Once or twice a year, Otto Haalboom travels to Namibia. "I am a different person when I get off the plane in Windhoek," says the owner and managing director of OTTO HAALBOOM Internationale Spedition in Hamburg. For weeks at a time, he drives through the expansive countryside – without cell phone, radio and television. He even turns off the air conditioning and rolls down the window. "I need to smell Africa," he explains. Even the 68-year old's forwarding company breathes Africa: On the walls: Photos of elephants, cheetahs, leopards and lions, all taken by Haalboom himself. For Haalboom, the continent is more than just a hobby. International business accounts for more than two thirds of his company's sales (founded in 1981), one third of which comes from Africa. The Africa portfolio comprises transport by boat, heavy loads, air and sea, (FCL and LCL), sea-air-service, messenger and premium rate service, breakbulk cargo and "special requests." Haalboom moves "anything and everything" to Africa, from the tiniest screw to entire industrial complexes. This includes heavy machinery, mining equipment, machines for highway construction, quay or solar installations, as well as canned goods and other consumer goods. 90 percent of all Africa shipments are done by sea, only 10 percent by air, although a "unique relationship" with Air Namibia does exist. But air freight is expensive by comparison. The transports are processed chiefly from Europe to Africa, and increasingly, by container from China to Africa, too. But the size of the orders, according to Haalboom, vary vastly, which is why many freight forwarders are wary of African markets.
For the middle class entrepreneur, however, no job seems to be too complicated. In 2012, with the armed conflict in Mali in full blast, a solar plant was scheduled to be transported to Mopti and installed there. In spite of increasing unrest, the Hamburg shipping company organized a shipment by air from Germany to Barnako, further transportation by truck to Mopti, as well as installation of the plant.
"You need a good network. That's a lot of work," comments Haalboom. He has handpicked the majority of the agents in Africa himself. Decisive are, especially in areas of trouble and war, reliable partners that can get cultural as well as infrastructural complications under control." Haalboom's recipe for success: "A lot of experience and fearless creativity."
In Sierra Leone he got to know "Africa undiluted". When a business partner was severely wounded through a bullet in the head at the begin of the civil war, and the business in Sierra Leone thus came to a stop, Haalboom switched to Namibia. His conclusion after 30 years in business: "Africa is extremely difficult." Many go there too naïve. A quick buck is not to be made there, thorough preparation is of the essence. "The most important thing: Will I get my money?," Haalboom knows.
Other Africa experts confirm, such as Prof. Robert Kappel of the German Institute of Global and Area Studies (Giga) in Hamburg. The bank has to check everything. The customer is not supposed to have a loophole to get out of an active contract, the economist recommends. It is very common in Africa, for example, to put a stop payment on checks. Prepayment helps in this case.
For Haalboom, the most important African markets are Namibia, South Africa and Botswana. Among the emerging markets, Nigeria, Ghana and Sierra Leone are in the lead. The profit margins in his Africa dealings are double digit percentage, and "growing." They are comparable to they business' transactions in Central Asia.
According to "Agility Emerging Markets Logistics Index 2014", Nigeria has meanwhile overtaken South Africa as the continent's biggest national economics. Haalboom doesn't believe, however, that Nigeria could grow to be Germany's biggest trading partner in Africa – due to the cultural differences. Neither does he assess South Africa's economic growth euphorically. Strikes, rallies and crime add up to "massive danger."
But all that doesn't put a hamper on Otto Haalboom's emotional connection to the continent. The same goes for his daughter Julia Haalboom-Ebert and son-in-law Markus Ebert, who are both waiting in the wings already to succeed him.