Monday, 10 February 2014

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

We met with the Board of Directors Saturday morning to discuss our findings and recommendations. They were very interested in what we had to say and how to implement our recommendations. One of the directors wanted us to talk to their government to put pressure on making the payroll remittances. "I don't think they will listen to us," was the best response I could come up with. I encouraged them to work together with MUSCCO to try and put pressure on the government.

It was time to leave and start our  long drive back from Karonga to Lilongwe. I suggested we stop in Mzuzu for a night for a break in between.

We drove along the lake which looked beautiful with the mountains of Tanzania in the background.

Kids were selling the catch of the day along the side of the road. Ezekiel wanted to buy some fish because it is a lot cheaper to buy here than in Mzuzu. 

I wondered how he was going to transport it. I hoped he was not going to just put them in the trunk with my luggage but I really hoped he was not going to put them in the backseat with me. Luckily he did neither. I never would have guessed how they would be transported. He tied them to the windshield wipers so “the air would flow through them so they don’t rot.”  Being rainy season and all, it was not a surprise that it started to rain. What was a surprise was to see a bunch of fish sliding across the windshield as we were driving along. It was the most bizarre situation.

We made it to Mzuzu and had a lovely dinner with Ezekiel and his family. His wife took us to the market in the morning so we could do some shopping. Betty and I decided we just wanted to wander around for the rest of the day so we wandered up and down the roads and explored the market.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Small Savings, Big Future

Tikwere is the first SACCO in Malawi to introduce a Youth Savings Group program encouraging the youth in the community to save. I had the amazing opportunity to visit the St Marys Primary Girls School to meet the girls in the savings club. They were expecting us and as soon as we pulled in the driveway they started shrieking. I’m not sure who was more excited, me or them.

It was extremely hot out so we set up under a big tree. As the guests of honour, we were seated at the front with all the children sitting on the ground facing us. The girls ranged in age from about six to fifteen years old. They welcomed us and read us a poem. It was in Che’chewa so I didn’t understand it as it was being read. I loved the translation that stated they want to save for their future because they don’t want a “sugar-daddy”.

The passion these young girls had about savings for their future and the SACCO in general was inspiring. Itai led the girls to different SACCO songs. It is impossible to explain the energy and enthusiasm that was felt but it warmed my heart. This level of passion is missing in the Canadian credit union system.

                                                        Their slogan says it all - “Small Savings, Big Future"

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Let Us Climb Up Together

Tikwere Community SACCO is located in Karonga in the north of Malawi. They recently changed their name and bond of association form Karonga Teachers SACCO to Tikwere Community SACCO. Tikwere means "Let us climb up together".

We met with the general manager, Itai, who also had the opportunity to be a part of the CCA Women’s Mentorship Program. She visited Envision Credit Union in Abbotsford, BC. She stated she faced some resistance to being a female manager when she first started. Once she proved herself with strong results, people started to come around. Someone referred to her by saying “She looks like a woman but she’s a man.”

Tikwere Community SACCO is also adversely affected due to the issue of the government not remitting payroll deductions. It has had an effect on all areas of their business performance. They have a strong management and leadership team so hopefully they will be able to bounce back once the issues are resolved.

While I was in Karonga, I had a chance to visit the local market and buy some beautiful fabric which I then brought to a tailor and had a skirt made. I went in the afternoon and he had it ready for me the next morning.

It was really hot when I was walking back from the market so I stopped to buy a drink from a boy selling cold drinks on the side of the road. I was going to get a bottle of water but the woman before me had an interesting looking drink so I asked for one of those. I later found out I was drinking Chidongwa, which is made from maize flour, millet flour, water and sugar. A man asked me what I was drinking and I told him I did not know. He asked me why am I drinking it if I don’t know what it is. “It could be poison,” he said. I told him the woman in front of me had it so I hope it is ok.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Muli Bwanji

All Malawians learn English in school as well as the local language of Chi’chewa. I ensured I learned a few simple phrases such as hello, thank you and goodbye. My favourite is “Muli Bwanji” which translates to “How are you?” The look on the locals’ faces when I speak Chi’chewa is priceless.

After our time in Mzimba, we were heading further north to Karonga. Malawi is a beautiful country. Because it is rainy season, everything is so lush and green.

We had a gorgeous drive through Mzuzu and on to the lake road. We saw baboons and monkeys. There were women and children selling mangos on the side of the road so I asked to stop for some. I bought a full bag for 100 Malawian Kwacha (or 25 cents).

The funniest thing happened. While we were driving Ezekiel and I were trading stories about Canada and Malawi. I asked him what the speed limit on the main highway was and if it is enforced. He stated that outside of the trading areas the speed limit is 100 km/h but it is not strongly enforced. However, in the trading areas the speed limit is reduced to 50 km/hr. Not more than an hour later, we get pulled over by a speed trap.... I had to laugh at him for the coincidence. 

Saturday, 25 January 2014

SACCO Is My Life

We left Lilongwe and headed to Mzimba which is located in northern Malawi. The drive there was beautiful. Along the M1 highway there were all sorts of interesting sights – women carrying baskets on their head, boys chasing goats, men riding bicycles, the bustling market, babies strapped to their mothers’ backs, cows pulling carts. How I wish I could have sat on the side of the road with my camera for hours.

My team arrived at Mzimba Teachers SACCO where we met with the General Manager, Albert and the IT Manager, Einstein and had a chance to discuss the successes and challenges of the SACCO. They are the largest SACCO in the north and recently opened their bond to include all civil servants.

Mzimba Teachers SACCO is currently facing an issue due to the government not remitting payroll deductions. Everyone is positive that this will change after the elections in May.

Mzimba deserves credit due to the introduction of the group savings and loan program that assists a common group by pooling their funds together and lending funds to the group. This would allow members of the group to obtain funds that they might not otherwise qualify for. It is almost like the idea of a bunch of co-signors. Members borrow for school fees, fertilizer, funeral expenses and small business.

I was also impressed when Albert mentioned that the managers of different SACCOs in the area meet quarterly to share experiences and discuss common challenges. This is similar to the Small Credit Union Advisory Council in Toronto. “United we stand”.

Tapiwa was a young branch manager that we met who had the opportunity to be a part of the CCA Women’s Mentorship Program in Canada. She visited Sunshine Credit Union in Manitoba and stated “I’m young. I’m getting wiser each and every day.”

Thursday, 23 January 2014

We're Going to Malawi

I arrived in Ottawa to reconnect with some old friends and meet lots of new ones. The CCA had an orientation day planned before we headed to the airport to board our various flights to Africa. I thought my adventure to Mongolia was long but I guess that was just to prepare me for my flight to Malawi. After an extremely long journey, we landed in Lilongwe – an exhausting 40 hours later. Luckily, I am able to sleep on airplanes so time flew by and I was surprisingly refreshed when I checked into the hotel.  Let’s just say I did not make a lot of friends on the plane.

The Malawi Union of Savings & Credit Co-Operatives (MUSCCO) is our local partner in Malawi. Their slogan is “Spearheading Financial Independence. They would compare to Central 1 in Ontario. We were provided with an orientation before we headed off to our first Savings &Credit Co-Operative (SACCO). My partner and I were teamed up with Ezekiel, the Business Development Coordinator for MUSCCO, who will be acting as our driver, guide and source of valuable information. Ezekiel shared with us that the movement is lacking government support which is causing challenges to the SACCOs.  

The biggest challenge at the moment is the fact that the government is withholding payment deductions from the civil servants to the SACCOs. This has been happening for at least four months and is resulting in high loan delinquency, low liquidity, membership closures and losses for the year. I could not imagine how Canadian credit unions would cope if they stopped receiving payroll deductions. 

Thursday, 16 January 2014

The Warm Heart of Africa

The Canadian Co-Operative Association (CCA) runs a coaching program that enlists the help of skilled employees from Canadian credit unions to provide technical expertise to partner organizations in various countries in Asia, Africa and the Americas.

In September 2012, I embarked on my first coaching mission with the CCA to Mongolia to work with two credit unions. This was the third year that CCA volunteers went to Mongolia and the program was incredibly successful. It had an impact for the Mongolian credit union system to work more closely on strengthening itself through internal networks to enable cross-networking support through the credit union system. From an international development perspective, we accomplished our goal where complete ownership and capacity is found in a local context.

This year, I have been selected as one of six credit union professionals from across Canada to travel to Malawi, Africa where I will visit rural credit unions with my coaching partner to share my skills and experiences to help our partners succeed.

The CCA shares the experience and strength of the Canadian co-operative movement to form relationships with partners around the world sharing common values.

Co-operatives are an effective tool in helping people living in poverty in developing countries to make sustainable improvements to their lives and living conditions.

Credit unions are making a difference because they promote savings, are community owned, have a democratic structure and provide a range of services.

Malawi Fast Facts
- Malawi is nicknamed "The Warm Heart of Africa"
- Malawi is among the world's least-developed countries
- Population: 16.7 million
- GDP per capita: $857
- Youth Literacy Rate: 82%
- Main industries: tobacco, tea and sugar processing