I have arrived in Managua, Nicaragua and begun my 6-month internship with MEDA working with its partner organization MiCrédito as a Rural Microfinance intern. I am lucky enough to be overlapping with fellow MEDA intern Katherine who has been working in the MiCrédito office for the past 10 months. I’m very grateful to have someone to show me the ropes and introduce me to Nicaragua. I’ve been here for just over a week and have had a great experience so far. I have had the opportunity to meet most of MiCrédito’s lovely staff members and everyone has been extremely welcoming and helpful. Although things have been a little confusing having two MEDA interns with the same name working side by side. Often people have to differentiate between la nueva (the new) Catherine and la vieja (the old) Katherine. But at least there is only one name for everyone to remember. I was also lucky enough to spend some time with the President of MiCrédito’s Board of Directors Fred Wall who was in Managua for the quarterly board meeting. Fred was kind enough to take Katherine and me out for dinner to share his experiences and spend some time getting to know me and catching up with Katherine. I am already hard at work and trying to absorb as much information as I can about MiCrédito and its work. Last week I wrote my first news article about MiCrédito’s search for a new branch location in Rivas which it plans to open in the next few months. I’m excited that I will be here for the opening and am looking forward to working with MiCrédito staff to help get this and other projects going. I am also really looking forward to exploring Nicaragua! It is such a beautiful country with so much to see and I am hoping to fit in a lot of weekend trips to cities like Leon, Granada and San Juan del Sur. I am especially looking forward to getting to Ometepe – Lake Managua’s volcanic island.Over the weekend I took my first trip with fellow MEDA intern Sarah (who is based in Leon also working on MEDA’s Techno-Links project) to visit Granada. Granada is a beautiful colonial city about an hour south of Managua. We had a great time exploring the city and even took a boat tour of the more than 360 islands which sit in Lake Managua – my personal favourite was the monkey island where we got to visit Panchito the monkey and his family. On the way back to Managua we visited the Masaya Volcano. I am looking forward to exploring more of Nicaragua and working with MEDA and MiCrédito staff for the next six months here in Managua.
I have just graduated from American University with a Master in International Development at American University. I did my freshmen year of college in Dakar, Senegal and at the time, my major was undecided. In others words, I knew I wanted to study in the international field but I did not know what exactly. I decided to study in development because at an early age, I was exposed to the field as a result of my mothers’ professional career as a human right’s activist. Without a doubt, my mother’s career was my true inspiration. In fact, hearing stories about places like Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and many other African countries in crisis, made me realize that this is what I wanted to do. I want to contribute to the economical, political and social development of developing countries like my home country, Burkina Faso. I transferred to Suffolk University in Boston in 2006 for my sophomore year and despite some initials struggles with English language, I caught up really fast. After one year in at Suffolk University I decided to relocate to La Roche in Pittsburgh, a smaller city and smaller educational environment where I could focus more on my studies. After my graduation in May 2009, I thought getting a job would be easy, but reality taught me otherwise. In fact, finding an internship or a job is not simple. However, during my program at American University, I had the opportunity to intern with two great two great organizations but I was still looking for an internship that would tie everything together and put me in a position where I could really use what I have learned in the last two. MEDA’s Project Coordinator internship came at the right time. I have been with MEDA for just a month and I am already impressed. Unlike many internships where you are just sitting by the copy machine, I get to work on ongoing projects and attend staff meetings. Right now, I’m working on developing and updating MEDA’s entrepreneurship toolkit for the financial services. I have learned so much already and I am looking forward to the rest of my experience with MEDA.
I realized just the other day that I only have three months left of my just over a year term in Nicaragua. I have no idea where the time has gone! It amazes me that this can happen but it happens every time I am abroad – the time flies!Projects have slowed down a bit here in the MiCrédito office, as internal transition has put a hold on some of my projects while I wait for information to be gathered and pass along to me to work with. This slow-down has given me some time to think and reflect on my time here and my upcoming trip home to visit friends and family, which will be in a month.People here keep asking me what I miss the most about Canada or what is the first thing I am going to eat, for example. So, in honour of Canada Day this Monday, I thought I would reflect this post on Canada and what it is that I miss the most from the motherland... And the answer? Bubble tea. Bubble tea is a delicious drink with a cold tea or juice base liquid and tapioca bubble-balls that float around at the bottom. It is served with an enormous straw you can use to sip up the bubbles! It is DELICIOUS. Every Sunday when I lived in Ottawa for school I would make my way down to the Korean area with some of my friends and we would indulge in Vietnamese pho and bubble tea for dessert. Afterwards, my Chinese friends would educate me about all of the different things you can find at the local Chinese grocery store. I loved a Sunday afternoon in Korea Town.I realized that the thing I missed most from home was not exactly bubble tea, itself, but the multiculturalism and diversity that can be found in Canada and in particular, cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver. On any given night of the week, my friends could be faced with the tough decision of which restaurant to visit. Here in Managua, we do have several options: the local fritanga stand, the more “upscale” Nicaraguan food, a Peruvian restaurant (which I am in love with), various American food chains, French, Mexican, and a few others. Managua does offer a varying amount and therefore, I cannot complain. However, I still can’t quick that longing desire to debate with my friends the classic “sushi” or “pho”. Italian? Thai?What I also look forward to seeing is a sea of faces from hundreds of countries living together in one city; enjoying the hot Toronto sun, partaking in one another’s culture and appreciating the unique cultural aspects each person can bring to the community.
Ok so I know that my next blog is long overdue, but it is definitely a testament to how much I have been enjoying myself in Zambia! Since you heard from me last I have been to Chobe National Park in Botswana for a camping trip/safari, Livingstone twice (still without mustering up the courage to do the bungee jump), the Harare International Festival of Arts in Zimbabwe for music/arts and horseracing, and to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia to see the Mzungu All Stars football team take on the local Zambian team, raise money for conservation projects and not see any leopard upclose. All in all, not too shabby. I have had the opportunity to see more of the amazing countryside in this part of the world.
On my non-weekends, I have been working on training materials and editing videos while are nearly done. Stay tuned as I will share a bit more about the process of editing and developing training materials next. But to wet the appetites, I thought I would share a post from Michelle, our visiting Kiva fellow, documenting one of the amazing success stories of Zoona.
What do you get when you mix a rural microfinance intern, a Canadian multimedia specialist and adventure travel/documentary videographer from Livingstone?The answer – hopefully, some wonderful training videos.Pictured left: Mike Q, Zoona CEO, Tony & I, on locationSo, for the past two weeks I have been running around the Copperbelt, Lusaka and Southern provinces trying to collect video footage of agents transacting, agent and client testimonials, branding in action, and good and bad business practices. I have been interviewing, storyboarding, scouting locations, hiring actors, playing chauffeur, helping set up dollys, holding bounce cards, getting multiple waivers signed, and playing producer/director/screenwriter for a tiny production that will later become Zoona’s new agent training videos. Needless to say it has been quite an adventure. Here is a little run down of the process. The Process…Prior to mapping out the video process, the MEDA and Zoona teams worked on looking at what types of content we could deliver via video, what the overall content for the agent training program should be and how receptive our prospective and current Zambian agents would be towards a video as the first touch point of joining Zoona. Since I thought it was key to get feedback from the current Zoona agents, I traveled around a bit of Zambia interviewing agents and tellers. The questions I asked them primarily focused on: (1) how they had received training in the past, (2) what they thought the key components of a training should be, (2) what they thought about video as a mode of delivery, (3) what types of technology would be useful in making their Zoona businesses more efficient and profitable, (4) which customer care issues they deal with most often, (5) what the drivers of growth in their business are, and (6) how they manage their account in a given day and set targets for growth.Having sat through a week of the formal training program when I first arrived in Zambia, I had an idea of what the feedback might look like. Surprisingly, though, most of the agents and tellers I interviewed had not even gone through any kind of training and had instead been introduced to the platform by either an agent or a predecessor. It therefore became clear that video would be a great supplement to the hands on training that most Zoona agents/tellers were receiving in the field.One of the other items that I learned during my research trip was that most agents or tellers were very clear on the type of technology that would help them process transactions faster. Now since tablets are all of the rage in the development world, one would naturally assume that these would also be very popular with agents. BUT because the internet/network on a tablet is slower than on a laptop, the agents and tellers had a preference for the latter. Agents and tellers were also quick to point out that the number pad attachment was also one of the key pieces of equipment that helped them transact faster because of the need for a customer to enter in a pin code for most transactions. Finally, I was also excited to get a chance to do some reconnaissance about the common customer care issues that agents and tellers deal with since I have used the feedback to script the customer care role plays for the agent training.Pictured right: Agents in action in NdolaApart from training content, it was really rewarding to hear first hand how becoming part of Zoona has changed many of the lives of the agents/tellers. It was also a great opportunity to learn more about the Zoona business and see how many of Zoona's successful agents have developed regular customer bases and utilize word of mouth to gain new customers. Finally, as a side project, I took what I now know as B-roll, or footage of agents, tellers and customers transacting to include some variety in our video content. Based on the feedback I received from interviewees, I was able to work with another MEDA colleague, to draft an outline of the training content, associated goals for each training module, and determine the areas where video would be a value add. Ultimately, there will be four training videos, including one focused on marketing and introducing the company and its products, one focused on customer service, troubleshooting and customer care, one focused on marketing, and one on managing your Zoona business and tellers. These will be supplemented by two screen cast modules that show users how to use the Zoona mobile platform to transact and manage their accounts.Challenges...There are of course a number of challenges associated with doing my first ever training video production. The first being – planning. During this process it has come to light that I am a “plan b” person….that is to say that I like to make sure that if something goes wrong we have an alternative in place to accomplish the same goals. Maybe this is a holdover from the Bear, Stearns days, but nonetheless, it is something I have taken with me. It probably won’t come as a shock to most of you to know that that is not always possible here in Zambia. Luckily, I was able to have some amazing support from my MEDA colleague, Steve, to guide me through the shooting. We definitely developed some creative work-arounds when things were not going our way during shooting...most notably rain on a tin roofed booth interrupting sound quality, intermittent sunshine changing the look of video, and actors showing up late, various stray people wanting to interrupt filming. For the last one, it is amazing what an ambassador a free t-shirt can be as long as you don't give it out until the end. Pictured above: Actors hard at workBased on the advice of Steve and Rachel, I knew that having a comprehensive storyboard and shot list was key to getting the project off on the right foot and ensuring that we had enough footage for the final video product. For those of my more video minded friends, I now have an even greater appreciation of all of the things that go into making a video possible. Part of the storyboarding process included scripting good and bad customer service scenarios and common customer care issues. For these items, we did live role plays with Zambian actors and our kamikaze film crew of 4 – me, Memory from Zoona, Steve from MEDA, and Tony, our videographer/cameraman on hire from Livingstone. We tried to get as wide a range in ages and appearance as we could, but unfortunately the casting director did not come through at the last minute. Still, we managed to get some very professional actors that took their jobs seriously and succeeded in recreating the transaction process. It was definitely a different experience having actors come up to me and ask me about how they should be playing the role of agent or customer and asking about changing dialogue. While I had initially thought that filming in and around Zambia and getting various permissions would be the greatest of my challenges, I was pleasantly surprised when people were bending over backwards to make shooting possible. We were even able to film in the busiest bus station in Lusaka. That's not to say that we didn't have our fair share of traffic, horns honking, parade practices shutting down streets, and locals who wanted to run into shots....we even had a man ask us to film him while he was doing some Michael Jackson choreography.I am so grateful to all of the agents I interviewed for being so patient and open with me. I hope to use most if not all of their amazing feedback to make the case for the benefits of being a Zoona agent and show people how joining the team can impact their lives.Next Steps…Now that the shooting is complete, I am working on going through all of the footage and making selections for the first round of edits to be done by Steve. After that I will be working on the screencast portion of the training to be followed by putting together the user guide which will accompany all of the training materials.
Pictured right: Me in Livingstone in front of Victoria FallsOther Updates…In other news after much debate and deliberation I have decided to stay on Lusaka for another 5 months. It was a really difficult decision since I am missing my family, friends and partner, but ultimately it didn’t seem like I was quite done with my stint living abroad or any of the training projects that we are currently embarking on.
Every morning, I have the joy of getting in a car with a man named Leo. Leo is a taxi driver living in Managua, Nicaragua and has been working at his trade for 15 years. He knows every speed bump, pot hole, over-turned stone and congested street in the city and has even managed to master the difficult directional system that Nicaraguan's proudly stand by. "Buenos Dias, Katherine! Como estas?" He exclaims every time. His smile always seems to bring one out in me, as I know his exclamations and excitement stem from the heart. Leo is a client of MiCrédito and through their relationship, which has spanned the last 5 years, he has received multiple loans to finance his taxi business. Leo is known around the Rubenia branch for being quick to pay back his loan and always excited about coming in to the office to do so, often being sure to steal the time of one of the busy Loan Officers or the Branch Coordinator, engaging them in a deep conversation (whether they have the time for it or not!).It was no surprise to Cesia Calderon, the Rubenia Branch Coordinator and Financial Educator for MiCrédito clients that Leo was quick to adopt the newest financial product offered by the Microfinance bank. "Leo loves the new Debit Card system that we are using! He instantly saw it's benefits and wasn't hesitant to share them with the rest of the clients at our last Financial Education meeting. He was practically up on the table!""The debit card lets me feel safe and secure, while conducting my business. Now, I do not carry large amounts of cash in my taxi with me and run the risk of being robbed. Instead, I use my BAC Debit Card to deposit the money I make each day. In the same way, I use this card at gas stations, which lets me collect points with BACs reward system and limit the risk associated with using cash." Through MiCrédito's recent partnership with Banco America Central (more commonly known as BAC, in Central America), client loans are deposited directly into a BAC Debit Account and the clients are distributed a debit card from a MiCrédito branch. This account represents a secure and safe place to hold loan money and truly represents the idea of financial inclusion. Clients that were previously denied access to the regulated financial system because minimum balance requirements and banking fees were too high, are now provided an account with BAC that has no fees and does not require a minimum balance. "I like this product a lot and I am happy to be able to use it every day. My money is more secure and therefore, I feel more secure."Leo continued on to express how the account provides a safe place for his savings, which are very vital to his own sustainability and that of his families. "Some days are good days as a taxi driver and other's are not. Therefore, I need to prepare for those bad days and have some money kept away in order to do so."As clients begin to use the Debit Card offered by MiCrédito, many road blocks, cultural barriers and system limitations prevent them from adopting the technology with optimism and ease. However, success stories, like Leo's, helps clients to realize that the benefits, which lie in the associated safety and security, outweigh the hesitation that springs from the unknown.
At this point in my Nica story, I have already learned that this internship is proving to be one of the most challenging and rewarding adventures that I have been blessed to embark on. Not only am I gaining important skills that I can take with me throughout my career, but the things I have already learned about myself make every cross-cultural challenge, language miscommunication and personal struggle worthwhile.Habia una vez... For the first month and a half of my time in Nicaragua I lived near Masaya, in a small pueblo named San Juan de la Conception (La Concha), with an amazingly kind Nicaraguan family. While attending La Mariposa Spanish School, the family opened their home to me and shared with me their food, time, knowledge and most importantly, patience. Knowing absolutely zero Spanish before coming here made the first few weeks (correction: entire trip thus far) a little bit difficult. However, poco a poco, I have learned how to communicate, though their remains many times at which, I smile and pretend to understand what is happening... (more often than I would like to admit, actually..)By the time I left La Concha and my Nicaraguan Family, I felt like I was leaving the nest for the first time. Driving away in a half battered RAM truck, I looked behind me through the dust to see my family waving, worried. I was off to the big, scary city of Managua; and now, after living in Managua for about a month and a half, I see where its reputation originated from...The Big, Scary Managua...If you speak to most Nicaraguan's about Managua -those living in or outside of the city – few kind words are shared. The general perception of Managua encompasses three Spanish words, whose meanings I learned quickly: lleno, sucio and peligroso. AKA busy, dirty and dangerous. Part of this perception is routed in truth, but I also believe that most Nicaraguans are biased. And how could they not be? Nicaragua (outside of Managua) is one of the most naturally beautiful countries I have ever been blessed to visit. Rich, full of beautiful jungles, volcanoes, islands, beaches, and mountains; it is understandable that when knowing Nicaragua can offer these things, Managua may seem like quite the dump. With this realization came a very real truth in my life, something that I knew before, but limited the amount of weight I associated to it: What makes or breaks a place is its people; and Managua is not short of great people.Work LifeI work in a small office, with one of MEDA's partner organizations: MiCrédito. This microfinance bank is blessed to have a hard working, talented and kind staff, complete with patience and open arms. Though my understanding of the Spanish language falls short, I feel that I have been able to make real connections, possibly in despite of or beyond the barriers of language. Though my conversations may move at the speed of a tortoise and involve a lot of "Como?" or "Que?" real depth exists and it has proven to be my inspiration and motivation, while living here.Every city has its draw – its value, which at times, may be hidden. The rich history in Rome, the Culture of Art in Paris, the beauty of Multiculturalism in Toronto and what I can now see as Managua's draw – its soft hearted, good-spirited people, complete with a rough exterior and what can seem at times, an abrasive approach. With the good and the bad that Managua brings, it is where I am calling home for the next 4 months and I am happy to do so!
Maybe I can place some of the blame on my investment banking roots, but I know that even apart from that training, patience is a virtue that I have in short supply for most things (somehow this impatience does not extend to my ability to wait for hours to stream TV on our slow internet connection...go figure :)). During my MEDA orientation we discussed a lot about culture shock and adapting to being in a new environment. Although I was definitely concerned about living in Africa for the first time ever, I was confident that my previous experiences abroad would help me along in this process. This is of course not to say that I don't have my moments when I am missing my loved ones and my life in New York/Washington DC, especially being away while friends and family are dealing with turmoil in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. I also am now equipped with some wonderful strategies to cope with homesickness and culture shock that I learned during the MEDA orientation, which certainly adds to my confidence. Nevertheless, what I am writing about today is the thing I was/am most concerned about (even back in that conference room in Waterloo) during this experience - the adjustment required when working in a different culture. Though I have had some experience in this area (working on project finance deals in Mexico, traveling to Russia to do financial and organizational capacity assessments for the SEEP Network; working remotely to gather indicator information from partners in Africa and Latin America, or doing online webinar trainings for microfinance associations) I have always found it the most challenging of development work. Whether it is coordinating different work styles, working with different time lines, terminology, wait times or simply put, work hours, it takes a while to figure out how things run or what is appropriate work behavior in the country you are working in. About me - I am definitely used to a "time is money" mentality, meaning that I am used to running around in crisis mode, all the while trying to maximize my efficiency... mean, I worked at a firm where the CEO wrote a book on how paperclips were wasteful.Since arriving here in Zambia I am very much of aware of the clash of work cultures I am experiencing. Some of things I have noticed: #1) it is not uncommon to have to ask someone to do something several times before they will actually do it. I don't think this is actually considered rude, though, which is nice. It does make crossing things off on your to do list a little difficult, though :). #2) Face time is also not a requirement here...therefore it is also not uncommon for people to make their own work hours, as long as they get their work done (although deadlines don't appear to be that formal either). #3) Healthy fear of the boss doesn't exist here - people don't seem to be intimidated or alter their behavior based on their manager's presence. #4) There is a more laid back sense to things getting done...you almost never see anybody rushing around to get something done. In fact, I think they find me quite strange since I do that already quite frequently here. Simply put, if something doesn't get done today, there is always time for it tomorrow. And finally #5) people don't appear to get flustered, frustrated or worked up when something is done incorrectly. They simply just say oh well and move on from there. I often get stressed out when I am the one finding the errors in things since I am the newest person here and probably the least qualified at this point to do so. However, people here would just say "good thing we have you" and move on, which just may be the most healthy approach to life there is instead of stressing out about it :) Other work differences I have noticed - generally, customer service in Zambia is very different than in the U.S. Here, you often enter a business and can wait around for a long time, watching people make coffee, staple things, or sit at their desk doing nothing, before they will ask you if you need assistance. For instance, the other day I walked into the bank to get a check cut and ended up standing in the lobby for about 20 minutes since the people at the desks in the front of the bank would not engage me. I finally had to approach a teller to ask if there was anyone who could help me with a bank check. When they told me the branch manager had gone and no one else could help me, and was told that the Bank Manager wasn't there and nobody knew where she was, so I needed to go to a different branch. Compared to many banks in the U.S. where the second you walk in, there is either a sign up sheet or a person to greet you and ask you if you need help. It could just be that many of these services are still luxuries and so it is not like the businesses are competing for customer attention. I think customer service is understood as tending to a customer's needs, but it certainly does not mean approaching someone in a lobby to ask if they need help when they walk into an office.In fact, the mentality is much more like you should be thanking the person for their help, which definitely may take some getting used to. For me going forward I think I will try to take a step back and maintain a sense of perspective, especially when I realize any of these things are happening. Come to think of it, the work culture clash from the U.S. to Zambia is probably not unlike the work culture clash between the U.S. and Italy, France or Spain. People aren't living for their work, but working so they can live. Suffice it to say that apart from the material knowledge related to mobile banking, I am looking forward to growing my patience in the months to come! Do you have a good way of dealing with cultural work differences that you want to share?
As life would have it, there was a curve ball waiting for me when I walked into work two Mondays ago…I was asked to fill in at the last minute for a colleague and assist on rolling out some financial education trainings for loan officers of a large microfinance bank in Zambia. Since the trainings were going to be decentralized by region, it would require flying to some pretty remote areas of the country on progressively smaller propeller planes, and also give me my first taste of bus travel in Zambia. Even crazier, though, is that I would only have 24 hours to get up to speed, buy, print and assemble all of the materials for the trainings, pack AND learn enough about Zoona so I wouldn't embarrass myself as their representative at the trainings. I, of course said yes, although I am not sure I had much of a choice ;) In the end it probably ended up being the best thing for helping me learn about the mobile banking business, the challenges and opportunities that mobile platforms have for microfinance, and allowing me to learn a little more about the country I'll call home for the next 6 months and the wonderful people who live in it.Starting from the beginning though, I was to fly to Ndola in the northwestern part of the country, also known as the Copperbelt, for our first training. Well, I almost fell over when I saw the 10 seater aircraft with two propellers that was responsible for getting us across the country. After some reassuring words from my new travel partner, Jackie from Microfinance Opportunities, I tried to push the terror aside and remind myself that i was lucky because "at least we weren't going on the plane next to us that only had one propeller" (more on the 1 propeller plane later ;)) For a person who loves rollercoasters, I don't know why the same movement on an airplane makes me want to try like a baby. Suffice it to say, the shaking, incredibly loud humming of the plane's engine and sudden drops made me ecstatic to jump off the plane after we landed. The most interesting part about plane travel in Africa, though, is getting to observe who is able to use this form of transportation. I think it is important to note that in the cost of my airline tickets (for 4 flight legs) was 5.2 million Zambian Kwatcha or $1,020. That's right to fly to 2 places in Zambia it cost more than my flight to Zambia, excluding the taxes or which is even more frightening roughly similar to the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita. Sadly, this does not even include the passenger charges that we had to pay at each airport of departure which were another $12/each. Now, despite the fact that I am a scaredy cat when it comes to flying, I know that it is an incredible luxury and it makes me feel uncomfortable when I think the median income of Vision Fund clients who will be the beneficiaries of this financial education program. But, since Zambia is such a big country (larger than the state of Texas) and road travel is not always the easiest, fastest or safest, this is the only way we can fit in all of the trainings in a week and half's time. Since we were heading to the mining belt, it is no surprise that there were a few mining/businessmen types on the flight. Many of the mining guys (they are always men) are Aussies and are wearing jeans, Oakley sunglasses and cell phone holsters. Then, there are the impeccably dressed African business men; the very casually dressed tourists (although not sure why tourists are going to the mining region), and then there are the NGO crowd, usually laden with materials or bags with packets etc. In this particular instance…this is us. Once we arrived in Ndola, we had about an hour's drive to Kitwe (the second largest city in Zambia) where the training would be taking place the next day. Being that we were in the Copperbelt, it seemed apropos that we ended up staying in a place that was smack dag across the street from a big mountain of ore or something. Thankfully, the warnings of my Zoona co-workers about the air quality never ended up being an issue. Since we were staying a little ways out of the city center, I can't give too many impressions about Kitwe, except to say that it is expensive! I was shocked at what $57/night ($290,000) gets you. I was told that the mining concessionaires and the constant influx of people keep the prices high. I did have A/C and hot water, which was a blessing since it was hot during the day. The first room I saw, though, did not have a toilet seat ;) I think the most memorable parts of the stay in Kitwe were (a) my first meal with Nshima served without utensils; (b) my first introduction to Zambian time…everything is always 10 minutes, even 1 hour after the fact; (c) having to provide an introduction to Zoona and field questions during the challenges with the Zoona platform section; (d) seeing the enthusiasm of the loan officers when they were presenting lessons on financial education; and (e) the twice daily power cuts that made planning your shower all the more important. It was also very clear after our first training that I was not only incredibly fortunate to be seeing so much of Zambia in my second week on the job, but also because I was going to learn so much about the mechanics of training, adult learning, and financial education. Just as a background, Zoona is working with an MFI to do client loan disbursements. Formerly, the MFI disbursed loans in one of two ways - (1) loan officers had to travel around to loan groups with large sums of money which was neither safe nor cost effective, or (2) clients would have to travel long distances to get to their nearest MFI branch to pick up their loans at their own expense. While all of the operational challenges of this partnership have yet to be sorted out (I am hear gathering feedback about these challenges and disseminating updates about progress), Zoona's mobile agent network has the potential to make loan disbursement much easier in terms of time and cost for the MFI and clients. I was really impressed by the first training, the material was not only engaging, but you could also see how interested the loan officers were in learning how to train their clients on financial education. Some of the topics that were covered were lessons on: (1) When is a loan good or bad?; (2) Tracking your business and household expenses; (3) Ways to Save; and (4) Using Zoona to manage your money. Although many people were familiar with Zoona's money transfer services, it was great to be able to talk about some of the other services that could be useful to their clients...i.e. as a safe place to deposit your money, using Zoona to pay your bills or even to repay your loan. I think I will save the part about the challenges of the Zoona account for Part II of the blog since it gets more into the nitty gritty (or mechanics) of mobile banking. After a successful 9 hours of training and a good night's sleep, though, we had to head out to our next stop on the financial education tour - Kasama. Kasama is in the northern province of Zambia, very close to the border of Tanzania and Lake Tanganyika. Based on the reactions of Zambians when I told them where I was going to next, I would also venture to say that Kasama is not a place that many people travel to for work or otherwise. This is where the trip starts getting a little more interesting/challenging as the planes start to get a bit smaller. This time we were led to the tarmac where there was a single propeller plane waiting to take us back to Lusaka , so we could then fly to Kasama. At this point I wasn't sure I could do it...the look of panic on my face was something I couldn't even hide from our pilot who actually asked me if I was going to be okay. Obviously I made it, but I was definitely counting down the minutes till the flight was over and relied on the music from my ipod to get me through the two long trips. That's before I even realized that we had to land on a red clay/dirt runway, my first ever. You can short of tell what type of town you are arriving in by the red dirt runway and singular airport building…Kasama is sort of one horse town. There are only two flights into town per week and it is about a 10 hours to Lusaka by bus or car. Since we arrived on a Thursday, we have to stay in Kasama for the weekend until the next flight date - Monday. There are also not a whole lot of mzungus (Swahili for white person) so I definitely attracted a little bit of attention when I walked around the town. Kasama has one main drag with a few strip malls, a few ATMs and a ShopRite, which makes Kasama the place where people come from around the smaller towns in the Northern province to do their shopping, commerce and banking. Hence, it is the perfect town for a Zoona agent. I am excited to say that this was my first visit to one, apart from the training center in downtown Lusaka. I got to sit with him for a little bit of time and ask him about the challenges he was facing as an independent agent. After being in Kitwe for the training I had a little more context related to the challenges of using the agent/mobile money platform for microfinance loan disbursement from the MFI side of things, but it was great to get an agent's perspective on the challenges.
Picking up from where we left off...One of the things that came out of the Kasama training is that the mechanics of mobile money and the agent network are a little difficult to wrap one's head around. I will be dedicating one of my next posts to the mechanics of mobile money and the agent network, but since this posting was about our trainings I thought I would include one of the diagrams I ended up drawing during our trainings to show how an agent manages his/her float or cash liquidity.
The other part of this equation is managing the funds in an electronic bank account so that he or she can transfer on behalf of a client. I mean in reality, the agent is like it's own little bank...an agent must ensure that it has enough cash on hand to meet customer demand for it (for money transfer or loan pay outs) while at the same time having enough funds in an electronic account to transact (really, transfer) on behalf of a client to a third party or savings account (i.e. money transfers, or Consumer to Business bill payments, loan repayments or air time purchases).There is a constant deposit and withdrawal of money, and shifting of money from cash in hand to electronic in this agent model. Not being an expert in mobile banking (yet?), the biggest issue an agent faces is not having enough money for payouts, with the second one being not having enough electronic funds in his/her bank account to transact for clients. To this end, they are constantly converting cash funds into electronic or vice versa. As I mentioned in part I of my blog post on the topic, the financial education trainings also included educating the staff of Vision Fund Zambia, a microfinance institution, on how clients can use Zoona to receive and repay their loans, as well as receiving feedback on the challenges clients had with the platform. You may already be able to guess what I am going to say...but the more you think about it, the more you realize how much stress loan payouts can exert on an agent's liquidity, especially if loans are disbursed in groups. I will undoubtedly be addressing ways to combat these challenges during my time here in Zambia, but needless to say it is one of the big hiccups to growing mobile banking/payments too quickly. This is even more true when you are trying to support small and medium businesses as agents, where access to working capital is severely limited, if not non-existent. I am happy to report that the trip also gave me an opportunity to do some some wonderful sight seeing in the Northern province, thanks to our weekend layover there. We were told that a trip to Chishimba falls could not be missed and as you can see from the pictures, they were right :) The falls certainly did not disappoint and we were some of the only people there....well, that was at least until we stumbled upon a church choir who was recording in front of the falls. Left: Mutumuna, my MEDA bag, and me - up close and personal The church choir was gracious enough to let me snap a million photos of them and even take a few recordings that I will try to upload soon...well, all for the small fee of taking a Mizungu picture with every one of the male members you see to the right. Not sure why I have that kind of appeal, especially with the beautiful nature in the background, but I guess I am the exotic thing in the remote area of Zambia. Even so, such a small price to pay for such a gift. The other must see in Kasama is the ancient rock paintings. I was initially drawn to see this site after reading in the Lonely Planet that "Archaeologists rate these paintings as one of the largest and most significant collections of Ancient Art in Southern Africa." Sadly, the paintings (who I suspect are not all that well visited) are starting to fade and the tourism infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, our guide didn't feel see the point of taking us to any more than two of the painting areas since there were pictures of the paintings in the visitor center and it was pretty hot out. :) After having traveled around a bit, I am now very much aware how much I had taken for granted the tourism infrastructure which is commonplace in the U.S., Canada and Europe.Had I not been so rudely interrupted by a massive wasp sting that left me writhing in pain, I was hoping I could press our guide into showing us more of the painting sites. Oh well.... After removing death grip from the plane arm rest, I was finally able to snap a photo of the view from the flight.