Client Assessment in Zambia

Microfinance Assignment 2012 of Yvonne Suter


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Business Trip to Chipata – 45°C, African Dancing and Pepetaa

I was really looking forward to visiting the Chipata Branch in Zambia’s Eastern Province for our next series of interviews. Everybody had told me that the Eastern Province scenery was marvellous and that the people were very welcoming. On early Monday morning we left Lusaka knowing that a 7-8 hour drive on a bumpy and badly maintained road – the so-called Great East Road – was ahead of us. Even though large sums had been invested in this particular road during the last few years (the Great East Road was first built in 1925), it is still known as a dangerous road where lots of accidents happen. In particular between Rufunsa and Luangwa River – half-way to Chipata – where the road winds along lovely forested hills with lots of curves into the world-famous Luangwa Valley the road proved to be very challenging. Indeed, on our way to Chipata we met quite a number of buses and lorries which had broken down or had even completely burnt out – with only the wrecks left on the roadside. You may imagine that I was very glad it was Joseph from FINCA once again driving us as smoothly as ever.

Visit to ChipataVisit to Chipata

On our way, we first came to pass farms, a deserted hot spring and various compounds and villages in the outskirts of Lusaka. In Chongwe, still close to Lusaka, we found the last fuel station for some several hundred kilometers to come. It is also the place where you leave all civilization behind. From there we drove along the border of Lower Zambezi National Park without really noticing it (the road into the park can only be used by strong and robust four-wheel drive cars and by truly experienced drivers – more on that in my next blog). After that we reached the marvellous forested hills between Rufunsa and Luangwa Bridge. Shortly before Luangwa Bridge, we stopped at the much-renowned Luangwa Bridge Market. Apart from dry fish and red berries they sell all kind of baskets, huts, and mats made from dry straw. Those dry-straw products are very famous all around Zambia. There are almost no tourists since tourists prefer to take the airplane from Lusaka to the Eastern Province. Most potential clients stopping here are lorry drivers buying the nice straw goods for few money in order to sell them again in towns for much higher prices. A simple, yet well-proven business model! 🙂 I would have loved to buy a nice basket and some straw mats, but being well-aware of the challenge to get them back home by plane, I shortened my shopping list to a few smaller souvenirs.

Luangwa River MarketLuangwa River Market

Luangwa River MarketLuangwa River Bridge

After taking the imperative picture of the bridge over the Luangwa River, we continued our long journey. We came to pass some of those majestic baobab trees and the bright white Sterculia Quinqueloba trees, followed by a few small villages with picturesque straw huts and bizarre-looking stone hills. In Katete, after more than 400 km from Lusaka, we went for a quick break. Apart from a fuel station, a really bad bathroom and a few fast food stores, there was nothing else to make you stay longer. Even worse, the temperature – it was early afternoon – had risen to over 45°C. In the sun, it was just unbearably hot. Of course, October is the end of the dry season and therefore very hot throughout Zambia, but the Luangwa Valley seems to be particularly boiling. Thus, after buying some oily chicken and chips and an ice-cold coca cola, we eagerly squeezed into the car highly appreciating the air-conditioning.

Visit to ChipataVisit to Chipata

We finally arrived in Chipata at about 18 hours. Chipata was founded by the British in 1898. After a few years it became the capital of North Rhodesia and the economic centre for cotton production and trading. Nowadays, it isn’t that important anymore. But Chipata is still a very lively town with lots of busy markets. Most of the goods, in particular clothes and shoes, are being imported from neighbouring Malawi. During the last years Chipata has developed quite significantly. Apart from the various markets, you even find a few modern supermarkets such as Shoprite and Spar (both of South African origin) and quite a number of restaurants and bars. Some of them we explored later in the week with the great local FINCA team, which was indeed huge fun – BBQ, Mosi beer (Zambia’s most famous beer brand) and some decent African dancing…:-)

FINCA Chipata TeamFINCA Chipata Team

But on the first evening, we were just eager to get some sleep. On the following day, the welcome by Thomas Zox Phiri (the Branch Manager of FINCA Chipata), Suwilanji Simbeye (his deputy) and their team was very warm. After a brief prayer with the whole team – a very common routine here in Zambia, even before a bus ride – we got presented the Chipata morning exercise by Dismas Phiri and the team. This is a mixture of African singing and dancing: “You take a ball, you put it here, you pepetaa, you pepetaa, you pepetaa…”… I am not quite sure how my team back in Zurich would respond if I introduced the procedure there. Yet, it is definitely great fun – and what could be better than starting a new work day with fun.

In the Field - Client VisitIn the Field - Client Visit

Unsurprisingly, with such a great team we progressed extremely well with the interviews. For once, our biggest challenge was the heat – in the field as well as in the office as air conditioning was not running. As Swiss as I am one may assume that I was quite struggling to cope with the temperature 45°C. Yet, my local working colleagues were also struggling – at least they don’t need as much sun cream as I do. I was also impressed that some of my male colleagues were so brave as to wear black suits – respect! What a privilege by women in summertime that we don’t suffer from such restrictions. Despite the heat, we had some very good meetings with clients. Nice examples are Miriam Mulenga who owns a small boutique at the Kapata market or Joseph Banda who runs a Grocery shop at one of the compounds. Joseph even invited us to his home. It turned out that he is actually a cousin of our driver Joseph. He was very proud to introduce his lovely parents, his sister and his brothers and his wife with their daughter.

Visit of the Market in ChipataVisit of Market in Chipata

Visit to Market in ChipataVisit to Market in Chipata

Since we progressed so well we found some time to visit two of the many lovely markets at the end of our journey. I was impressed how big these markets are. You can buy everything from food and pots to clothes and shoes to equipment for agriculture and gravestones. But what makes Chipata really different from other towns in Zambia are the bike taxis. Particularly in the morning and evening hours, you can see lots of bikes with someone at the back just driving to or coming from a market. Bikes seem to be the main transport means apart from just walking. They transport not only passengers and goods but also animals such as goats. I would have loved to just sit outside of the FINCA office observing the many bikes passing by. But it was already time to say good-bye and to drive back to Lusaka – another air-conditioned 7-8 hour drive through beautiful landscape and suffocating heat outside.

Bike the key transport vehicle in ChipataBike the key transport vehicle in Chipata

I really liked the Eastern Province and its capital city Chipata. I may even say it is one of my favorite regions. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to a cool shower and a air-conditioned office back in Lusaka…

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Visit to the Copperbelt Province – Zambia’s Famous Economic Stronghold

Copper mining is one of major industries in Zambia. At the beginning of the 20th century, copper and other natural resources were discovered in the north of Zambia and the first mines were established. Today, a great many of mines are present in the so-called Copperbelt – most of them managed by Chinese, South African or Brazilian companies. They are the biggest employers in the region. With approx. six percent of the world’s copper resources, Zambia is one of the main copper exporters worldwide. Whereas copper prices significantly increased between 2004 and 2008 causing an actual copper boom, they have decreased ever since, affecting Zambia’s economy significantly due to its high dependency on copper. Nevertheless, the Copperbelt is still one of the most important regions for Zambia’s economy. Knowing about this, you may well imagine that I was quite excited to travel to the Copperbelt for two weeks.

Small market on the way to the CopperbeltSmall market on the way to the Copperbelt

In sharp contrast to the importance of the Copperbelt for Zambia’s economy, there is almost nothing to visit for tourists – apart from some small markets along the Great North Road and the ‘Cichele Mofu Tree’. This Mofu tree is more than 100 years old and it is declared a national heritage because it represents a kind of memorial for the disastrous damage of the large forests in the 1940s and 1950s. Unfortunately, the Cichele Mofu Tree has just collapsed recently. Hence, the only thing to be photographed are the unlucky remains of the tree – even the memorial plate has been removed. The small markets on the other hand were as lively as ever. You can buy almost everything from fresh vegetables, bags of charcoal, secondhand clothes and furniture to self-made toys such as the ubiquitous metallic toy cars. The prices are in general much lower than in larger towns. No wonder that my two fellow travellers, driver Joseph and intern Muyumbana, took the chance to bargain fervently for good prices on the way up north in order to know the best spots to shop as much as we were able to get into the car on our way back south. For me, the stops at the market were also a great opportunity to take some pictures…

Small market on the way to the CopperbeltSmall market on the way to the Copperbelt

The landscape in general is not as impressive as in Southern Zambia. After leaving Lusaka following the Great North Road you pass many big farms, most of them run by Non-Zambian owners. The road is in much better condition than in the south but it is overcrowded with hundreds of big lorries carrying copper and other goods via Zimbabwe to the big harbours in South Africa. After about two hours we arrived in Kabwe, once the largest town of British North Rhodesia, but now quite a sleepy small town. A huge tree in the town centre used to be the meeting place of the first explorers in the colonial area. Nowadays, people like the tree’s shade for their daily market. The FINCA office in Kabwe is well-placed right at that market. We briefly stopped to say hello and to deliver some equipment from the Lusaka headquarter.

Farm on the way to the CopperbeltBig Tree in Kabwe

Our final destination was Ndola – another 2-3 hours’ drive further north along rather unattractive landscape. The only variety were the small markets and the dusty town of Kapiri Mposhi, a meeting point for lorry drivers with a market, a fuel station and some low-level accommodations. You easily get a feeling of being at the end of the world, which it is quite true for the famous TAZARA train which connects Zambia with Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania. The railway ends in Kapiri Mposhi at a nostalgic train station with an old railway turning platform.

Kapiri MposhiKapiri Mposhi

Tired but happy we arrived in Ndola, the second largest town of Zambia. Even though it is one of Zambia’s most important industrial cities, the town is not at all as crowded, noisy and dirty as you may expect. As in Lusaka, there are big trees along the streets and on the whole there is a very relaxed atmosphere. I really liked the town as well as its well-run FINCA office. The welcome by the local FINCA team in its large, bright and clean office was very warm. We only had got 2.5 days to conduct almost 40 interviews. Thanks to the great support by the local team and some extra effort by ourselves we were able to reach our ambitious targets. In order to save time we met most clients for the interviews at the FINCA office. But you get to know your clients best if you visit them at their homes and businesses. Hence, we also visited some clients in the field. As with Swiss people, it always needs some time to gain the interviewees’ confidence. Taking enough time, I have always been truly touched by welcoming and happy attitude of the women clients such as the Village Banking Groups ‘Chabota’ or ‘The Just’.

Village Banking Group ‘The Just’ in NdolaVillage Banking Group ‘Chabota’ in Ndola

The following week we spent in Kitwe and Chingola, close to the border to the Democratic Republic of Kongo. From Ndola to Kitwe it is a 1-2 hours’ drive on a bumpy motorway. Kitwe was established in 1935 due to the local mine business. Today, Kitwe has got than half a million inhabitants – most of them being employed in the mining industry. Kitwe is not as nice as Ndola. All around the city, you find mines with big black hills and large industrial buildings. The town itself is rather crowded, chaotic and noisy. At times, the atmosphere in town was even a bit hostile. It was also the first place in Zambia where I met dirty street kids begging for money. I was wondering if it were due to all the foreigners involved in the mining business that the character of the town is so different to the other towns of Zambia…

Mines in KitweSmall market on the way to the Copperbelt

Even Kitwe’s FINCA office is less appealing than others, having no water in the bathroom and being situated in a dark and narrow building – yet the local FINCA team was truly fantastic. The welcome and support by Fewdays, FINCA’s branch and regional head, as well as by his team was simply great. I was impressed by the team spirit and high motivation of the loan officers. It seems that this spirit has also an impact on the business results as they cover more clients than at the FINCA headquarter branch (Northmead). This is why our target of almost 70 interviews was even more ambitious than the 40 interviews in Ndola. In the end, with the support of such a great local team and a tremendous effort from Joseph, Muyumbana and myself we ended up with the fantastic achievement of 80 interviews. What a success! Despite the ambitious goals we are now even a few weeks ahead of our workplan. This was reason enough to celebrate – with Mosi beer at the fast food restaurant ‘After Ten’ – probably the only somehow recommendable restaurant in Kitwe.

Village Banking in KitweBusiness Loan in Kitwe

Thanks to the field visits I got a much more positive impression of Kitwe. All the Village Banking Groups such as ‘Chamwaza’ or ‘Infula Ya Mapalo’ were very welcoming, offering us the only chairs they had got. Most of them live in clay huts with no water or electricity. Nevertheless, I have always got the impression that they are much happier people than most of the Swiss are. Even more impressive was to watch children playing with nothing more than an old car tyre, some towels or a car being composed of rubbish. It was also very nice that the head of the first group even asked me at the end of the interviews if he might take a picture of me and his family with his cellphone camera. To me it seemed very unusual as Zambians in general don’t particularly like cameras…

Village Banking in KitweVillage Banking in Kitwe

Before travelling back to Lusaka we took the opportunity to visit as well the new FINCA branch in Chingola. It takes at least another hour’s drive on a very bad and bumpy road. Depending on the traffic with its heavy lorries from the mines, it can easily take much longer. The landscape again is rather unattractive and you pass mines after mines. At least the town of Chingola itself seemed to be nicer and friendlier than Kitwe. We spent only a few hours there to conduct some more interviews.

Village Banking in ChingolaVisit to Chingola

On our way back to Kitwe, we had to queue up with all the heavy lorries driving in walking pace… After a seven hours’ drive, we arrived in Lusaka – tired and dirty, but satisfied. The two-weeks trip to the Copperbelt was great. Yet after two weeks of N’shima, fast food and basic accommodation, I was really pleased to take a long warm shower and having some proper and tasteful food again… 🙂