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Engineers Without Borders


WSP is excited to partner for a second year with Engineers Without Borders (EWB)! Meet Janelle de Vries, Geomatics Proposal Office Lead from Calgary, Alberta. Janelle embarked at the end of September 2016 on a journey that has taken her to Toronto (for EWB training) and then to her fellowship in Zambia until March 2017. There are more ways to follow our Engineers Without Borders fellow this year via social media (Instagram and Facebook) and Janelle’s blog (both written and video) can be found on Janelleinzambia.ca.


Brian learns about life and work in rural Zambia

November 25, 2015

Soon after getting settled in to my life in Lusaka and my role at Rent to Own, I was presented with a unique opportunity to spend a few days living in a farming village in rural Zambia. The purpose was to experience rural life, to better understand Rent to Own’s field operations, and to see firsthand the impact that the organization has had on its clients. I jumped at this opportunity and spent a few days in a place called Nyimba, in Zambia’s Eastern province. I would like to share some of the key things I took away from this experience.


A village in rural Zambia

Life in Rural Zambia

Rural Zambia is a completely different experience from Lusaka life.  Here I encountered very little English with many not even knowing how to say “hello”.  Meals were often maize-based porridge for breakfast and then nshima (also maize-based) for both lunch and dinner.  The roads were mostly dirt or gravel, and in some cases there is a bit of a grey area as to whether the “road” is intended for motor vehicles or if it is merely a pathway meant for walking.  It is definitely a simpler way of life out here.  People work hard but everybody is easygoing and nobody ever seems to be in a rush.

Nshima with 2 relishes – best eaten with your hands.  It’s quite tasty though it’s not something I’d be able to eat twice a day for the rest of my life.

My “host mother” in the village, Esther, is a wonderful person who gave me a new appreciation of the meaning of hard work.  She is a farmer of maize and groundnuts, also owning and caring for livestock including cows, pigs, and chickens.  She’s a mom and a grandmother as well and is taking care of 3 children more or less single-handedly.  On top of this, she’s also a property manager and rents out plots of her land to other farmers.

When not busy with all her work, she’s involved in multiple community and church groups.  I had the privilege of attending one of her group meetings where the women of the neighbouring farming villages got together and pooled what little money they had for the purchase of a much needed ox-cart  for one woman in the community.  The beneficiary of the money rotates every month so different people of need benefit at different times.  It was pretty inspiring to see Esther’s work ethic firsthand as well as how much she (and others) pour their heart and soul into their community.

The Business Environment in Rural Zambia

Rent to Own’s Nyimba office

I had the pleasure of meeting Moses, who is Rent to Own’s Field Officer for Nyimba, and I spent two days riding around the area on the back of his motorbike, visiting many of the clients in the area.  The clients we visited largely fell into two categories – farmers and shopkeepers.

The biggest lesson I learned was just how much relationships can translate into business success.  Working with clients in my capacity at WSP, I already had an appreciation of the value of the client-consultant relationship, but the value of this seems to be amplified by several factors in rural Zambia.  First of all, I was amazed when travelling around with Moses that he seemed to know almost everybody in the community.  The first farmer we visited was so happy to see Moses and meet me, and was so grateful that Rent to Own afforded him the opportunity to acquire a water pump, that he sent Moses away with a huge basket of produce for free.  The next client we visited was a shopkeeper who ignored all of his customers waiting in line to pay when he saw Moses and I walk through the door – he was eager to chat with us.  Similar experiences continued over the course of the two days.  Personal relationships are clearly more important out here than making some extra cash, and they are also the primary driver of a good business relationship.

Moses and a client with a water pump purchased from Rent to Own

The other big lesson I took away was how a degree of flexibility is required to do business in rural Zambia.  Rent to Own’s business model involves supplying equipment to rural entrepreneurs on hire purchase, and holding the equipment itself as collateral in case the client fails to make his or her payments.  In one case, we visited a client who purchased a refrigerator for his small bar.  The deteriorating kwacha (Zambia’s currency) combined with increased competition has resulted in the owner falling behind on his payments.  By the book Moses should have repossessed his equipment right then and there, but out here it is important to be flexible and show compassion.  This is important most obviously from a human standpoint, but it’s also a smart business decision to ensure Rent to Own maintains a positive social impact and to ensure that word of mouth about Rent to Own doesn’t spread in a negative way.  Flexibility is also required on the client side – the bar owner had to agree to make a partial payment the next day, rather than waiting until he could pay the full amount.

And, I was amazed that the friendship, camaraderie, and good humour between Moses and the bar owner did not seem to abate in the slightest despite the uncomfortable topic of conversation.  Relationships really are more important than anything else.

Do you have any stories or advice on building strong client relationships in developing countries? I’d love to hear from you!

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