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Together in Togo--for Profit

December 27, 1987|Steven F. Thompson | Steven F. Thompson is an American working for Korean managers in an African textile firm.

LOME, TOGO — At 6:30 a.m., after a 10-minute breakfast of oxtail soup, 60 Korean technicians march to the factory courtyard beneath an African sun. They join more than 200 Togolese workers to stand at attention and to sing their respective national anthems before the flags of South Korea, Togo and the United States. The Koreans recite the company pledge in unison and the group finishes the daily ceremony with a collective shout, fists raised in the air.

The workday at the Pan Atlantic Company (PAC) textile plant in central Togo, just east of Ghana, has officially begun.

This exotic amalgamation of cultures is the byproduct of Togo's recent privatizing efforts, of South Korean attempts to avoid U.S. textile quotas and the seemingly endless American search for cheap foreign labor. As one of three American employees at PAC, I have had the good fortune--and occasional frustration--of witnessing this partnership firsthand.

The government of Togo began the process last year by selling two abandoned textile factories to a consortium of entrepreneurs from the United States and South Korea. Backed by loans from the Togo-based West African Development Bank and the World Bank's International Finance Corp., the investors promptly brought in a contingent of Korean technicians to train the African work force and turn the venture to profit.

Wan Joon Choi, PAC president, says, "Everyone's interests are involved." These interests, however, may not necessarily be the same; one can only hope they are compatible.

The company plans to benefit from Togo's quota-free status with both the United States and the European Community, for exporting conventional garments such as T-shirts and pants. At the same time, it wants a share in the highly competitive local market for African cloth. The government and the development banks look forward to the creation of more than 5,000 jobs, a steady market for domestic cotton and an influx of export-generated foreign exchange to help Togo repay its foreign debts.

The most historic development of this and an increasing number of other Asian ventures in Africa may, however, be the meeting of different cultures. At times, the distances between traditions seem insurmountable.

Several months ago, I attended a ceremonial blessing of the company at one of the factory compounds. With PAC management approval, a group of village chieftains chanted incantations, poured liquor into the earth and sacrificed a goat by slashing its neck with a machete. The Korean technicians simply stared.

When the blessings had ended, the chieftains thanked their hosts, promised the company years of bountiful production and proceeded to consume the goat meat--and the rest of the liquor--while the Koreans, shaking their heads in disbelief, returned to work.

Even the local buyers provide a stiff challenge to Korean sensibilities. The major African clients of PAC are the so-called Nana-Benz: huge women of immense power and wealth who have earned their nicknames by driving only Mercedes-Benz autos. These women are the dominant figures in the local sales of African cloth and command the utmost respect from the government authorities. Their patronage is essential to the success of the company.

Legend has it that the Nana-Benz acquire power by carrying serpents in their bellies and eating the eggs raw. They are also said to steal children and make their own husbands disappear. These women are indeed a world away from the traditional, demure Korean woman.

The Togolese must meanwhile make their own adjustments. Daily they confront a relentless Asian attitude toward work and a complex Confucian-based hierarchy of command. From sunup to sundown, and half-day Saturdays, the Togolese work in a vertically integrated factory to transform raw cotton into finished shirts or printed cloth. One of the company plants is also quite old--the ventilation is poor and most heavy labor must be done by hand.

To compound the strain, the Koreans demand strict adherence to discipline. At times, I have seen Togolese men and women forced to do deep knee bends as punishment for not properly responding to a command--an order that they may not have understood in the first place because of the language barrier. The Togolese patiently endure these trials, however, for they are well aware that without the Korean presence, they would probably not be working.

PAC and the IFC have agreed to offer approximately 20%-35% of the company shares to Togolese investors (most likely the Nana-Benz) three years after reaching full production; management styles may then change. But for now, the factories will be run the Korean way--or not at all. The most difficult aspect of life abroad for the Koreans, besides the constant threat of malaria, is the sense of isolation in a strange land.

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