The value chain, from A to Zim

Friday, 14 September 2007

Most of us who pick up a magazine or newspaper rarely think about the value chain resulting in the words we read ending up on paper.

The chain for Y Mag, for example, starts a decade or more in the past, probably on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast when pine trees are planted in anticipation of the day when they will be logged; transported on trucks to be pulped, bleached, dried, glossed and put on to rolls; transported again, probably to Cape Town, where they are loaded on to the presses; printed, saddle-stitched or stapled, covers glued on and bound into shrink-wrapped bundles; and sent north to Gauteng where most of my fellow readers happen to live.

And that’s only the paper. The words, the pictures, the ink — all of those have their own value chains.

Is the world of paper too antiquated for you? All right, let’s move into the electronic environment. The simple act of my posting these words here from my laptop sets in place a complex series of intermediate hops between the Yfm and Mail & Guardian networks:

traceroute to (, 64 hops max, 40 byte packets
1 ( 3.058 ms 3.332 ms 30.165 ms
2 ( 1.789 ms 1.832 ms 2.622 ms
3 ( 411.907 ms 288.820 ms 35.153 ms
4 ( 29.540 ms 34.834 ms 41.728 ms
5 ( 206.295 ms 250.926 ms 200.675 ms
6 ( 1598.986 ms 1651.911 ms
7 ( 748.630 ms 295.980 ms 312.490 ms
8 ( 386.854 ms 240.558 ms 508.030 ms
9 ( 2225.475 ms
10 ( 3958.165 ms 4016.740 ms 2820.337 ms

That’s 10 separate computer routers involved. And we haven’t yet begun to take into account the physical cables linking those computers, which have a value chain beginning in copper mines; or the gold connectors on the integrated circuits; or the plastic connectors on the cables, which probably started as crude oil in the Persian Gulf; and so on.

So there I was, in Woolies, on a Sunday morning not so long ago, skimming a newspaper headline that said “ZIMBABWE COLLAPSES”.

(I don’t usually write in capitals — it seems too much like the literary equivalent of shouting, but I am quoting.)

But I was not there to buy the newspaper. I strolled across to the fresh-vegetable section at the back and picked up a 350g packet of green beans of the French variety. They were looking quite splendid in their aerated plastic packet. In a few hours, they would be looking quite different — their colour more vivid from having been microwave-steamed; drizzled with olive oil, crushed garlic and whey; topped with crumbled feta cheese; and sprinkled with dry-roasted sunflower seeds glazed in soy sauce.

But that was still in the future. I was, at that moment, marvelling at the value chain that resulted in these beans being there, in my hands, right then.

First, there would be the efficiently run farm with ample irrigation and rich soil (for fine beans are hungry and thirsty blighters). There would be intelligent people running the farm, because one has to be careful to use just enough pesticides to keep the beans from being eaten, but not enough to pass into the beans through the soil (because Woolies is fussy about these things). Then, there has to be an efficient workforce harvesting the beans and sorting them, again to Woolies’s exacting standards. The beans are then rinsed, dried just enough to keep them from rotting and not enough to make them dry out, packed into their aerated plastic packets by weight, and loaded on to the refrigerated truck that will be their home for the next couple of days.

The truck traverses about 1 200km or thereabouts, which means it needs to stop to refuel a couple of times at least along the way. It goes through checkpoints and tollgates, along freeways, and eventually navigates past the Gautrain construction in the Rosebank CBD to the shopping-centre delivery entrance in the basement where it discharges its load. The Woolies staff, working quickly in a chilled environment, move the beans into the store and on to the shelf where I find them, looking just-picked.

The beans are marked “Product of Zimbabwe”.

And I glance across to the front of the store at the newspaper headline on the shelf, and I chuckle.