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Why do we seem to attract the world’s second-raters?

Apr 18, 2010 Management, Sunday Nation

I walked into an Italian restaurant in Mombasa recently, and first impressions were favourable. The ambience was pleasantly rustic, and we were greeted with smiles by a waiter, which makes a change. The Italian proprietor was hovering around benignly.

But there was an immediate warning sign. During the middle of lunch hour, a worker was perched on a stepladder painting the walls! This in the middle of service, with his paint brush and can dangling precariously right above the serving station.

The food took forever to arrive, even though only two tables were occupied. And it was no surprise that it was terrible when it came. The dishes has been prepared in utterly amateurish fashion by a chef who evidently would not be able to cook in a canteen, let alone an expensive brasserie.

We sent our dishes back, barely touched, and asked for the bill. I observed the waiter discussing this with the proprietor. The boss simply shrugged his shoulders and looked away. No apology, not even a modicum of remorse was expressed.

This is not an uncommon experience. And as I waited for my change, a thought descended on me like a red mist: would this gentleman ever behave like this in his home country? Would he sanction the painting of his premises while food is being served? Would he be untroubled by the fact that customers have returned food uneaten and simply want to get the hell out of his establishment? Would he continue using the same chef and menu? Would he in fact eat that food in his own house?

The answer is a resounding ‘No’ in every case. There is no way anyone gets away with that kind of behaviour in a mature country. There are rules of hygiene and food safety that have to be followed; and customers do not take poor food and rude service lying down. Yet I know exactly the two thoughts that were in this proprietor’s mind: first, no one will catch me doing bad things here, and if anyone does I know how to handle them; second, this is just a rare troublesome customer – he will soon be replaced by other pumbavus who can’t tell good foreign food from bad.

The restaurant in question is not in some backwater corner – it occupies prime space in a busy location. So you tell me, why would a proprietor squander the benefits of that location and fritter away customer goodwill?

Yet this is not an isolated case. I often find myself at the tables of supposedly high-end eateries and wonder what the hell they are up to. Why do they run their businesses in ways that they would never attempt to get away with back home? What form of contempt is this?

Two reasons spring to mind: rules, and norms. Transplant those expats back to whence they came, and watch them become transformed into model citizens. They will follow all the traffic rules, meet every regulatory requirement, compete with the best on product and service quality, and regard customers with respect. But here in Africa, where they think anything goes, they soon descend to the lowest standards. They become rule-breakers, shortcut-takers, compromisers and corruptors.

I don’t have that much faith in the inherent goodness of the human being. I think people behave when they are made to. I think you make societies function by imposing and enforcing sensible and reasonable rules of behaviour. I also think people respond to the norms they perceive around them; if society looks down on certain types of conduct and regards those who practice them with distaste, then people don’t do those things as much (or at least not openly).

So what our Italian restaurateur (if you can call him that) needs is a regulatory system that holds regular safety and hygiene inspections, shuts down non-compliant businesses, and cannot be bought out with kitu kidogo. But that’s not enough. He also needs enough customers who refuse to accept his poor standards, who are vocal in their rejection, and who vote with their wallets and never give him their custom again. Then, he will either meet the mark or be forced to close down.

Lest you misunderstand, this argument is not about expatriates and foreigners. Take a look at the businesses run by locals – most are no different. The point is about the standards we ourselves set in our own country. As things stand we attract all the world’s detritus: we give a home to chancers, second-raters, failures, fleeing criminals, pirates and mercenaries. We accept their money, no matter how gained, and we give them pride of place.

Why? This should not be a country for undesirables. It should be a country that is open to foreigners who bring talent, skills, experience and legitimate investment. It should be a place that respects its own people and enforces the highest standards of deportment. It should set the bar high and attract the best in the world, not the worst.

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