Foreigners : friends or foes?

By Wezi Ngwenya

The case of refugees
Two weeks ago, our church had a fundraising lunch to sponsor a Congolese family so they can immigrate to Canada. So far, our church has been able to raise more than half of the required $32,500. As our church has been going through this important process, I couldn’t help it but think about what has been happening in Zambia in the last few weeks.

Zambia, which has traditionally been a sanctuary to many of our warring neighbors, has become a contributor to the refugee crisis. Today, it is home to more than 50,000 refugees with half of them coming from Angola and the rest coming from Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. More than $20 million was spent in 2014 on refugee affairs by United Nation agencies in Zambia. Needless to say, refugees are not only an important social aspect of our country but they also contribute immensely to our economy.

Economic contributions
When I worked for the Coca cola distributor in Zambia, I was privileged to get to know businesspeople who had fled the war-torn countries to Rwanda and Burundi. Part of my job was to work with the retailers and distributors in places such as Kaunda Square, Kamanga, Chelstone, and Avondale. My best customers and the most profitable were the foreigners. It was impressive how they had mastered the retail business in our compounds.

The foreigners ensured that their inventory were just the right levels. They ensured that their sons, daughters and wives understood the business and worked just as hard. They went out of their way to understand their customers. Their business models were fluid enough to meet the changing demands of the people. In fact, the Rwandese have slowly taken over the wholesale distribution business in Lusaka. The biggest grocery distributor to most of the compounds in Lusaka is a Rwandese.

In addition, they are slowly gaining ground in offering us our favorite beverage. They have already taken over some of our popular night spots. Take a look at African Braii which is a very impressive enterprise. The Rwandese owner is one of the successful refugee stories. Instead of lynching these people, perhaps we should buy them a drink and find out what their recipe for success is. And yes it does not involve magic.

Zambian retailers
On the contrary, as a people we have struggled to master the art of doing business. I was often fighting with my Zambian brothers and sisters regarding how they mismanaged our coolers and products. Many of them waited until the product was completely gone before they could order more. Sometimes there was a stretch of days when they didn’t have Coke at all. The shopkeepers lacked the zeal and initiative to engage their customers. In some cases, you literally have to beg for their attention while they relived the previous night’s adventures or recounted a scene from the Nigerian movies.
Friends not foes
Clearly, there are more benefits than harm to having foreigners in our country. They have created jobs, they are consumers of our goods and services which in turn stimulates the local economy. We even get a chance of learning Kirundi without having to travel to Bujumbura or learn some Portuguese without ever sailing to Lisbon.

Zambians will have to work extremely hard to undo the damage caused by the xenophobia attacks in the last few weeks. We will need to reach out to our neighbors and show them the side that we are known for. Our national leaders will also need to be proactive. They will need to apologize on behalf of Zambians. Let us embrace our fellow Africans in the true Ubuntu spirit. For we are stronger together.

Wezi Ngwenya

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