By Ye Huihui
"I'm Ye Huihui from the Comoros office…"
"Wait. Where is Comoros? I've never been there."
When I was delivering a presentation during the 20-minute session of the Executive Management Team (EMT) meeting in July 2019, Mr. Ren interrupted just as I had begun introducing myself.
Where is Comoros? I had the same question as Mr. Ren six years ago. Now, this island in the Indian Ocean – which I used to know nothing about and thought that I would never have anything to do with – has become the most indispensable part of my life.
In fact, when I first arrived in Comoros, nothing was like I imagined. Or more frankly, I felt regret when I first arrived.
I was disconnected with the world
At the end of 2013, I came to Comoros for the first time. I was 24 back then and joined Huawei less than one month ago.
I went to the country with a colleague from the project delivery department. After we left the airport, a local driver picked us up in a bakkie and drove us to our accommodation. Outside the window, I saw worn-down buildings and roads on both sides of the street. They looked even worse than those in the African country where I used to work. I started feeling a little worried.
Before I joined Huawei, I had worked in Cote d'Ivoire for two years. One of my friends who worked at Huawei had tried very hard to persuade me to join the company. He said I would achieve something great if I joined. Later, he told me that he could get a 6,000 RMB bonus for employee referral. No wonder he had tried so hard to persuade me!
After joining Huawei, I was assigned to the Madagascar office. Then, after working there for less than 20 days, my manager told me that the submarine cable project we had been working on for years in Comoros had been resumed. He said I could provide onsite support there as an account manager.
"Where is Comoros?" This was the first time that I had heard of this country. After my manager introduced it to me, I learned that this island country is located between the African continent and Madagascar and has a population of 800,000. The local economy was under-developed and the country had poor infrastructure. This submarine cable project meant a lot to them and was expected to connect Comoros with the world.
I said yes to my manager without hesitation. I had just joined Huawei and lacked product knowledge and experience. Since my manager trusted me, then what I needed to do was to prove myself. Although I didn't know much about Comoros, I had already worked in Africa, where I learned some French and even once contracted malaria. Our working conditions in the Madagascar office were a vast improvement to my previous experiences, so I got on the plane and couldn't wait to explore this unknown country.
Before I set off, one of my colleagues told me that the conditions in Comoros made life very difficult. Electricity was only available for one or two hours every day and signals for communication were very weak. My colleague also told me that the local people still connected to the Internet using ADSL. They were basically disconnected from the world. I didn't think it would bother me much, but when I arrived at the accommodation, I found myself in underdeveloped surroundings, as vast contrast to modern civilization. The conditions of the local accommodation were much poorer than those in Madagascar. Houses had been left unrepaired for years and facilities were worn out. Water and electricity were scarcely available.
I took out my cellphone to make an international long-distance call to my parents to tell them I was safe. But as soon as I called "mom", the call dropped. I didn't want to worry them, so I made dozens more attempts, but all failed. I found out later that my mom had also tried calling me hundreds of times, and kept worrying about me until she finally reached one of my colleagues and was reassured that I was safe.
When I arrived, it was around 8 p.m., and my bedroom was dark due to a lack of electricity. With the help of my cell phone, which gave out a dim light, I located my bed. I decided to sit down and take a rest, but the bed suddenly fell apart, and the loud noise astounded my colleagues and the local driver. They came over and helped me put together a makeshift bed. Then we went out for a dinner with the local Chinese medical team.
After this dinner, I had learned more about this country, but I also felt more troubled. I had been overly optimistic. Comoros is one of the world's most underdeveloped countries, with scarce living supplies, outdated infrastructure, and rampant malaria and dengue fever. Lack of water and electricity wasn't the major concern for me. What worried me most was the huge shortage of vegetables and fruit. The country is mostly volcanic land, which isn't good for agriculture.
Why on earth had I come to this country? The sharp contrast between my high expectations and the bleak reality made my first night in the country sleepless. Memories of how I gladly told my manager about my decision to come to this country were still fresh in my mind. Poor me! But I thought to myself: Now that I'm here, I should work hard.
Eighteen ways to eat tuna
A lack of water and electricity was the first obstacle that stood in my way as I tried to settle down.
These difficulties were not an issue during daytime, when I could go to the customer's equipment room to power my devices and connect to the Internet. But when the night came, I had to go back to my dormitory, where there was only one hour of electricity per day. This hour was precious to me, and I had to finish many tasks within this short space of time. This included boiling water, cooking, and bathing.
My bathing procedures in Comoros were very crude: I would fill a bucket of water in the cistern, take the bucket to the bathroom, and use a water scoop to pour water on my body. Although I was born in a rural village in China, the bathing facilities in my home were much better than those in my dormitory.
Within this one-hour time span, I also had to charge my phone and torch. I would then usually lie in bed and meditate or possibly do some writing, which is a way to talk to myself. The Indian Ocean breeze, the starry sky, and classic music from my phone: They put my mind at ease.
One night when the power supply was completely cut off, a local colleague took out a guitar and started playing. I joined in, playing the harmonica. Other colleagues turned on their phone flashlights, and danced and sang to our tune. This beautiful scene is still fresh on my mind today.
Food shortages were another trouble. I have another interesting story related to this. The day before I set off to Comoros, I met a delivery colleague at the Madagascar airport, and I gave him a box of food made by the cook in our Madagascar office. The guy kept this food and brought it directly to Comoros. At first, I thought he had done this because he wasn't hungry. I later found that he reserved the food because he had been to Comoros before and he knew there would be nothing for us to eat there. This food was so delicious and precious to us. The colleague and I had two meals from this box of food.
Comoros is known to suffer from extreme food shortages. In addition to the local specialty – tuna, the country imports frozen beef and chicken, as well as cassava, bananas, and coconuts. Given the scarcity of fresh vegetables and fruits, every time a colleague visited, they would take some food with them to satisfy our cravings. I still remember one day, not long after I arrived in Comoros, a Chinese product manager, who had also just arrived in the country on a business trip, brought with him two cabbages. It had been a while since I had eaten leafy vegetables, and I was thrilled. We ate one cabbage that night and saved the other for another day. We put it in the refrigerator, only to find it had gone rotten a few days later. The refrigerator had been powered off and the temperature was so high! The two of us were very upset to see this.
It was not until the second half of 2014 that our business in Comoros started turning around. The company officially set up an office in Comoros and hired a Chinese cook. I was the only Chinese person who had been in the country for a relatively long time, so people joked about me being a privileged individual who had a personal cook.
The cook, Wang, is in his 50s and is like our sweet older brother who treats us like his family. He makes excellent Sichuan Cuisine, and Huawei's cafeteria has earned the name of "the best Chinese restaurant in Comoros". Take tuna as an example. Wang can prepare 18 different types of tuna dishes: steamed, soy sauced, vinegar flavored, barbecued, and more. Sometimes his tuna cuisine even tastes like chicken.
What has touched me most about Wang is that he would always save food for latecomers. He told us that only when you have a full stomach you stop being homesick. That's why each meal time, Wang would check who was absent and would save something for them. And the saved portion was usually double the normal size. Once a delivery guy returned from a customer office after 10 p.m. When he was eating the freshly hot meal, he started sobbing. Wang asked what had happened. The delivery guy said with tears in his eyes, "It tastes so good!"
Customers becoming our close friends
In 2013, the Comorian market was already long monopolized by Western vendors. Chinese ICT companies like Huawei did not have much credibility with local customers. They thought Western products were the best and the most advanced. I was a newcomer at that time and didn't have much knowledge about local business or Huawei's products. With my poor French, it was extremely difficult for me to develop business there.
At first, customer CEOs were reluctant to meet me. I once waited from the afternoon until 1 a.m. the next day outside of a customer's office. When I finally got to meet the customer, I talked to him with my broken French mixed with some English. I was hoping he would give me a chance to sit down and talk. He looked at me, shook his head, and left. Exhausted and hungry, I watched him walking away. I became overwhelmed, with my eyes brimmed with tears.
The harsh environment and slow progress at work stressed me out. I was at a loss, but what happened later changed my mind.
The only transportation between the island nation of Comoros and several of its small neighboring islands were nine-seat propeller-driven airplanes and steamboats. One day, I accompanied a customer to one of the neighboring islands via one of these planes, but we encountered thunderstorm half way there. The propeller stopped at one point, and the plane plummeted. I thought the plane was going to crash, but fortunately, it landed safely.
But this intense weightlessness had cast a shadow on me. That's why I chose a steamboat the next time.
The trip to the island was much smoother, and in the end, our customer signed the contract. We were extremely at ease. On our way back, we still took the steamboat. But soon after we set out, I saw dark clouds gathering in the clear and boundless sky. Heavy rain would come soon.
Indian Ocean from Comoros
There were four people in total in the steamboat: my colleague, a local woman, the captain, and me. We quickly put on ragged life jackets, even though they would not really save our lives. We just wanted to comfort ourselves. This was the first time that I had ever experienced a sea storm. It was really scary. The storm was getting more and more intense. I couldn't tell whether it was seawater or rain splashing my face. I couldn't even keep my eyes open.
Our boat was too small to withstand such a heavy storm. It was being swept here and there by the wind and waves. I thought we were going to capsize.
We were terrified, and the local woman had been praying for God's protection. I was desperate and helpless: How could we have a chance of survival if we fell into the vast sea? We were lucky that the plane did not crash last time, but could we make it this time?
I really wanted to cry, and my heart was filled with regret: Why did I come to Comoros? This place is so harsh, and now my life wasn't even in my own hands!
Despite the fear, I still had a clear head. I was holding this important contract, so I hurriedly put the folder underneath all of the layers I was wearing because this was the only way to try to keep it dry. Now this contract should be in Bantian, Shenzhen, and that's how the yellow water stains were left.
Fortunately, the storm passed as quickly as it had come. Our desperation didn't last long. The dark clouds dispersed and the seas calmed. I stood on the deck and was stunned by the scene: There were two magnificent rainbows arcing across the horizon. It was the first time I had seen such a magnificent scene in my life. I had an unforgettable realization: Life is so precious! How lucky I am to be the master of my own destiny! I realized at that moment that I must take good care of my own future, and face the difficulties in my life head on.
So I started the journey of changing myself. I worked harder to learn French, memorizing a lot of words every day. I managed to read through all the books that our French language majors used in college. I even badgered a local colleague into practicing spoken French with me. When I was in the customer's equipment room to use their electricity and Wi-Fi during the day, I also took the opportunity to "stumble across" individual customers. Maybe I'm secretly gifted at languages. I became able to properly communicate with customers very quickly! Meanwhile, I worked hard to study business management and product knowledge, and presented what I learnt to different levels of customers. I gave presentations to many customers, ranging from the president and government ministers to heads of department.
When I communicate with customers, I try not to be too eager to promote Huawei's products and services. Instead, I first try to make friends with them and sincerely show how communications can change our society. I still remember when I introduced a video conferencing system, I told the customers that with a good network and this system, we could have a face-to-face meeting with people from all around the world, and we no longer had to travel back and forth across the islands for meetings. This deeply impressed some of the customers who once fell into the sea when traveling by boat. In addition, since we had operated there for a long time and had a stable local maintenance team, Huawei could offer on-demand services, something other vendors couldn't do. After seeing Huawei's sincerity and capabilities, the customers started to work with us, and the CEOs became our closest partners.
It was this way that Huawei and I became more and more recognized and trusted by our customers. I found I could no longer tear myself from Comoros. As a result, I transferred there permanently, so I wouldn't have to keep coming for business trips. Now I'm the only Chinese Huawei employee in Comoros. Over the years, I have witnessed three presidential elections in Comoros, and I have been in charge of communicating with six CEOs in succession. Despite how customers come and go, I continue to stand my ground.
"Comoros has the best network in the world!"
In 2014, we moved out of our shabby dormitory, and rented a new spacious and bright building. We got us a dog in order to guard and protect our home. That's why the story about me, my cook, and our dog in Comoros got out and spread around the company.
This dog was too aggressive, so we gave it to a local and got another two dogs, a male and female. We actually did some brainstorming to give them names. Some proposed typical auspicious Chinese names. I was the one who made the final decision on their names: Revenue and Payment Collection. I wanted to use these two names to remind us of the two priorities we need to work on.
Two dogs, Revenue and Payment Collection, discuss how to hit the yearly KPI targets
Interestingly enough, guarded by Revenue and Payment Collection, our business performance in Comoros has seen constant improvements in recent years. In 2016, our team overcame many difficulties and completed the construction of the national backbone transmission network on this small, volcanic island. This was also the first submarine cable project in Southeast Africa. This project put an end to the isolation of Comoros from the rest of the world, and since then, it has been closely connected. Because of this project, Comoros was the best-performing country among all small countries for Huawei in 2016.
The backbone network could be likened to a highway, and we also wanted to build a "transportation network" that would cover the whole island and enable everyone in Comoros to connect to the Internet anytime, anywhere. So we launched the fixed mobile convergence (FMC) network modernization project. After two years of hard work on planning, feasibility study, loan approval, and financing agreement signing, the delivery of this project finally got started at the beginning of 2019. After the project is completed, 2G, 3G, and 4G coverage as well as fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) will become available across the whole island. In the future, Internet access in any part of Comoros will be as readily available as in Shenzhen or anywhere else in China.
In terms of our relationship with the customer, we not only need to ensure successful project delivery, but also need to put ourselves in the customer's shoes to help them earn more profits. For example, we are now using our expertise to provide customers with business and network consulting services in order to help them increase their revenue.
Personally, I can truly feel how Huawei and our communications facilities have helped change Comoros. Now Comoros has joined the global village, so people will no longer lose contact with the outside world when they come here. In fact, now I can easily make video calls with my family in China, and use WeChat any time I want. There are more and more Internet users in Comoros. More people are making friends on Facebook, watching videos on YouTube, and even uploading videos they film themselves. I remember when I first came here in 2013, most people in this country did not even have a mobile phone. A few had phones, but they were all feature phones. Today, smartphone sales in Comoros are shooting up. I have a friend in Comoros who just started to use a smartphone. He happily showed it off to me a few days ago, saying "Comoros has the best network in the world!"
Most importantly, thanks to the improvement in communications, more and more businesses and countries are willing to offer assistance and investment to Comoros. This has greatly facilitated the construction of infrastructure here. For example, electricity and water shortages have been significantly reduced, driving local economic development. Some time ago, we deployed a 4.5G network here. Afterwards, the Comorian government officials proudly announced on several occasions that "Comoros is the first country to have a 4.5G network on the Indian Ocean!" Seeing this reaction from our customers, we also feel very proud.
Today, Huawei has already become the most popular and respected Chinese company in Comoros. When Huawei encounters difficulties, our customers always immediately stand up to support us, emphasizing that Huawei is always their most trusted partner.
Our footsteps marked our journey up the volcano, which is said to erupt every ten years
Huawei people and mangroves
I have worked in Comoros for over six years. Many people have never thought that I would stay here for so long, and one of my managers once said that when we first met, I was so young that he didn't expect me to stay in Comoros for that long because of the tough conditions. I have certainly exceeded his expectations.
I have never regretted my decision to stay in Comoros. My experiences in Comoros have influenced a lot on my view on life, and these precious experiences are invaluable to me. I have become more mature, confident, optimistic, and strong thanks to these experiences.
Huawei Comoros office has also undergone great changes.
The company has developed a unified logistics service platform, and employees in Comoros no longer need to worry about their dining and living conditions. The story of me, my cook, and my dogs is now history. We now have more advanced facilities for employees to visit customers, and they no longer need to take a pickup truck or a small boat that may flip during storms. Our team in Comoros is larger, and more Huawei people are willing to dedicate their life to working in this rocky volcanic island. In early 2019, the Huawei Comoros office welcomed three millennials who had just graduated from top Chinese universities. They stay with me in Comoros as permanent employees and served as the customer-centric-3 – three key roles for dealing with customers. In addition, we now also have some experts who have been with Huawei for over a decade, and other employees come work with us on business trips. In other words, the Comoros office typically has a dozen or so Chinese employees working together. Although we are far away from our hometowns, we live and work happily like a family.
"Can you swim?"
"Can you drive a boat now?"
After I shared my story about Comoros, Mr. Ren asked me a few questions like this. He said he wants to visit Comoros and make a story about two men and their cook and dogs.
I sincerely encourage everyone to visit Comoros. This is a beautiful country, with clear seas, blue skies, and gorgeous starry nights. This island soil can't grow many types of plants, but tenacious and versatile mangroves grow well here. They can grow up between rocks, even though there is little soil or water. I think this fits with the spirit of Huawei people. No matter what harsh conditions we face, we will continue to grow and prosper!
The starry sky in Comoros