Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Leaving Lusaka

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

As my time with Mobile Transactions comes to an end, I realise that the summer has flown and that I could happily have stayed in Zambia for many more months, not just to finish off all the work that seems to have piled up but to discover more of this interesting country and spend more time with the engaging people I have met. It has been a pleasure to work with people with such vision, skill and determination.

The past few months have given me a real insight into a small business in an exciting and growing sector in Africa. Mobile money seems to be a buzz word the world over (as evidenced by fellow students looking at similar regulatory issues in Fiji and the Philippines this summer) but the reality is that, like with any business, it is hard work and not without its risks. The hours are long, the business environment and infrastructure can be challenging and no doubt competition will only increase as this sector evolves. Yet the potential rewards can be great, not just for those directly employed by the business, but also for those who benefit from the reach of electronic transactions into remote rural areas.

ot only did it not take long to feel like a member of the team at Mobile Transactions, but I have also been fortunate to stay with and meet some great people who have made it easy for me to feel settled in my short time in Lusaka. It has been interesting to meet people working at places like the UN, microfinance organisations, donor funded research projects (many relating to HIV/AIDS), development banks, NGOs, agricultural organisations and companies working with carbon credits. In the midst of this massive development industry, the need for investment in small and growing local businesses with a view to promoting economic opportunities for Zambians seems clear.

There may be certain things about Zambia that I will not miss (tsetse flies and unreliable internet come to mind) but overall this has been an unforgettable experience - not just from a work perspective, which was my main motivation for going, but more generally it has made me look forward to discovering more of this continent in the future. So, thank you GBF.

As pictures can so often be more effective than words, my fun and creative housemates in Lusaka have put together this video which I hope gives a flavour of my time in Zambia over the last 10 weeks with GBF and Mobile Transactions. Thanks Laura and Tori!


Friday, August 20, 2010

Chelo, for now

The first day I walked into the SKEPL workshop, dripping with sweat and cursing the woolen weave of my slacks, I felt a mixture of exhilaration and fear; exhilaration because what I was about to begin was going to be interesting and hard, and fear of being isolated in a job I had never done in a place thousands of miles from my home. What I didn’t know at the time were the generous hospitality of the team and many of the people I met, the gratification of working with a company with an astounding social impact during a dynamic growth period, the stoic, curious faces that would burst into bright smiles when I smiled, and the bonds, some only fleeting, I would develop with the management team, their families, farmers and cooperative employees. Standing in the office on the first day feeling painfully like an outsider, I didn’t realize that I would be able to become part of the Anand and SKEPL communities and that my personal connection to those communities would be what ultimately sustained me.

Ten weeks later, the SKEPL office was transformed from construction site to professional suite; the customer feedback and beneficiary survey implemented in all service centers; internal goal setting and tracking kicked-off; research into the Kenya market and initial expansion planning completed; marketing collateral and tools created; a CEO recruiting process underway; and, perhaps most importantly, the foundation for a productive partnership between GBF and SKEPL established. My last day in the office was a flurry of tying up loose ends, shooting a video interview with the four founders and saying goodbye to the team.

On the morning of my departure, the sun was just coming up as the taxi driver barreled down the expressway towards the Delhi airport and the sleek doors of the brand new international terminal quietly closed behind me. A new day, one already brimming with life, was beginning as my ten weeks in India was coming to a close. I have to say I like the symbolism and think it’s fairly apt; though my time for now has ended, my commitment to India is only just beginning.

- Lauren

Friday, August 13, 2010

24 hours in Livingstone

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

It begins to dawn on me with some dismay that my time in Zambia is drawing to a close and I have yet to visit Victoria Falls. I seem to be running of out of time to do everything I had planned and, as my last weekend in here creeps up on me, I think to myself that a 6 hour bus trip each way may be trying to fit too much in. Unsurprisingly, the Seventh Wonder of the World turns out to be totally worth the slightly hectic start at Lusaka bus station at 5:30 on a Sunday morning. There is a moment of weakness when I thought I might give up and go home when faced with the prospect of a long trip in half an aisle seat at the back of the bus next to a rather large lady. Luckily, I managed talk my way into a window seat and slept through several hours of religious pop, waking from time to time to an electric guitar version of “God is an awesome God”, before arriving at our destination.

The world’s largest waterfall lies nestled between Zambia and Zimbabwe, not far from the small border town of Livingstone which, in recent years, has been benefiting hugely from its neighbour’s economic and political difficulties. It is a spectacular display of nature with 1 million litres of water spilling over the 1.7km lip every second and plunging 108 metres into the Zambezi Gorge. As if on cue, while I am standing in the thundering spray of the falls (in a much needed raincoat), I turn around to see a huge, vivid rainbow disappearing into the rapids below. The significant difference between resident and visitor rates for entry into the National Park means that it has the pleasing atmosphere of somewhere that as a local you might bring your family or girlfriend for the day rather than a more contrived set-up that only tourists can afford.

While in Livingstone, I took the opportunity to visit one of our busiest agents, who runs an internet cafe in the centre of town. Although Alan was not there, I was warmly welcomed by Precious despite turning up at quite a busy time. I also stopped by to meet one of the partner organisations that works with the UN World Food Programme in the distribution of food parcels to beneficiaries with TB, HIV/AIDS and malnourished children. They have been using the Mobile Transactions system since last November to make the process more efficient so that rather than the local NGOs distributing the food themselves (and therefore having to source and store it), they register beneficiaries in the electronic system based on their national identification numbers, and hand out scratch cards. Beneficiaries can use these vouchers to collect their food at certain retail outlets which have been trained by Mobile Transactions and WFP staff to use the system. As soon as these agents successfully enter the ID number, voucher reference number and PIN number into the system through their mobile phones, their account with Mobile Transactions is immediately topped up and these funds can easily be transferred to their bank accounts using a function on their phones.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Farmer’s Day Weekend

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

In my last post I was excited about having seen a couple of elephants from afar. I have now seen more elephants and from closer quarters than I ever thought would be advisable. Farmer’s Day makes a long weekend of the first weekend of August and a few of us headed down to a lovely riverside lodge in Lower Zambezi, a few hours’ drive southeast of Lusaka. While the girls I was with have lived in Zambia for years, I was full of wonder at every twitch of a hippo’s ear, as they sat observing us curiously from their pods. There were moments of slight trepidation as a large herd of young bull elephants prevented us getting back to camp for over an hour at the end of our walking safari. An early morning canoeing trip, with a half-way stop in Zimbabwe, was another highlight of the weekend, particularly when a couple of elephants chose to cross the stream right in front of us.

The reason for the public holiday on the Monday is the Agriculture and Commercial Show, an annual event held in Lusaka over the weekend, which involves exhibitors from all sectors of the economy and provides a good opportunity for networking. Government departments, civil society organisations and international businesses are also represented. I stopped by on Monday, the last day of the event, and found the Commercial Showgrounds packed with colourful stands, business people and families enjoying a day out. I was keen to pay a visit as it is an important event in the Zambian calendar and many of the Mobile Transactions team had worked hard setting up our stand. I hesitate to call it that because it turned out to be a very large building painted in our distinctive bright green and branded all over. Inside, there were staff members speaking to potential corporate clients about our payments services and one of our Champion Agents doing money transfers.

The week before, I attended the presentation of a government commissioned survey, conducted by Finscope, on financial inclusion. The conference was hosted by the Bank of Zambia and included representatives from Government Ministries, Parliament, the Bankers’ Association, financial sector businesses and the media. The survey is intended to provide policy makers with market information as they focus on financial inclusion as a poverty alleviation tool. Given that I spent last semester writing papers on Zambian development, I was very interested to see the Financial Sector Development Plan in action.

There seemed to be a general awareness that banks and financial products have to be relevant to people’s lives if the country, particularly the rural areas, is to be transformed. There is also an understanding that certain underlying barriers to financial access must be addressed, such as general financial literacy and access to standard KYC (Know Your Customer) requirements that are difficult to come by for many (such as proof of address). The presentation made clear the challenges that Zambia faces. A majority of people live in rural areas where most do not have access to safe drinking water, 1 in 5 do not have access to toilet facilities and more than 90% rely on wood and charcoal to cook. Most people have no more than primary education and own just basic assets such as agricultural hand tools.

I thought it was significant that in his opening remarks the Minister of Finance described the worrying situation in which many government employees find themselves when it comes to getting paid in rural areas - he described a teacher having to leave his classroom and walk for a couple of days to pick up his pay and then walk back. For example, Northern Province, which has a larger area than Greece and a population of around 1.5 million, has 9 ATM machines and 17 bank branches. Western Province is only slightly smaller and has 5 ATMs and 6 bank branches. In Zambia only 14% of people have bank accounts (less than this in rural areas), 9% rely on financial products from non-bank financial institutions (e.g. micro finance) while another 14% rely on informal financial products. This leaves 63% of the population financially excluded, which is in stark contrast with somewhere like Kenya where 33% of the population falls into this category.

These statistics suggest a clear role for mobile payment systems, micro-insurance as well as low-cost transaction and savings products and underline the importance of a regulatory framework that supports financial access by promoting a more risk based approach. Although less than 30% of the population in rural areas owns a mobile phone (the figure is 60% for urban areas), there are still many ways that businesses can have a social impact and help reduce risk in these areas. For example, Mobile Transactions works with a large cotton company that does ‘out grower’ schemes (it lends seeds and fertilizer to thousands of farmers at the start of the year and buys back the cotton at the end of the year, deducting the loan from the purchase price). Mobile Transactions has piloted a payments system for Dunavant that allows farmers to be paid more quickly and which should ultimately have an impact on their crop yield and the price at which they can purchase inputs.

Several people have asked me about the food in Zambia. The staple food is called Nshima and is made from ground maize (not dissimilar to Italian polenta) and can be eaten with some meat and sauce or a nice vegetable relish. The tricky bit is eating it in the right way by rolling bits up in your right hand and dipping it in the sauce without using up all the napkins at your table and having to ask the table next door for theirs (much to the amusement of those around you).


Thursday, August 5, 2010

Take, and give

After concluding my interview with Dineshbhai Charan, one of the most prolific dairy farmers in the Panchmal district of Gujarat, I closed my notebook and asked, through an interpreter, whether he had any questions for me. The conversation up to this point had been entirely one-sided; me asking probing questions about Dinesh’s family, his livelihood and his thoughts about the future and he answering candidly and thoughtfully to a virtual stranger. Though the warm faces around me gave no indication that they shared in my awkwardness, I felt somewhat sheepish and was relieved when Dinesh looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Well, what can you do for us?” At that very moment, the sky broke into a deluge of rain and a gust of grass-scented wind swept past us. I thought: this is a moment I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

“I realize I’ve asked you a lot of questions and I appreciate how wiling you’ve been to share”, I said, stalling. I went on to explain that I was interning for an impact investment fund that provides capital and technical assistance to companies like SKEPL and that impact investing is a growing field because people see sustainable business as a way of generating substantial and lasting economic opportunities for people. I waited for the translator to finish and saw that, though Dinesh and the crowd around him appreciated the sentiment, it wasn’t resonating as I had hoped. Feeling somewhat intimidated by the question and all of its inherent complexity, I turned up my palms, smiled and said, “I can tell your story.” Impact investing, I continued, isn't simply creative finance with an orientation towards social and/or environmental returns but rather a channel through which financial and capacity building assistance touch the lives of real people like you and your family. Storytelling is one way to make a concept that sometimes defies definition tangible and personal, and can attract people and funding to the industry.

Of course, I’m not entirely satisfied with my response and doubt I’ll ever be. But I believe that Dinesh’s question and the drive to get the answer right keeps us innovating, evaluating, taking risks and demanding more from ourselves and from the world.

- Lauren

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Where are the women?

Kankuthambla Dairy Society

Women have been conspicuously absent from the story I’ve told so far. Through the vivid photos I saw of women hauling milk to their cooperatives and the way I had heard the sector described as a key employer of women, I expected to see women queuing up at the cooperatives I visited those first days. When I didn’t, I held out hope that at least a few of the society employees coming into the main office would be women and that perhaps the cooperatives I visited were anomalously male-dominated. Six weeks later and only a few women spotted, I decided to dig a little deeper.

On a trip out to visit SKEPL engineers servicing customers in the Panchmal district, I hit the jackpot. One of the district’s 192 all-women cooperatives was a mere 10 kilometers away from the service center and Shantaben Kantibhai Baraiya, the society secretary, was available for an interview. Shantaben graciously welcomed us into the front room of her home that had been decorated for her son’s wedding with colorful streamers and flowers dangling from the rafters. The long rectangular room was used as a living and dining room during the day and bedroom at night. One corner was lined with empty milk containers and had been taken over by en electronic weighing scale, milk tester and accounting system. Settling in with a sweet cup of chai, I gave Shantaben an eager smile and launched into thirty minutes of questions.

When the village cooperative was run into the ground and ultimately closed several years ago, farmers were required to transport their milk 8 kilometers to the next closest cooperative. The five-hour daily walk meant farmers had to leave their young children unattended for long periods and were only able to work in the fields in the afternoon. As a dairy farmer, mother and preschool teacher, the closure of the cooperative meant Shantaben had to cut back her teaching hours, spend less time with her family and hire someone to look after the farm. Very much the family matriarch and a likely village leader, Shantaben developed a proposal to open an all-women cooperative in her home and solicited signatures from the village farmers. She took the signed petition to the union and was operational within 3 months. When I asked her why she decided to open a cooperative for women only, she responded, “because women help other women and women here needed me.” Since opening the cooperative in 2006, Shantaben has grown the society to 100 women and collects between 200-400 liters of milk per day. She installed an automated milk collection system three years ago and has been pleased with the increased efficiency and her growing comfort with technology. What’s next for the Kankuthambla society? “A pc, hopefully,” says the cooperative’s leader.

The meeting with Shantaben motivated me to learn more women’s involvement in the dairy sector. According to the National Dairy Development Board, 27% of dairy cooperative members are women and only 3% hold board seats in the country’s 130,000 village cooperatives. Harder to quantify is the number of women involved in dairying activities. In a survey of dairy farmers conducted by the Ford Foundation in 2007, 82% of the surveyed male dairy farmers responded that agricultural farming was their main source of income. Between this data and my own anecdotal experiences, I think it’s fair to assume that in the cases where families have multiple income sources, women are involved in some aspect of the family’s dairying, likely the milking and feeding of the livestock.

In response to the low number of women engaged in dairying, the government, private sector and NGOs have implemented a number of programs over the years. The National Dairy Development Board has provided incentives to all-women cooperatives, Amul has trained thousands of women in modern livestock management and SEWA, an NGO based in Gujarat, established the Gujarat State Women’s SEWA Cooperative Federation, a state level organization of women co-operatives. Such programs increased participation of women by nearly 300% between 1986 and 2002. Though the numbers today remain low, with women like Shantaben involved in the solution, I have no doubt more women will join the “white revolution” both as cooperative members and leaders.

- Lauren

Monday, July 26, 2010

Copperbelt Champions

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

This week is all about agents because they are at the heart of the Mobile Transactions business. Agents are small businesses that are designated by Mobile Transactions to carry out money transfers, voucher redemptions and other mobile payments transactions. The company’s agent network of approximately 130 active agents stretches far into Zambia’s rural areas, giving unbanked customers greater options as to where to send and receive money. Agents earn fees based on the amount of money transferred, make a margin on voucher redemptions and benefit from increased foot traffic in their businesses, which can be anything from agricultural input shops to petrol stations, furniture shops, restaurants or bus companies.

Mobile Transactions has set up a tiered agent network with both Champion and regular agents. Champions are entrepreneurs who run their own dedicated Mobile Transactions shops, usually with the help of a number of staff, and also help to manage and co-ordinate regular agents in their area. They are identified, trained and equipped with phones by the Agent Support team, and branded and painted with the help of the company’s Brand Manager. The first Champions were set up in Lusaka in May 2009, strategically located next to the two main post offices which handle many domestic money transfers. Both Tresphord and Sydney’s stores were swiftly transformed from run down huts into brightly branded shops.

A recent 3 day trip out of Lusaka with the Agent Support team has given me a useful insight into the realities and challenges of the agent business. Our first stop is Kabwe, a town in Central Province about two hours north of Lusaka along the aptly named Great North Road. I watch as the Agent Support staff skilfully and patiently train a number of agents in using the Mobile Transactions system to sell agricultural inputs (such as seeds, fertilizers etc) via the redemption of vouchers issued for a conservation farming project. We also pay a visit to a potential Champion agent who greets us enthusiastically and tells us he has found a location for the new store. A budding entrepreneur, it is clear that Nelson views this as a great opportunity. ”If we make people understand the product, the business is there”. He stresses the importance of finding employees with the right attitude: “I am looking for someone energetic, sharp and with vision”.

We continue north and arrive in Kitwe on day 2. Kitwe is Zambia’s second largest city and the most important in the Copperbelt Province, the mining heart of the country. We visit Sandra, who has been operating as Champion agent in Kitwe for only a short time and is in the process of having her shop branded. Sandra seems excited at the prospect of sharing in the future of the company but is also aware of the challenges of running her own business and the importance of doing a detailed daily cash reconciliation.

On our last morning we take the country’s only rural dual carriageway (apparently the best road in the country) from Kitwe to the pleasant town of Ndola, the capital of the Copperbelt. Given the importance of copper mining to the Zambian economy, it is not surprising that the towns of the Copperbelt have a prosperous feel. Yet urban poverty remains a major issue in these areas. In Ndola we meet Katongo, another Champion agent, who has been working hard to identify premises for her new shop but has not yet started to transact.

Enough about work…I have seen an elephant in the wild! Quite a few of them actually, as well as impala, puku, baboons, waterbuck, kudu, hartebeest, sable antelope, crocodiles, warthogs, a jackal and a large variety of birds. I enjoyed my first game drive during a wonderful weekend spent camping at a pleasant lodge looking out over the Kafue River in Kafue National Park. Kafue is about 3 hours west of Lusaka and, with an area of 22,500 square kilometres, it is Zambia’s largest park and nearly the size of Belgium. My trips out of Lusaka in the past week, have given me a real feel for how vast and varied Zambia is and a new sense of the challenges of building and maintaining extensive infrastructure throughout the country.