National News

Japan prepares to vote

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-12-12 02:00

Here’s a bright idea: in the middle of a recession, call an election.

That’s exactly what the prime minister of Japan has done. The voting is set for Sunday, and he actually could be headed for a landslide. Polls suggest Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ruling party could win a two-thirds majority. In this case, it’s not “the economy, stupid.” It’s the enfeebled opposition, analysts say.

Despite the GDP contraction, Japan’s economy may not be that bad. Adam Posen, President of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, sees parts of the “Abe-nomics” shock therapy working: monetary easing and reforms to bring more women into the workforce. There’s more to do, Posen says, but a victory could give Abe a mandate to pursue additional, significant changes: cutting business taxes, shrinking the deficit, and striking a trade deal with Washington.

Investing in coffee and Congo

Marketplace - American Public Media - Fri, 2014-12-12 01:30

The Democratic Republic of Congo needs investment to rebuild from decades of war. But the cruel irony is that it’s the last place many foreign investors want to park their money. 

Transparency international ranks DRC 156 out of 175 rated countries in terms of corruption. The World Bank says that while it’s among the world’s top ten most improved places to do business, it’s still one of the world’s hardest places to do business. And yet people do, and do so successfully. 

Konrad Brits is trying to be one of them. He is CEO of Falcon Coffee, a UK based green coffee supplier to brands all over the world.

He stands before the coffee processing mill that he helped finance in Goma, the capital of DRC’s North Kivu province. The mill processes coffee beans provided by cooperatives and farmers from around the region. He hopes it will offer a desperately needed source of revenue for people.

“It’s an incredibly risky investment, or a lot of people would view it as that,” he says.

After what Brits has been through, it is a miracle he is here. 

This isn’t his first ride on the Congo Coffee train. 10 years ago, he tried exporting coffee from the other side of the country. He set up a network of middlemen to buy coffee from villages, and then processed it in a factory like this one. He imported everything from screws and screw drivers, to cars and machinery and equipment.

“And once we started the process, the shackles began to tighten,” he recalls.

Taxes got pushed mysteriously higher, and higher, he says. And then there were random fees, like for the government to certify the weight of his coffee (even though officials had no scale).

“When we went to the government, they said, 'We don’t have a scale, but you need this paper to export the coffee. So even though we don’t have a scale, this piece of paper’s gonna cost you $750 every time.'” 

Konrad’s staff was stealing two tons out of every 18 ton container “in conjunction with the port authorities,” he says. “I was paying the tax and buying the 18 tons of coffee and buying the weight note; shipping thousands of tons. And when they started arriving, my buyers would tell me, 'You over invoiced me. There’s only 16 tons.'"

The staff were then reselling the stolen coffee back to Konrad.

“The degree of institutional corruption made me realize that I needed to cut my losses and leave,” he says. He lost $1.3 million.

At the time, he was furious that so many people and authorities around him had colluded to cheat him at the expense of their own communities.    

I’m going to leave here,” he recalls telling a group of officials and employees. “I’m bleeding, but I’m gonna survive, I’m gonna take my business somewhere else. And you’re gonna sit here with no future.”

Since that time, Konrad has come to think about his experience in a different way.

“Time and again, the Congolese have seen so many foreigners come and go, and by and large every one of those foreigners have been there to take not to give,” he says. Starting with slavery and everything else: the mineral wealth, the rubber, the hardwood. Investing in the DRC with my very developed-world, bleeding-heart attitude, believing I could deliver this promise of tomorrow to people who had been nothing but let down."

He adds, "The governor‘s son told me, ‘We are such a traumatized society that if you offer a Congolese one dollar today or ten at the end of the week, he can’t bank on the ten at the end of the week, so he’ll take the dollar today. And you look like the dollar today.’” 

So why is he back? 

Because of people like Kyriakides Menelas. 

Menelas runs the coffee mill. He was here when rebels swept through town just two years ago, leaving bullet holes in the gate of the mill’s compound. Menelas has been here thirty years, through wars and invasions and corruption. Brits says he trusts Menelas and his family.

“They have built up a huge coffee export operation out of Uganda for 15 years and we’ve been partnering with them there for the last 5,” he says.

The only way to survive here, says Menelas, is to know people who know how to survive here, and find partners who have a stake in your success. Konrad’s early experiment had him depending on people who would gain from his failure. Also, it doesn’t hurt to have an edge.

“In business, if you show up somewhere and don’t know anyone and nothing, you’re a sheep among lions. They’re obviously going to devour you. So you have to become a little bit lion,” says Menelas.

And as a businessman, Menelas takes the long view. 

“Our parents, they lost their things two or three times. Us too. You get used to it. The positive thing about Congo is you can lose for two or three years and then gain it all back and more,” he says.

Britsa takes the long view too.  He says his partners, who’ve invested more than he has, make him feel protected. This time, he says, will be different.

“Well possibly,” he adds with a laugh. “Maybe I’ll be a fool twice. We are yet to see.”

 

Born In The U.S. But Turned Back At The Border, Time After Time

NPR News - Fri, 2014-12-12 01:01

Maria Isabel de la Paz is an American citizen who grew up in Mexico, but her birth certificate was dismissed at border checkpoints. The ACLU says too few of these cases see the inside of a courtroom.

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Please Touch! Cooper Hewitt Creates A Museum For The Internet Age

NPR News - Fri, 2014-12-12 01:01

The design museum is housed in a historic building, but it has been remade into one of the country's most technologically advanced museums. Officials hope it attracts younger visitors — and donors.

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Kabul Postcard: A Neighborhood In Transistion

NPR News - Fri, 2014-12-12 01:01

As NPR Kabul correspondent Sean Carberry wraps up his assignment, he assesses the change in his neighborhood, which has gone from dirt streets to upscale shopping centers.

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Even Under Obama, Black Activist Says Every Inch Of Progress Is A Fight

NPR News - Fri, 2014-12-12 01:01

President Obama has said he'll work to improve race relations between police and communitie, but in his hometown, many see a leader unable to sustain the progress predicted during his 2008 campaign.

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When Americans Head To Syria, How Much Of A Threat Do They Pose?

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 23:49

In recent cases, teenage Americans were caught en route to Syria. They seem to be more naive than actual threats. U.S. law enforcement is trying to decide how to deal with them.

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A Liberian Prof Doesn't Like What He's Seeing On The News Blackboard

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 23:38

Samuel Gbazeki is one of the many Liberians who stop by the Daily Talk blackboard to check out the news. The English professor has a lot to say about the latest headlines.

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Liberia's Daily Talk: All The News That Fits On A Blackboard

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 23:33

The New York Times says it's the most widely read news source in Liberia's capital. It consists of a blackboard, upon which a journalist writes regular updates about everything from politics to Ebola.

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After Nut Rumpus, Macadamia Sales Rocket

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 14:49

After a Korean Air executive was enraged by a steward's presentation of macadamia nuts in her first-class cabin, a large South Korean market reports an unlikely side effect.

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Barge owner talks oil and taxes

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-12-11 14:39

There's a lot of oil moving through the economy. It's literally moving, from point A to point B in trains, trucks and barges.

In light of the recent drop in oil prices, we checked in with Austin Golding, who runs Golding Barge Line, a family business in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Business has picked up since the last time we talked to Golding, and he's surprisingly excited about a new tax increase.

Birds Of A Feather Aren't Necessarily Related

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 14:39

Geneticists have revised the evolutionary tree of birds, revealing some unlikely relationships.

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Officer Buys Eggs For Woman Caught Shoplifting To Feed Family

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 14:05

The act of kindness in Tarrant, Ala., was caught on video. The story garnered so much attention that donations of money, food and clothes poured in from around the world.

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Kalettes, Broccoflower And Other Eye-Popping Vegetables For 2015

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 13:49

Kale's days as the superfood-du-jour may be numbered. Next up: Kalettes? It's a cross between kale and Brussels sprouts, and it's one of a few bewitching hybrid vegetables that could go big in 2015.

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The economic evolution of streetwear

Marketplace - American Public Media - Thu, 2014-12-11 13:44

Farshad Arshid runs a clothing business with his wife Sandy.

Arshid started out on his own, with one part-time employee a little over a decade ago. Now, he owns three stores, two in Atlanta, and one in Houston. He has a staff of around 15 employees. It all started with a store called Standard.

 

You Don't Want To Monkey Around With Monkey Malaria

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 13:11

The surging and virulent strain is carried by macaques in southeast Asia. As their habitat is disrupted by development, the monkeys come in closer contact with people. And mosquitoes do the rest.

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Why The White House Wants To Go After Seafood Pirates

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 13:02

Americans eat more seafood than just about anyone, but a big portion of imports are caught illegally. One expert calls this "the single greatest threat to sustainable fisheries in the world today."

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Football Players Drill Without Helmets To Reduce Concussions

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 13:01

The idea, according to a scientist at New Hampshire University, is to teach each player "rugby awareness," so he'll be more likely to keep his head out of harm's way. Helmets off, eyes up.

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U.Va. Looks At Ways To Curb Drinking At Its Frat Houses

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 12:30

The University of Virginia is looking to make changes, even though a report about a gang rape has been discredited. Ideas include banning hard alcohol and having sober volunteers self-police parties.

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Kentucky Says Noah's Ark Theme Park Won't Get Tax Breaks

NPR News - Thu, 2014-12-11 12:28

Kentucky says the Christian group behind the project wouldn't commit not to discriminate in its hiring on the basis of religion. The group says it will challenge the state's decision.

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