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Student Voice - Zambia - 2017

Georges Batoussi
Georges

In the summer of 2017, I traveled to Lusaka, Zambia to intern at Bayport Financial Services, a microfinance institution in the midst of transitioning into a full-fledged bank. Before arriving in Zambia, I was a little unsure about what to expect. I had spent the prior summer interning in Ghana but I did not want to come in with expectations based solely on my experiences in West Africa as this was a completely different region of the continent. Nonetheless, there were certain things that I was sure I would find, for example, rampant inequality. Many African countries today are experiences stages of growth in which middle classes are burgeoning oftentimes in very near proximity to the working poor and those living below the poverty line. The day after I arrived, A fellow IAD intern and I ventured into town where we saw just this: streets with unpaved sidewalks and markets that resembled urban slums were merely minutes away from fast-food restaurants such as KFC and Hungry Lion. I also had certain expectations about what Zambia’s culture would be like based on my background coming from a Togolese family; some of the aspects of the culture seem to be universal across Africa. From seeing laborious and hard-working women with kids wrapped up and secured on their backs in African cloth, to even eating meals with your hands, certain things just seemed to be common regardless of the country or region of Africa you’re from. One of the first things that I was surprised to experience after my arrival was an upscale restaurant that mainly only sold nshima, the staple food in Zambia. This was surprising to me as the restaurant took the main food in Zambia, something that was extremely widespread and cheap, and made it into a high-class meal, marking the price up significantly. Somehow though, this niche market seemed to be working well for them.

After a one week orientation to the Zambian language, culture, and traditions at the Southern African Institute of Policy and Research (SAIPAR), I started my internship at Bayport Financial Services. During my time at Bayport, I completed a rotational internship that began in the Operations department. In this department, I conducted loan issuance, refinanced loans for clients and worked on the mobile sales team. In Zambia, very few people have asset-backed loans. Instead, loans are payroll-based and installments are deducted from the workers’ payslips each month. As I worked in loan issuance, what struck me was just how many running loans many of our clients had on their payslips. It highlighted the importance of having capital in this economy. I believe taking a loan out is a great idea if you are planning to invest the money into something that will pay off, such as education, a plot of land, or a car for you to start your own taxi business. Unfortunately, it appeared as though many people sought out loans just because they lacked money to get by in their day-to-day lives. This ultimately came back to haunt them as these installments were deducted from their payslips monthly and they saw themselves with even less money coming in month after month. I also found working in refinancing to be quite interesting; we would offer clients who had running loans from other banks or microfinance institutions the opportunity to pay off their loans on their behalf. We would then offer them loans at Bayport with lower fixed interest rates. This ultimately benefited the consumer as many of them had loans from institutions with “low” floating interest rates that would fluctuate as the economy started doing poorly. Following my time in Operations, I moved onto the Credit Risk Management department. During this rotation, one of my jobs was to analyze client affordability and to reach out to TransUnion, a massive international credit bureau, to analyze the credit risk of potential clients.

My last and favorite rotation was the newest department at Bayport – the Deposit Taking Unit. During this rotation, I was heavily involved on sales, both institutional clients such as MAMCo, Zambia’s largest asset manager, as well as high net worth sales clients and general consumer sales. Bayport had memorandums of understanding with many businesses and institutions including the Zambian government itself, allowing many of our clients to be teachers, military personnel, and government ministry workers. My time in the field is where I believe I had the largest impact. Being able to pitch a savings account product with no hidden fees that was beneficial both to the company I was working at as well as the clients themselves was a unique feel-good experience that I aim to continue to achieve as I pursue a career in investment banking or private equity on the African continent. My sales pitches of the savings products that Bayport offers will surely have a tangible impact on the development of the Zambian economy. Even if just one person that I convinced to save continues to save a bit each month, in the long-term, I will have drastically shifted the trajectory of someone’s life. Furthermore, if this person tells a friend who subsequently tells a friend, an entire culture of savings will quickly be created in a community, leading to more investment and more development throughout the economy. One of my major takeaways from my time in Zambia, and at work specifically, was learning about how reliant Zambia’s economy is on copper production. In my off time, I would oftentimes research the rampant devaluation of Zambia’s currency, the Kwacha (ZMW), that was caused in part by the economic downturn that ensued when world copper prices plummeted in 2015.

Outside of my time at work, I had many interesting interactions but two stand out more than the others. The first involved a miscommunication by the immigration officer when I initially entered the country. He ultimately gave me the incorrect visa. As a result, I was sent to various offices in Lusaka when it came time for visa renewal and I was even advised to leave the country, let my visa expire, and come back in on a new visa. I did just that during my trip to Livingstone on a long holiday break and was almost not let back into the country. What surprised me about this experience is that at each and every office I went to in Livingstone, and in Lusaka, they told me something different in terms of the procedure I should take; the takeaway was that there appeared to be very little communication and standardization of law across the different offices, even though they were all under the same Department of Immigration. Another observation that stood out to me began when I went on my aforementioned trip to Livingstone where I was able to experience Victoria Falls. It was interesting to observe just how expensive things were in this city. Many restaurants even had dollar denominated prices which were expensive for the average American or European. This effect is only exacerbated when dealing with the native Livingstone population and the exchange rate between the Zambian Kwacha and the U.S. Dollar.

I’ve been extremely blessed to be given the opportunity to work in Zambia this past summer. I learned a great deal in the workplace and engaged in a culturally enriching experience each and every day. I really appreciated the community-like feeling that could be felt throughout the country, especially on the packed buses.  I’ve noticed one large limitation about American culture is its lack of familiarity. It’s almost frowned upon to strike up a conversation with a random person on a bus, and there certainly isn’t the element of trust and community unity in the U.S. as there is in Zambia and many other African countries. All in all, I am beyond grateful to have been awarded the opportunity to work at Bayport this summer through the Institute of African Development and I will surely reference many of my experiences during this time as I continue down my career path in developmental economics and finance on the African continent.