Friday, 27 November 2009

Homeward bound

Friday 27th November
We say our goodbyes at the BOM head office and wend our way to the airport. This is a place to which I would love to return.

As I climb the stairs to the plane I thank God for bringing me to this beautiful land and for keeping us safe. The plane appears to be half filled with Africans taking a trip to a neighbouring country and the other half Western NGO-niks going on a new mission or returning home.

We skirt around Mt Kili and arrive in Nairobi at 6pm. The swallows, newly arrived from a Northern hemisphere summer, dart and dive overhead. We are now only just south of the Equator and are anticipating the chill of returning to mid-winter in the UK.

Nairobi as a hub is teeming with people from many different nations and yet there are many familiar sights not least Jamie Oliver cookbooks stacked along the shelves in the bookstore!

Both of us now can’t wait to be back in the embrace of our families.

Thank you for tracking our journey here on the blog.


Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Last African Sunset

Thursday 26th November
My Jungle Fever lotion successfully warded off the angry mosquito in my hotel bedroom last night. Hallelujah! After scouring the room at 11pm and failing to find it and flatten it I basted myself in insect repellent. The DEET fumes ensured a deep night’s sleep!

We were in the taxi at 7.40am heading towards the BOM Head office. The roads were already generating the cacophonous symphony of an African rush-hour. We arrive and everyone is already in full swing – the office opens at 7.30am.

I meet Isabel, the HR Director (who is responsible for 250 staff the length and breadth of this enormous country - 3 times the size of the entire British Isles), for the first time. She gives me some insight into some of the challenges BOM faces in its work.

Out in the market again I met two clients both of whom had used a small loan to provide a stable income for their large families. Ana whose first loan was a mere £200 is well on her way to fulfilling her dream of ditching her current cramped and hot container stall and renovating a small bar with a mini terrace with table and chairs. Alzira, another client, said how she preferred BOM to the other banks as she had received a loan promptly whilst other friends had waited a long time with other banks and seen their businesses suffer as a result.

Back at bank HQ as the day was drawing to a close I felt a nagging urge to leave my desk, walk around the block and take in my last African sunset. I had long witnessed older men going misty eyed as they recounted their adventures in Africa and I had not understood the reason for their depth of passion. Now I feel I do. Visiting Mozambique, a country pockmarked by the ravages of civil war and poverty, and seeing the shoots of regeneration and growth I am genuinely excited for this corner of Africa. The challenges remain considerable but not insurmountable with the determination and tenacity of a gracious and gentle people.

Excitement in the bank

Wednesday 25th November
One month to Christmas and yet the consumer activity of Christmas to which we are accustomed feels like a million miles away.

After a searingly hot walk into the market Sally and I head down to the bank branch. Timóteo’s eyes are aglow when we arrive as they have just received permission to open up the motorbikes (provided thanks to a grant from the EU). They are gleamingly red 250 cc Honda models. The bikes will transform the lives of the Loan Officers halving their travel time to the markets to meet clients. It is hard to appreciate how much this means to the staff. It is clear from the buzz about the branch today that this is a significant boost to their collective morale – it will help them ramp up their business and of course give them a great of street cred around the city! They will become known as the biking ‘Banking Angels’!

The branch continues to grow before our eyes. Timóteo updates us that whilst we have been in town the branch has gained 15 new savings clients and recruited about 12 new groups of loan clients (each group has 5 members)! Each new client receives a BOM branded little wallet. More marketing will take place next week as Loan Officers are deployed to the local markets spreading the word about the new bank in town and handing out BOM emblazoned keyrings as a memento.

As we drive Timóteo shares his dream – to finish his undergraduate studies in night school. His parents died when he was 20 years old leaving him on his own to provide for his sisters and make a living. Consequently he simply could not afford to go to University. Sparse University facilities across the country and high tuition fees have prevented thousands and thousands of the nation’s young an opportunity to tertiary education. The bulk of our staff have not had this privilege and are subsequently playing ‘catch up’ doing evening classes the minute the branch closes.

On our way to the airport we drive past the Mozambiquan Leaf Company headquarters – a massive complex of buildings ringfenced behind a high security barrier. Executives of the company live in premium gated communities within the perimeter fence. Now I come to think of it I have not yet seen one Mozambiquan smoking only the expats staying in our hotel! A local industry supported by Westerners working locally!

We make the flight by the skin of our teeth and arrive back into Maputo at 9pm. In our absence the hotel has dusted off the Christmas Tree and placed it in the lobby. Eek – soon we will have to change gear and return home and prepare for Christmas!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Into the agricultural heartlands

Tuesday 24th November

Early start this morning with a 6.30am departure from the hotel. Today we head due north to the town of Ulongwe in the heart of the crop growing district of Angonia. The purpose of the trip is to visit and assess the town as a proposed location for a satellite bank branch and departure point for a mobile bank.

An hour outside Tete we are confronted with the classic image of rural African poverty – the mud baked huts with straw rooves. They are scattered sparsely across the brown savannah and scrubland. The scarlet flash of the occasional acacia tree applies a well needed dose of colour on to the otherwise beige canvas of the local landscape.

As we ascend in the truck the climate and outlook change – the barren land becomes fertile and verdant. Smallholding plots of land abound. As he drives Timóteo tells how it is forbidden to actually own land in Mozambique instead you apply for a permit from the Municipality and are granted permission to cultivate the land.

We pull into Ulongwe two and a half hours after leaving Tete. It is clearly a hub of NGO activity as we pass the local HQ of World Vision and Médecins sans Frontières on our initial sweep of the main avenue.

We walk around the market and start asking stallholders how they would feel about having a microfinance bank in the town. As we introduce ourselves as BOM there is instant recognition for the bank. The stallholders here have heard about BOM in Tete (some 150 miles away) and say they are contemplating making the journey to open an account! When they hear of the possibility of a local branch opening they say they will certainly be signing up for loans and savings. They have heard of the excellent reputation of Opportunity International Bank of Malawi a mere 12 miles away!

The clouds burst and the mud paths in the market become streams . For a moment it dampens the pace of commerce.

On the way out of the town we hit a pothole which quite literally compressed my vertebrae momentarily as my head hammered into the roof of the truck!

Timóteo takes a break from driving and makes way for Mrs Speedy Sally Vicaria to take the wheel! Timóteo remains in constant touch with the office texting his colleagues from the backseat. Without much warning he asks Sally to pull over at a roadside market as he wants to take advantage of the cheaper prices and stock up on fruit and veg. As he loads his second kilo of peppers on to the truck I wonder whether he is planning a major week of entertaining at home. After a quick question it becomes clear that he has been texting the others in the bank and taking orders for groceries from amongst the team. This seemed well beyond the call of duty and again spoke volumes about the quality of the leader BOM has found to manage the bank in Tete.

At another stop Sally handed over the wheel to me. I couldn’t help noticing the timing of the handover coincided with a marked narrowing of the road and an increase in potholes! It got hairy at times as oncoming vehicles refused to heed my headlight warnings to move across to their side of the road. This was in part due to the fact that my intentioned flash of the lights amounted instead to a squirting of the windscreen with water as the levers on a Mozambiquan steering wheel are in reverse locations to their British counterparts!

The bridge over the Zambezi appeared in the distance – we had made it home safely.

At the coalface

Monday 23rd November

We left the hotel after a hearty breakfast at 7.50am and walked 7 minutes up the main avenue of Tete to the BOM branch. The bank opened for business on 11th September 2009. The security guard, José, welcomes us with a warm smile at the front door.

We step inside what resembles a highly professional and well equipped bank branch. Timóteo, the Branch Manager, shepherds us in, starts introducing us to the team and gives us a ‘behind the cashier’ view of the first few months of operation.
As a natural people manager Timóteo incentivises the introduction process withholding a chocolate (our gift to the staff) from each member of staff until they have come up to us, shaken our hand and told us their position. The branch has 16 staff in total; A Branch Manager, 2 Credit Supervisors, 2 Cashiers, 2 account registration supervisors, 6 Loan Officers (3 managing group clients and 3 managing individual clients), a Back office assistant, a Security Guard and a Cleaner.
Two of the key roles in the banking process - the Credit Supervisors – are currently filled by Elisabette and Vale, both of whom have served 5 years respectively in more established BOM branches in other locations – Beira and Chimoio. They are rising stars having achieved a record of constantly zero or negligible Portfolio At Risk (PAR) amongst the clients they have overseen.

It is clear within moments that people enjoy working together in the branch – there is a sense of family amongst the staff with the Timóteo (Branch Manager) as a mentor father like figure and Elisabette (the Credit Supervisor) a collaborative and supportive mother.

Business since opening in September has been brisk. They are close to reaching the 400 mark for loan clients (via group and individual lending) and on a good day about 30 deposits are made by clients in the branch. The Loan Officers spend on average 10% of their day in the office and 90% in the markets and encouraging clients, and raising awareness of the bank amongst the local market stallholders. Loan Officers currently rely on an overcrowded bus service to get to and from the markets – a process that can eat into 2-3 hours of the working day. This will all soon change as Timóteo took us around the back of the bank and showed us 2 big Honda emblazoned boxes in storage – these contain 4 motorbikes which Loan Officers will soon nimbly ride weaving through the standing lines of traffic in the city.

There are other microfinance banks in the city – Procredit, Socremo and Banco Terra – but none lend small amounts in groups like BOM nor allow for small balance savings accounts. BOM’s minimum balance for a savings account is 100 MZN (£2) and the average group loan size is about £70.

Without further ado we board the truck and head out to Moatize a small town 22kms outside Tete where the bulk of the group loan clients work.

The first clients we meet are members of the “Estamos contentes”/”We are happy” group and they do indeed live up to their name exuding a joy that overflows into peals of regular laughter. With only two months of transactional history with BOM it is clear that things have got off to a good start. The ladies who all sell maize (a cash crop with a good income yield) say how they have never been able to access loan funds before. They liken their first loan with BOM to a ‘first date’ and say they feel as though they are being courted by the bank. With a twinkle in her eye Teresinha, the Secretary of the group says she hopes the relationship will end in marriage (a second cycle loan and the opening of a savings account)!

As we continued walking through the market the backdraft of our flipflops blew the topsoil away under our feet uncovering a black seam of rock. Vale told me it was the coal deposits for which the region is famous. In more ways than one we realised in walking around the market and looking into the eyes of people like Teresinha we were at the coalface of all that Opportunity International does.

I could fill page after page here about the other inspiring clients we met on our tour of this market but that is not my intention. I will keep that for another time. ..Today has been a day when I can wholeheartedly re-affirm my passion for the cause of giving the poor a working chance.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Into the bush we travel

Sunday 22nd November

As we check out of the hotel and head towards the airport our minds are now focused on travelling up country to Tete, the rural interior of Mozambique. A town distinguished in the guide book by a bland description of a 10 year old suspension bridge over the Zambeze River. Doug also said that it is also screamingly hot for two thirds of the year and that his skin almost melted off him on stepping out of the plane on his last visit. Aha!

One of the highlights at the airport before boarding the plane was spotting a passenger information notice listing all the forbidden items to take on board the aircraft – these included the usual suspects; Kalashnikov rifles, dynamite, and more curiously ice skates! Preparing for the rural remoteness and inferno heat of the town Sally and I could not help but laugh at the irony of this image! I doubt ice skating has much of a future in Tete!

After 1.5 hrs of flying time we touch down but without prior warning we realise we are in the coastal town of Beira - not where we want to be. We are told to wait in the terminal until a fresh load of passengers are ready to board for the last leg to Tete.

The heat on arrival was indeed breathtaking. Arriving two hours later than advertised we were embarrassed to discover Timóteo, the branch manager of the BOM branch in Tete had been patiently waiting for us for over 2 hours. Eek. With characteristic Mozambiquan ‘pâciencia’ he shrugs off the discomfort of a long wait and warmly welcomes us.

Being close to three borders we soon see the signs of being a city at a crossroads. Where we are used to seeing signposts to villages or towns in the UK here we simply saw one road heading to the left entitled ‘Zimbabwe’, one on the right saying ‘Malawi’ and another in the opposite direction indicating ‘Zambia’! HGVs clog the roads.

At a local cafe we discover there has been a major powercut as the menu is reduced from 20 hot meal options to a 10 cold snack selection! Chatting with Timóteo we learn that Tete is a rapidly expanding city, thanks in large part to major Brazilian and multinational investment in local coal and mineral mines.

He also tells us that Procredit and Socremo (BOM competitors) are already based in the city but none of them provide group based lending, mobile banks reaching remote rural areas nor small sized loans. He says that we are filling a market space that no one else is. After only 2 months of operation he is confident about future growth for the BOM bank branch in the town.

Timóteo is one of the veterans at BOM having worked with CARE from 1998 (prior to the creation of BOM) and with BOM thereafter. His enthusiasm increases as he talks about the mission of BOM and declares proudly that he loves his job as he loves to help lifting up the poor. A young boy approaches our table and extends his hand asking for money Timóteo instead offers him the remaining third of his burger on his plate. We were humbled by his example.

Taking the bank to the marketplace

Saturday 21st November

We set off early from the hotel at 7am with Doug, the Chief Relationship Officer at the head office of Banco Oportunidade de Moçambique (BOM) in Maputo.

Our first stop was the Matedene market on the outskirts of the city, the location earmarked for our ‘bank in a box’ (Mini bank branch made out of a converted shipping container). As we left the central business district of Maputo the poverty for which Mozambique is known became very evident – ramshackle corrugated iron and dustbin liner clad market structures, overflowing drains, and a constant thread of crushed cans, mango skins and chicken bones lacing the roadside.

Whenever we passed markets Doug pointed out Opportunity’s competition – a mini Procredit bank branch here, a Socremo outlet there.

Doug’s eyes lit up as the dust track turned into a smooth and recently contructed road not simply because his jeep’s suspension would enjoy some light relief but because he was about to show us an exciting new banking spot for BOM. The road had in fact just been completed by the World Bank, the sure sign that more development would follow. The culmination of this particular World Bank project was the construction of a modern covered market place equipped also with two water pumps and a toilet block. Word had yet reached the villages about the facilities of this market place so many of the trading spots had yet to be filled by small businesses. It was clear looking at the much better conditions and facilities of the place that the market would soon be humming with the chatter of transaction and commerce. This is the destination for the first ‘bank in a box’. Speaking to some of the early traders in the market a bank on the spot was exactly what they were looking for – not so much for loans but as a place to safely deposit a portion of their weekly takings. Currently the nearest bank branch is a 5 kms walk away from their marketplace – a sometimes perilous journey in the dusk at the end of a working week.

Approval for the placing of the ‘bank in a box’ in this market has been slow because of the slow grinding of the cogs of the Mozambiquan bureaucracy. Bribery too is a common currency in the dealmaking process in this country – not a currency BOM is willing to handle!! After countless meetings and calls Doug says he has now found out who it is in the Municipal institutions who has sufficient authority to give the green light to these projects. After taking time to build rapport with this official he is confident they Municipality will fast track similar decisions in the future. In the end the Municipality is thrilled because in placing the ‘bank in a box’ some old market stalls will have to be pulled down and then modern replacement ones built (at the expense of BOM) – so it’s win win.

As we left Doug said I believe ‘we are on the ground floor of something very exciting here’. His passion is infectious.

There are few monuments and great buildings of historic interest save two; the Central Train Station and the house at 1960 Avenida Armando Tivane. The Central Train Station would look more in place in central Paris than downtown Maputo and in fact there is a reason for that – it was reputedly designed by Gustav Eiffel or one of his apprentices at the very least. For Doug it held a different allure it hosts an annual international fashion show and becomes the magnet for top models around the world!

Now why include a regular street address in my blog – because it is the second home of Nelson Mandela and his wife Graça Machel (the wife of the former President of Mozambique, Samora Machel). As we passed in the car we craned our necks through the spaces in the security fence to see if this modern day icon was at home. The lights were off!

On our way to lunch we skirted around Praça Robert Mugabe (Robert Mugabe Sq). I was amused to see a group of three policemen huddled on one side of the roundabout stopping 4x4 vehicles being driven by white ex-pats. Doug told us he had been stopped there every time he passed and fined arbitrarily for a fictitious traffic violation. As his workload has increased his working hours have increased so much so that he outworks the schonkey policemen!

One of the saddest legacies of war, communism and now poverty has been the chronic shortage of education opportunities for the bulk of the population. Up until 1989 there was only one University in the whole country – the Eduardo Mondlane University (named after their first post-independence President) – so only a fraction of the population ever progressed beyond a secondary education. Now there are universities in the provincial capitals, most however, are privately run and their fees are prohibitively high for people from average and below average income families. This inhibits the potential for growth in so many areas of the country.

And yet the charm, gentleness and resilience of the people we meet here fills us with a sense that when given an opportunity they will grab it and grow.