Imagine waking up at midnight to catch the only vehicle that can take you to Mzuzu to withdraw your salary.
At the bank, you are told, they are experiencing network problems and you cannot withdraw your money.
You wait until dusk, still, no network. You have no relatives in town to lodge and eat. The vehicle to take you back home has already gone back. What would you do?
That’s the situation, Pindikani Mnthali, a civil servant living in rural areas of Tchesamu in Nkhatabay got wedged in.
Said Pindikani: “I had to sleep in drains but ate nothing as I had no money to afford a room and food in town. That’s how we usually struggle to get our salaries. There is, where I live, no financial service providers thus we always, have to come here in Mzuzu to withdraw our pay.”
Not until our team accompanied Pindikani to his duty station, was it convincing that civil servants, especially those in remotest areas, are true patriots who sacrifice everything to serve their nation. Nonetheless, they are, probably, the least paid in the country.
The land-rover, was jam-packed with passengers and goods beyond its capacity. There was no freedom of desirable posture. It whizzed beyond reasonably recommended speed limit towards the destination. The driver, to avoid traffic police officers, had to use shortcuts.
“This is, despite looking akin to a deathtrap, the only vehicle that can survive the poor roads in our area,” said Pindikani.
“We are now branching to Mazamba. This is the road that takes us to the duty station I am serving. We still have a long way to go from here but by 17:00, we should at least be at Chitheka.”
It was scorching-hot in the land-rover. Penetration of oxygen was minimal. Passengers were, due to the state of the vehicle closed windows, merely exchanging carbon dioxide. It demanded outmost endurance to keep on with the journey.
Abruptly, the vehicle started jerking before it, according to the driver, succumbed to windlock. He said the situation resulted because he had driven the vehicle way after fuel had run out of the tank. The breakdown occurred within Lwafwa, the midst of Mazamba forest. Time-check, it was already 17 hrs.
The driver announced: “This break down is beyond my capacity to rectify as it will require draining of air in the pipes, a thing I don’t know how to do. You will, as I call the mechanic from Mzuzu, bear with me.”
Some passengers dropped off to grasp some fresh air. The skies had become pregnant and the nightfall had begun engulfing the world. The driver had tried to touch base with the mechanic but being in the forest, he faced network problems.
As he kept prompting his head for plan B, heavenly flood-gets opened. Heavy downpours. It was a nightmare. The road would now, according to Pindikani, become more impassable than before. Passengers became worried.
“This rain will create a lot of mud and hence we will have problems to pass through,” said Pindikani.
The driver had an announcement again: “I will, after the rains cease, go and search for network coverage to still call the mechanic.”
It was clear, passengers had to spend their night in the midst of Mazamba forest, because, even if the mechanic could have responded to the call, he would still have taken long to come. From Mzuzu to Lwafwa, it is approximately about 50 kilometres.
The driver, after the rains ceased around midnight, honoured his promise and communicated with the mechanic, who came around mid-day. He rectified the fault and the journey continued.
At Luhangu area, tragedy followed. The land-rover, got stuck in mud. Passengers were asked to drop off and help the driver in removing the vehicle from the mud. The once mighty car, turned into to a push-cart. Passengers pushed the car at a distance of about 400 metres before getting it out of the mud.
We arrived at Chitheka, where the vehicle returns, around 16hrs. For our team and Pindikani, we started, this time by foot, another journey to Tchesamu, about 40 kilometres from Chitheka.
“From here, until we reach there, its mountainous wilderness all over. I hope you will persevere. Otherwise, I have to reach home today by any means. I have to take over from my colleague, who should also go and get his salary in Mzuzu tomorrow,” pronounced Pindikani.
True to his words, his partner had kept wondering on what delayed him from coming back in time as agreed. So they handed over the work to each other and around midnight, his partner started off to catch the land-rover at Chitheka, to take him to Mzuzu to get his salary and buy some necessities.
It is, according to experience at this work station, evident, civil servants in rural areas are facing numerous challenges due to lack of access to financial services within their proximity. Some survive through debts and some are starving because they have no access to finance.
Pindikani confided that they hardly access any finances during rainy season, because the vehicle stops ferrying people to and from Mzuzu to withdraw their money. He admitted that it is hard to survive in remote areas without money because, they are not allowed to do any extra income generating activity as civil servants.
“As you saw yourself, that’s how the situation is usually in rainy season. The road is impassable thus the vehicle stops ferrying people to and from Mzuzu. So it’s hard to live here.”
“My wish is that it can be good if stakeholders can mull-over bringing financial services close to us in the rural areas. Otherwise, we struggle to access the services. This also contributes to our poor service delivery as sometimes, due to transport, officers leave their duty station for more than a week, still in town to withdraw their money. Remember, we, public servants are restricted from doing anything apart from our jobs,” said Pindikani.
This financial access gap, is happening as the country is progressing well in digital financial services (DFS). The system has eased the burden of access to financial services in the country as people are able to carry out financial transactions through their mobile phone.
About 35,865 mobile money agents, according to Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) National payment system report, are registered and are operating across the country.
Ironically, the same report, concedes that rural areas are sidelined on financial access. The central bank says in the report that financial access points by geography remains a challenge as the majority of financial service providers are flooding urban areas, while snubbing rural areas.
Reads the report in part: “Distribution of agents remains heavily skewed towards urban and semi-urban areas, which accounts for 78.5 percent of the total number of agents. Furthermore, only 47.9 percent of the registered mobile money agents in rural areas were before June active. ”
“RBM and relevant stakeholders will therefore continue to engage service provides to deploy more access points especially in rural areas.”
Commenting onj the issue, the Consumers Association of Malawi (CAMA) acknowledged that there are problems in financial access in rural areas. The association’s executive director, John Kapito, called for joint efforts in bridging the inequality.
He urged the mobile service providers to put in place measures that will attract money agents to work in rural areas so that the country can achieve financial inclusion drive.
“It is our hope that both TNM and Airtel will assist consumers by encouraging agents to be found within short distances to reduce the cost of using this technology in the rural areas. Currently, the commissions are also not attractive to rural agents but we believe that since this is growing technology, consumers in rural areas will be experiencing better services on mobile money soon,” he said.