My Working World: G is for…
After a couple of rather dry months, it looks like my luck is changing. There are eleven countries in the world beginning with G, and I’ve visited four of them, three for work and one, Greece, for repeated holidays over the past forty years. Wikepedia lists 147 cities of more than 100,000 residents, which begin with G. I have visited three in total, but only for conferences or holidays. So this month, I’m going to stick with countries, namely Germany, Georgia, and Ghana.
Well, I say worked in Germany, but to be completely honest, that’s only ever been in a transitory way. Over the years, I worked on quite a few projects in the Central Asian region: in Armenia, Georgia and Khazakstan. And getting there was often a problem. There were either no direct British Airways flights, or they were at really inconvenient times, meaning we either left UK, or arrived at our destination, in the middle of the night. As an alternative, we used to book Lufthansa flights via the major hub in Frankfurt. The planes were a tad functional, and I swear a number of their pilots were kangaroos in previous lives, but the service was quick and reasonably priced – always a consideration when working on an EU project. Frankfurt airport is only fourth in size after Heathrow, Charles de Gaulle, and Schiphol, but it seemed huge to me.We always needed to change terminals and seemed to spend a long time on crowded buses driving across the tarmac.
I know Germany is a beautiful country; in fact, I spent a couple of wonderful holidays there many years ago. But from a business point of view, it was only ever a mid-point at the start of a trip, or an irritating break in a journey home. I really must return one day and give it the time and respect it deserves.
Postscript:Michael has just reminded me that the first overseas business trip I ever made was to Munich, in October – beer festival month – with two engineers! And I returned home with a teddy bear almost as tall as me. But that’s another story (and I think I will leave that until we get to M, which I guess will be November this year.)
I visited Georgia on a number of occasions, always at the invitation of one company, GM Pharmaceuticals. Based in Tbilisi, it was the first to recognise the importance of Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and to seek international recognition of its quality systems. Michael and I were invited to speak at the first GMP conference in Georgia, back in 2003, and I carried out a number of audits and presented training workshops there. On my first visit, the General Manager pulled one of my textbooks off his bookshelf and asked me to sign it. And that’s always a great thrill for an author, no matter how many books they have sold.
Georgia was also one of the three places where I was persuaded to climb onto a ski lift. It was in the middle of summer, so there was no snow, but it’s a great to way to go sightseeing; if you are brave enough to open your eyes, which I was – eventually.
We have remained friendly with the GM and his family; his daughter visited us in Devon while studying in London. And it was in Georgia that I first met someone called ‘Gorgito’; a name that was to become very important to me. So I have a very soft spot for this particular country beginning with G.
I worked in Ghana twice, both times in Accra, but on very different projects. The first time was on a World Health Organisation (WHO) funded project to spread the word about GMP to the Ghanaian industry, back in the mid-1990s. I don’t remember how many pharmaceutical companies there were at the time, although today there are only a handful. A small team of us, led by my former boss from Wellcome, ran a two-day training workshop for industry personnel plus government health professionals. Given the time that’s passed since then, it’s hardly surprising that the records of the trip are no longer available, but the material we produced morphed into a WHO training programme which I wouldn’t mind betting is still in use in some parts of the developing world. Pharmaceutical manufacturing is hugely complex and, at the cutting edge of industry, technology is continually being updated, along with quality assurance and validation requirements. But at the level we were working, there is a need for basic minimum standards, which is all many of the companies could manage, or afford, to attain. I like to think I played a part in establishing that level of attainment in at least some of the countries.
My second visit came out of the blue one day. I was asked to carry out a technical due diligence on behalf of the World Bank on a project to convert an old pharmacy into a toothpaste factory. It was a short visit, just three days in total, and I went with an economist who was looking at the business case. The pharmacy was a mess; it would have needed to be taken back to the brick and rebuilt from scratch. But that wouldn’t have been too difficult with World Bank money behind it. The real problem was the lack of significant market for western toothpaste in a country where the African twig brush was still the main method of dental hygiene. Whether that would still be the case today, I do not know, but at the time, the economist pulled the plug of the project.
It was on this second trip to Ghana that I experienced for the first time, the feeling of being very different from everyone around me. We visited a market at midday. The sun was blazing down and I was wearing a sleeveless blouse. A group of little children followed us, giggling. And finally one plucked up the courage to creep over and stroke my arm. I don’t know whether she had ever seen white skin before, but it certainly looked out of place in this setting. I have never forgotten that incident, and when I wrote Counterfeit!, I transposed it from midday Accra to a cafe in Lusaka at dusk.