Posts Tagged 'Zambia'

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.

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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.

Probably looked better on paper

this probably looked better on paper

this probably looked better on paper

Um, ye-ah.

“Well, really, you see the thing is, Sir… we’ve had a down-turn in our last quarter.” 

“A down-turn?”

“Yeah, and, um, well finances have dried up, Sir, for the most part.”

“For the most part?”

“Yes, that’s what I said, for the most part. So, you see, we’ve had to put construction on temporary hold. We’ll refinance our debt, secure new lines of credit, and be back on track next month.”

“Really?”

“Well, actually, no. We’ve flat run out of money from betting the farm on copper prices. Those have tanked. So now I suggest we liquidate assets and get the heck outta dodge. The market for Zambian high-rise office space just fell of a cliff, and it’d be best if we weren’t the last ones to leave the party, if you catch my drift… Sir.”

“Um, ye-ah.”

“Ye-ah, Sir. This whole thing probably looked better on paper, huh?”

It’s Independence Day and the power’s out.

Too few sightings todayIt’s Independence Day and the power’s out.

Not a big surprise, really. The load shedding schedule in the newspaper is really just a small fraction of the daily brown outs. Though it does make me wonder on this 45th birthday of Zambia’s, just how do Zambians connect to this holiday that celebrates the birth of their nation?

Talk to the old timers and you can hear about when crowds flocked to Independence Stadium in the tens of thousands for a raucous celebration with Coke and scones freely handed out to everyone. Bursting with pride and excitement were the Independence Days of back then.

But those are the same old timers that’ll tell me that our neighbourhood’s dusty road used to be paved and lined with streetlights with electricity flowing non-stop like Vic Falls after the rainy season.

A young Zambian co-worker, when I asked her what her Independence weekend plans would be, told me they’d be nothing out of the ordinary. “I don’t really connect with this holiday anymore,” she said. “Not many of my generation do.”

That seemed to sum up the situation in Lusaka today: the nation’s capital was celebrating the nation’s birthday with all the bravado of a laundromat’s Grand Opening. Hardly a flag or a banner to be seen in town, though sure, a few more people than normal were sporting Zambia’s green, black, red and orange. Maybe the bravado of a regular season hockey game.

Though I don’t know the flow of Zambian history like a local does. Did celebrating Independence Day quickly change from lively to not-so-much once copper prices tanked in the 80s? Or was it a gradual decline from exuberance to this? I’m still trying to calibrate—maybe I shouldn’t have such a foreign look of shock at the low-key nature of this national holiday. Maybe the Chez Ntemba dance club will be particularly lively tonight, like July 1st on Whyte Ave.

For now, though, power’s off, dinner’s on hold, neighbourhood’s quiet, mosquitoes are out—Independence Day, check.


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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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