Here we sit in the middle of nowhere a few kilometres from the mighty Zambezi River. We were enroute from Kalabo to Mongu, a 2-8 hour boat ride depending on your steed. Our planned trip time was 2 hours, but as usual fate had a plan of its own.
After a few minutes of trying to paddle to dry land, the relentless headwind proved its superiority and we parked ourselves comfortably. Wedged into the gently swaying river grasses we began to wait for our rescue boat. However, long before they were scheduled to arrive we hear the put-put-put of another boat that kindly attaches a rope and pull us to the only dry land around, to "George Maxwell’s Palace," a rather bizarre place.
Well it's certainly not a palace in absolute terms, but in the heart of the Zambezi flood plain, far from power, concrete and iron, it kind of looks like a palace of some type.
Apparently it was built in the 1980's by a man with a vision named George Maxwell. He picked a rare piece of land where the Zambezi and the Luanginga Rivers intersect and set up an impressive fishing camp and home. In its heyday it must have been quite a site, but today it is dilapidated and serves as a pit-stop for boat passengers to take a pee or get a snack.
So anyway, by now we were hoping to be pounding the tarmac towards the capital city, Lusaka, but instead we're stranded at this strange rundown island of a fishing camp in the middle of nowhere... but after 9 months in Kalabo, trust me, no delay, no setback and no breakdown could possibly create stress or anger, instead it's relaxing, time to let my mind chase it's tale as a good friend of mine likes to say.
Today I'm thinking about my time in Zambia so far. What have we accomplished and what have I learned? That's the point of me being here, right?
The first thing is that I cannot talk in terms of ‘I’ as our progress in Kalabo has been a collaborative effort between Juraj, Daniel and myself, with lots input and support from Tom and Mike and many others.
If you’ve forgotten, EWB has placed me with PROFIT, a USAID funded development program that uses a private sector approach to strengthen markets in which small holders participate and are likely to benefit from. We are working in partnership with African Parks as the communities are situation in and around a national park.
When we first arrived in Kalabo, we had no office, no vision and no plan. We had a general private sector development theme passed on by PROFIT, the implementing organisation, but there were major questions whether this approach would work in such a remote and un-commercial corner of Zambia.
We started with a general assessment of the area, looking at rural livelihoods and market value chains to determine if there were any areas likely to lead to positive impact for small holders.
We considered numerous areas of work and finally settled on three main objectives:
- To establish private veterinary services for small-scale cattle farmers.
- To encourage traditional craft production and marketing for women’s clubs.
- To enhance and promote the National Park and the community owned services through which locals are likely to gain.
Here part of our work has been in the community, mobilizing farmers and encouraging them to consider investing into proactive health care as many animals are dying. Cattle are the main income source and asset in this area and there are basically no government services, or alternatives for health care. This leaves farmers without any hope of accessing vital vaccines and treatments to keep their animals healthy. The other part of our work has been helping a private Vet establish a business to offer such services to small holders and to coach him through promotions, pricing and costing and some general business development services. Since the small holder market has never been targeted, we buy down some of the initial risks for the vet by covering transport to initial promotions and other non-distorting subsidies and technical advice.
The positive outcomes of our work have been after six months we finally got the program off the ground. Farmers are in contract and paying for services from the vet. The young Vet running the program understands the concept well and is working hard to expand the business. We are piloting a new low cost and high potential expansion model using local vet assistants. Our failures are that the senior vet running the company doesn’t appear to be fully bought into the business and so far they have yet been unable to sell the package to the smallest of the small-scale farmers.
Here part of our work has been around building up women’s club’s production capacity in traditional crafts and the second part has been exploring and linking them with reliable markets with considerable growth potential.
We have been successful in creating relationships and trust with the clubs and identifying reliable and diversified markets. We successfully ran a low cost training to help improve the quality standards of the products. During our first year, the clubs independently funded and built craft shops in the park and profitably sold baskets and other crafts to tourists. This is new money in people’s pockets, but more importantly it has built their enthusiasm and trust in the market. Our failure to date has been in linking these clubs to year round more formal markets for export. In the face of plenty of effort we found there were just too many barriers in terms of production skills and pace, transportation, and trust, to successfully complete orders.
Here our team aimed to work with African Parks to improve the tourism product that is the National Park, we aimed to mobilize resources and people to properly market it and aimed to position community groups and individuals to benefit financially from the tourism activities
Our successes are seen through several specific improvements in terms of a visitor’s center, campsite improvements, staff skills, and community products and services available. We have helped African Parks put forward an active marketing plan with tools such as info packs, a website, magazine articles, a brochure and most importantly a broader marketing strategy to guide future actions. In terms of the community we have helped the community owned campsites reform their management structure to improve the service and make them more profitable for the communities. There are some specific activities that are moving at a slow pace, but generally this has been a very positive and productive work-stream.
In terms of what I’ve learned, I do feel it’s been substantial. I’ve had a very deep rural emersion helping me understand rural livelihoods, rural people and the challenges and opportunities they face. I’ve had a practical development sector immersion helping me learn more about development philosophy, approaches, workers and the general industry. I’ve learned new things about myself both personally and professionally. I expect all of this learning to pay dividends as I continue with my career in development. If you’re interested in the specifics of these lessons, we’ll have to talk it over, over a cold beer or drink!
Anyway, while my time here has come with a lot of uncertainty, today as I sit at George Maxwell’s dilapidated fishing palace, a few things are very clear:
- ● The injustices of our world are unacceptable. An unnecessary gap exists, and through cooperation it can be closed, I’m certain.
- ● I am comfortable with my plan of committing my career and life to driving these changes. I often question it, but today I’m sure.
- ● If you want to cause positive change, your approach is paramount. Development is complex and good intentions and a vision are not enough.
But with a thoughtful approach, with good field workers, creative organizational structures, genuine intentions with coherent actions reinforced by accountability to beneficiaries I believe amazing things are possible.
I can hear our rescue boat in the distance so I better cut this short. Ah it’s good to let one’s mind chase it’s tail.