Monday, April 20, 2015

Small Enterprises and Smaller Loans

Gaining access to a loan is nearly impossible in the village.  Most villagers don’t have bank accounts - they often don’t have enough money to open an account or rarely have enough money to keep the account open if they are able to open one – and banks typically aren’t nearby.  Yet, an influx of cash is needed in these areas because villagers have entrepreneurial dreams too – just like their friends and family in town.  That’s where Village Savings and Loans (VSL) groups come into play (something I’m just now learning about… in my third year of working with community groups - ugh... late but at least I got to the party) and help fill this important gap. 

The Manyoonyo Community's Village Savings and Loans (VSL) Groups met and held a meeting for us to watch.  The the small blue box by the woman's feet is where they keep their money.  The man to the left and the woman in the stripped shirt were the group's secretaries (in charge of taking all notes about loans given and repaid).  The group's formal name was "God is Good."  They've had such popularized success that a second VSL group in the community has started.  It's called "To Live in Poverty is a Choice."

The idea is that a group of five to twenty individuals come together and save a small amount of cash per week as a way of consolidating their resources for the good of the group and the gain of the individual.  Every week, money is saved by group members and then loans (very small loans on the scale that we Americans are used to) are given to individuals looking for a small influx of cash for a side project here or there. 

In my current job I’ve been tasked with assisting the Women’s Empowerment Coordinator of our project with recording what’s working, what’s failing, useful innovations, and ways to promote this method more fully.  It’s been incredibly interesting – maybe the most interesting thing I’ve worked on this entire year.  

The longer I’m here the more I realize that it’s ALL economics.  Sure, being able to grow more food (increasing yields) is important, but adding more value to the already produced crops is equally, if not more, valuable.  And then there’s the fact that economics and demand drive market availability and that influences what a farmer grows.  It’s important to grow the food, but economic viability and access to diverse income fields is something that can’t be harped on enough - it's the only way to truly escape chronic poverty.  The average person in Zambia lives on less than $2 per day, anything above that can make an enormous difference, especially when it comes from a source separate from farming.

The group really tried to promote transparency by collecting money (both for loan repayments and savings) in front of the entire group.  Keeping detailed records, as seen here, is the cornerstone to their transparency efforts.

So, I’ve been traveling around and meeting different groups that are involved in VSL.  The response has been great.  To be honest I was coming into the project a little pessimistic, a little biased in a negative light toward their work.  I’ve seen so many groups not work that I had a hard time being open-minded and thinking this may be different.  I’ve been happily mistaken.

Although it is early on (the groups started about 6 weeks ago), they are meeting weekly as they're supposed to, saving regularly, and issuing loans to group members – exactly the way they’re supposed to work!  Here are the basic rules: groups set the amount that each member needs to save (between $1.50 to $6 per week), a member can’t take out a loan until they’ve saved for four weeks, the group sets its own interest rate (typically 10%), a loan user must repay their loan within one month’s time, and when the group would like to withdraw the money they’ve been saving over time (like at a bank) they’re allowed to do so without question.

Made up of 20 members, this group was largely women (17 women to 3 men).  This was great to see.  Typically men are in charge of finances in the village, so to see women taken initiative in this program was wonderful.

During a meeting last week the group we were visiting collected all their loans on the exact day they were due: not one single loan of the seven outstanding went un-repaid.  In total the group collected about $32 in outstanding loans and saved an additional $10 for their coffer.

In another meeting a woman told me she had just been issued her second loan for about $70 because she had successfully repaid her first loan ($16) on-time.  She was planning on using the new loan to buy rice from Tanzania, import it into Zambia, and then sell it to local restaurants.

It's not a lot of money - these loans - but it's something to start with and it has vast potential to grow into something much bigger over time.

The successes I’ve seen have been great, although I’ve noticed a few yellow flags: 

So many of the individuals that we’re working with on this program are mimicking what they’ve seen work before by neighbors.  Many of the women are buying crates of tomatoes and then selling them on the roadside, along with other tomatoes already being sold by their neighbors.  Some are selling bananas in the same manner – small tables of bananas upon bananas dot lengths of roadside.  The list of examples like this goes on and on, and because it’s a big risk to take to sell something outside the norm it doesn't seem too likely to change anytime soon.

The businesses are being invested in with small bits of money – pennies, really.  I’ve taken to calling them “penny businesses.”  One woman I spoke with said she took out a loan for $1.50 and earned $4 after selling tomatoes.  After repaying her loan she remained with about $2.25… not much, but it is something. 

The group and me at the end of the day.

VSLs are a great start for many of these groups.  If nothing else it teaches book keeping and allows the group to function with a singular meaning / focus in mind: financial independence.  But most importantly, the VSL groups are helping to diversify incomes for the women and their families, so that they don’t have to be wholly dependent on one activity for money, which is bound to pay dividends in the long run.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Trashy Side of Zambia

Zambia is a beautiful place,  but some corners of it are just plain trashy.  It’s hard to think that the nation that is home to half of Victoria Falls, incredible forests, endemic species of antelope, and other things that make you say, “Wow!” or “Huh?! That’s incredible!” is also home to piles of strewn about trash.

There are some trash pick-up services in the bigger cities, but not many people use those.  No one enforces where trash (or rubbish as it’s sometimes called – thank you British people) is disposed of, so people throw their bags, bottles, and everything else out the window or doorway.  Sometimes it gets swept up, sometimes blown away by the wind, and sometimes it just gets crushed and pounded into the ground.  I’ve never been able to fully understand why it isn’t disposed of directly into a pit, like what can sometimes be found in villages, but it isn’t.

Kids in the village helping their father burn a pit full of old trash.  It was like watching kids form Lord of the Flies... the burning plastic made for beautiful color variations.

Mainly it gets pounded into the ground and at times it seems like the entire road surface is made up of crushed plastic Fanta bottles.  During the occasions that it is swept up people try to burn it.  That makes for some really wonderful sunsets full of yellows, oranges, reds, and the occasional purple.  You wouldn’t believe how beautiful pollution can be!  I’m not sure why that Native American in the old PSA from before my birth was crying… he should’ve just lit it all on fire, sat back, and watched the amazing hues.

Watch him in his little canoe:

Once I was talking to some travelers from the UK and they commented that they believed Zambia would be the most beautiful country in all of Africa if only the trash wasn’t so easily seen.  Sadly, it’s pervasive.  

Piles and piles of trash can be found in every community (cities, towns, etc.) of Zambia.  Oddly enough, trash in the village isn't all that bad.  Mainly, I think, it's because they don't buy a lot of plastic containers or pre-packaged things.

It’s so pervasive that I once heard a story about a volunteer that threw a bottle out of a car’s window.  When another volunteer asked why they did that, why not hold onto the bottle, the first volunteer responded, “If they don’t care about litter in their own country, why should I?”  Ugh… not the answer I would hope or want to hear.

Not everyone feels so indifferent about the trash situation here – local artists have tried bringing the issue to the public’s attention by creating different sculptures throughout Zambia (namely in Lusaka and Livingstone).  The artists have constructed wire-caged sculptures of rhinos and elephants and then filled their bodies with trash found around town.  Eventually wind and rain work the trash out of the sculptures and what’s left is a half-filled elephant with trash strewn about.  But, I like the idea.  I like it a lot!  Their hearts are in the right place.

Zambia is an incredibly beautiful place full of beautiful and wonderful people, but the trash situation here is gross.  It's unsightly, smelly, and something that I wish would go away rather quickly.

Zambia really is an incredibly beautiful nation, but the trashy side of Zambia sure is ugly beyond belief (I know this is often a problem in a lot of developing nations, but I live here - so, I'm going to complain and write about here).  Even if the trash gives me amazing sunsets it also makes me cringe – mainly during the other 12 hours or so of daylight. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

Into the West - Mysterious Mongu and the Mighty Zambezi

I’ve finally made it to Western Province.  It’s the last of Zambia’s ten provinces for me to visit, and I really wasn’t sure that the day would ever come when I’d finally get here.  You see, Western Province is kind of an enigma.  It’s mysterious in that people don’t just end up here.  No, you go to Western Province for a reason, not because you just happen to end up there.  
The Zambezi River is Western Province's greatest resource and its lifeline.  Forming the Western boundary of Zambia (separating Angola), the Zambezi River provides fish, fertile plains, and transportation routes on its waters.
It’s completely out of the way otherwise.  Western Province lies to the west of the main rail line that divides the country.  Basically, anything to the left of the line on a map is underdeveloped and… out of the way.
My first impression of Western Province was the exact same as everyone that has visited before me: this place is sandy!  Like a beach, the ground of Western is fine sand, which makes it a pain to walk in.  In fact, during the day it was hard for me to take photographs because the sand would reflect the sun's light so brightly.  The photographs shone too brightly.
Western Province is widely regarded as the least developed region of Zambia - for a number of reasons.  However, in recent years the government has put some emphasis on developing the area through the Rural Electrification Project.
The second impression I had of Western is that this place is immensely fascinating.  The Lozi people (a grouping of smaller ethnic groups) largely make up Western and they’re immensely proud.  For a long time they rejected most attempts at investments that weren’t initiated by Lozi people; like multinational grocery stores, businesses owned by Zambians from other provinces, and even adoption of English is a main language of use (I liked this particular aspect - keeping one's mother tongue is a great way to keep one's culture and way of life).
The Lozis are ruled by a King (the rest of Zambia's ethnic groups use chiefs) and each year (except for this year and last year) he holds a ceremony called Kuomboka, which celebrates the Lozi King's movement from the flood plain to his palace on high ground.  This event is celebrated near the end of March / start of April because at this time the Zambezi River will begin to flood - as much as 40 feet in depth - and swell with the rain brought on by the seasonal rains.
Like the Nile River of Northern Africa, the flooding river brings silts that naturally fertilize the soils and create excellent agricultural production in the area.  This is definitely worth celebrating.
This picture, from the internet, shows the Lozi King's barge and it's 100+ paddlers during the Kuomboka Ceremony.
One day, when my work was through for the afternoon, I went to Mongu Harbor.  Fascinating place.  The harbor is really just a canal built into part of the city by way of a dredging machine.  There, long canoes (mainly made of metal) were pulled ashore and loaded up with supplies: Coca-cola, corn flour, clothes, buckets, and other amenities to be taken up-river.  The reason these supplies aren't simply driven in like the method used throughout the rest of Zambia is that the flooded Zambezi makes the dry season roads completely impassable.  Boats and their crews will have to do.
Many of the communities upstream are resupplied through boats like these.  They're long, somehow held together by multi-year old welds, and loaded down with tons and tons of supplies.  Carrying everything from cooking oil to Coca Cola and boots, these transports and the river itself keep people functioning in otherwise far flung communities.
The harbor smelled badly, but was alive with activity.  People from up-river were using smaller wooden canoes to bring in reeds for selling and trading, while people from the harbor were packing boats to reach far out communities with goods.  
Local paddlemen provide a valuable service for goods and for people alike.  Moving swiftly with the current and slowly against it, transportees sometimes make multi-day trips in this manner.
Because of how sandy Western Province is the villagers near to the mighty river are not able to make compressed mud bricks for their homes - like those in the rest of the country do, so those near to the river use reeds to form their huts.  The Zambezi's shores provide these reeds freely and abundantly. 
In many ways the Zambezi River seemed to act not only as Western Province's main lifeline, but also as its bank, its highway, and its chief problem maker. 
Here, a man paddles his wife and baby down the Zambezi River from, I assume, their village into the nearest town of Senanga.  In the background are two other canoes making a similar trip.
In some areas, HIV rates exceed 20%.  One reason for this (as explained to me by a woman I interviewed for my job) is that local fisherman for a long time were trading freshly caught fish  for sex.  A woman looking to buy her family's nightly dinner was told her money was no good and the only way to get those fish was through trading sex.  What the Zambezi River was giving by way of food was not coming freely - disease was increasing as well.   The woman concluded her explanation of this to me by saying that this practice is not as common anymore, but in some areas it is unfortunately hanging on.  
(She said the HIV education group she works in was able to reduce this practice of trading sex for fish through informing the wives of the fishermen about what their husbands were doing.  Clever women, eh?)
Western Province is full of slowly rusting, yet incredibly reliable Land Rovers.  It was like going to Cuba and seeing all of those old 1950s vehicles is like: a trip back in time.
Western Province is rich in culture and strong in pride.  It was worth the trip to visit and the effort to do some exploring.  I can honestly say that I've been to many of the furthest corners of Zambia and I have never found a place quite like Western Province.  Seeing the Zambezi River is beautiful enough, but at least getting a glimpse of all it gives and rewards its nearby inhabitants was immensely interesting.  It gives, it takes, and it keeps flowing.