Standing outside an appointment, waiting for the car, I noticed a guy going past with a bundle on his head.
It was a bundle of secondhand clothes -- Africa is full of secondhand clothes from America and Europe -- wrapped and labelled: "Children's clothes, 45 kg".
"Huh," I said to the translator, "that guy is carrying 45 kilos on his head."
He shrugged. "There are guys who can carry 100 kilos."
"On their heads?"
Silence for a bit. Another guy went past with a bundle. A couple of minutes later, another.
"Where are they going?"
"To the central market." He nodded down the street. Sure, the central market was just a couple of blocks away.
"Okay... where are they coming from?"
"The port?" The port is 4 km -- say, two and a half miles -- away.
"It's very simple, Doug. You are a commercant and you have, let's say, some tonnes of these clothes? You could get a truck to bring them from the port. Or you can pay a hundred of these guys 500 francs each to do it."
Okay, some math. 500 francs is about 45 cents. 45 cents to walk five miles, half of it with 100 pounds on your head.
Well: from the commercant's point of view, that's $45. Would it cost him more than $45 to hire a truck to go to the port and back? Possibly. 45 kilos x 100 is 4.5 tonnes. You won't get that in the back of a pickup; you need a real truck, albeit a small one. If the commercant doesn't own a truck, leasing it for a couple of hours could easily cost that much.
What about the porters? Well, $0.45 per trip. Say they make four round trips per day, that's $1.80 per day. If they work 200 days per year, that would be $360 per year, or $30 per month. By Burundian standards, this is... um, I can't say "good"... but "better than many, and not as bad as most". It's higher than the average per capita income.
It's not just transport. There's a construction site across the street from our hotel: a new wall, going up around the UN compound. During working hours, it's pretty much a solid mass of humanity. Hundreds of people are working on a job that, in Europe, might use thirty or forty. No heavy equipment beyond a single dump truck -- no bulldozer, backhoes, lifts, or like that. Just women with baskets and men with shovels. At a very rough estimate, I'd say there are five to ten times as many people as there'd be with powered equipment and tools. And if they're getting 20 cents an hour, this may make perfect economic sense. Why invest in an expensive piece of technology -- that requires ever more expensive fuel, and may have to be repaired -- when labor is so cheap?
Burundi may have the cheapest labor on the planet. It's not attracting investment to Burundi, though. More on this anon, if time allows.