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 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).