Client Assessment in Zambia

Microfinance Assignment 2012 of Yvonne Suter

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

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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… 🙂

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