Unexpected Challenges

In speaking to our hosts and past Fischer Fellows, and doing research online about what to expect working abroad for the first time, I tried to prepare a realistic picture of how work would be, knowing I’d need to keep an open-mind once arrived.

However, after two weeks here in Swaziland, I’ve found myself slightly over-prepared in some areas. For example: the quality of paved roads has exceeded my expectations, and the design of local supermarkets practically matches those in Seattle.

But, there are challenges I didn’t anticipate:

  • Constraints not only on internet speed, which I did expect, but also on total capacity: specific amounts of GB are procured for download/upload each month for land-based home and business connections. This causes otherwise easy solutions to common business problems, such as file sharing or server backups storage, to be exorbitant or flatly unworkable.
    • So-crazy-it’s-almost-funny-side-note: the internet was out our first days onsite because thieves had stolen an entire transmission pole nearby – wires, cables, the literal pole!
  • Limited merchant/commercial banking options. I’d read a lot about the popularity/success of personal mobile money in Africa but, from a business point of view things are different. PayPal for Business (for example) and affordable wire transfer services are not available in the country, so international payments are difficult/expensive to process. It’s even challenging to work with the banks to secure an easy method to receive credit card transactions. Some small businesses here utilize an out of country bank account (UK, South Africa, etc) to process payments.
    • Personal note: to book a $100 shuttlebus into Swaziland, the only payment option available was international wire, a service for which our bank charges $40. ☹
  • Lack of transport outside the main cities. I (wrongly) assumed that people who lived rurally would depend on cars. But it turns out, often the rural poor can’t afford vehicles. Although Tsandza is in a rural location (intentionally, since the mission is to provide jobs for rural women), they provide transportation for their artisans to/from the workshop each day. This brings major business risk. Recently the large vehicle used for this purpose seized up due to lack of oil – leadership had to scramble to find alternate methods since this jeopardized their production schedule and customers.  A proverbial “for want of a nail” scenario!
  • Labor laws: employees are on a (sometimes perpetual) contract – not an “at-will” employment scenario. While I’m sure the rules are well-intended to protect worker rights, in practice this means it can be a challenge to keep staff motivated and focused.

These challenges limit the number of tools you have to deal with a specific problem, including many default “tools” to which I’m accustomed. To put it another way, I’m used to seeing a nail and reaching for a hammer; but what if you only have a screwdriver?

Coming up with creative yet straightforward solutions seems to be huge requirement for success here.  I’ll let you know how we do.

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