Archive for the 'Graham' Category

Not money transfers, an agent network

Mike Quinn, my direct manager, just got back from Kenya where he spent some days seeing M-pesa—the world’s best mobile money network—in operation. Talking with him about what he saw, here are some thoughts that came to mind.

1. It’s all about a network of agents able to deal with both cash and electronic credit for all kinds of purposes. It’s not about selling airtime, not about sending money, not about paying bills. It’s about managing a whole network that works together to serve all kinds of financial needs that people have.

2. There’s a lot of smart and experienced people out there when it comes to mobile money. It might be a young industry, but the experience that people gained in getting M-pesa off the ground was huge, and there’s plenty of other companies now competing in the same space. These experts can see three steps ahead of where we can.

3. There are many ideas and visions for mobile money, but the value is in what exists in fact. That is, the proof is in the pudding. Getting a workable model of an agent network up and running is tough work and the challenges likely vary a lot from place to place. The people working in our office everyday put in lot of time and effort without a clear road map to follow to eventual success. Improvisation and sweat and what we have to muster up every single day.

But when you finally reach Fort Chip, you can really see what a feat this all is. Just think: a whole network of agents able to provide dozens financial services to anyone off the street. It’s like a thousand different airports all in sync to allow anyone to travel around the world. It’s like a country-wide road and filling station network allowing anyone with a car to arrive anywhere.

It’s quite a feat to try and pull off.

Teddy’s Wedding in Kitwe

where all Zambia adventures begin

We hopped on the early bus and shot through the cool Zambian morning northward to the Copperbelt. We were going to Kitwe, where our friend Teddy Sampa was getting married. It was to be my first Zambian wedding.

broke down bus-skis

broke down bus-skis

But we were waylaid. The bus had trouble, and we could smell the burning rubber of a brake problem. The bus slowed to the side of the road then stopped. After some minutes on the phone with head office, the conductor informed us that another bus was on its way. We were already 200km plus from where we began, so it would be a wait.

Deciding to brave the noonday sun, we went walking in search of lunch. We bought four plain buns, but plenty of sweet potato, though none of it was cooked. Back at the bus, we drank the complimentary soda that we had earlier declined. It was hot, and we read or novels and dozed, and sure enough the other bus came a bit shy of three hours later.

Late in the afternoon we arrived in Kitwe. What a nice place: broad streets, well-kept (though small) city parks, and a lively downtown. At After Ten, an Indian owned restaurant chain, a shy waitress served us the best Greek salad and chicken biryani to be found in Zambia. We walked to find a cheap but cute rest house, Lynda’s Lodge, and showered before slipping into our dress clothes.

Teddy with a big ol' smile

Teddy with a big ol' smile

The wedding was lots of dancing, frequent power outages, and pleasant food. Teddy beamed throughout, showing he was truly happy as most Zambian wedding grooms, as a customary rule, fix their most stern scowls for the duration of the reception. None of our photos turned out due to the low light and my camera’s low battery.

rh-u-u-u-mba!!

rh-u-u-u-mba!!

All was finished by 10 PM for weddings end early here. So we scooped up the bridesmaids, slipped back to our lodge where we had one or two, and hopped a cab for the closest club. For a dollar’s cover charge we entered La Frontier (reminding us of our closeness to the Congo) and danced to rhumba and Zam-pop until our freshly-pressed wedding attire was sweaty and disheveled.

The bus ride back the next morning was uneventful, which was a restful ending to a great weekend of fun and friends.

Management is Struggling

We, Mobile Transactions, are in a growth spurt where 40-50% monthly increases in customers is now the norm. Also now the norm is a tightening pain in my chest that arrives when I step into the office and dissipates only once I’ve poured myself an after-work cup of tea back at the apartment.

For me, this is basically was managing is: a certain form of psychologically-produced physical pain (clenched chest, for me, maybe headaches, or subtle nausea for others)—felt while endlessly struggling to keep things moving along as discouragement continuously ebbs and flows.

Easy outs to the responsibility of managing are:

  1. becoming an angry and irritable ogre;
  2. doing only the easiest, and thus most trivial of jobs;
  3. delegating tasks without a clue as to how they’ll be done or how you even want them to be done;
  4. many others.

Management: it’s not easy. Though I probably always thought it was. Worse, almost certainly, would be to have your own money invested as seed capital or shares. This hasn’t been me (at least for now).

And so, this is us: the Management Team. Slowly moving things forward, resisting discouragement, evading (by a half-step) becoming overwhelmed by To-Do lists, while trying to wring fulfillment out of what we’re doing. It’d be far too much pain for so little gain if there’s wasn’t something personally worthwhile to each of us in all of this.

We struggle along. Me too, with too much chest tension for a 27-year old.

Swamp Kabwata

Swamp-front propety

We live in a swamp. It’s rainy season in Zambia, and rumour has it that an equatorial band of precipitation hasn’t made it’s regular annual drift south to Zimbabwe but stayed stubbornly stuck above us.

This means the neighbourhood road leading to our home has been hammered by rain almost daily. If the road was paved, it wouldn’t be a big deal. It the road had decent gravel and soil composition, it wouldn’t be a big deal. If the road had even the semblance of functional drainage, if might not have become a big deal.

The road has none of these things. It has become a big deal. Or, more precisely, a real big pain in the ass. 

You can see the photo. Cab drivers around town now remember my home address and the punishment their cars have taken getting me there. They’ve started declining my business.

I’m now frequenting our neighbourhood gym less often. In the past I had a nice jog to and from working out. Now, if I feel up to going, I put my gumboots on, slog out to the nearest paved road 400-meters away, then change into my sneakers and run carrying my gumboots the rest of the way.

Back at the house we’ve taken to laying concrete blocks as stepping stones in a snaking path down the driveway just to get out our gate. This works until our housemate, Marvin, needs his car.

I took to cursing out the local MP, Mr. Lubinda, for not doing something about the situation. But then the last taxi driver to accept my fare filled me in that Lubinda is from the PF party, not the ruling MMD, so his constituency funds are tied up in bureaucratic politicking. Sigh.

Which brings me to my conclusion. The quickest path to becoming the most popular President of Zambia for all time is this: JBR. Just Build Roads.

And ditches. Don’t forget about drainage. Goes to show what debts this world owes to civil engineering.*

*For the record, I was trained as an electrical engineer. I put this in here to say, “hey, if you or someone you loved ever thought of starting a road building company in Zambia, I’d be pleased as punch (and ready to buy shares).”

A Cashless Africa

"How much should do you think I should deposit?"

"How much should do you think I should deposit?"

In three words, this describes the vision of Mobile Transactions. I’ve been with them for only a month and a half, but I already see this vision becoming real.

A large client of ours (and a part owner in our company) is Dunavant, a multinational cotton company. Their business model in Zambia uses a network of farmer-agents spread out across cotton growing areas. This network coordinates loans and provision of cotton inputs, and each of these farmer-agents are paid commission for their work.

Until now, this payment was done in cash: armed trucks, men with guns, and long driving distances up and down Zambia. Dunavant now wants to use our mobile money account technology instead. Farmer-agents would have an account on their phone, and Dunavant  would pay them in a single electronic financial transaction, just like sending an SMS. To collect their money the farmer-agents would go to any of our company’s agents, of which there are 70+ spread across all parts of Zambia.

But there was a surprise inside all of this. My Zambian co-worker Sydney and I were out training Dunavant’s farmer-agents about the idea of a mobile money account. As we spoke, and as they asked questions, the whole subject turned from how they would get paid from Dunavant to the possibilities that come with having a “bank” account.

“I can store my money on my phone? I don’t have to take it all out at once?”

Yes.

“How does it stay safe? I’ll have a secret PIN code so I’ll be the only who can access my money?”

Yes.

“You’re saying that I can deposit money as well? So if I sell my maize or soy beans I can go to an agent and deposit, for free?”

Yes.

“And what about the fees? Are there monthly fees? a minimum balance?”

No, the only recurring fee is K1,500 ($0.20) to withdraw money.

It quickly became clear that these were men, good farmers at that, who had never had a bank account, never had a place to store and save their money, and were now being offered exactly that.

All of this adds up to a little less cash, and a little more satisfaction, which is exactly what Mobile Transactions’ vision is all about.

Just plain wrong, and that’s just okay

I’ve been guilty of my share of blunders. I remember how I used to be convinced that is was better to fill up an ice cube tray with hot water than cold water for the reason that it would freeze faster. I can still remember my mom shaking her head at me and my sister as we lectured her why we steaming hot water in the ice cube tray. The slightest bit of thermodynamics would’ve proved us wrong.

Lucky for my ego, Zambians aren’t any different. There’s a endemic driving error I’ve seen on Zambian roads: minibus highway drivers in Zambia accelerate to high speed, then turn off their engines, coast for a few hundred meters, and do it all over again. The reason?

“I’m saving gas.”

Ok, I’m usually the guy that suspends judgment in a new place, and I’ve only been in Zambia for a month. But this is ridiculous.

Force = mass X acceleration

So when speeding up, a minibus engine has to work hard to provide enough force to accelerate the mass of the vehicle and people. But when maintaining speed, the force needed is only that to overcome wheel friction and air resistance.

Fneeded = Fair resistance + Fwheel friction

This force is scant compared to the force needed for acceleration. That’s why maintaining a constant highway speed is one of the best things you can do for fuel efficiency. These Zambian guys are way, way off the mark. Why? And also, why should I care?

From what I’ve seen, there’s two ways to think about development:

  1. Assume the locals know nothing (less popular, these days), or
  2. Assume the locals are infinitely rational, but that we just aren’t seeing thing the way they are (more popular).

I don’t agree with the first group, and find myself more at home in the second, but there’s the danger: how do you fit in the local stupidity of turning minibus engines off at highway speeds to save gas?

My answer is to remember that we’re all human here, and as many times I’ve fallen prey to misguided logic, superstition, or just plain stupidity, Zambians have done the same. Keeping this in mind I can tell a farmer that burning crop residues is ignorant of soil mechanics, be confident that witch doctor remedies aren’t the way to go, and scold ridiculous minibus drivers while still respecting all of these people.

After all, putting hot water in the ice cube try is no different.

My body just gave up

Going over

Going over

 

I almost drowned this past Saturday and the scariest part was that the struggle my body put into surviving was awfully lackluster.

We were rafting in the Zambezi river, starting just at the bottom of Victoria Falls at a spot called the Boiling Pot. I had been there before with friends, saw the massive whirlpool that forms there, and thought it was nothing short of certain death. Now, with the river water levels having dropped just a smidge, it was our launching point.

It was at rapid number 6 (or maybe it was 7; it’s all a bit blurry) that our raft flipped. I lost grip of the safety rope, and was swallowed up by the churning waves of a Class 5 rapid.

Everything was blue and green. I felt completely helpless, just a limp object swept along and under by more and more water. If felt like I’d never come up, but then I saw it, that whiteness of water that means you’re at the surface. I popped up, but then sucked right back under—I had only enough time to cough out water, but not to breathe in air.

It was all blue and green again and it was here I felt my chest tighten, that awful clenching felt when holding your breath too long. I knew I was still far under the waves, that the surface—and air—was high above me, and here’s where it happened: instead of struggling, I relaxed. In a split second I had become resigned to my fate, resigned to being smothered by waves.

This was the feeling that stuck with me the rest of the day and up until now, far after I was hauled in to another crew’s raft, far after I coughed and wheezed up water and said, “I’m fine, I’m fine,” over and over. It’s disconcerting: I just gave up. I didn’t even choose to, my body just relaxed and checked out. It was only the buoyancy of my life-jacket that brought me back.

Though in case this all sounds too worrying and serious I can assure you that the fright of it all was more than drowned out by laughs, and thrills, of fun with friends.


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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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