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.
Working with consultants has its perks. Not only do they offer a fresh analytic perspective, but they also provide advanced industry knowledge.
Left: In the field, literally
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.
It’s under a day now until my departure to Addis Ababa. My goal had been to “frontload” my packing for fear of any unwanted popups. I believe I’ve done a semi-successful time of planning ahead. I have moved some times before – to London (Ontario) or Vienna – but preparing for Addis Ababa has its own set of challenges. Entering a developing African country typically means bringing everything with you that you would miss. With that being said, you can probably find the majority of actual necessities in-country. The issue only arises once we have to answer the question: what is a necessity?So below you will find an extensive list of what I decided to bring. Perhaps this could be of use to future travelers on work placements in Addis Ababa, or a similar developing city with a high-altitude climate. Here it goes!Important Documents- Travel Immunization Record- Extra different sized passport photos (6)- Proof of graduation (work permit purposes)- Photo copies of passport, atm/visa cards, birth certificate, sin card, provincial health card, student card, vaccination record- Bank, health insurance & emergency contact information- Reminder cards. Since I have not earned the habit of eating safely in a developing country, I created reminder cards to store in my purse summarizing some key statements.- Flight tickets- Passport- Select photos of family and friends- US$Technology- Camera, memory card reader, extra memory card- Computer- Video camera, DV tapes (5) + cleaning tape- External Hard drives (3)- Wristwatch with alarm- Chargers- Adapters (Europlug 2-prong + India/Asia 3-prong) this was a bit of a headache- Surge Protector- eReader- Ethernet Cord- Mp3 player & headphonesGear- Mosquito Net (permethrin soaked nets, advised as extremely effective, are not available in Canada)- Bed sheet- Towel- Microfiber towel- Umbrella- Hand sanitizer (2)- Water purification drops- Emergency blanket- Mosquito Repellent 30% DEET- Flashlight- Moist wipes- First Aid Kit (assorted bandaids, blister bandaids, tweezers, alcohol pads, polysporin, waterproof matches, clotrimazole topical cream, surgical gloves, adhesive tape, scissors)- Diarrhea Kit (chicken & beef bouillon, immodium, pepto bismol, gastrolyte, gravol, cipro)- Laundry Kit (Woolite detergent travel packs, clothes line, sink plug – I’d recommend Austin House, tide to go, laundry bag)- Kleenex- Swimsuit- Sunglasses- Sunscreen- Scissors- Pencil Case- Double sided tape- Bandana (for lengthy dusty travel)- Paperback books (I brought…Richard Dowden’s Africa, Amharic Phrasebook, a book borrowed from a friend – Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, and a title I sourced in a Veinnese bookshop History of Ethiopia, Paul Henze. And of course, the much-loved Bradt guide on Ethiopia, Philip Briggs)- Map of Ethiopia- Blank small notepads- One checked bag, one 45L carry-on backpack (I love MEC)Personal Hygiene- Facial wipes, eye makeup remover pads- Hairdryer- Personal medications (advil, caltrate, vitamin D)- Contacts, solution, eye drops- Lip balm- Razors- Toothpaste- Preventative blister balm- Favourite shampoo, conditioner, leave-in conditioner- Face cream, cleanser- Sanitary napkinsFood- Parmesan cheese: I’m not sure if this one is allowed but I’m going to claim it and see.- Peanut butter (750g of Skippy is a true necessity for me!)- Favourite Teas & Hot chocolate- Lindt chocolate bars: I read a blog that the chocolate wasn’t very good so just in case I get that craving- Spices (cumin, mustard, cinnamon, basil, thyme, oregano, salt&pepper)- Sriracha hot sauce – only my staple ingredient in every dinner- Soy sauce- Protein bars (Cliff & Luna brand are great)- Baking powder- Almonds- Travel mug: required for my coffee before work every morningClothingConsidering that most Ethiopians dress conservatively, I erred on the side of long-sleeve tops, pants and loose lightweight clothing.- Variety of work-appropriate collared shirts (preference to long-sleeves)- Basic tank tops for layering and casual cotton long-sleeve tops- Slacks (3), capris , long shorts (2) and a pair of jeans- Long skirt, pencil skirt, knee-length dress- Cardigans (4), sweaters (4) and blazer (1)- Footwear: boots, open-toe sandals, black pumps, tan flats, running shoes, walking shoes and flip flops- Rain jacket, leather jacket- Scarves (3), tights and leggings- Gym strip (3)This list may have been excessively exhaustive in the depth of information I provided. At the very least, it highlights what I perceive I need versus what many other people may require elsewhere.
Dusty, sprawling streets. The roads may be paved but the sidewalks give way to dirt and rubble. Bare feet to leather boots, Ethiopians share the muddy roadside, as the rainy season showers soak the ochre earth. People swathed in coloured wraps, brilliant white Arab robes, decade-worn western brands, and tattered rags swerve left and right, jumping to the discordant rhythm of traffic.A child leaps forward giggling. Her eyes joyfully fixed on a rubber tire she is rolling forward with a metal rod.A row of small coal fires sizzle freshly husked corn, wafting sweet charcoal smoke.A barren plot of land where sixty sheep are lined up for slaughter. A pile of heads already await market, their opaque eyes glazed blue-white.The sultry aroma of dark roast Ethiopian coffee. Macchiato brimming with bubbling foam.Compounds with barbed wire fences, the paint faded down the forbidding walls. Stray dogs roam the alleys rabid, abandoned or unloved.Cool moist mornings. Icy breath forms in front of faces.The striking African Union building pierces the skyline. Its sophisticated architecture dominating the disorganized clutter of corrugated tin roofs below.A skinny man loosely holds a rifle beside the ATM.Someone grabs my arm with an uncomfortably fierce grip. I look up to see a small woman pulling me away from the aggressive rumble of an oncoming caravan.Genuine smiles from locals.Addis Ababa is sometimes called the City of Africa or New Flower. My boss aptly named it One Big Village. To me, Addis Ababa is a city of juxtaposition. Nothing is segregated, everything mixed into one. Poverty sits next to modernity. Authenticity beside security. Wintry mornings to sweaty afternoons. Affluence and absence. A rustic metropolis.