business environment. The business had to close after one associate of the business owner was murdered by an Al Qaeda cell and the risks to staff were deemed too great. On reflection the business owners understood that some of the goals they had for the company needed more time to develop well. For example, their objective to sponsor entrepreneurial members of the business center to build their own non-profit businesses was a two-year goal, whereas it should have been a five to seven-year goal. The country, although not very developed, was considered relatively safe to work in. In reality, however, the business was operating in a place hat lacked security, that lacked reasonable laws that protected businesses and lacked government officials with integrity. Thus it was a country that was unsafe fiscally, and after the company opened it became unsafe physically as terrorism rose in the region. The owners concluded that influencing business in this country must be done from within, rather than from without. They call this the ‘Joseph Approach’ when expatriates need to be placed into established businesses owned by national men and/or women of peace to avoid becoming ‘lighting rods’ for terrorist cells, since the face of the business would not be as foreign.

Everyday Life in a Dangerous Place

A BAM practitioner in Asia relates the follow experience of life in a place where there are everyday dangers: Being open to that still small voice of the Holy Spirit has saved me from harm when I have not gone to a particular place or have left when I sensed that something was going to happen. I was having coffee at a shopping centre and left because it felt wrong to be there and 20 minutes after we left a suicide bomber blew himself up in the entrance of the shopping centre. There are no assurances here of personal safety, only of where we will spend eternity and our desire is to see that the locals also have that assurance for themselves.

The biggest challenge is the uncertainty of each day and having to rely on discernment and wisdom to tackle what the day brings. When I don’t listen to that voice of caution then can find myself caught up in incidents and other times the incident happens and you just have to deal with it. It is always better to face them with someone else, but fear and adrenalin rushes can immobilise you and afterwards you need to be able to release that in a healthy way. I felt the most violated here when I was at home waiting to go out and there was a bomb blast nearby on the main street and it blew out two of our windows and shook the whole house. We live in a quiet secluded street but the blast wave came down between two buildings and affected us and our home, which had always been a sanctuary.

These personal experiences illustrate the reality of dealing with a variety of risks in hostile environments. Each situation is a unique mixture of risk factors. The boat company practitioner in East Asia had a hostile legal environment as well as problems of isolation due to living in an area with virtually no other English-speaking foreigners and no believers for communication or support. In this case the practitioner identified the risks and was able to mitigate them by using consultants who were experienced in dealing with the legal issues in this hostile environment and who coached him to manage the communication and isolation issues.

The Crossroads Centre is an example of strong hostility caused by political instability that changed a peaceful environment with financial high-risk into a physically hostile environment. After a couple of years of operations the centre was rapidly moving towards commercial viability when it was cut short, having to close because of terrorism jeopardising staff safety.

Broken infrastructure and personal safety are the two greatest challenges to be faced when doing business in countries recovering from war and where there is everyday lawlessness and danger, as in the examples of the pizza company and the BAM practitioner above.

Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapour that appears for a little while and then vanishes away (James 4:13, 14 NRSV).

Each day must be tackled with a sense that plans can and will change, depending on the situation that comes up. Having a sense of going about the Father’s business and knowing that He is in total control of the day is both spiritual and practical advice to mitigate the day to day risk to personal safety occurring in a war torn environment.

While uncertainty is a constant there are ways to mitigate the risks. [Read more about Best Practices for Risk Management later this week]. The discipline of discernment and using wisdom is a crucial practice that overlaps with risk management and is essential for operating a business in a hostile environment.

Many of the environments in which we operate are “messy.” By messy, we mean that there is a high degree of ambiguity in situations and in some relationships, accompanied by a volatile business and political environment. We are audited constantly and corruptly by many parts of the government and must work with a number of people in the business ecosystem that may lack some competencies, have misplaced expectations, have malicious intent, and/or be corruptly motivated. “Truth” that lasts does not exist. Discernment is a key critical ability that I pray for daily in order to navigate the unknown waters we journey through in our work and ministry. Yet I do not trust my own powers of discernment; the enemy invites me into cynicism. Where do I turn? How do I keep my heart from becoming purely “worldly”? ” – Manager in a Oil and Gas Production Business, Central Africa

The story above of the BAM practitioner living in a dangerous country and this reflection from a manager working in a Central African country highlights both the need for, and also the challenge of, developing the wide range of skills associated with discernment.

Read more from the Report

This post was adapted from original material published in the BAM Global Think Tank Issue Report on BAM in Hostile Environments

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