Saturday, June 05, 2010

The challenges of growth for a small community in Zambia

Some of the communities in the under-developed world that do see economic growth also see a whole new set of challenges. The same challenges that the developed world has probably already answered to some extent. Overcrowding and disease can enter the booming economy and can stretch already thin resources to the breaking point.

One such boom town was profiled in a story by the Vancouver Sun. Writer Tara Carman tells us about the Soiwezi community of Zambia.

It's morning in a remote community in northwestern Zambia. There is only one major road through town and it's packed, not so much with cars but with a teeming mass of humanity. Everyone -- from the women in brightly coloured dresses navigating their way among the many roadside stands selling everything from fruit to cellphone air time to the groups of children in their immaculate school uniforms -- is moving. They do not linger on street corners making idle conversation, but purposefully make their way along the dusty roadside, the red earth clinging to their shoes. Lining the main road are a large Shoprite, a major South African grocery store chain, and the newest infrastructure to grace the modest town, street lights, installed just a couple of months ago. A little further down the road is a five-star hotel.

Welcome to the Solwezi of 2010. A decade ago, this was a sleepy provincial capital of about 100,000 people that few outside the country had ever heard of. Today, the population has quadrupled and it has become one of the most important economic centres in the country. Largely, this is due to the Kansanshi copper-gold mine down the road, which is 80-per-cent owned by Vancouver-based First Quantum Minerals.

The mine is the biggest copper producer by output in the country, and minerals -- mainly copper-- account for 70 per cent of Zambia's exports. The mine, which produced 36 per cent of Zambia's copper last year, has brought relatively well-paying jobs and economic development to the area and paid for things like smoother roads and classroom blocks that the local government could not afford to provide. But with it came mass migration, overcrowding and vastly increased rates of HIV and AIDS. And a regional watchdog group accuses this mine and others like it of sharing only a modest proportion of the income from the vast mineral reserves with the people whose land it came from.

The mine is one of the oldest in Africa, dating back to the fourth century. Locals simply picked up ore off the ground and used traditional smelting practices to extract the copper to make 'nsanshis' or copper crosses, said Godfrey Msiska, public relations manager at Kansanshi Mining, Plc. The word kansanshi, translated from the Kaonde language of northwestern Zambia, means small copper cross.

Kansanshi pays the highest wages of any mine in the country, offers generous bonuses and each employee is able to support a family on the salary, Msiska said. Businesses in the area also benefit both directly and indirectly from the mine's presence, he said, adding that the company also puts millions into community infrastructure like water boreholes, classroom blocks, improved roads and local employment projects. People are appreciative, Msiska said.

But relations between the mine's management and the local workforce are not seamless. Theft is a problem on company property, Delaney said, noting that the people who steal constitute a very small proportion of the mine's workforce and are mostly employed by subcontractors.

"They steal anything and everything. Diesel, equipment small and large, copper cathode," Delaney said. Some of the valves used on site are worth $20,000 to $30,000 and procurement people at other mines will purchase them from thieves. Even items like shoes and protective equipment regularly turn up at local markets, he added. "There's a lot of organized shenanagins that go on. Theft, it's a big industry."

The most inescapable and visible impact the mine has had on the community of Solwezi is overcrowding. Solwezi is the regional hub for not only the Kansanshi mine, but also the Lumwana copper mine 65 km away, owned by Equinox Minerals, which has offices in Perth, Australia, and Toronto.

Overcrowding is especially evident at Kabwela School, built by the mine in 2008, where headteacher Lubelenga Wisamba is the only instructor for its 418 children, aged six to 17. The school is located a couple of kilometres down a barely visible dirt road lined with tall grass and thatched huts. There are three classrooms with simple wooden desks and blackboards, a few dozen dusty library books and no water or electricity, though there is a borehole nearby. Wisamba commutes 20 km each way to teach there, but the school is having trouble attracting more teachers because there is nowhere to house them.

Housing is a major concern in the community. While there are a handful of modern-style bungalows, most people live in modest brick dwellings with corrugated iron roofs, which are sometimes held in place by large rocks.

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