Elusive credit means Zambians build slowly

Banks are starting to offer loans, but the rates put them beyond most people's reach.

Like many towns and cities across Africa, the landscape of Zambia's capital, Lusaka, is dotted with partially built houses.

One of them belongs to Kelvin Phiri, a 30-year-old driver at a nongovernmental organization based in Lusaka. Mr. Phiri obtained a plot and started building a two-bedroom house near his current home in Lusaka's Mutendere compound in January 2006.

As with most would-be Zambian home-owners, he's working without a mortgage or financing. Rather, he's building his two-bedroom house, quite literally, brick by brick.

A former taxi driver, Phiri has been able to save more money since getting a steady job. One of his paychecks each month goes to his rent and his family. The other goes to building.

Phiri keeps cement bags in his bedroom in the house where he currently lives with his mother, three brothers, and the daughter of his late elder brother. Every weekend, Phiri, who does not own a car, carries a few bags down the road to the plot, where he has hired local contractors to build.

"You buy maybe 10 packets of cement, you save again; you buy a heap of sand, you save again; you buy blocks...," he says with a grin.

For most Zambians, even those in this southern African nation's slowly growing middle class, the process of construction can be desperately slow.

Access to credit and the banking services that most developed-world citizens take for granted is limited in many African nations, with the exception of bigger players like South Africa and Kenya, and economic success stories like Botswana.

In Zambia, the situation is particularly difficult. Despite recent economic gains the majority of people remain in poverty.

Businesses working with foreign investors can construct buildings quickly. Business is booming in some fast-growing commercial hot spots of Lusaka, like the Manda Hill neighborhood.

But banks, until recently, found it more profitable to invest in government securities than to loan money to individuals or even small businesses. In an economy where only 20 percent of the workforce, at most, has a formal job, most people are considered credit risks. Credit bureaus don't yet exist.

While good housing is scarce, securing ownership of land can be difficult and cumbersome. And for those who can get a loan, interest rates are often a huge deterrent. The average commercial bank's lending rate recently exceeded 40 percent, and is currently about 28 percent, according to the government.

Few bank accounts, fewer loans

According to a 2006 World Bank study, less than 1 percent of Zambia's 11.5 million people had an outstanding bank loan in 2005. More broadly, only 6.2 percent of Zambian adults have bank accounts, and almost two-thirds of those accounts hold less than $100.

As a result, houses often take years to build. When cash is available, there is a flurry of activity. When cash is short, the hammers fall silent.

"It's very difficult to get loans, and even if you do, the interest rates are so high. So you say, how far can you go" without a loan, notes Diane Mulila, an administrative officer who is building a four-bedroom house on Lusaka's outskirts with her husband.

But the dynamic is starting to change, slowly. Donors like the United States are recognizing the need for financing. After 16 years of government free-market policies, banks are beginning to offer home loans and loans to small businesses.

British-owned Barclays Bank is experimenting with a "building loan," and has chosen five individuals who will receive 90 percent financing, given in stages.

"People have realized the importance of owning homes," notes Kapoma Collins, an adviser at Barclays' new home-loan center in Lusaka. "There is a great demand, especially for building."

Last year, Barclays launched a home-mortgage program. The bank puts up 80 percent of the money, repayable over 20 years or until the loan recipient turns 55, whichever comes first, for people with permanent employment. The interest rate is 17 percent.

Between the job requirement and a minimum loan amount of about $20,000, the loan is still off limits to most. "For a 20 percent down payment … in Zambia, it's difficult," Mr. Collins acknowledges.

And in Zambia, like many other nations in the region, where 16 percent of the adult population is HIV-positive and the business sector is still developing, even the best-laid plans can change quickly.

Zambian middle-class professionals with good jobs, who in wealthy nations might easily get financing, are forced to be creative.

Some take out special short-term loans for building materials, at an interest rate of about 24 percent, offered by the Zambia National Building Society. Some borrow money from their employers.

Others start building and hope for the best, maybe getting a loan later down the line.

"We start and stop…. Anytime we have any extra money, we think about buying extra cement, buying extra blocks," says Ms. Mulila, who laid the foundation for her own house last November using her savings and a loan from a family member. "We just live for the building project."

Across town, five years after the first brick was laid, the Barak Ministries Pentacostal Church is just now approaching completion.

Open for worship, but still no floor

The congregation financed the church through weekly tithes, fundraising barbecues, and donations from neighboring branches, says Levy Nyirongo, the pastor at the church's branch across town.

The church's revivalist members want to hold a grand opening in March, but have already started worshiping and singing every weekend in the unfinished building, which still lacks paint, power, venting, and a proper floor.

"When there is a break, we are raising the funds," Mr. Nyirongo says. "When there is money, we move."

Meanwhile, Phiri, the driver, has reached window level on his home after 20 months. He's looking forward to having some space for "myself and my future wife," he says with a laugh.

For the roofing, he's thinking about applying for a loan, but he doesn't know whether he'll be able to get one. "The fact is that it's not easy," Phiri notes. "It's hard. I just saved bit by bit."

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