Thursday, January 14, 2010

Conversations on the Bus

I recently had the opportunity to spend many days on the bus. The batteries on my music player soon went flat but I was fortunate to sit next to interesting people.

In Zambia I talked to a retired banker. He had took an early retirement right before the bank was dissolved so he was one of the last few to receive a pension. Even though he worked as a banker, his education was in agriculture and he used his severance package to buy a farm. Now he was the head of the local farmers union.

The government tries to encourage farmer cooperatives in Zambia. If you want subsidized fertilizer you have to join. Most of them are a waste of time.

But this guy was was quite enthusiastic about organizing people. He'd help new farmers estimate how much food a field would produce. He'd tell them how much food to keep and how much to sell. He kept records if a chicken died in order to track the spread of diseases. He knew ahead of time if people were going to run out of food because of poor rains. In Zambia, farmers are supposed to sell to authorized millers and the price of maize is fixed. He petitioned the government so his farmers could sell to a local mill and save money on transport. Also they charged a higher than official price.

One thing he was quite proud of was that he was able to secure loans for his farmers to buy fertilizer. Originally the lenders wanted to charge 100% interest but he was able to negotiate a loan for just 50% interest. Only one farmer wasn't able to repay the loan and the other farmers each had to chip in to cover the loss. The next year he took out a mortgage loan against his own property for an even lower rate.

I asked him if he wasn't worried that he would lose his farm if the rains were poor, but it turns out he used part of the loan to insure the crops. I didn't know small scale Zambian farmers could do that.

Sometimes people make me all kinds of optimistic.