Business - Issue 64 - Magazine | Monocle

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Big bucks for tuk-tuks


The three-wheeled auto-rickshaws known as tuk-tuks, popular in central Africa, are catching on further south: Cape Town’s transport regulator has had 120 applications from businesses looking to start tuk-tuk operations.

Good locking


Visitors to the Singapore Freeport may think they’ve stepped into a gallery when they catch sight of the twisting steel-and-mirror sculpture by Israeli industrial designer Ron Arad spanning the length of the atrium. The full-body scanners, security cameras and armed guards at the entrance point to the true nature of the building: a highly secure warehouse, built to withstand a plane crash, where the wealthy can store their most valuable possessions.

“Where would you rather store your works of art: in a museum-like facility or in a dump?” asks Tony Reynard, the Swiss chairman of the facility. Asia’s growing millionaire club means demand is soaring for tax-free places to stash artworks, gold bars, gems, expensive wines, jewellery and vintage cars. Opened just three years ago, the 25,000 sq m Freeport is at full capacity and the Swiss owners are planning an expansion, possibly housing a gold refinery, to be completed by the end of 2014.

The owners have also broken ground on a €75m, 83,000 sq m Freeport next to Beijing airport—designed to protect items from the harsh weather in the Chinese capital by ensuring a constant climate of 21C and 55 per cent humidity—as well as a smaller facility in Luxembourg. Both are expected to open in the next few years.

Singapore Freeport is a symbol of the changing face of asset storage. With Switzerland’s vaunted banking secrecy rules under threat, Singapore is emerging as the world’s new wealth hub. WealthInsight, a London-based research firm, says Singapore’s offshore assets have increased tenfold since 2000 to €420bn, and that the country could overtake Switzerland in offshore assets by 2020. It stands to reason that physical assets follow the money; according to the Real Asset Company, a precious-metals investment firm, Singapore is now the preferred place for Asians, North Americans and Germans to store their gold, too.

But despite the industry’s geographical shift, the tone of service retains a Swiss quality. The Freeport has its own entrance to the tarmac at Changi, allowing a plane-side, limousine pick-up service, accompanied by guards. “We propagate the Swissness of the business: the precision on timing and being methodical about the approach,” says Christian Pauli, general manager of Fine Art Logistics Natural Le Coultre, the main tenant at the Freeport. Discretion is also a key selling point. “We are not hiding anything,” Reynard says. “We just aren’t telling everybody what’s here.”

Don’t let the cookies crumble


Brazilians love a biscuit: they are the second largest producer of cookies behind the US. But when it comes to exporting, the country lags behind. According to the Brazilian Biscuit Industry Association, the nation ranks 33rd in global biscuit exports. That’s why the organisation has developed Happy Goods, a logo aimed at promoting Brazilian-baked biscuits abroad. Look out for the emblem’s smiley faces in a supermarket near you.

Sound investment


When former computer programmer Philip Graham’s songwriting daughter needed new microphones, his DIY instinct kicked in. His first efforts were made from plumbing and lamp parts. Today Graham’s Ear Trumpet Labs is a Portland-based micro-industrial lair of hand-wired electronics. “Each microphone takes about a day’s labour,” says Graham. “But I like that – I can have long conversations with customers.”

Picture paradise


Most think of Mauritius as a romantic holiday spot; thanks to a new 30 per cent tax rebate for filmmakers, directors are developing a crush on the island. The tropical climate allows film crews to shoot all year round and the nation’s booming IT industry has paved the way for modern post-production facilities. South African DV8 Films plans to shoot a €5.3m feature film called ‘Sweet Black Water’ there this autumn. “Everything works: internet, roads and hotels are of world-class standard,” says DV8 CEO Jeremy Nathan.

Cold shoulder thaws


Tourist numbers in the Antarctic have rebounded from the downturn they suffered when the global financial crisis hit, with about 35,000 making the trip this year for activities including paragliding and waterskiing.

Food fight


A recent lunch at San Francisco-based accommodation website Airbnb featured brined and grilled pork chops with a pear and mustard seed compote. At a company called BandPage, employees could partake of split-pea soup with smoked ham accompanied by a courgette salad in a Dijon and brown sugar vinaigrette. But free meals in Silicon Valley, long a key weapon in the battle to hire employees, could soon come to an end. The IRS is considering whether this food is a form of compensation that should be taxed – an inquest making hungry techies very nervous indeed.

The companies involved say that free cafeterias are essential to boost camaraderie and innovation, pointing out that eating together promotes a kind of intellectual cross-fertilisation. And as if the potential food crisis wasn’t enough, tech companies are also under fire for their complimentary shuttle services, with complaints that they hog municipal bus stops.

Contraband conundrum


Smuggling is the economic backbone of the African desert and few places exemplify this more than Mali. Timbuktu is largely inaccessible and not much grows there; for a population of 50,000 there is just one supermarket. Almost all non-edible goods are smuggled: fridges, petrol and diesel are brought from Algeria, where they enjoy government subsidy; bootleg cigarettes are transported up the Niger river from Guinea, having docked on the West African coast.

Wolfram Lacher, a researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs who is an expert on the region, says smuggling has provided livelihoods for thousands of people in the desert since the 13th century. The slaves, salt and gold of old have been replaced by trafficking illegal sub-Saharan migrants trying to get to Europe, Moroccan cannabis resin, arms, cocaine and consumer goods. One of the most lucrative commodities is western hostages, worth up to €3m each in ransom money. The kidnapping trend has put paid to tourism, which in its 1990s heyday supported legitimate businesses, including seven hotels.

Lacher warns that while the international community’s instinct may be to adopt a zero-tolerance position on smuggling, that could be counter-productive. “In northern Mali and Niger there are no alternative sources of income,” he says. “Until there are, clamping down on smuggling will further alienate communities from their states.’’

Three bestsellers on Mali’s black market:

  1. Powdered milk: comes from Algeria, where it is subsidised. A 1kg pack costs €2.75.
  2. Fridges and cookers: manufactured by Algerian parastatal Eniem.
  3. Cigarettes: a pack of 20 Marlboros from Guinea costs €1.40.

Flaky pastry


When carmaker Holden distilled the Australian psyche into a 1970s advertising jingle, the lyrics went “football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden Cars”. But the appetite for the Australian pie has waned. The market value of the industry has fallen 9 per cent over the past two years according to food consultancy BIS Foodservice. Former prime minister Kevin Rudd even advised Tasmania’s tourism executives to not use pies in their campaigns, saying it “doesn’t translate” for Asian visitors.

In response, the industry has turned to new cooking methods and international markets. Bondi firm Pie Face (pictured) has found success selling the snack in the US: it has three stores in Manhattan with five more planned to open before July. And ex-microbiologist Prasad Durairaj has developed a long-life “instant pie” that takes five minutes to cook; he hopes to market it to the Australian defence force.

Ray of light


The downside of nuclear technology has always been that the energy it produces comes at the cost of terrifyingly toxic and durable waste that costs a fortune to store. An American start-up called G-Demption believes it has a solution: commercially harvesting gamma rays from spent nuclear fuel. G-Demption’s founder, American nuclear engineer Russell Goff, says the necessary technology could be technically and legally viable within the decade. “The plastics and medical industries would be obvious customers,” he says, “but our technology would significantly reduce the price of gamma rays, which would make them appealing to industries that haven’t used them.”

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