Client Assessment in Zambia

Microfinance Assignment 2012 of Yvonne Suter

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

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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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