Zambia is arguably the best place to be stuck in during the Covid-19 pandemic. The population density is low, life happens, to a large extent, outdoors and we prefer having a barbecue with friends instead of eating in restaurants. With many countries and airlines shutting down, there has been no sign of foreign tourists in Zambia resulting in many lodges slashing their prices to keep afloat. Locals and residents have taken full advantage of this unexpected boon to explore the beauty spots in Zambia which many have only read about in brochures and magazines. A safari lodge lends itself well to most of the Covid-19 health guidelines. Most lodges in Zambia are small so consequently there is no crowding and the wide-open spaces in the game parks makes social distancing easy to adhere to.
Much has changed in the last few months but there are still many known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, not least about how life will be once the pandemic has subsided or if it becomes the new reality. Like many others, I have been thinking about possible winners and losers and I’m happy to share with you. For the record, this is my view based on personal experience during the pandemic.
I mentioned the lodges in Zambia before, in my view they are big winners. Not financially, as they probably have had to take a haircut in their revenue, but in the way they have worked within the new dynamics. Instead of closing down for a period or for good they have switched from the lucrative international tourist market to getting locals through the door. Some offer reduced service, others switched to self-catering while a few still offer the full-service package. Importantly, they have adjusted to a new reality and are gaining new clients who could not afford the hitherto ridiculous per person per night charges. Many lodges that were once only dream destinations for many, have been fully booked in the last few months, perhaps because of the many long weekends. I hope that this leads to a trend in local tourism that remains for good. Don’t get me wrong, we will need the foreign tourism dollars when things tilt back to normal. The mantra for Zambia tourism has been ‘have a break wherever you are this year - but come and see us soon’. Keeping lodges open has had the added benefit of maintaining well trained staff on the payroll instead of laying them off. Without tourist dollars in the till, some lodge owners have been forced to lay off workers or reduce their working hours, reducing their income and plunging many families into dire circumstances.
Foreign tourists have to fly to get to Zambia. There is no direct flight into Zambia from Europe, Asia or the Americas where majority of the tourism dollars come from. Travellers to Zambia have to transit through South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Turkey or Dubai all countries that have been pushing their own countries as tourist destinations.
During the panic before lockdowns in Europe and America, South African Airlines took bookings for passengers travelling to Zambia only to refuse to let them board the plane just 24 hours later. Many are still waiting for a refund, myself included. Emirates initially gave vouchers in lieu of refunds to inconvenienced passengers but those who insisted were refunded in full or had travel dates deferred. All the other airlines with the exception of Ethiopian stopped flying to Zambia and closed either their airspace to commercial flights or refused to accept transit passengers. Even though some airlines have resumed flights now, their attitude and commitment makes Ethiopian my absolute favourite. Addis airport is not the most attractive nor is the six-hour stopover convenient. There could be more facilities like smart restaurants or boutiques, the queues can be better arranged so that passengers do not feel like cattle being herded on board the aircraft. Credit has to be given to Ethiopian Airlines for keeping the show running throughout the pandemic. Medicines, Covid-19 aid and vital supplies were delivered to Zambia with Ethiopian Airlines. Additionally, they have reunited family members who were stuck in lockdowns abroad from as far as Utah in the USA and New Zealand.
We should all try to give them as much support as possible for being such troopers by being a lifeline to Zambia. Thanks for sticking with us and keeping us connected. Addis Ababa airport has been punching above its weight in vying to be a hub. If anyone was in any doubt about this, be assured that they have given other airlines a run for their money – those who purported to be international hubs, yet shut down at the first sign of the pandemic, leaving passengers stranded.
Supermarkets in Zambia are not offering a more wholesome client experience. Many products are South African imports just shy of their expiry dates. It seems easier to ship in products rather than building-up local supply chains. The two largest retailers, Shoprite and Pick n Pay have managed to keep their shops well stocked after an initial lull in supply due to the complete lockdown in South Africa. The groceries available are mainly imported and the shelves look identical and uninspiring. What leaves much to be desired is the unavailability of quality of meat, fruit and vegetable which I can only describe as shocking. Local avocadoes whether in season or not are more readily available from street hawkers than in the international supermarkets. This is all the more shocking in a country where according to Trading Economics almost 50% of the population is employed in the agricultural sector.
There is not much competition for these supermarket giants except for a few small independent stores and the informal sector. These are doing a much better job of supporting local producers, giving them a space to sell their wares and adding diversity to products range on the shelves. I salute and support the small guys. It is encouraging to see an emerging trend of more local goods in the independent stores. While it is true that not all the imported goods at the moment can be produced locally, this will need the support of larger retailers to build-up or improve local supply chains as well as the quality and availability of products.
Having said that, we have seen a few steps towards modernity evidenced by companies creating pick-up services, service points and even home delivery. This might sound very basic for anyone in the West but it’s a huge improvement in Zambia. It is mainly smaller delivery companies in Lusaka and the Copperbelt that are providing these services at additional costs and not an initiative by the supermarkets. Some farmers around Lusaka have jumped on the bandwagon and now offer delivery services as well, with some even acting as aggregators for a series of smaller food producers.
We also have to clearly state that some of the local food producers have been found wanting. Parmalat, the largest dairy company in Zambia, has not managed to consistently have basics, such as butter, on the shelves. It is not clear if the lapse in supply is because of an impaired logistics chain, but it shows a lack of execution capacity and contingency planning. As Warren Buffett famously said ‘Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked’.
Other local producers are doing a much better job. Zambia Sugar, Coca Cola, Zambia Breweries and Trade Kings, among others, have been much more consistent and on the ball. Some companies take their clients seriously and others don’t seem to care, at least that’s the impression given by their lacklustre performance. Among the first lessons you learn at business school is that ‘customer is king’. The pandemic has exposed those without a plan B and their competitors have gleefully taken up residence in this open goal.
This is not a rant, rather, I wanted to give a snapshot of trends seen during the pandemic and how companies have responded. Big winners have got to be electronic payment companies and the adaptation to them. For years I have stuck loyally to a specific petrol station, as no other accepted card payments. This has changed now though I remain loyal to that petrol station. Mobile money already worked quite well, even though I must confess to being a laggard towards it. Now having a clearing system that allows transfers to different providers and allowing higher amounts to be remitted makes it even more efficient and appealing. Suddenly contactless payments actually work and more shops have started accepting cards.
The penetration in out-of-town areas is still woefully low, not least because of the weak network coverage. The telecoms have been slow to expand and adapt to the new reality with the costs for internet bandwidth still far too high and out of the reach of many. According to cable.co.uk, globally, Zambia ranks 56th in pricepoint of internet bandwidth costing USD 1.36 per 1 GB of data. This is the same as Ireland’s position yet Ireland’s per capita GDP is 60 times higher than Zambia’s. Despite some schools now teaching online many families simply can’t afford the cost of data.
Zambian telecoms should have used this opportunity to increase market share, offer packages to Work From Home (WFH) users or the education sector. For some reason, on Sundays my network is dead and seems to be getting noticeably worse. Fibre cables and telecom towers are apparently not economical where distances are long and population density is low. How I dream of Tesla or Facebook propelling a few thousand satellites into space to improve service and push prices down. Maybe a Zambian company could start working on launching satellites to space.
Many banks do not seem to have realised that people don’t want to visit a branch anymore. E-banking is in its infancy and needs to be pushed much further. Some simple payments require a customer to visit the branch in person as they don’t have the online solution in place, or the internet banking just does not work. Newly issued credit cards need to be collected in person – in times of Covid-19 and social distancing many are not comfortable to go into a branch. If the banks don’t realise that they have to move much more aggressively to off-line services, then they will be overtaken by the non-banking service providers, which are currently focusing on the low-income households and the smaller transactions. Banks should not be too comfortable as their clients start using the likes of Airtel Money or MTN Money services since the switch to them for additional services would be seamless.
Some companies have ascended to the top while others have slid down the greasy pole to the bottom. The ones who are doing well are those who have been agile and flexible in the new normal while remaining engaged with their clients and providing a consistently good service. We have quickly changed ways of doing things. From working to education, making payments, travelling and much more. It’s good to see the rapid adaptation to virtual teaching by the private education sector for example. The known known is that things will not go back to pre-pandemic times. Zoom for virtual meetings is here to stay as is e-money and hopefully the reasonable rates in safari lodges as well.
Many are craving to get back to normal but we are actually quantum leaping into the new era by embracing all the new technologies and ways of conducting business. There is nowhere that this is more obvious than Zambia, where tech adaptation was slow and expensive before the pandemic. A catalyst was needed for many companies and service providers in order to disrupt the status quo. It is incredible how quickly many companies and users are willing and able to move forward into the unknown unknown.
The pandemic has underscored Darwin’s theory that ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change’. With the kaleidoscope of uncertainty, anxiety, hope and exhilaration brought on by the pandemic, there is no better place to be than Zambia if you enjoy going to the bush and spending quality time on safari or fishing.