Saturday, February 28, 2009

Working with DWASCO in Dwangwa, Nkhota-kota

I’m baaaaaaaaaaack!

It feels GOOD to have internet access again! Haha! I was going through withdrawal not having access to email/internet/etc. Paul and I have been on the Dwangwa Estate in the Nkhota-kota district of Malawi since Monday, February 23, 2009 (4.5 days). We had a great experience in Dwangwa though! The Nkhota-kota district is a very rural area of Malawi. The main cash crop harvested in this area is sugarcane. We were travelling to work with a particular SACCO: DWASCO (a hybrid of the words Dwangwa and SACCO). Paul and I initially thought that Dwangwa was a town, so we “google-earthed” it to see if we could find it. When nothing came up, we were a bit concerned thinking that we were going to be headed well into the jungle. It turns out, however, that Dwangwa is not a town; rather, it is a major river that flows through the Nkhota-kota district. We found out later that Dwangwa can be used to describe all areas around the river.

Where we were stationed, there are three major companies that own the land, sugarcane and ethanol operations; Illovo Sugar Company, Dwangwa Sugar Company and the Ethanol Company. The three companies work very well with each other; two own a total of 6,000 hectares of sugarcane crop and harvest it to produce white and brown sugar, and the other uses the left over molasses from the sugarcane company as a byproduct to create ethanol. In the area where we were working, there is what the locals call “the Estate”, which consists of the living area for the locals on the land that the sugar cane and ethanol companies own. About 15,000 people live in the Estate; the majority of which work for one of the three companies.

As I mentioned earlier, we were assigned to work with DWASCO; the local SACCO in the Dwangwa area. Over the past 4.5 days, we worked very closely with Davison; the Manager of the one-branch-SACCO. He was very kind to both Paul and I, and even let us both drive his van! (it is only exciting because in Malawi, you drive on the left hand side of the road!). DWASCO is a very well managed SACCO and has had many years of great success. It is a closed-bond SACCO, servicing the workers at the three companies referenced above. The more Paul and I looked into DWASCO, the more we realized many similarities from our own SACCOs (or credit unions) in Canada. There are some major differences, no doubt; however, many policies and procedures administered in DWASCO exist within the credit unions we work at. We presented our findings at a board meeting yesterday evening. The board was very pleased with our recommendations and invited us to stay for dinner.

Throughout our stay, we experienced many unique things.

1. Driving! Driving in rural areas is an amazing experience. There are people walking or riding bicycles on both sides of the road, carry large items on their head and usually travelling at a slow pace. I mentioned that you are to drive on the left hand side of the road here. Well… when there isn’t traffic coming from the other direction, you are actually supposed to drive in the middle of the road. There is also an expectation for the driver to “honk” at people walking or riding bicycles as to warn them that they are coming. According to Davison, a “honk” has many meanings in Malawi. It can mean “thank you”, “I am coming” or “get out of the way!”; depending on the mood of the driver and the length of honk! Haha!

2. Another type of driving… Driving of the golf ball! The hotel we stayed at had a 9-hole golf course attached to it. From what we could gather, the very wealthy South African owners and managers of the three companies created the hotel for foreign (ie: South African) workers to stay in while they visited the work-sites. There wasn’t much to do at the resort, so on our down-time, Paul and I went out for a round of golf! It is INCREDIBLY hot here; well above 30C when it isn’t raining. We were lucky and ended up golfing on an overcast day… only about 27C above… The hotel we were staying at was pretty nice, but my room was a bit sketchy… There were some strange bugs in it every day and my air conditioner didn’t work well, so it was super hot! Oh well… at least we got to golf! :) I ended up using my headlamp a lot while we walked to and from the restaurant near the hotel. I also used my headlamp the various times the power went out. Davison mentioned that all of Malawi is powered by one station and that when that station has issues, power outages ensue in many districts of Malawi.

3. School Children. Davison took us to visit a school on the Estate. It was an incredible experience! The school that we visited had 2,600 students and 19 teachers to teach them all. That’s a student-teacher ratio of 137:1. Unbelievable! I think the schools I attended had a student teacher ratio of no more than 30:1 all throughout elementary, middle and high school. We presented some gifts to the head master of the school and some gifts to some students. Davison mentioned that many of the public schools in Malawi have similar problems with their schools (ie: not having enough teachers) because the majority of teachers prefer to teach at private schools.

4. Sugar Factory. Davison arranged for us to visit the Illovo Sugar Company factory, which is located about one block away from the DWASCO. Before the tour, I wasn’t really looking forward to it… I figured I knew how sugar was made and that it would be boring. You know… chop up the sugar cane, put it into packages and send it off to the stores, right? Wrong! The tour was about 3.5 hours long, and we ended up stopping early because we had to get back to DWASCO to finish some work! The process is incredibly complex; filled with many stages and gigantic machines! The bulk of the process is done by machine, however so of the machines are still operated manually. Illovo owns 6,000 hectares of sugarcane and processes hundreds of thousands of tons of sugar each year.

5. Fishing Community. Davison wanted to show us a fishing community near the estate, so we packed up one day and made the trek. This fishing community likely consisted of 150 – 200 people, all of whom rely on fishing and selling fish in the markets to make money. The live in huts made with straw and mud and use both conventional and non-conventional boats (ie: hollowed out logs). Davison told us that the fishermen have the most success fishing at night time with lanterns. As we were leaving, something caught Davison’s eye. We walked over to a table, and there sat three “fresh” (although not fresh smelling…) fish, being tied together by someone ready to take them to the market to sell. Davison dickered with the man for about 5 minutes, finally found a price he liked, and bought the fish. One looked like a catfish of some sort and the other two… well… look for yourself! I have no idea what they were, but Davison assured us that they were very tasty and that his wife would be pleased with his purchase!

This morning, we traveled out of the Nkhota-kota district and into the district of Salima. I’m not sure of any towns that we are near, but the hotel we are staying at is the Sunbird Livingstonia Beach Hotel. It is beautiful but quite expensive. I have to say, I feel very guilty staying here after seeing the living and working conditions of the people living in Dwangwa.

We’re headed back to Lilongwe tomorrow afternoon. The next SACCO we will be working with is FINCOOP. We have seen the branch all ready, as the Lilongwe branch is located on the bottom floor of the MUSCO building. That’s all for now!


PS: Here is a picture of Paul and I at the board meeting. We were given gifts at the meeting and we tried them on! The board was such a great group of people! We ate and talked together for hours! They were really interested in Canada; especially the snow. I told them Alberta produced a lot of beef, and they laughed at me. Finally, someone spoke up and asked "how do the cows survive in the winter? Do you build them houses?!?!". When Paul and I nodded our heads "yes" and explained that we build barns for our animals, they roared with laughter! Imagine that... Building shelter for animals! : )

Monday, February 23, 2009

Welcome to Lilongwe

After countless hours of flying, we finally arrived in Lilongwe yesterday (Sunday) afternoon. We collected our luggage at the airport, met Dickson from MUSCCO and were dropped off at our hotel (Sunbird Lilongwe Hotel). The hotel is nice and very close to MUSCCO and FINCOOP; both of which Paul and I will be working with throughout our stay. The other SACCO we will be working with is located in the town of Dwangwa.

The Malawian countryside is beautiful! Everything is so green and lush and there are tropical trees everywhere. Our driver told us that they had not had rain in a couple of weeks but that they were expecting a storm later in the evening. While I was unpacking my suitcase, I witnessed my first Malawian thunder storm. When it rains here, it POURS! The thunder is unbelievably loud and caught me completely off guard! We are in Malawi during the rainy season, so I suspect this won’t be the last thunder storm I will experience. It is very humid and about +25C during the day. It cools off at night time, but the humidity remains, so it still feels very warm.

Work begins today! We are meeting at MUSCCO at 9:00am.

Note: Internet is not as accessible here as it is in Canada, so I likely will not be able to keep my once-a-day-blogging up. Also, depending on the speed of the internet, I might have some difficulty uploading photos. Sorry!


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Hurry up and wait!

We flew all night and arrived at the London Heathrow Airport at 11:15am (London time). Heathrow is a very large and extremely busy airport. I initially wasn’t looking forward to spending 6 hours in the airport, but I changed my mind when we checked into a lobby room. It’s a room filled with couches and comfy chairs, and an “all you can snack/drink” lounge area. There is one service that the operators of this lounge area have missed, however. Free WiFi! It’s nonexistent! I am paying 5.95 pounds to surf the net and update my blog! Come on!

We fly out to Johannesburg tonight at 6pm and arrive at 7:25am tomorrow morning. This flight is going to be a long one… I hope that the plane is fairly empty this time around so I can stretch out a little. Only two flights left until we arrive in Lilongwe, Malawi.

Blog ya later!


SACCO Introduction

Wadriff (shown in the picture to the right) made a very good presentation yesterday about SACCOs. In Wadriff’s presentation, he defined SACCOs as follows:

“SACCO stands for Savings and Credit Cooperative Organization. It is a form of cooperative organization that provides financial services to its members. It is a democratic, member driven, self-help cooperative owned, governed and managed by its members.”

Paraphrasing from Wadriff’s presentation, he went on, explaining that the members of the SACCO agree to save their money together in the SACCO and make loans to each other at reasonable rates of interest. The Banks in Malawi have a reputation for charging exorbitant interest rates and are infamous for hidden service charges and fees. As such, the middle and poor classes in Malawi look to SACCOs for assistance with their financing and personal banking needs. After reviewing other characteristics of SACCOs, it became quite clear to me that SACCOs and Credit Unions exist for many similar reasons. SACCOs are member owned and exist to serve the members by offering a variety of financial services.

What purpose do SACCOs serve and why are they important in Malawi?

Well... SACCO(s):

- allow savings to be mobilized locally and returned to members in the form of loans. The loan money stays and works within the membership and the community.
- interest rates on both savings and loans are generally better than rates given by banks. The reason for this is that SACCOs have lower overhead costs than the banks.

- encourage members to save, which is essential for economic empowerment

- educate their members in financial matters by teaching prudent handling of money, budgeting tips and prudent financial management techniques.

- pay dividends on shares to their members once the SACCO is established and profitable. Members therefore take pride in owning their own SACCO.

- do not raise equity from outside interests. All money is mobilized by members and, as such, the members are more committed to paying back their loans.
- perform a critical and unique function as financial intermediaries. They mobilize significant volumes of personal savings and channel them into small loans for productive and provident purposes at the community level.

Upon concluding his presentation, Wadriff recommended a variety of areas we should spend some time on while we are working with our assigned SACCOs in Malawi. Board governance and financial management seem to be very common and contentious issues amongst SACCOs world wide. I suspect Paul and I will likely be spending some attention in these areas while we work with our SACCOs in Malawi.

Hopefully this serves as a basic introduction to SACCOs in Malawi. I will bring you up to speed with any new information I come about.


Goodbye Toronto… Hello London!

As I write this, I am thousands of feet above land, hurdling through the air in a gigantic metallic object filled with hundreds of other people. I have just finished eating the dinner, which consisted of diced beets, a pre-packaged bun, a meat concoction of some sort and a blueberry desert bar. This meal reminds me of a story my brother-in-law Silas told me. On a flight to London, he had a similar experience with a poor meal and was forced to endure a 7 hour plane ride, bathing in the grotesque scent. I have two things in common with everyone else on this airplane: 1. We all smell like beet salad, and 2. We are all travelling to the London Heathrow Airport. On my journey to Lilongwe, Malawi, I will be stopping in many cities I have not been to before. London is the first!

Today (Friday) has been a very long day. Both the Malawi and Uganda teams met together this morning and afternoon for a variety of presentations. One presentation that stood out was a presentation regarding the gender issues that exist in Malawi. We discussed the roles women play in society and the alarming rate of domestic abuse that occurs in the country. One statistic that stood out from the rest unsettled me: In Malawi, there are 5 women infected with the HIV virus for every 1 infected male (in other words, a 5 women to 1 man HIV ratio). Wadriff (a CCA staff member from Uganda) mentioned that the HIV rate has come down significantly over the past 10 years; however it still remains a very big issue. I thought I had a fairly thorough understanding of the HIV issues in Malawi, however the more we talk about it, the more unsettled I become.

We wished Team Uganda “goodbye” today. I was sad to see them go. It was nice getting to know the 6 of them. If you are interested in following Team Uganda on their journey throughout Uganda, you can do so by following Charlie Collura’s blog. The link to his blog can be found on the links section of my blog.

We welcomed another member to Team Malawi today: Monique. We all went for dinner together at the Golden Griddle and then traveled to the airport. Speaking of Team Malawi, I realize I have yet to officially introduce the team on my blog.

Malawi team: Brad and Bruce; Nicki and Dennis; Robert and Paul; and Monique.

- Brad is the VP of Branch Services of Wainwright Credit Union, based out of Wainwright, Alberta.

- Bruce is the General Manager of Lafleche Credit Union Ltd, based out of Lafleche, Saskatchewan.

- Nicki works with Credential, based out of Vancouver, British Columbia

- Dennis is the General Manager of Lowe Farm Credit Union Ltd, based out of Lowe Farm, Manitoba.

- Paul is the Administration Manager of OMISTA Credit Union, based out of New Brunswick

- Monique works with the CCA and lives in Ottawa, Ontario.

This entry is getting far too long and the gentleman beside me seems to be growing increasingly impatient with the clicking of keys, so I think I’ll stop here. I have been working on some commentary about SACCOs for my next entry, so stay tuned!


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Second Day in Toronto

Today was a great success! I woke up on time (well… almost), bundled up in what little winter clothing I brought with me and battled the elements on my way to Bay/King Street. 130 King Street is where the Toronto Stock Exchange is located, and visiting the TSX happened to be on my "things to do while in Toronto" list. It was about 15 – 20 blocks away from my hotel and took me about a half hour to walk there, but it was well worth the trek! As I approached the TSX, I happened to look up and noticed a very intriguing sight. At a street corner on King Street, there were four chartered banks (Royal Bank, Scotia Bank, CIBC and TD) on each of the four street corners. These weren’t just ordinary branches; rather, these buildings gigantic, stretching on for what seemed like blocks. It was a tremendous sight to say the least. I took photos, but they just don't do the sight justice. This is something you have to see for yourself to appreciate the magnitude of these buildings. The TSX was a very cool building. In fact, many buildings in the downtown core of Toronto have a very distinct look to them. The architecture is a hybrid of the very old, tradational-looking buildings mixed with new, conventional architechtural additions. On Bay Street and King Street, just as I expected, I saw a wave of very professional looking people speed-walk, J-walk and stress-walk to work. Everyone seems to be on a mission and everyone seems to be in a very big hurry. Seeing this made me very happy I work in a much more laid-back environment in Lethbridge. On my way home, I approached a subway and attempted to use the subway to get back to the hotel. When I saw how many people were packed into each subway car, I changed my mind, and started on my 20 block journey back to the Ramada. It worked out in the end, as I passed by Ryerson University and took a quick “self-tour” of the University before returning to the hotel.

We had a very interesting morning of training today. David Mhango attended our meeting and presented to “Team Malawi” an introduction to Malawi. David is from Malawi and now lives in Canada. His presentation was very informative and he gave us plenty of opportunity to ask questions throughout. He provided us with maps of Malawi and a couple of pages of popular phrases translated from English to Chichewa – another dominant language in Malawi. It’s a great sounding language! Here are a couple of phrases I will likely be using on a regular basis:

Hello – Moni

How are you? – Muli bwanji?

Thank You – Zikomo

M I had many questions in regards to Dwangwa - a small town Paul and I will be visiting while in Malawi. We couldn’t find the town on the map David provided us, which concerned me somewhat… David mentioned that Dwangwa is a small town near Lake Malawi, and that we need to make sure we wear a lot of mosquito repellent. It is not that far of a drive from Lilongwe (which is Malawi’s capital city) and it has a population of about 2,000 – 3,000 people. Paul and I will be working with a local SACCO for 3 days and then traveling back to Lilongwe to work with FINCOOP for the remainder of our trip. Hopefully we will be able to stop in Salima for a night before traveling back to Lilongwe. David told us that there is a great Game Reserve located in Salima and that we will likely see a lot of wildlife! He said we may see elephants, giraffes and monkeys of various shapes and sizes. He also mentioned that we may come across hippos and some large lizards in Salima. That would be incredible!

Our session with David ended and we broke for lunch. I spoke with Wadriff (who is originally from Uganda) over our lunch hour about Malawian history. Wadriff is from Uganda and works with the Canadian Cooperative Association. He drew me a map of Africa and walked me through the history of the Bantu tribe. From what I recall, Europeans were travelling past Africa when they became ship wrecked in what is now known as Cape Town, South Africa. They drove the Bantu tribe north where an epic battle took place. According to Wadriff, the Bantu tribe was separated as a result of this war; a portion of the people migrated to what is now known as Malawi and a portion of the people migrated to what is now know as Tanzania and Uganda. As the majority of the people living in these nations are decedents of the same tribe, they get along very well and even speak similar-sounding languages. He mentioned that Bantu decedents are pleasant by nature and were traditionally farmers. He did a great job of explaining this to me and drew me a wonderful picture as he explained!

Our afternoon session ended early, so Bruce, Brad and I decided to go check out the Hockey Hall of Fame on Yonge Street. What a great experience! My Father is a dedicated Habs fan and, as such, I grew up learning to love the Habs. I learned a lot about the history of the Montreal Canadian’s today and took a many pictures! I even sat in the Montreal Canadian locker room today and tried on Patrick Roy's goalie pads. It takes blogger a long time to upload photos, so I will have to share those ones with you when I get back to Lethbridge.

Tomorrow we have another speaker coming in to discuss gender roles in Malawi, and discuss the Malawi/Uganda financial services industry (specifically, the role SACCOs serve in these countries) in more detail. I am looking forward to this next training session and hope it will be very informative. For my next blog entry, I will take some time to define SACCOs and the very important roles they serve in developing nations.

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions or comments, post them on the blog along with your email address, and I'll get back to you when I am able to. Thanks for reading!