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.


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