I stepped off the bus in Nyimba and looked around at the dusty, little town. Vendors greeted me with trays of mangoes and bananas held out for me to peruse. After squeezing through the crowd of vendors, my colleague and I sought shelter under a big tree near the bus station. We ventured six hours from Lusaka to the Eastern province to learn about the clients we would work with at Rent to Own (RTO). Before learning anything, we really just had to pee! After all, six hours is a long time! We walked over to the washrooms, but to our disappointment, there was a fee per use. The fee was probably $0.05, yet I resented the idea of paying any amount to use a washroom. So, we retreated back to the cool shade of the big tree.
You could hear the rumble of an engine as a white flat-bed truck adorned with a recognizable orange Rent to Own logo drove in. In the truck, we met Raston, the Field Manager in Eastern Province who would take us to meet our village stay families.
It was a long road from Petauke’s main strip to get to the farm. I stayed with Grandmother and Granddad, two of their daughters (Gladys and Monica) as well as nine of their grandchildren. The girls were Doro, Agnes and Joyce. The boy were Innocent, Gift, Daniel, Steven, Daryso, and Issac. They motioned for me to sit on a small stool outside the brick house and greeted me with a BIG mug (maybe 500ml) of munkoyo, a cold beverage made from maize meal. It had a sour taste and was the consistency of watered-down porridge. I was wary of the water used in the drink, but politely took a few sips to please my new hosts.
The family spoke Nyanja as well as Bemba. The kids were shy, but politely knelt down as they greeted me with a hand shake. Handshakes here are more like a secret handshake from your childhood. I awkwardly tried to follow along. Once the sun went down, we sat on a mat outside and ate our first meal. Something made my stomach feel unsettled, so I nibbled at the nshima and relishes. My host mother was understanding and cautioned me to take a little and see how my stomach reacts. Today’s relishes included little lumps of cooked, ground pumpkin seed. I was impressed at resource this family was. I never thought that eating pumpkin leaves or cassava leaves was possible, but it was so delicious! We ate outside on a mat where I could just barely see the food in front of me with the help of a small, battery-powered light.
Once we finished our meal, the children began asking me, “What is this?”. They were practising their English while teaching me Nyanja. A child would point to a body part and ask “What is this?”, to which I would respond the English world and, in return, I would get to learn the Nyanja word. Head is mutu, a leg is kwenda, and your face is pamenso. It was next to impossible for me to remember all of these new words. The kids were much better at remembering than I was. I heard a few shy giggles from Agnes, and her Aunt Gladys explained to me, “She wants to braid your hair, she has never seen mzungu hair before.” I laughed in reply and nodded as Agnes began to braid my hair. Throughout the stay, I was told how nice my hair is and asked how I made it grow so long. Many Zambian women cannot grow their hair very long and having longer hair shows beauty, so many women wear weaves or wigs.
The next morning, I walked through the farm with Gladys and asked questions. The family planted cassava, maize, pumpkin, sunflowers, sweet potato, sorghum, and even rice near their ponds. They also had bananas, guavas, mangoes, and oranges growing by their house. This family still used tradition techniques, such as manually preparing the land and relying on rain to water the crops. The lack of rain meant smaller crops and less cash. When families can’t make enough cash, they must pick and choose where to spend. For this family, it meant no electricity and that only some children attended school. Limited cash flow also meant that the family couldn’t always afford enough labourers to harvest their crops. They also struggled to access the markets. If they wanted to mill their maize or sell in the market, someone would need to ride a bicycle with a large bag into town.
Gladys also had a small poultry house where she raised broiler chicks to sell. It cost her about 5.75 kwacha to buy each chick and she would sell it for about 300 kwacha when it was ready. Food and medicine for the chicks was expensive though. Gladys wanted to expand her business to provide a regular cash flow, but she lacked the cash to do so right now. She was smart though and tracked her profit in the business.
We visited Gladys’ neighbours. They produced honey, cassava, banana, ground nuts (peanuts), and also had a poultry house. 1 kg of honey was sold for only 8 kwacha. Farmers get a tiny piece of the pie unless they can process product themselves. This family also found it difficult to access the markets.
I spent the next day travelling around Petauke on a motorbike with a Field Officer named Zaccheus. He helped to manage our sales agents in the area and was also responsible for selling direct to clients here. We visited a few shopkeepers in town. Rent to Own offers clients equipment through a pay-slow system. In the end, clients pay slightly more than they would if they had purchased an item in cash. However, the low monthly payments and training enable clients to have equipment in hand sooner. Every client spoke about how much Rent to Own has helped, “My chiller paid for itself with the profit I have from selling drinks”.
I met with one long-time client who struggled to make his payments for a generator. The volatility of the kwacha affected sales and his ability to pay. Here, it’s not just business as usual. On paper, missed payments mean that RTO would repossess the item. This man was once a sales agent for us and was long-time client who always paid on time. The item in question was in his son’s name, but his son had failed to pay. As a responsible father, he was trying to make the payments, but business was difficult. In social business, you need to balance compassion alongside business needs. We had to be flexible and our relationship with the man led me to believe that he would pay as soon as he could.
My trip to Petauke demonstrated the complexity involved in social enterprise. To succeed here, I need to understand the client. What motivates her? What are her priorities? Where does she spend her cash? When does she receive income? My role at RTO involves defining the RTO brand and our messaging to clients and investors. How can we convince non-clients that spending with us is a worthwhile investment? I think the answer requires us to tap into our relationships with current clients. How can we build advocates who refer clients to us? How can we share their success stories?