Agora Group off-site: visit to AMZ, Zambia

January 2020 was the time for the Agora Group’s off-site, a visit to our partner AMZ in Zambia! 

Our 10 member team including shareholders, Board members, the leadership and management, as well as new members from across the Agora Group bundled into a mini bus for a week long excursion through glorious Zambia.

Most of us work at the Group level in supporting the work of AMZ, but from a far distance.  This was an opportunity for us to not only spend time with the wonderful team at AMZ but also to see first-hand how the operations of AMZ were carried out, and appreciate the relevance of AMZ’s work in the lives of its clients.

Our arrival weekend started with a stay at the breathtaking Mukambi Lodge, nestled quietly in Zambia’s largest national park, the Kafue National Park.  In an area of undisturbed natural beauty, we caught glimpses of wild Africa from the back of our game vehicles and on the Kafue river – elephants, buffaloes, hippos, kudus, and an incredible sighting of the elusive leopard.  We were spoilt with bright red African sunsets and lazy pink sunrises.

The perfect setting to begin the work stage of our 2,000km adventure into rural Zambia that followed the weekend!

Starting early on the Monday morning, our journey took us through the Central, Muchinga and Northern Provinces of Zambia, along national highways, then going off-road onto bumpy dirt roads dotted with rural market sellers, and finally into hidden villages deep within the African bush.  At every village we were greeted by an abundance of friendly people, eager to talk to us and retell their success stories of how the small loans from AMZ had enriched their lives, and how insurance had helped them at difficult times. At these meetings, we saw the local villagers banding together in their small village bank collectives to make their monthly loan repayments to the AMZ client officer.    The first thing that struck all of us, was the extremes that the client officers go to every month to reach these village banks (VBs).  Zambia is a sparsely populated country of 16 million spread across a land area of 752,618 sq km – in contrast our other partner AMIL in India works in Mumbai, a city of the same population in an area less than one-thousandth of Zambia, of 600 sq km.

AMZ works in some 1,500 villages, each of which are visited monthly.  The client officers travel through intense heat, rain and thunderstorms on motorbikes along concrete highways and rough dirt terrain to reach their clients, sometimes travelling as far off road as 100kms.  All this to provide a $100 loan or accept a $10 repayment!  The fact that this is done in a viable manner, by pooling demand and ensuring efficiency in the process makes it quite remarkable. We are proud that AMZ is one of its kind in Zambia when it comes to viable microfinance in deep rural areas.

Dealing in real time and all in cash, there are up to 250 such village collections every day across the 8 provinces of the country.  One of our colleagues referred to AMZ’s client officers as ‘the real heroes of the organisation who will go above and beyond to serve their clients best’.  One of the most striking acts to witness is the transparency between client officer and client.  Money is laid out on the grass or dirt and all counting is done in the presence of the VB president / representative to ensure accuracy and honesty in the transactions.

The other thing we were all struck by, was how AMZ makes the use of technology to ensure efficient, accurate and transparent processes.  All transactions are recorded in digital formats on tablets which are linked to the overall information systems.  Transactions in the villages are authorised through hand-held POS devices with finger-print validation, and printed receipts are provided on the spot to clients.  It is incredible to see such a successful merger of new technology in otherwise completely cut-off villages.

We could finally appreciate for ourselves how relevant AMZ is for its clients, and how it has perfected the tools and techniques to operate in a viable manner. 

Of AMZ’s 52,000 clients, the majority are women.   Maya Mungra, Director on the Supervisory Board of AMNV, remarked that she was “so impressed by the role that women were taking in mobilising their communities and working on further developing their villages”.  From small village tomato sellers to seamstresses and shop owners, these women were strong, determined and had a vision for the future not only for themselves and their families, but for the village and communities around them.  Prosperity in a financially unstable environment has been made more achievable through the financial products offered by AMZ.

Susan Chibanga, CEO of AMZ, said that “the biggest achievement of AMZ is taking our financial services viably to the rural areas.  This is something that most people thought was impossible to do in Zambia knowing that the country is sparsely populated, with a lot of challenges reaching out to the rural clientele.  Out of our 52,000 clients, 93% are actually in the rural areas and that is a very good achievement for us.  We have also introduced micro insurance – something that other financial institutions have not succeeded in taking to rural areas.  AMZ works in a challenging micro environment, but for us that presents unique opportunities as well.  It is so good to see that we can digitise our processes and become more efficient as we reach out to our rural clientele.”

What a week.  What a privilege to see microfinance in action in Zambia.  The effervescent smiles of children laughing in the African sunshine will forever be imprinted on our memory.

About AMZ:  AMZ is unofficially the largest rural MFI in Zambia with over 52,000 clients and a loan portfolio of over ZMW 70m.  Its mission is to contribute to the economic well-being of the poor through the effective provision of appropriate financial services.  It currently operates in 8 of the 10 provinces in Zambia through 16 branches with 183 staff members.  AMZ works through village based large groups, small business groups, micro and individual clients as well as small and medium farmers, through a range of loan and insurance products and also provides mobile money services to customers as well as mobile money agents across the country.