Trust on a bus

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As I handed over my K2500 (US$0.50) fare to the mini-bus driver on my way home from work today, I glanced up to see this on a sticker plastered above the dash, beside the requisite logo of the driver’s favorite football team:

“Even if you know me, just pay.”

I’ve been seeing more and more of these stickers in mini-buses all over Lusaka.

“In God we trust, but in business we pay.”

“You look honest, but I don’t trust you.”

People in Lusaka, and certainly all over Zambia, are incredibly friendly, so on the surface, these stickers seem awfully rude.  But in my constant quest to understand what trust means to Zambians in terms of money and business, these stickers are actually very insightful.

Connecting small scale farmers to markets, products, and services is difficult because it’s all about fostering trust between parties that have never done business before.  This task is made monumentally harder given the dearth of institutional trust in Zambia’s burgeoning economy.

There are no Better Business Bureaus.  There are also no repo men.

Individuals have very little recourse if businesses choose to rip them off.  This happens to me from time to time:  When the mini-bus conductor sees the colour of my skin, he immediately adds a muzungu premium to my fare.  If I retort and get the people on my bus riled up about it (I LOVE mini-bus revolts!), I’m able to save myself from being swindled.  Farmers, without my foreigner’s voice and a bus full of people backing them, are often not so lucky.

But businesses have reason to be distrustful too.  Zambians are notoriously bad for asking for credit and not paying back loans.  With farmers, this habit comes from a post-independence government that gave out lots and lots of agricultural loans but never took punitive measures when they weren’t paid back.

I guess this is a problem on mini-buses too, hence, the stickers.  It’s kind of nice to see them acknowledge this so openly.  It makes me want to track down the guys who are selling these stickers and ask them how I can get some made for my farmer friends.

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1 Response to “Trust on a bus”


  1. 1 Wayne July 14, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    Classy new blog! Guess “Putting the last mile first” was too long a title eh?

    Building trust with farmers is something I’ve been exploring deeper this past month. Haven’t made much headway, but I’m uncovering interesting tidbits in the puzzle. Chatted with an agric extension agent last night and he told me that communities with a critical mass of literate members tend to be more trusting. At first that just sounded like mistrust = ignorance, but really its because far too many misunderstandings have taken place between farmers and players like banks. And those misunderstandings lead to unmet expectations which breaks trust. Breaking that cycle fuels my hypothesis that building trust takes repeated successful transactions. So I’ve tried to reframe the problem: What does it take to facilitate that first transaction—to enable a safe environment that won’t distort future transactions too much? Neither farmers nor businesses wants to absorb disproportionate or significant risk. So how to buy down risks to make that first transaction happen? One project here in Ghana is basically saying to business: we’ll invest in infrastructure. And not surprisingly, that solicits from these businesses a laundry list of demands which are hardly cost-effective…

    Anyhow, would love to hear more about building trust in the marketplace…


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Working to include smallholder farmers in agricultural markets, we know there are no easy answers. This blog is a place to ask "What does it take to make it work?" and to share what we're seeing and learning.
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