A Good Gym is Hard to Find: Business Lessons From a Day of Gym Hunting

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In a big city like Harare you’d think finding a good gym is an easy thing. Turns out it’s harder than I imagined.

Yesterday I spent some time hunting for an ideal place to work out at. Ideal in this case means that the place should be in in the CBD or the Avenues. Secondly there should be standard Olympic barbells, weight plates of varying weights and a squat rack. And obviously shouldn’t be too expensive. That’s a short list, nothing fancy, should be plenty around I thought.

So I did the obvious thing- I went on the internet and searched for “gyms in Harare”. The results were poor, and the few gyms I found there didn’t appear to have any websites. Come on guys, in this day and age?

Which meant I had to resort to primitive ways i.e. going around town searching for gyms and comparing them. Started with the nearest one I knew, over at Fife Avenue shops. Fit the location requirement perfectly since it’s a few minutes’ walk from my place. “$40 a month and $10 for joining,” a short fella who I assumed to be the instructor said. I looked around the pace and wasn’t impressed. The space looked too small and the weights were in disarray. Told him I’d think about it and left.

Next was one I had found on Facebook, along Livingstone Avenue, between Fourth and Fifth streets. “$25 joining fee, $50 per month,” a bored lady at the reception told me. A well-built guy showed me around, he was refreshingly good company and he told me that students pay $35 per month. Looked a good enough place and I thought I might return there.

Later I went to the one in Joina City, called Oxygen Fitness. Located right in the CBD, housed in the city’s fanciest and newest high rise, it looked an expensive place. Fee is $20 for joining then $50 for a month. “What if I’m a student,” I asked remembering a previous encounter. “Oh, if you’re a student, and you’re below 25 you join for $15 and pay $40 every month,” I was told.

I also went to Empire Gym along Leopold Takawira, next to that shop where they sell those fancy Jaguars. A notice proudly proclaimed that they are the biggest fitness chain in the country. Like all things that used to be big in this country the gym has seen better times.

I visited more places, one recommended by a friend in downtown Harare where Harare Street and Albion intersect. Good enough place, $35 per month, no joining fee. Friendliest stuff I’d encountered. But there was a problem. The weight plates were terrible, looked like some kind of rubbery stuff and some barbells were of fixed weights.

It was quite an afternoon, I found one gym at Reylton sports club that looked like sh**, another sh**ty one at Les Brown swimming pool, several others in downtown Harare and, *surprise*, even one at Harare Central Police Station, in the basement, where they charge a dollar per session. Would’ve gone there if the equipment was adequate.

My search got me thinking about business. Reminded me of some ideas I have harboured for some years.

The best ideas, wrote Jason Fried in his short but awesome book, “Rework”, are those that solve the problems you have. This, he said, is called, “scratching your own itch”, and it often turns out to be the best way of getting entrepreneurial ideas. After all there are countless guys like me out there, facing the same problems right? (Well, actually I don’t think there are guys like me, but you get the point).

My experience was frustrating. I really felt that all the gyms I went to could and should do more to make their places more attractive. But of course these issues are not limited to gyms, they apply to most businesses in Zimbabwe.

So I thought I should point out a few things that I think will make Zimbabwean businesses better.

Firstly the staff who deal with people in Zimbabwean companies are generally a lazy, uninterested, bored and, perhaps, unqualified lot. In all the places I went- except the Reylton one where the owner was around- no one tried to encourage me to sign up, either verbally or by offering incentives. I mean when you’re a receptionist in a gym or fitness centre you ought to appear engaged and look happy to be doing your job instead of looking bored and not giving a fuck whether I sign up or not. This is prevalent in almost every sector, except where people are paid on commission. But again what do you expect when people just employ their friends daughters, or aunts or someone from church or an uncle’s baby momma?

Also you need to incentivise, for example if a prospective client complains about the price, why not reduce it by even five dollars. In a business like a gym where the costs are fixed such moves will make you much, much more money in the long run. Perhaps this is down to the owners who do not give their employees room to do such things. Or maybe the employees themselves are not paid enough to care. These guys could really learn a thing or two from the guys who sell phones at the ZimPost mall. Those guys really want you to buy and they often succeed too. And you wonder why those guys drive Mercs while fancy shops go bust.

Thirdly people really need to take their businesses online. Seriously, a basic website costs less than $200. You can get one done for $50 even. A simple two or three page site that lists the services offered, the prices and contact information will go a long way. Imagine the number of potential clients who miss your services because you’re invisible. Facebook and Twitter are fine but nothing beats the good old website for visibility, clarity and credibility. It really boggles my mind why people don’t get this. After investing tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands in a business, what’s another $200 for a website?

Businesses should also get the basics right. I mean it doesn’t matter that you have fancy treadmills and other equipment that no one knows how to use when you don’t have toilets or showers. In one gym they had pretty expensive stuff but no barbells, they simply got the basics wrong. At another they had the equipment you’d expect in a home gym. Come on comrades.

Lastly I think appearances are important in some business sectors. There’s nothing worse than seeing a potbellied fella giving fitness lessons and extolling the virtues of working out. Or overweight, lazy looking receptionists. I mean I have nothing against people’s weights but you can’t be a certain weight and work in a gym, just as you can’t be a certain height and work in the army, for example.

Some fellas need reminders that it’s the 21st Century. Come on makomuredhi. Even Baba Tencen is making money online.

 

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How many cars are there in Zimbabwe?

Our roads are too congested
Our roads are too congested

If you’re like me you’ve probably argued about silly things, like the total number of houses in Zimbabwe or how many cars pass through a particular tollgate each day. These are the kinds of questions that arise after one too many drinks or during a very slow day. They are also the kind of questions you may be asked in an interview at Google or other tech companies.¹

Coming from a village small town, I have always thought Harare’s roads are too congested (don’t tell me about Beijing, New York or whatever, I live in Zimbabwe). The number of cars in Zimbabwe has risen dramatically in the past couple of years due to cheap second hand cars being imported from Japan.

So today, while caught up in traffic, my brother started talking about the high number of cars on our roads. He said there are probably so many cars in Harare that every person over the age of 18 can get one. We argued about this for a while and he said there are enough cars in the city for every household. Eventually I asked him how many cars he thinks there are in the whole country.

“Maybe 3 million,” he replied offhandedly.

But my brother is a lawyer and his understanding of numbers is ehmmm ….shaky. My own estimate was 1.5 million, a number he disputed with all the energy of a lawyer.

So I started thinking about how to get the total number of cars in Zimbabwe. There are a number of ways to go about it. The most accurate would be to go the Vehicle Registration offices and just ask, or somehow find the information from them or other official sources but then where would be the fun in that?

One could also use some statistical methods for a small sample, assume it’s random, and then extrapolate the results for the whole country.

However a  better method is to use the number (vehicle registration) plates. In 2006 the government introduced a new type of number plates.  These new plates are composed of three letters and four numbers such as in the image below.

Zimbabwean Number Plates (Image from The Bearded Man)
Zimbabwean Number Plates (Image from The Bearded Man)

Assuming that there are no plates with any letter combination followed by four zeros, eg ABX 0000 (and I haven’t seen any), any unique letter combination can have 9999 different set of plates i.e from 0001- 9999.

So far the latest cars getting registered are getting the letter combination ADX or maybe ADY. The task here is to establish how many unique combinations of letters- in incremental order and without repeating- there are from AAA up to ADX.

It’s not too difficult, just a little maths and knowledge of the alphabet.

There are 26 letters in the alphabet. Therefore from AAA – AAZ there are 26 different letter combinations and 26 × 9999 different number plates.

From AAZ the series goes to ABA up to ABZ where there are 26 other combinations, then another 26 from ACA to ACZ and so on. So from AAA to ADX there are 26 + 26 + 26 + 24  = 102 letter combinations, each capable of holding 9999 items. ²

Thus the total number of cars is 9999 × 102 = 1 019 898.

That’s it folks there are just over a million (registered & private) cars in Zimbabwe. There are of course other cars belonging to the government, military, police and other special classes. I’m also not sure where commecial vehicles- such as buses, kombis and trucks fit in.

If you add up all those- and the President’s considerable fleet- you may arrive at maybe 1.1 – 1.2 million cars which is actually near the official number according to the Zimbabwe National Roads Administration, ZINARA.³

Which means there’s roughly a car for every 11 Zimbabweans. Or a car for every 2 families.†

So I won the argument. That merits a blog post.

In case you are wondering, one of the reasons why the old plates were phased out was that we would one day run out of numbers. Under this new system the total number of possible number plates is a staggering 175 742 424 i.e 26 cubed × 9999 or 26 × 26 × 26 × 9999

Huge as that number may seem it’s still less than the estimated 254 million cars in the US. For comparison, Germany which is roughly the same size as Zimbabwe (but with way more people) has around 55 million cars.

Notes:

  1. Funny interview questions to test analytical skills are common in tech jobs, as reported by Forbes, Business Insider, Geekwire & others
  2. As far as I know a few minutes of observation revealed there are no cars with ADY plates, thus the 24
  3. ZINARA, on its website says “According to the central vehicle registry (CVR), Zimbabwe’s vehicle population stands at an estimated 1, 2 million”
  4. † There are almost 13 million people in Zimbabwe Wikipedia
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How to Make Money in Zimbabwe Using South Africa’s Rands

sa notes and coins

Disclaimer: The author is in no way liable or responsible for any losses incurred, or legal action arising from, or whatever consequences of following this advice.

With the Rand in trouble after the problems in China here’s how to take advantage of a weak Rand and make some money.

While the rand has recovered from its Monday all time low it still hovers between 12 and 13 to the dollar, where it’s been for a while now. The funny thing is that when using coins 10 Rands are usually worth 1 USD in day to day transactions because of the lack of small change in USD.

What this means, at least hypothetically, is that if I buy some Rands and convert them into coins and then exchange those coins for dollars I can make a healthy profit.

So for example if I had $1000 I could buy around R13000. I would then convert this R13000 into coins and then use these coins as change or give them to kombi operators or somehow take advantage of the street conversion rate for coins.

I’d get $1300 dollars from this scheme. This would earn me a nice $300.

Seems feasible enough, with the biggest hurdle being how to successfully convert all those coins into US dollar notes. This here, ladies and gentlemen, is a nice little business opportunity with healthy returns.

So you can found a startup which imports coins from South Africa. Or easier still just go to a bank, buy Rands and request them in coins.

Not sure about the legality of it though, or the logistics of getting the coins and transporting them.

By the way this ought to earn Zimbabwe a place in the Guinness Book of Records. After all (as far as I know) this is the only country in the world where coins have more value than their note equivalents.

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The Importance of Ignorance

Before the 16th century scientific enquiry progressed at a very slow pace. Man only started to make serious progress when he admitted that there was much he did not know.

Before that the general view was that there were wise men , or religious authorities oir kings who had the answers to all the world’s problems. Wanted to know how the world began? Ask the bible, or the Koran or ask the elders. if those people didn’t know then supposedly such questions were trivial or God did not want you to know.

I think we can now all agree that this is a counterproductive mentality. And it’s something we need to accept in Zimbabwe. There are just too many things we do not know, or can’t do.

Blaming others or looking to God won’t save us. Admitting ignorance and asking questions with open minds will help us. Ignorance is important.

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A Pencil per Child: Rachel Chard’s Noble Quest

I must admit that I have no idea who Rachel Chard is. But she was featured on a blog I sometimes read, Selentine. The article “Rachel Chard and her quest to raise 10000 pencils” says:

From time to time I find inspiration in different things and places. One of the initiatives that caught my eye recently was by the efforts of a young Zimbabwean lady called Rachel Chard, she is a 23 year old who studied Hospitality Management and is awaiting graduation. She is an animal rights activist and has just recently started her charity organisation called Raising Hope which is looking to donate pencils to the less fortunate school children.

via Selentine

A considerate young woman I think who deserves our support.

Reminded me of when I was growing up in the village back in the late nineties. Some kids could not afford pencils, which may seem surprising to some of you. But despite the (relatively) low cost of pencils there are many Zimbabwean children who do not afford them.

A pencil can change the world
A pencil can change the world

This is also a sad reflection of the nation’s state of affairs. At a time when computer literacy is becoming mandatory in developed countries, and coding is taught in schools, we are still unable to make sure that we have enough pencils and books for our future leaders.

While in other countries there are plans to teach young people to solve technical problems using computers here we have some children who have never seen a computer, much less used one. We are destroying the future.

Which is why I support the actions of organisations like One Laptop per Child, which manufactures and distributes low cost laptops to kids in developing nations. We are behind, and we desperately need to catch up.

We really need to do more to improve our education and introduce computing and computers in schools. We can all play our small parts.

In the meantime we can support Rachel Chard in her quest to raise 10000 pencils.

 

PS: You can email Rachel Chard at rachelchard33@yahoo.com.

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