Interview with Betty Wilkinson: Financial Stress and Pathways for COVID-19 Resilience in Zambia

Betty Wilkinson, CEO, Financial Sector Deepening Zambia, speaks to COVID-19 Africa Watch about the economic impacts of the pandemic in Zambia and the way her group and others are responding.

Interview

Key Takeaways

The following are a few of the main takeaways from COVID-19 Africa Watch’s conversation with Betty Wilkinson, CEO, Financial Sector Deepening Zambia:

  • NGOs, just like private sector businesses, are facing funding crises.
  • Only about half of Zambians have cell phones, and a lack of cell phone penetration presents a challenge for sharing timely information about the pandemic.
  • Households face severe borrowing constraints, which could pose a problem when schools reopen as many households need access to credit to pay school fees.
  • The Bank of Zambia has established a useful 10 billion kwacha facility to boost liquidity in lending markets that is being rolled out currently.

The interview was conducted by Kennedy Mukuka, an IFC-Milken Institute Capital Market Scholar from Bank of Zambia. A transcript is available below.

Transcript

Interviewer

My name is Kennedy Mukuka from the Central Bank of Zambia, and a scholar the IFC Milken Institute Capital Markets Program. Today, I’m pleased to welcome Ms. Betty Wilkinson, who is joining us today to share insights on the COVID-19 crisis in Africa. Betty is the chief executive officer of Financial Sector Deepening Zambia, based in Lusaka. Thanks for being with us.

Betty Wilkinson

Thank you for having me and I am also the chair of the FSD Network of nine FSDs across Africa.

Interviewer

To kick things off, you can describe the work that FSDZ does and the activities you’re currently undertaking and how COVID-19 has impacted your work.

Betty Wilkinson

FSD Zambia is what some people would call it a think-and do-tank. So our approach to development of financial markets is to look at how does finance affect the real sector. How does services and abilities affect the real sector? And in turn, what’s happening with clients?

Many of our partners, the government basically, slowed down to a standstill because they’re working so hard to try to keep the country afloat. So working with the government has been difficult because they have other much more important things to do.

Working with the private sector has been difficult because many of them are trying to stay alive in this very difficult economic environment. And then with the NGOs, what’s happening is that their main sources of regular resources are running into problems financing. So their finances is being cut, it’s being extended. In our case, in that, both of those things have happened. We’ve seen some funds cut until future years. We’ve seen some things that have been expanded. Fortunately for us too, some of our partners are saying ‘Well, we have some money for COVID-19, what are you doing?’

We are doing a lot of information sharing on COVID-19 issues, particularly with the chiefs, traditional chiefs in Zambia, particularly in Lauapula Province. We went there, we videoed them. They decided that they wanted to talk not only about health protection, but also about digital finance, because they view that as a way of becoming more safe.

The second thing that we did was we looked at savings groups. We have 800,000 Zambians, mostly women who are meeting and saving money in internal lending, and also using this as an opportunity for self-insurance. And these Zambians are used to meeting together on a regular basis and sitting next to each other, very close and handling a lot of cash. So we sat down with them and said, ‘What are the things that under COVID-19 you shouldn’t do? How can you adapt your programs and change them and make them still successful?’

Another thing we want to move forward is, Zambia now has about 90 percent of the country covered by cell phone towers, because we’ve seen a lot of recent installations. But the surveys show that there’s only 51, 52 percent of the adult population that has a cell phone. So there are a lot of people who, if they had cell phones, they could get information about COVID-19. They could learn financial options they have to stay alive and keep their tiny micro enterprises alive. And they can also then start accessing digital finance. So, with participation from SIDA and from DFID, we are going to distribute 44,000 cell phones to poor women across four of the poorest provinces in Zambia. Then they can have access to these services. We had hoped that would happen anyway, COVID-19 helps us drive it faster.

Interviewer

Thank you. Looking at the focus groups that you are working with, these women, micro businesses and agri-business, how has the pandemic affected these groups in terms of the sustainability, their access to capital?

Betty Wilkinson

We see heavy compression on the ability of households to borrow. And we also see significant difficulties in earning incomes and investing in their futures. We’re very worried about what will happen when the schools open because there are a lot of families who have eaten that money – how are they going to pay their school fees?

Interviewer

The Central Bank of Zambia has tried to put in a program: this is the targeted medium-term refinancing facility, over about 10 billion Zambian kwacha to boost liquidity. Do you think this is enough to revamp the economy and help the microfinance institution? And does it have a trickledown effect to the focus groups that you’re working with?

Betty Wilkinson

That’s a really important question. I think that the Bank of Zambia was very intelligent in setting this up. It was difficult under the economic circumstances of the country. I think that the banks have taken this on and they have been very clearly told, ‘Do not refinance cheaper your existing clients who don’t need the money. You need to be looking at businesses that we need to survive in Zambia. And then continue once the COVID-19 circumstances lighten.’

And so the challenge is really how do you get to those institutions where the risk is there and still accept that this is the arrangement you are going to make, you’re going to lend at a cheaper amount, you’re going to give them a longer period for repayment.

These kinds of things are difficult. I think that the Central Bank is talking about how to reach down-market to the micro-finance institutions. How do we even consider any kind of support for credit unions or other types of institutions that are financial in nature? I also think that they have been saying, ‘How can we reach the informal sector?’ Which is significant across Africa and also in Zambia.

Interviewer

What areas do you foresee as priority to develop the financial sector in the future?

Betty Wilkinson

This is interesting because we have just shifted and evolved from just looking at financial services, to looking at financial services in the context of growth and development in the country. So for example, we’re working with the government and with one of the MNOs to develop digital school fee payments across the country.

Digitization generally shows potential, for example the work that’s being done with the farmer input support program. Almost a million farmers are getting support for their crops, in terms of inputs, now we are providing insurance so that if it rains too much, or if there’s a drought, they actually get some money paid out from claims on insurance.

Interviewer

Before we close, Betty, is there anything else you’d like to add?

Betty Wilkinson

I would. Zambia and other countries in Southern Africa, have been reasonably fortunate with COVID-19, and we are so hopeful that we won’t end up with a terrible, terrible situation. And so, we are encouraged that in our world that there is an opportunity to recover and to grow later. So we remain optimistic.

Interviewer

Thank you so much. The Milken Institute and I thank you again for these insights.

Betty Wilkinson

Thank you for the opportunity.

More analysis from COVID-19 Africa Watch:

COVID-19 Africa Watch tracks major developments and policy announcements from across the continent and also offers a curated selection of analysis on how the pandemic will impact African economies and development efforts. The site is a project of the Milken Institute’s Global Market Development Practice.

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