Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Mulishani? Bwino sana!

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

That’s Bemba, one of over 70 languages spoken in Zambia, for “How’s it going? Very well”. And so far, it is…apart from England crashing out of the World Cup on Sunday of course. I will now be focusing my attention on Spain and hoping they get through to the quarter finals, particularly as I will be at that match in Johannesburg this weekend.

My first two weeks here seem to have flown by. It feels pretty normal, and quite liberating, to be back in a full time job after a year of writing papers and taking exams. Lusaka is a sprawling city, with a population of about 3 million people (out of a total of about 13 million, making Zambia one of the world’s least densely populated countries). It is not a very pedestrian friendly place and many people get around by car. I live about a 20 minute drive from work although this often takes longer during peak hours when the three main roads leading to the town centre get clogged up with traffic. I have been feeling slightly less housebound since discovering how to get to work on a minibus and befriending a few cab drivers. I get the impression that the local blue and white minibuses are not the usual form of transport for a "muzungu" (foreigner) but at a cost of 30 cents, it’s a useful option to have in the morning.

It has not taken long to find things to keep me busy at Mobile Transactions. Looking into the regulatory environment for the mobile money sector is proving interesting. Ever since the success of M-Pesa in Kenya, the mobile payments business has experienced massive growth across Africa and the developing world in general. Regulators in many countries face a steep learning curve as they try to ensure that risks are managed and consumers are properly protected, while at the same time promoting the development of a more dynamic and inclusive financial sector.

I have opened a ‘1 Account’! The 1 Account is part of Mobile Transactions’ vision of a Cashless Africa and allows people without bank accounts to store value on their mobile phones (depositing or withdrawing funds through any of the company’s agents), make transfers directly to other accounts or buy airtime. My colleague Claudius takes a few details and uploads a photo of me and of my ID onto the system. About 3 minutes later I’m registered and ready to use the account from my mobile phone with my secret PIN.

It can get pretty chilly here in the evenings and I have been warned that it will be much colder in South Africa. As I look through my wardrobe to pack for the weekend, I find many clothes appropriate for an Italian summer and a variety of anti-mosquito measures (I have not seen a single one since I arrived). It may be time to borrow a hat and scarf as I seem to have come a bit unprepared for the African winter!


Monday, June 28, 2010

Week 1 with SKEPL

Shops selling handmade leather sandals and paan, a digestive treat made of sugar and fennel seeds wrapped in bright green betel leaf, flank the three-story office building which is situated on a relatively quiet and tree-lined street in Anand. As I walked up the stairs to the SKEPL office the first day, I was surprised to hear the sound of hammering and to see a pile of debris sitting on the landing. Ujval Parghi, Head of Marketing and my main contact, informed me that the office was in the midst of a renovation and that for the next several weeks at least, the team would be working in the workshop where the products are assembled. Despite the whirling fans overhead, the temperature in the workshop hovered around 110 degrees. Stepping gingerly around product components and live wires, I made the rounds and was introduced to the company managers, engineers, accountants and product assemblers. Everyone was warm and welcoming, if not a little curious about what a tall, white, western woman was doing in the workshop. One step of the assembly process is captured in the photo below.

Fortunately, a single office was spared from the renovation so the four managers and I have been able to work in a comfortable air-conditioned room. The close quarters have facilitated easy collaboration and rapport building. By the end of the week, we were listening to Bruce Springsteen to block out the sound of electric saws, and the team lent me a thermos to use for what they view as my inordinate consumption of tea. I’m grateful to be working with such a passionate and receptive group of people.

With the initial transition behind us, we focused on the project at hand. Over the next two months I’ll be working with SKEPL on business development and marketing for the automated milk collection system (AMCS) product line. During the first week I ramped up on the dairy sector in India, touring several milk collection societies to observe the products in action, interviewing society employees and taste-testing several varieties of Indian ice cream, including my new favorite, saffron fennel. I learned that the Indian dairy sector is organized as a producer-owned cooperative system, characterized by millions of small farmers who carry containers of milk to the local co-op twice a day, seven days a week. Daily procurement by the co-operatives is an estimated 13 million liters, an astounding number that makes India the biggest milk-producing nation in the world. Anand is considered the dairy capital of Gujarat which is home to over 3.25 million dairy farmers, 13,000 milk societies and Amul, arguably the most successful milk producer in the country.

SKEPL has been designing and manufacturing technology-based systems to streamline milk collection operations at the co-op level since 1996. Summer months are slow in the dairy industry as a result of the sweltering temperatures and dry fields and the corresponding 50% decrease in milk production. The team is taking advantage of the downtime by renovating their office, exploring new revenue streams and ramping up marketing efforts in preparation for the release of their newest product. As Ujval Parghi explains, “SKEPL will stop only when the cows stop producing milk.” With an estimated 4% growth in dairy consumption over the next fifteen years in India and the World Bank’s $3.6 billion investment in the industry, the cows are far from calling it quits.

- Lauren

Lauren just completed her first year as an MBA student at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, where she is specializing in business development in emerging markets. She is currently in Anand, India for the summer, working with Shree Kamdhenu Electronics Private Limited (SKEPL).

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Kick off in Zambia

By: Sara Taylor (Lusaka, Zambia)

The World Cup has kicked off in Africa and so has my internship with GBF. After a busy 10 days in DC attending conferences and meeting the GBF team, I arrived in Zambia last Monday evening, delighted to get off my sixth flight in 36 hours!

The following morning I headed to Farmer’s House on the busy Cairo Road in the centre of Lusaka. Mobile Transactions is based in a large office building and the team works in close quarters from two rooms on the second floor. The place has the feel of a growing business at a crucial stage – everyone seems to be doing several jobs at once, the walls are papered with individual monthly targets and a big white board tells me that the previous day the company processed a record number of transactions.

I have spent the week settling into this lively new environment. Although I have not had the chance to see much of Lusaka itself yet, in some ways things feel familiar – the plugs are the same as in England, people drive on the left and follow English football. But the country-wide power outage for most of Friday morning and pot-hole ridden roads tell a different story.

A majority of Zambians live in rural areas and subsistence agriculture is the country’s biggest employer. 80% of Zambians do not have bank accounts and only a minority own mobile phones, although this number is growing rapidly. Mobile Transactions offers mobile based financial transaction services which, amongst other things, enable individuals to make money transfers, companies to pay their employees, and NGOs to administer voucher schemes electronically. Through its country-wide agent network, Mobile Transactions increases access to financial services and lowers transaction costs for the mass market. In a country where over half the population lives below the poverty line, it is not difficult to see the potential impact of this technology.

The highlight of the week was a trip to Monze with a colleague on Wednesday. Monze is a town about a 2 and a half hour drive south of Lusaka, crossing over the Kafue river, towards Livingstone. The purpose of the trip was to visit the Southern Province agricultural office of one of our major clients. We were accompanied by a recent Mobile Transactions recruit in the area whose job it will be to help train agents and client employees on using mobile technology for paying farmers. This is also where I learned, after a confusing moment when greeting the head of the office, that a Zambian handshake involves a few more moves than the one I am used to. I soon got to practise my newfound skill as we took the opportunity to visit a few Mobile Transactions agents on the way home, including a distributor of agricultural inputs who handles money transfers and sells air time on the side. The advantages of being an agent come not only from the fees earned but also as a result of increased foot traffic in their stores.

Amongst the many things that have caught my attention this week, one involved something as simple as topping up my mobile phone. In the car ride home with my colleagues one evening, I realised that I had run out of credit on my Zambian phone and would not be able to make a scheduled call the following morning. Within 5 minutes I had received a text message from Mobile Transactions topping up my phone with 20,000 Kwatcha (about $4). My colleague had been able to access the Mobile Transactions system from his phone to transfer air time directly onto my phone. Pretty clever really.

- Sara

Sara Taylor is currently enrolled in a masters program in International Relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, specializing in international development. She recently completed her first year of study at the Bologna Center in Italy. Sara is based in Lusaka, Zambia, working with Mobile Transactions Zambia Limited (MTZL).