Challenges at Work

UK volunteer Jon Campbell writes about his experience working as a business consultant for a woman’s cassava cooperative on the outskirts of Lusaka.

During our first four weeks in Zambia, we UK volunteers have struggled through a series of hurdles, whilst our Zambian friends have stepped over them with their usual ease and barely a break in their rapid conversational tempo. How do you tell where a bus is going? How do you eat nshima? How do you cope with this heat? The one-sided flow of questions in the group often makes it seem as though only half of us are having any sort of problems.

However, there is at least one area in which all volunteers, British and Zambian, are facing considerable difficulties. Our work placements, where  we have been placed in pairs as business consultants for high-potential SMEs, present many challenges. My colleague Sylvester (professional musician, health worker and serial entrepreneur) and I have been partnered with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in order to provide business advice for one of their projects. This is a women’s cooperative in a rural district outside Lusaka, which processes raw cassava into high value products in order to generate a reliable income for its members. It has struggled to maintain output and customers, cannot attract finance and is retreating from previously achievable dreams of expansion.

The challenges here are manifold. A visit to the small processing plant, a bolt of industrial productivity hidden along a dirt road in an area otherwise known for maize and tsetse flies, revealed some of the obstacles to increasing production: a broken water pump, a hammer mill too dangerous to switch on, an ancient cassava presser. The sixty cooperative members walk as far as 15km to work and, when production demands it, stay overnight on the factory floor. The weekly output of these travails may be as little as 25kg of cassava starch, with a shared profit of no more than 150 kwacha (about £12.50). Our task is to formulate a strategy for improving output and incomes.

Our first challenge – the term sitting awkwardly after observing the cooperative’s difficulties – was to identify the major limitations to production. The cassava presser deserves the harshest criticism, producing 25kg of starch from approximately 60 hours of labour. A new presser could feasibly process that quantity in just one hour whilst costing as little as 7500 kwacha (£625). The continued use of the old presser indicates the next challenge – the difficulty of finding a financial institution willing to invest in a rural women’s cooperative, and at an interest rate that won’t compound their cash flow worries (the Bank of Zambia has introduced a 42% cap on microfinance interest rates, but most lenders charge as close to this level as possible). The solution to this challenge will involve plenty of research, ferocious networking and a credible business proposal.

Herein lies our third challenge. With limited financial data available to analyse and a casual pricing strategy currently in place, we may struggle to produce a business plan quantitatively strong enough to attract even the most inclusive or risk-hungry investors. An alternative focus would be to demonstrate increased demand for the cooperative’s cassava products, which are generally held to be of the highest quality. We are thus presented with another challenge of identifying prospective buyers and persuading them to choose the cooperative’s product over others’. An unexpected series of negotiations with import-dependent industrialists, fearful of currency depreciation and seeking replacement Zambian inputs, resulted in positive discussions about sample purchases.

The cooperative is confident that the quality of their cassava products is on a par with commercial rivals, yet without a marketing team or expensive external consultants they lag desperately behind in their efforts to promote awareness of their goods (flour is typically sold in plain or reused sacks). A fifth challenge would be to create a branding strategy that positions the cooperative as a choice provider of high quality cassava goods.

The impression may be of an impossible task with just six weeks left, but this is hopefully just the first phase of the cooperative’s long term and sustainable development. Sylvester and I are confident (hopeless optimism being a key qualification for this programme) that our current progress indicates  we can, to some extent, confront and overcome each of the challenges we face.

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