To my shame, my grasp of Afrikaans is still sketchy, even after having lived 14 years in South Africa. But then, the same could be said of my Zulu and my Baoulé and my Yoruba and my Ga and my Twi and all the other myriad local languages of my various homes over the years. That’s not to mention the bits and pieces of Wollof and Swahili and Amharic and Arabic which at various times I’ve promised myself to improve upon. Apart from European languages, the only one in which I reached comfortable conversation level on my travels was Hausa, not obligatory but very useful in Northern Nigeria when moving outside the major towns. And I’ve forgotten most of that since I left in 1973!
What brings this to mind? Why, the prosaic wording of my motor vehicle licence form, from which I note that the Afrikaans for “erasures” is “uitkrappings”. Now, ladies and gentlemen, surely this is a word of which we have the utmost and urgent need in the English-speaking business world? In fact, looking at the success of consulting firms of various natures, it is high time that I set up a consultancy myself. Let me borrow this word without delay and send hit squads of out-krappers into the offices of insurance executives and actuaries, where they will go through the groaning shelves of management books and manuals and do some very serious out-krapping. So bemused and befuddled have we become in recent decades with the often barely comprehensible jargon of management-speak that many in responsible positions became convinced of the merit of, to take one example only, the now surely discredited notion that “managers” (whatever that may mean) could instantly take on and improve upon any branch of our business. Perhaps the most spectacularly unsuccessful (and short-lived) example of this which I experienced was an IT man who was given control of a Life department.
I hear voices of the converted out there ready to accuse me of being a modern-day Luddite, ready to break up anything new and threatening; but I am not against anything which actually works and, in my long insurance career, I’ve seen an awful lot of stuff which doesn’t, or at least which doesn’t come close to justifying the vast amount of time and money spent on it. My first direct contact with practitioners of this art was at the Legal & General in the late 1960s. It was called “Time and Motion Study” then. Nett result of the exercise: Increase in efficiency? Slight. Amount of extra work in monitoring and reporting? Huge. Size of consultants’ fee? Also huge. Ultimate benefit to the company? Neutral to Negative. I’ve seen many more cases since then and not a lot has changed, except for the complexity of the charts and the syntax.
I hesitated to raise this topic because its workings have become so arcane and its ramifications so wide that a few sentences cannot suffice to argue it adequately; but I am encouraged to broach it in the knowledge that many experienced and commercially successful insurers share my views. Also, we are fortunate to be able to discuss such contentious issues more openly today in the light of the serious shortcomings revealed by the economic crisis in the operations of many large and supposedly reputable firms, previously considered to be above criticism. So, let us go vigorously out-krapping!
I’ve lots of loves in Africa (no, settle down, Carol, I’m referring to countries here) and the Cape Verde islands are up there towards the top of the list. When I first started going to the islands, twenty years or so ago, there was one, state-monopoly insurer; the country was as poor as any around; the government was just changing from strictly Marxist, and half the population lived overseas. Without the remittances of expatriates, it would hardly have survived. Now, I see that it has become sub-Saharan Africa’s best economic performer, with tourism as the driving force, not surprisingly in view of its wonderful climate and the diversity of its ten islands, four of which I’ve experienced first-hand. Sadly, I no longer have any commercial justification to visit and I can’t see myself joining the new hordes of tourists, somehow.
In my last article, I spoke about the conference in Ivory Coast but not about the country. Since the fighting came under control three years ago, it has effectively been two countries and I have constantly been looking for signs of a reduction in premium income as a result of this. But no, it remains the largest of the francophone West African markets, continues to grow at a good rate and has more insurance companies than ever. I asked friends what happens if one goes beyond Bouaké, just north of which is the border with the “other” Ivory Coast. Not a problem, I was told, you pass a check point with little formality and there you are, in the same but different country. Weird. But why is the south still so prosperous? Well, that’s where almost all of the industry is. And most of the agriculture – mainly cocoa and palm oil but with a fair income from the exportation of fruit, as well. My kids were young when I lived in Abidjan and they would go to the lady on the corner with her pile of pineapples, who would remove the leaves of one to make a handle of the stalk, lop off the skin with a machete and, voila!, a giant lollipop.
It was in Abidjan, in the 1970s, that I first came across decennial liability, which had long been a requirement for French constructors but which was practically unknown in English practice then. I see that something similar has now been introduced as a compulsory cover in Nigeria, following several disasters with collapsing residential properties.
Not long ago, in Accra, I was paid as pretty a compliment as I can ever expect to receive. During a meeting at the Insurance Commission, I explained to a gathering of its managers that I had lived long in Ghana but many years ago, whereupon the Commissioner, an old friend and former pupil of mine interjected with, “Once a Ghanaian, always a Ghanaian”. Perhaps not strictly true but immensely flattering, nonetheless.
And just in case you thought that I was guilty of exaggeration in my opening remarks, here’s a nugget to close for which I am indebted to the satirical magazine, Private Eye:
Who is the odd man out from the following list? Lord Stevenson, former chairman, HBOS, Andy Hornby, former chief executive, HBOS, Sir Fred Goodwin, former chief executive, Royal Bank of Scotland, Sir Tom McKillop, former chairman, RBS, John McFall, MP, chairman of Treasury select committee, Alistair Darling, Chancellor of Exchequer, Sir Terry Wogan, presenter of a radio breakfast show. Answer: Terry Wogan, who’s the only one with a banking qualification. QED.