Living in the Foothills of Chipata
IDIN's Student Matching Initiative focuses on creating opportunities for mutually beneficial interactions, where IDIN Network members can recruit students and professionals to support their work in the field, while students learn how to work with local communities in co-creating appropriate technologies. Below, you'll find a blog written by James Wong, who was matched with Zasaka—a social enterprise in Zambia co-founded by IDIN Network members Carl Jensen and Sunday Silungwe—through this initiative.
Half a year has rolled by since I first step foot in Africa and the experience has been a mixture of surrealness, adventure, and humility. My contributions to Zasaka, a social enterprise I’ve been working with, are varied as I took on different fronts, adjusting and adapting to the varying needs of this startup – from rewriting business plans, working on financial models, rolling out dozens of distribution strategies, and even to running an agro-shop!
The path that led me to this social enterprise and eventually the experience that has followed has definitely been unexpected.
For some time, I have been meaning to make my way to Africa. As I was narrowing down my choice of organisations, I asked myself two key questions:
(1) Will I be able to work directly with smallholder farmers?
(2) Will I be able to make an impact, instead of just being another cog in a big machine?
Upon arriving at my final decision, I also factored in becoming part of a startup [in Africa!] as a not-to-be-missed opportunity!
IDIN's Online Portal of Opportunities
These important goals and questions have helped me focus my search for opportunities, leading me to International Development Innovation Network (IDIN)'s website, which amongst other things hosts a range of opportunities from social enterprises impacting diverse communities around the world.
My first encounter with Zasaka came through IDIN’s Student Matching Initiative. It started with a posting for Product Development Engineer over the summer months, where the scope included product prototyping, geographical tagging of villages, and securing supply chain networks. It was a broad role customized to the evolving nature of this startup.
Zasaka, which stands for “in the sack” in the local lingo, is a fast growing social enterprise based in the largest town of the Eastern province of Zambia. Chipata is largely a farming community made up of predominantly smallholder farmers, with 200,000 living in the Chipata district (yes, the district is Chipata too!).
Zasaka was founded on the principle of creating lasting income for smallholder farmers. Its model is designed around two primary operations – running an out-grower programme with groups of farmers and marketing basic farming technologies to reduce labour and increase efficiency. The former involves partnering with groups of farmers, extending farming input loans to selected crops, then purchasing their yields at harvest. The latter revolved primarily around post-harvest technologies and it is also the part of the enterprise, which I am primarily involved in.
A Variety of Insightful Experiences
Over the summer, I had the opportunity of experimenting with different distribution structures and product strategies. In the same period, the Kwacha (Zambian currency) steadily deteriorated, from a June exchange of six Kwacha to a dollar, to its weakest of 14.6 (in a span of a 3 months!). Managing the products whilst dealing with currency fluctuations is certainly one of my top learning experiences thus far!
On a more personal level, my transition to life in Chipata has been thoroughly welcoming because of the small but close-knit team led by its co-founders, IDIN Network member Sunday Silungwe (yes, his name was given to the day that he was born) and Carl Jensen. With plenty of shared spaces between work and accommodation and an ever rotating cast of interesting characters (we host many interns, the occasional researcher, and an ever increasing types of pets), there is always an abundance of meaningful and passionate conversations and debates, continuous laughter as we learn each other’s idiosyncrasies and learning to cook for a multinational household! Growing with each other whilst growing the organisation is certainly one of the finer moments of my time in Zambia.
Wrapping this up, some of the nuances of living in Chipata are:
- While driving on streets without streetlights is daunting, going down a darken alley will not end in mugging: it’s just another street!
- Hiking and jogging are more strenuous activity than I imagined. With a town elevation above 1,000m, do not underestimate the innocuous hills that dot the surroundings, though once you surmount them the vistas are breathtaking.
- Creativity takes on a whole new level, especially in villages. Every object has a secondary use - discarded milk cartoons, damaged car rims, used water bottles, outdated signposts. My most impressive find is a toy truck fashioned from only metal wires and rubber flaps, where a child steers the truck (whilst running at full speed) by a detachable narrow wooden stick!
- Chipatans are incredibly friendly people wherever you encounter them
- Smallholder farmers are hardworking people and I am humbled by every opportunity I get to work with them