My recent trip to Panama got me thinking about a lot of things, including the possibility of starting a business there. My opinion is that there are so many opportunities in that country that any businessman with some drive and ambition would have to be incompetent not to succeed there -- if the right type of business is chosen.
That, of course, is the trick, isn't it, to find a business that has affordable and useful products or services and a market large enough to sustain growth and continuity. There are businesses that we, as North Americans, might see as desirable in Panama, but that Panamanians themselves might have little or no use for at the moment.
As I drove through the country I marveled at the ineffective use of human resources throughout much of the country. Manual labour is cheap in Panama, so men do much of what could be done by machine. Many men are on the government payroll doing menial work, perhaps because it is better to have them working at something and collecting a paycheque, than sitting around at home grousing. If I remember correctly, the unemployment rate in Panama is somewhere between 9 - 10%, which really isn't all that bad given how little industrialization there is in the country.
As I drove west from Panama City, I noticed that there were work gangs, with scores of men using gasoline-powered weed whackers, to clear the median and the roadsides of waist-high grass and weeds. As I got further and further away from the city, the workers used at first scythes and then ultimately machetes to do the clearing. Can you imagine working for eight or more hours in the tropical sun using a machete to cut weeds? I can imagine myself doing it, but I would have to be pretty desperate.
And that is it, isn't it? Panamanians are no different than we are. They want to work towards a better life for themselves and their families and will willingly do back-breaking labour to do so.
The reality is, of course, that one man, driving a tractor equipped with a shoulder mower, can cut 50 miles of roadside or more per day, perhaps 25 miles in one direction, then 25 miles back. Perhaps 50 or 100 men would lose their jobs though, for every tractor used for that purpose.
Would that be a bad thing? I certainly wouldn't want anyone to lose their livelihood, so how about using the labour of these men more effectively, doing something much more useful than trimming roadside vegetation.
And what might that be, you ask?
Panama is pothole hell. Even the main highway has stretches where dodging potholes must occupy your full attention while driving. And how about secondary roads? Some are bad. Really, really bad. All those men working with machetes could be put to work in road crews, with shovels and asphalt, instead. That would mean a big improvement in road conditions.
The roads are so bad in some areas that it is truly dangerous to drive on them. I found that the best way to traverse these roads was to take position behind one of the ubiquitous private buses that run routes between towns and villages and simply do what they do. They drive the routes daily and know every pothole. Zig, zag, to and fro, drive on the right, drive on the left, drive on the shoulder. It matters not how, just get to where you want to go. And get there with yourself and your vehicle intact.
Yes, potholes are a problem in Panama.