As life would have it, there was a curve ball waiting for me when I walked into work two Mondays ago…I was asked to fill in at the last minute for a colleague and assist on rolling out some financial education trainings for loan officers of a large microfinance bank in Zambia. Since the trainings were going to be decentralized by region, it would require flying to some pretty remote areas of the country on progressively smaller propeller planes, and also give me my first taste of bus travel in Zambia. Even crazier, though, is that I would only have 24 hours to get up to speed, buy, print and assemble all of the materials for the trainings, pack AND learn enough about Zoona so I wouldn't embarrass myself as their representative at the trainings. I, of course said yes, although I am not sure I had much of a choice ;) In the end it probably ended up being the best thing for helping me learn about the mobile banking business, the challenges and opportunities that mobile platforms have for microfinance, and allowing me to learn a little more about the country I'll call home for the next 6 months and the wonderful people who live in it.Starting from the beginning though, I was to fly to Ndola in the northwestern part of the country, also known as the Copperbelt, for our first training. Well, I almost fell over when I saw the 10 seater aircraft with two propellers that was responsible for getting us across the country. After some reassuring words from my new travel partner, Jackie from Microfinance Opportunities, I tried to push the terror aside and remind myself that i was lucky because "at least we weren't going on the plane next to us that only had one propeller" (more on the 1 propeller plane later ;)) For a person who loves rollercoasters, I don't know why the same movement on an airplane makes me want to try like a baby. Suffice it to say, the shaking, incredibly loud humming of the plane's engine and sudden drops made me ecstatic to jump off the plane after we landed. The most interesting part about plane travel in Africa, though, is getting to observe who is able to use this form of transportation. I think it is important to note that in the cost of my airline tickets (for 4 flight legs) was 5.2 million Zambian Kwatcha or $1,020. That's right to fly to 2 places in Zambia it cost more than my flight to Zambia, excluding the taxes or which is even more frightening roughly similar to the Gross National Income (GNI) per capita. Sadly, this does not even include the passenger charges that we had to pay at each airport of departure which were another $12/each. Now, despite the fact that I am a scaredy cat when it comes to flying, I know that it is an incredible luxury and it makes me feel uncomfortable when I think the median income of Vision Fund clients who will be the beneficiaries of this financial education program. But, since Zambia is such a big country (larger than the state of Texas) and road travel is not always the easiest, fastest or safest, this is the only way we can fit in all of the trainings in a week and half's time. Since we were heading to the mining belt, it is no surprise that there were a few mining/businessmen types on the flight. Many of the mining guys (they are always men) are Aussies and are wearing jeans, Oakley sunglasses and cell phone holsters. Then, there are the impeccably dressed African business men; the very casually dressed tourists (although not sure why tourists are going to the mining region), and then there are the NGO crowd, usually laden with materials or bags with packets etc. In this particular instance…this is us. Once we arrived in Ndola, we had about an hour's drive to Kitwe (the second largest city in Zambia) where the training would be taking place the next day. Being that we were in the Copperbelt, it seemed apropos that we ended up staying in a place that was smack dag across the street from a big mountain of ore or something. Thankfully, the warnings of my Zoona co-workers about the air quality never ended up being an issue. Since we were staying a little ways out of the city center, I can't give too many impressions about Kitwe, except to say that it is expensive! I was shocked at what $57/night ($290,000) gets you. I was told that the mining concessionaires and the constant influx of people keep the prices high. I did have A/C and hot water, which was a blessing since it was hot during the day. The first room I saw, though, did not have a toilet seat ;) I think the most memorable parts of the stay in Kitwe were (a) my first meal with Nshima served without utensils; (b) my first introduction to Zambian time…everything is always 10 minutes, even 1 hour after the fact; (c) having to provide an introduction to Zoona and field questions during the challenges with the Zoona platform section; (d) seeing the enthusiasm of the loan officers when they were presenting lessons on financial education; and (e) the twice daily power cuts that made planning your shower all the more important. It was also very clear after our first training that I was not only incredibly fortunate to be seeing so much of Zambia in my second week on the job, but also because I was going to learn so much about the mechanics of training, adult learning, and financial education. Just as a background, Zoona is working with an MFI to do client loan disbursements. Formerly, the MFI disbursed loans in one of two ways - (1) loan officers had to travel around to loan groups with large sums of money which was neither safe nor cost effective, or (2) clients would have to travel long distances to get to their nearest MFI branch to pick up their loans at their own expense. While all of the operational challenges of this partnership have yet to be sorted out (I am hear gathering feedback about these challenges and disseminating updates about progress), Zoona's mobile agent network has the potential to make loan disbursement much easier in terms of time and cost for the MFI and clients. I was really impressed by the first training, the material was not only engaging, but you could also see how interested the loan officers were in learning how to train their clients on financial education. Some of the topics that were covered were lessons on: (1) When is a loan good or bad?; (2) Tracking your business and household expenses; (3) Ways to Save; and (4) Using Zoona to manage your money. Although many people were familiar with Zoona's money transfer services, it was great to be able to talk about some of the other services that could be useful to their clients...i.e. as a safe place to deposit your money, using Zoona to pay your bills or even to repay your loan. I think I will save the part about the challenges of the Zoona account for Part II of the blog since it gets more into the nitty gritty (or mechanics) of mobile banking. After a successful 9 hours of training and a good night's sleep, though, we had to head out to our next stop on the financial education tour - Kasama. Kasama is in the northern province of Zambia, very close to the border of Tanzania and Lake Tanganyika. Based on the reactions of Zambians when I told them where I was going to next, I would also venture to say that Kasama is not a place that many people travel to for work or otherwise. This is where the trip starts getting a little more interesting/challenging as the planes start to get a bit smaller. This time we were led to the tarmac where there was a single propeller plane waiting to take us back to Lusaka , so we could then fly to Kasama. At this point I wasn't sure I could do it...the look of panic on my face was something I couldn't even hide from our pilot who actually asked me if I was going to be okay. Obviously I made it, but I was definitely counting down the minutes till the flight was over and relied on the music from my ipod to get me through the two long trips. That's before I even realized that we had to land on a red clay/dirt runway, my first ever. You can short of tell what type of town you are arriving in by the red dirt runway and singular airport building…Kasama is sort of one horse town. There are only two flights into town per week and it is about a 10 hours to Lusaka by bus or car. Since we arrived on a Thursday, we have to stay in Kasama for the weekend until the next flight date - Monday. There are also not a whole lot of mzungus (Swahili for white person) so I definitely attracted a little bit of attention when I walked around the town. Kasama has one main drag with a few strip malls, a few ATMs and a ShopRite, which makes Kasama the place where people come from around the smaller towns in the Northern province to do their shopping, commerce and banking. Hence, it is the perfect town for a Zoona agent. I am excited to say that this was my first visit to one, apart from the training center in downtown Lusaka. I got to sit with him for a little bit of time and ask him about the challenges he was facing as an independent agent. After being in Kitwe for the training I had a little more context related to the challenges of using the agent/mobile money platform for microfinance loan disbursement from the MFI side of things, but it was great to get an agent's perspective on the challenges.