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Zambia: Why Grants for Women-Run Businesses in Zambia Never Reach Them


Lusaka — The rural business owners, who often are illiterate, struggle with a national grant program’s complex application process — making them prime targets for scams.

Jane Musamba sits on the side of Kafue Road early on a sunny Monday morning, sorting raw fish and arranging them in groups of five in a plastic dish. Some of the fish have started to spoil, emitting a pungent odor. Flies buzz persistently, drawn by the smell; Musamba occasionally swats them away. Then she grabs the dish, puts it on her head and hurries closer to the road where she shouts at the top of her voice to entice drivers and pedestrians to buy her fish.

This is a routine that Musamba, a mother of four boys ages 4 to 10, has done almost daily for six years. First she buys the fish from fishermen at the Kafue River in the early morning. Then she tries to sell them all before they spoil, typically by noon. But she isn’t always successful. Some days the fish go bad. And she’s not alone. Other women in her community who sell fish encounter similar challenges.

If only they had a fridge, she says.

“Having a fridge would greatly improve our business because we will not be counting losses as we do when the fish goes bad,” she says.

Musamba’s predicament is one that many women in Zambia face. She can’t afford a fridge because she doesn’t have access to funds to buy one.

According to a 2020 survey led by the Bank of Zambia, access to financial services is largely concentrated in urban areas, despite more than half of Zambia’s population living in rural areas. Over 80% of urban dwellers have access to financial services compared to just over half of rural dwellers, and 67.9% of women have access to financial services, compared to 71.2% of men. Illiteracy is one of the main barriers for women, according to research by the Alliance for Financial Inclusion, a global network of central banks and financial regulatory institutions.

Many Zambian women rely on informal financial services — mobile money wallets — that don’t involve the paperwork required by formal banks, according to a 2014 study by the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, an organization focused on human rights.

In 2022, the Zambian government aimed to address the gap by setting aside a portion of the Constituency Development Fund, a community fund for local development initiatives, toward efforts that benefit women and youth. They call it the Women and Youth Empowerment Fund.

Zambia is divided into 156 constituencies, each represented by a member of Parliament in the National Assembly. In 2022, each constituency was given 25.7 million Zambian kwachas (about 951,000 United States dollars) through the development fund, of which 20% was to be specifically allocated to “women, youth and community empowerment” projects. The total amount was raised to 28.3 million kwachas (1 million dollars) in the 2023 budget, and 30.6 million kwachas (1.1 million dollars) in the 2024 budget.

To apply for funding, applicants submit their materials to the Ward Development Committee, an administrative body responsible for community development in a constituency. That committee forwards the applications to the Constituency Development Fund Committee, composed of elected and appointed political, religious and community representatives, including the constituency’s member of Parliament. Its members scrutinize each application and either reject or accept it. The accepted applications are then forwarded to the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development for final approval.

However, women, especially in rural areas, encounter obstacles when applying to the fund because of the complicated process, advocates and applicants say. Applicants are required to form cooperatives and submit business proposals that show the viability of a business and how many locals jobs it would create. But many women applicants are illiterate, and some don’t speak English, the official language of Zambia and the one used in the application. Some seek help but encounter exorbitant fees or swindlers instead, applicants say.

Musamba says she’s wanted a fridge ever since she first started selling fish six years ago, but her earnings are barely enough to support her family. At one point, she tried to save for a fridge with a group of women. The effort was unsuccessful because not everyone was dedicated to saving, she says.

She was ecstatic when she first heard about the development fund, and envisioned buying a refrigerator that would keep fish fresh and customers satisfied. In 2022, she gathered 19 women from her area to form a cooperative, one of the prerequisites for applying to the fund. But because no one in the group could read, they couldn’t prepare a business proposal.

“We saw ourselves improving our businesses, but the reality is different,” Musamba says.

According to Zambia’s 2018 Demographic and Health Survey, the latest available, 66% of Zambian women are literate compared to 82% of men.

Musamba says she attended a workshop organized by local government officials where they explained the application document in Nyanja, a local language. Despite the training, her group still couldn’t compile the necessary documents for their application.

They approached two people, hoping to pay them for their help writing the proposal, Musamba says. The first one quoted 4,000 kwachas (148 dollars). The other quoted half the amount — 2,000 kwachas (74 dollars) — but demanded to be paid up front. The group settled for the less expensive option, but the man disappeared after receiving payment, Musamba says.

Musamba’s cooperative is not alone in being scammed when seeking help. In 2022, in the remote Rufunsa district to the east of Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, Albina Lungu and nine of her friends formed a cooperative to apply for a grant to build a borehole to irrigate their watermelon and vegetable crops. Since they couldn’t read or write, they sought help with the business proposal but were scammed out of 1,000 kwachas (about 33 dollars).

Maambo Haamaundu, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development, says applicants are required to form groups or cooperatives so more people benefit from the program, and to prevent misuse of the funds. And they are required to submit a business proposal so the program can ensure that a project will generate employment opportunities in the community and promote sustainable development.

However, Haamaundu acknowledges the application process is a challenge for many women. The government is actively working to simplify the process, he says, including potentially translating the guidelines into local languages.

People who rip off applicants seeking help should be reported to police, he adds. “It’s unfortunate people are getting swindled; but if such is happening, let those affected report to the police and let the law take its course.”

The ministry has not audited the fund to see if the 20% allocated toward women and youth is going to them as intended, Haamaundu says. They plan to, he says, but doesn’t know when it will happen.

Local leaders are sometimes overwhelmed with other duties, Haamaundu says, making it difficult to help individual cooperatives.

Chief Bunda Bunda, of the Soli-speaking people in the Rufunsa district, says many women have complained to him about being cheated out of their money when seeking help with their applications.

In 2022, he met with local government leaders to discuss how to help women apply to the fund, he says. He proposed that the government send people to work on applications with women. He is awaiting feedback on his proposal.

Some women have, however, successfully applied with the support of their local councils and community members.