On Saturday my daughter Kat and I picked up the Land Rover and brought it home from the shop after Opere had it for over a month for the initial mechanical repairs. Kat drove the Subaru home, I asked her to follow me to watch for smoke from the Land Rover….we even had a race out of a stoplight on Independence Ave…….Kat won.
It feels great to be able to finally drive the Defender after owning it for more than three months and I am already using it for errands. And it drives very well. The clutch works marvelously, the gears almost change themselves from second to third. I am particularly pleased with the smooth ride, in part thanks to the new poly bushings all around (rubberlike cushions that go between any metal parts between the, springs, shock absorbers and chassis). The Bilstein heavy duty shock absorbers that I decided to invest in make for a good ride, a bit stiff but that is fine, the vehicle is lighter now than it ever will be. By the time we add the soundproofing, carpet, roofrack with roof tent and all the expedition gear the heavy duty shock absorbers will pay off in spades. Best of all the motor does not smoke and it has a surprising amount of pickup, which indicates the compression is good. A good run on the highway, and some servicing should help clean up the bit of smoke that blows at take-off. Before I can do that though I have to get it legalized. Gomez the shady vendor has yet to produce the papers that I have to present to the Department of Motor Vehicles to get it licensed. Why do I think this is going to cost me more money?
Of course it is still not quite roadworthy. The signal lights do seem to work, but the brake lights do not, nor do the headlights. It is also very noisy, the body is full of holes and everything rattles and clangs. But this week for the first time since we got it I realize that the whole project just might be feasible, and that is a satisfying feeling.
A large part of the inspiration for this project came from my colleagues Stephane and Brian who had each purchased Land Rover Defenders in Accra to restore to take home to Canada at the end of their Ghana postings. Of course the whole idea is only feasible if there is a source of qualified, affordable expertise to do the restoration work, and this is available from Opere and his Land Rover “shop”. He will figure prominently in my own story and provides a wonderful example of African micro-enterpreneurial genius.
Located in East Legon, between the Accra mall where we do a lot of our shopping and the University of Ghana a mile to
the north, like many micro-enterprises in Ghana Opere’s “shop” is situated under a large tree, in this case a mango tree. It is just a tract of land about 1000 square metres or a quarter acre, under a power line. The term “shop” suggests a building with a door, roof, maybe some windows, but you can’t find any of those at this shop. There is a table and a bench under the tree, a nearby space where three or four vehicles can be driven up from the road to work on and a very rudimentary hoist arrangement for pulling motors. There is a small shed for storing tools and parts, but all the work is done out in the open. The rest of the area is filled with Land Rover Defenders. ranging from dilapidated hulks that are scavenged for parts to very pretty restorations and everything in between, representing various stages of repair or restoration. There are some that are completely stripped but have just been painted (usually white), others that are having the interiors redone.
Focussed almost exclusively on Land Rovers and in particular on Defenders, Opere provides a service that is recognized as the place in Accra for the best Land Rover repair and restoration work. A mechanic by training, he is now offering a full service model using specialists in different fields. There is Eric the electrician, Paani the “welder (an important function as the Defender bodies are all aluminum) someone else who does the interiors, etc. There are a few people who work for Opere, mostly mechanics. The other specialists do not appear to be actually employed by him, rather they provide their services to him or his clients on a fee-for-service basis. Opere is the real entrepreneur, he has a valuable sense of customer service and plays the role of guarantor – whenever I seem dubious about something he reminds me that it his reputation that is at stake so I should relax. It is difficult to estimate how many people earn their living there, it may be as many as fifteen or as few as five.
There are two lines of business, one where Opere buys a vehicle and restores it for resale, another for maintenance and repair for Land Rover owners around town. The vast majority of the business seems to be older Defenders like mine, although there are also a few Discoverys (ies?) and Range Rovers that come in as well. It is all very informal, there is no paper, no receipts. If he needs to buy parts to do your job he tells you how much he needs and you front him the money. He has never given me change for anything.
The clients are both expat and Ghanain, but mostly Ghanaian. Ghanaians love Land Rovers, our guard, staff in the High Commission, another mechanic I know, have all separately described them as “very strong vehicles”. The strong chassis and alumimum body have stood the test of time on Ghanain roads, and Ghana still imports a great number of new Land Rovers, although these days they are probably no “stronger” than their Japanese counterparts.
The workspace is typical of informal economy micro-enterprises we have seen in Accra. The heavy-duty tailor who made our sailboat cover last year, or the welder who repaired our barbecue grill, or the furniture maker who did our rattan for the backyard all had similar work areas. Trees constitute an important part of the establishment because they provide shade and shelter, albeit porous, from the elements, and they do so at no cost. Actually, there probably is a cost, each of the prime spots may well have been rented or leased from a traditional Ghanaian chief for a fee, perhaps based on the size of the tree.