Tuesday, March 27, 2012

SACCOs in Malawi


Savings and Credit Co-operatives, or SACCOs, are simply credit unions/caisses populaires by another name. In addition to all the other benefits of membership in a co-operative, SACCOs in developing countries are also helping to bring financial services to individuals and groups who aren't served by traditional banks (here's an example from India, and another from Malawi). You may have heard of microfinance, another means by which poorer segments of the population are able to access loans and other financial services. This short video from Kiva goes over the basics, most of which are also relevant to SACCOs:

In Malawi, there are 45 SACCOs affiliated with the Malawi Union of Savings and Credit Co-operatives (MUSCCO), for whom I work. Many of these SACCOs began life as study groups, savings clubs, or similar organizations whose members started saving money together and loaning each other funds. Many remain small to this day, serving a small or restricted clientele (like employees of one particular company), while the biggest, Fincoop, has six branches and membership in the tens of thousands. 

Here is a whirlwind tour of some Malawian SACCOs I've had the chance to visit, and their diverse membership:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Game Review: Mario & Luigi : Bowser's Inside Story

Mario & Luigi: Bowser's Inside Story (DS)
Finished: March 20, 2012

Gameplay: Like the other DS Mario & Luigi RPG, the gameplay here is less about raw stats and dice rolls and more about timed attacks and minigames. I personally would have preferred a little more min-maxing and dice rolling (a matter of taste, I know). I'm all for moving a game along and not descending into repetitive grinding, but part of the fun of levelling up a character in an RPG is watching him/her become more powerful over time. Tying attack success to my manual dexterity (not to mention flat-out replacing many battles with mini-games) makes me wonder what I was allocating all those points for each level-up. Another annoyance? This game tries its damnedest to use everything at its disposal on the DS system. For example, you're forced to blow into the DS mic to complete more than one compulsory piece of the game. How clever, you think, except that I felt like a tool playing this around other adults. I ended up retreating to my bedroom to complete these segments after the first time someone walked in on me blowing on (which I'm sure looked more like making out with) my DS in the living room. Is this a sign that I've outgrown the platform? 

Story: Quirky. The main villain talks like the "all your base are belong to us" guy. Plot drives the game and the unlock of new abilities and areas; you switch between characters/viewpoints often, and there are a lot of conversations. I found it excessive: for the first few hours of the game, it felt like I seldom fought more than 4-5 creatures in a row before being pulled away to play a minigame or listen to a conversation or switch to a different character.  

Difficulty: Lightweight (as can probably be expected for a game geared to a younger audience). You pick up items that let you retry battles if you lose, and save points are never far away. The timed attacks still require some skill, though. 

Overall rating: 3 / 5

Friday, March 9, 2012


When I first arrived in Malawi in late January, I would see the occasional queue of cars at gas stations. The queues disappeared for a while, and returned with a vengeance about two weeks ago. 

Driving... is that a queue on the left? But there's no gas station around here...

The fuel queues are mostly a result of the foreign exchange (forex) shortage (if you wanted to travel to Malawi, now's the time: bring US dollars!). An overvalued currency and a trade imbalance have led to a serious shortage of foreign currency with which to import things like fuel. (I mean serious: I'm working for a financial institution, and they can't acquire enough foreign currency to send employees travelling abroad.) 

Following the queue...

The official bank exchange rate is 170 kwacha for 1 US dollar, and so far the highest I've been offered on the black market is 300 kwacha for 1 US dollar. A news article from earlier this year sums up the state of things. (Since that article was written, the government has rejected those initial calls to devalue, but the debate about whether to do it continues). 

600m+ down the road, I reach the gas station that's the source
of the queue, and almost get stuck in the traffic jam there.

So what you do you do if you need fuel? Queue for hours (if not days, at this point) and hope you luck out and the station you're parked at gets a delivery... or turn to the black market!

This is probably terribly unsafe. 

I'm told fuel is going at around 6$ a liter now on the black market. Of course, there's no guarantee that what you're buying is proper fuel (I imagine you can be fairly certain of the opposite). And despite the illegality of reselling fuel like this, the above picture of our shady black market fill-up was taken approximately 20 meters away from a legitimate gas station (which, of course, was out of fuel).