Sunday, January 23, 2011

African Businessman

I'm going to give you a profile of one of our champion agents, and one of the people that makes me believe Zambia can make it and that I should be a part of that. You are reading this from your "Ivory Towers" in cities of your respective countries, not understanding what it's like to be here and do this work. I can say that without offending and with full confidence of it's truth because I live here and work with him and people like him every day, yet only get glimpses of "what it's like" which make me realize how much I don't know. I had a meeting with him today and was intending on ripping a strip off him for poor performance, partly because he dropped the ball on a few things, but largely because I had forgotten the good things he's done and what it's like to be him for a day. By the end of the meeting I was holding back tears and had resolved to help him.

He doesn't have the tools and skills to get what he needs. I called his manager and asked, "Why can't you give him a bigger float?" and he replied "What gain will his business make from this investment? We have limited money to invest so we have to put it where we get the biggest returns" I responded to him that we will make a proposal and get back to him. When I hung up I knew exactly what kind of proposal was needed to get money. My friend had no idea. This isn't his fault but is the result of only completing gr.12 in a shitty education system. Does anyone want to invest in a small business? Loans in increments of $100?

This is Edwin Nglube. He got a job for a mobile finance company and was sent to work in Katete, which speaks a slightly different language than he knows. He thought he was going for 7 days so packed his bag accordingly. When he sat down on day 1 a manager said "If these guys are going to be here, I want them to be here, not constantly running back to Lusaka to see girlfriends". We replied "No problem, these guys will be living here and are here full time, isn't that right Edwin?" Could you imagine what it's like to get that shocker, two pairs of underwear, one pair of trousers and you're now in your new home. What was his response? "Yes". Did he complain after the meeting saying "Oh shit guys, I thought I was going to be here for 7 days, I still have all my stuff in my rented place in Lusaka"? No. I didn't know he thought he was coming for 7 days until 2 months in. He picked up the different dialect and worked his ass off in the field, 6 days a week, until he was told (not really asked) that he was no longer going to be a field worker but was going to take over the Katete agent shop. He loved field work, but took this job because he had to. He signed a new contract decreasing his pay from 800,000/month to 500,000/month. My hefty volunteers stipend is 2,300,000/month, just for reference. His decrease in pay is partly due to paying off his loan on the champion agent shop. He paid off 250,000 of the 15,000,000 owed. I sat down with him and asked him how long it would take at that rate to pay off his total loan. 5 years. He just got married and owes 3,500,000 as a marriage fee to her parents. He took out a 500,000 loan from me and has repaid 133,000/month out of his 500,000 salary to me for the last 2 months. Of course he's not just an agent doing regular stuff, it's Zambia and we're a start up so he does a lot more, without being paid of course. When shit hit the fan with a project, he was fielding calls from the customer company staff, who visit him instead of the actual agent next door, he also got calls from the real agent and from me. When it was resolved I got thanks from management for a job well done and he got thanks from just me. During this, completely on his own initiative, he got on the back of a bike taxi and journeyed to the prison, not a favourite location for Zambians to visit, and plead with the police, not great people to plead with, to let him talk to the guy who was supposed to be running the agents shop. After several trips he managed a miracle and the police brought the prisoner (aka voucher agent) to the shop to let Edwin try to work. Until then Edwin had been operating remotely out of a restaurant in town. I told him to go around town and source all the food in the voucher package and get back to me. He did that very well and was able to act as the secondary voucher agent, only to find out that we added him as a voucher agent and removed him as a regular agent, oh yeah, he's a regular agent too, so he called us and we fixed his status, then some beneficiaries came and he used his 1,500,000 cash float to run around buying salt and flour for these guys and then redeem their voucher which were supposed to be worth 104,000 but were still only 100,000 which is less than it cost to buy all those goods... He deposits money for other agents, trains voucher agents, trains other agents, pays local casual workers and distributors, rides a bike taxi to the bank 5,000/trip and about an hour of his time, then photocopies his deposit slip, comes back to town, scans it at the computer shop (for a fee) and emails it to South Africa to get the money credited in his account. Then waits at a broken ATM that sometimes has 800,000 limits and pays 10,000/withdrawal to get back to his shop full of angry customers who have been waiting for him, only to process their transactions which empties his float sending him back on the same journey again.

I'm not saying this is a terrible situation and we're in the wrong, I'm definitely not saying this is a good situation. I'm just saying that this is the reality for our key people and it's very difficult. To me it's no wonder he invents ways to make his business work like borrowing money from people or other agents (but instead of being rewarded, he's worried about being caught for doing something he shouldn't have to do in the first place). I've worked with him since March. He's 24, newly married, hard working, smart and trustworthy. He told me he almost quit when he found out his new pay was 38% less than he was getting for doing something he enjoyed more. It sucks that I could easily imagine him stealing his float and running away. But he won't.

Rich Parents

I read that having rich parents makes a child more likely to become rich, not because they have access to better schools, etc. (although I still think that stuff may help) but that the "norms" for those kids are different. They expect and demand more. This was true for me attending an expensive private school. There was an expectation that we should all go to university, and not just do something, but something respectable. I wouldn't/couldn't have dreamt of being a plumber or welder, even though they are fine jobs. I was thinking about this when I was newer in Zambia, how ridiculous it was that the bus station was so disorganized and how all it took was effort and organization, not money, and things would be faster, more efficient. Well that is true for a lot of things in Zambia and I think I know why they exist now! Coming from our culture, a rich place where there is so much emphasis on easy and fast, things are often easy and fast. We EXPECT them to be and get upset when they aren't, then hopefully wonder why they're not fast and easy and then even more hopefully get some motivation to make things better. This process doesn't happen with Zambians in the same situations as it does for us. And that's a big reason why things are different, slower, harder and sometimes less efficient.

"I'll pay for a tractor but an ox should be free"

There is a major difference between a tractor and oxen. Yes , one's an animal and is much cheaper/weaker, etc. but all things equal, there is one important difference. Fuel. A tractor consumes a certain amount of fuel for every hour it's working, and more importantly, a certain amount in kwacha worth or fuel. No one can ask you to plough their field for free, because there is no such thing as "free" with a tractor, ever. It is a business machine and if someone wants work done, they must pay for it. In reality an oxen is the same thing, there is no such thing as free with an oxen, but because the cost is more of a fixed cost, people don't see why they should pay for it. "If my brother isn't using his oxen this morning, why can't I just borrow it for 3 hours, it won't cost him anything?"

This important difference between fixed and variable costs allows people to use tractors to earn money where they might otherwise not with an oxen.

Cheap is Expensive

It's funny because Zambians know this, they say this and yet they don't heed their own warning. That's not actually true, often they justify buying something a little more expensive because they know it will last, like a plough from Zimbabwe instead of a locally made one. I on the other hand don't always remember how true that is. The rule is that if you want something cheap, find the cheapest model on the market and then buy at least one level up from that. I bought a small camera from Canada for here, it was $79.99 from Future Shop. When it does work, which isn't often it doesn't work well. It hasn't worked for about 1 month now and it's only a few months old.

Unfortunately, the Zambian government is no where near as smart as Zambians themselves. A good example is an intersection near my friends house. He lives in the richest area of Lusaka and I was driving there one day. I was supposed to turn left on Reedbuck Rd. but didn't see the intersection and flew through it at 50km/hr. When I turned around and made the turn I noticed that not only did I not see the intersection, but I didn't realize it was a 4-way stop. I didn't realize this because 2 of the stop signs had been stolen or fell over and hadn't been replaced. I said "That's going to cause an accident and the damage will be way more than the cost to replace those signs." Just after Christmas I heard a screech, the sound of glass breaking and then lots of yelling.

An SUV driven my a mzungu slammed into a minibus. Of course maybe only the mzungu was wearing a seatbelt, but fortunately there were only minor injuries. I looked at this and thought about how quickly a stop sign would have been replaced in Canada and how slowly, if ever it would be replaced here. The government saved a bit of money and its people lost a lot. Sometimes we don't realize how lucky we are in Canada.

Mozambique Stories

Warning, these stories involve people being shot at and exploded by bombs.

I've got a friend here, he's 22, and one of my only friends who's around my age. It's nice because he's at a totally different stage in life than most of the Zambians I know. He's trying to find a career, but he needs to try a few different things first. One of those things was gem trading between Mozambique and Zambia. I don't know if it was illegal or not, but either way it wasn't as serious as some of our neighbouring country's blood diamond trade. Anyways he would go to Mozambique, find some stones, buy them and bring them back to sell, probably in the capitol Lusaka. Not diamonds or emeralds, but semiprecious stones like amber and stuff.

He had been a few times before and was starting to get the hang of things, but so were the Mozambiquans…
"They don't want to do a straight deal with you. They want to get your money and then get the item they sold you back. As soon as they figure you out that's when they start plotting. We had just made the deal, I had given them the money and my backpack was filled with stones. I was sitting on the floor when my friend came up and said 'I don't think it's good to be here.' As soon as he said that there was a knock at the door and it was the police. They were working with the stone dealers to get everything from me. What they do is just take your stuff and throw you in jail and don't tell anyone and you just become a missing person."

This is true for Zambian prisons and probably for much of Africa, if you go to prison for very long, you won't survive, or will die of disease soon after leaving.

"I just grabbed my backpack and started running, I didn't even have time to put my shoes on. As soon as I got outside that's when I started hearing bullets flying around me. I ran down the hill and into the bush." Not a physical bush, but "The Bush" the same term we have in Canada for virgin land without people. "I think it must have been about 100km walking before I reached Zambia. I just walked through the bush the whole time, just coming to the road sometimes at night to buy some food or drink water. It took about 7 days because I got lost for a while."

Red Mercury

If you don't know what "Red Mercury" is, take a minute and look it up. It's a fictional substance that lots of uneducated people don't know is fictional and lose thousands of dollars on it. They think you can extract it from bombs and sell it for tens of thousands of dollars per mL. Mozambique has lots of bombs and land mines from their wars so there is a trade in undetonated bombs. There is of course two parallel trades, one in fake bombs to idiots and one in real bombs to complete idiots. I'll tell the story as from my friends perspective.

"He bought a bomb, it was about the size of a watermelon and very heavy. He was told not to open it because it would explode, of course he planned on opening it to get the Red Mercury to sell. He brought it back all the way from Moz. and paid ZMK10,000,000 ($2,000) for it. He carried it on his left side, held as far away from himself as his arms would allow, even on the minibus. People asked him "Are you very okay?" and he'd just say "Yes" and keep carrying it like that. When he got it back here we sat down and opened it. As soon as he started to pull it apart he herd something fall inside of it. He slammed it closed and smiled 'Did you hear that? That's it!" I told him to keep opening it and he did…Inside was a very old clock. Not only was it not a real bomb, but it wasn't even a working clock. He lost everything and now had to work for the people he borrowed the money from to pay it back"

"My friend took the bomb he just bought to the place where they open bombs. They were going to use a grinder and open it. Everyone was really excited, but I told him I don't think it's a good idea to grind open a bomb. He and another guy were too excited to see what's in it so they decided to grind it open right here and now. I told them that I didn't think it was safe so I'm going to stand away. I went a ways back and they started grinding the bomb. After a few minutes they had removed some parts and that's when it went off. I just heard the explosion and saw the flash and then the three of them were lying on the ground there. My friends intestines were coming out and he was trying to put them back with his hands. I went up to him and he just looked at me and didn't know what to say so he said nothing. I didn't know what to say either so I didn't say anything. They all died right there."

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Technology starts slowly

Technology isn't easier than whatever it's intended to replace when it comes out, it's just novel. I'm realizing that with Mobile Transactions. What happens is that you adapt yourself so that the technology forms an essential part of your life. We come from Canada and see everyone here carrying around cash in their pockets, keeping it in a tin can under their beds and think how much easier it would be if they were like us and used bank cards and ATMs. The fact is that right now, for most people, using our technology takes more time and effort than if they just did what they've always done. Hence the resistance/slow uptake.

When the internet or cell phones came out they were neither vital nor easy to use. Of course now they are both. Actually, airplanes and cars are probably better examples. Airplanes were slow and dangerous and cars were slow, couldn't travel on rough terrain like a horse, got flat tires and needed to constantly be refilled with fuel. Of course now, people only ride horses for pleasure, and it would be ridiculous to think "I'm in a hurry, I should take my horse to save time!" One day I'm sure it will be the same and people will think it's an inconvenience when they have to use cash because the electronic system is down…one day.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

School fees school fees

It's f'ing ridiculous that people are struggling to pay for school fees. RIDICULOUS!!! The heck with dependency syndrome and the rest of it. Someone that is smart and hard working and makes it to gr. 11 should be able to finish the last 2 years. What's even more ridiculous is that I even write that someone that is smart and hard working should be able to make it. Everyone should be allowed to complete school if they want to, it's ridiculous that someone should have to be a star just to get something that is so friggin' basic. It's $90 for tuition for a year, and I spent $90 on a DVD set…a new Kayak is over $1,000 (11 years school fees).

There is a woman sweeping here who was talking with me saying "My english isn't very good, I went to gr.7, I was smart, but my parents couldn't afford to send me to school so I had to stop. That's why I'm working here, to pay for my 2 children's school fees. But last year I couldn't afford to pay, my daughter should be in gr.11 right now but she's just sitting at home". She's hoping that I'll help her pay. I totally can but I won't. I want to spend my money on hang gliding when I get home and now feel pretty shitty about that. After pausing and hinting, she realizes that I'm not going to help and says "Anyways, God will help me. If I pray HARD." Because if she only prays and doesn't pray hard, then her children don't deserve to go to school.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Victoria Falls

So sorry for not writing for so long. I've had time, I just haven't had the motivation,despite polite reminders from friends. I'm starting easy, this is something steph and I wrote about our New Years weekend.

Hey there!
This weekend, Ben and I went to Victoria Falls. We didn’t stay long, only 2 days, but it was incredible! I had been looking forward to seeing the falls ever since we found out we were coming to Zambia, and they were even more magnificent than I’d imagined.

The first day, we went to Devil’s Pool – a small pool at the top and very edge of the falls. First you get picked up at The Royal Livingstone, where you are brought to Livingstone Island, where David Livingstone was taken to first view the falls in a dugout canoe. Upon seeing the falls Livingstone said "Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight." While boating to the island you pass hippos munching on grass, and crocs munching on tourists; there are often elephants too. You then have to hold hands and walk across waist deep strong flowing water (only about 15m above the falls). The guide turns to us and said, “You are strong swimmers right?” and we all laughed and then he said, “okay, now jump in and swim hard to that rock” (about 20m away across swift current)…I just kept thinking that old people do this so I should be able to and we jumped in and swam hard. We then reached the Devils Pool (see below).

Once at Devil’s Pool, you have to go against all instinct and JUMP “as high and as far as you can” towards the edge of the falls into a small pool of water. There are sharp rocks below the entry point so you have to clear them to make it into the pool. There is a submerged rock wall that holds you at the top, but you can’t see it until you are touching it. Also half of the Devils pool is “open” meaning that there is no wall and you can’t see where it ends.

We jumped in and floated towards the end and Ben clung onto the rock wall and we posed for pictures while water was rushing over and down 100m beneath us. You can actually look over the top while you cling desperately to this rock wall. It’s actually very safe, but it is SO scary, it really feels like at any moment you could be washed up over the edge. Don’t let our smiles in the photos fool you – we were terrified!

Don’t worry, we’re safe – the guy taking the pictures has a throw rope ready a few feet away from him…

Devil’s Pool from a distance

We spent the afternoon at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, a beautiful, colonial hotel right on the edge of the river at the top of the falls. It had perfectly manicured lawns, its own herd of zebras, and staff dressed like safari porters, giving it the feel of David Livingstone’s exploration camp-turned hotel. There was even someone galloping a horse across the lawn when we arrived.

The next day (New Year’s Day), we went rafting on the Zambezi. The first half of the trip has most of the BIG rapids, and the water is getting higher every day, so they can only do these runs for another few weeks, then it gets too dangerous. We went for a full day – 25 rapids, about 35km of river. What a trip! I lost count of how many class 5 rapids we did. Class 5 is defined as “Exceedingly difficult, long and violent rapids, following each other almost without interruption; riverbed extremely obstructed; big drops; violent current; very steep gradient; close study essential but often difficult. Requires best person, boat, and outfit suited to the situation. All possible precautions must be taken.” As a result all my muscles are sore from paddling and holding on and swimming and pulling other people in and trying to keep my balance and not drown.

One of the biggest rapids is #4 -Morning Glory, and we flipped our raft on that one. It was HUGE!!! We came into it, then everyone got down and held on for dear life, and it all seemed to go in slow motion for me at that point.

The raft was perpendicular to the water, and we were all thrown out into the white water. After a bit of a struggle and a big gulp of water, I saw the orange of the bottom of the raft and no other people around. There was a little pocket of air under there, so I took a big gulp of it and found my way out. Ben managed to scramble instantly back onto the now upside down raft and was trying to keep everyone calm and speed up our recovery, but wasn’t succeeding because he didn’t actually know how to recover an overturned raft. We spent the next 150m of the river upside down trying not to get sucked into whirlpools. It was scary, but also so exhilarating – especially once we flipped and knew the worst of it was over.

For the second half of the day, we had a different group with us. At first glance, Ben and I thought these guys are going to be great – they were all pretty big, muscular guys, looked like they wanted to hit the big rapids. They couldn’t have been worse! They couldn’t paddle at all, and they would get tired and stop, or not follow directions and paddle forwards when they were supposed to paddle backwards, and duck into the boat and hold on when we needed to maneuver around something – we barely made it around one huge hole that eats rafts because of them. Our guide told Ben and me later how he was a bit scared because of them! Anyways, everything was still fine, and it was a great day. It’s amazing how different “big water rapids” are to the water and rapids at home. Whirlpools are the biggest difference and can suck an entire kayak underwater for several seconds. It’s the most common way to drown, because people get sucked down and put their arms up to swim up and their life jacket gets pulled up and off and that’s the end. At the start we saw two people going “River Boarding”; you get a little body board and flippers and we met up with them a few rapids down the morning section, both inside a raft on their backs, tears streaming down the girls face.

That being said, there were probably 100 people on the river that day, which means thousands every year, and people only die every couple years. There was a section where Ben and I were swimming (on purpose) through Class II rapids, nothing major, and it was fine, then all of a sudden I was sucked under the water in a whirlpool – Ben said he felt my helmet at his waist level – then I just felt Ben grab my arm and pull me up! The water got slow and calm again and the whirlpools were wide and slow and we all laughed as we circled round each other knowing the danger was over. We were very far from our boat talking with some white Zimbabweans when their guide yelled “Crocodile! Get in the boat” we thought they were joking at first and then they pointed to the croc the spotted and we instantly became Olympic swimmers and got to the raft in no time! The crocs there aren’t huge, so it wasn’t really a big deal, but when you’re in the middle of a river and someone’s yelling “croc!” at you, you move. Apparently, crocs get washed over the falls, and the big ones don’t make it but the little ones do, so on this part of the river, there are only a few small crocodiles. Also, according to our guide, even elephants and hippos sometimes get swept up by the current and go over the falls! There is a big eddy where the bodies collect and villagers go down to collect meat and teeth.

Even though it was terrifying at times, I would do it again. Besides the thrill of the rapids, it was some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. The huge cliffs and the trees and the black rocks and the river – I can’t even tell you how beautiful it was. The great part about the river is that it’s a ‘pool and drop’ river – you get a section of rapids, but then a nice section of calm where you can collect yourself again and enjoy the landscape around you. What an incredible day.
We left Livingstone that night, and are back in Lusaka today. Tomorrow I go back to Katete. Already I want to go back to Livingstone to see the falls, go rafting, and maybe do the gorge swing this time.
Anyways, thought I’d just write you and tell you about our weekend, and give you a couple photos. So far 2011 is going well for us…
Love you, talk to you soon, Happy New Year!

Steph & Ben