Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Story of Zeca

When Rico and I first moved to Maptuo back in early 2006, we didn't have a car. We relied on taxis to go to meetings, to the supermarket on the outskirts of town, to the airport, out to dinner, to clubs - essentially anything that wasn't within walking distance.

Taxi drivers in Maputo are a notoriously unreliable bunch, and at any one point Rico and I each would have a list of about 25 drivers stored in our cell phones that we would continuously update, moving the good drivers to the top of the list and deleting the ones who would show up drunk, who would run out of gas halfway to our destination, whose cars seemed within even the Mozambican definition of "unroadworthy", who would blatantly lie and say they were on their way and then arrive 30 minutes later with an indignant look on their faces as if they were doing us some grand favor by even showing up at all. We went through a long list of drivers before settling on a marginally satisfactory rotation of two or three for the day shift, and one or two for the night shift.

Even among this group of decently reliable drivers, Zeca stood out. He always kept his taxi - a silver Toyota Corolla - in good repair and with at least a quarter tank of fuel at all times. He was courteous, a good conversationalist (Zeca lived in East Germany for several years in the 1980's, where he worked in a tire factory as part of the Mozambican government's worker exchange initiatives), well-groomed (unshowered drivers make for an unpleasant ride) and punctual. We even got to the point where Zeca would call and let us know if he was going to be even 5 minutes late.

At that point, Rico and I were using Zeca's taxi services on a regular basis. We easily spent at least 1,500mt (about US$60) per week running around Maputo, and figured he was turning quite a profit thanks to our business. Additionally, we started recommending Zeca to all of our friends here in need of a reliable taxi.

Our friend M. started using Zeca quite frequently, and made a joke one day that Zeca must be filling his pockets with money having all these mulungo clients. Contrary to what we all had assumed, Zeca proceeded to tell M. that no, in fact, he wasn't making any additional money despite the spike in his business.

Apparently, as is the case with most taxis here in Maputo, Zeca's taxi belonged to his patrão, or boss. The patrão would pay Zeca a fixed salary each month for driving, and Zeca would hand over his earnings regardless of how much or how little he'd made relative to his salary. Essentially, his patrão was sitting cool watching more and more money come in the door without lifting a finger (Zeca is very honest and would always hand over 100% of the revenues), while Zeca - who had won over all these clients because of his good work ethic and dedication - was not reaping any of the financial benefits.

M. discovered that Zeca's patrão payed him 2,000mt (US$80) per month as a salary, which made me and Rico feel extraordinarily ashamed that we'd simply assumed his situation was improving as a result of our patronage. Zeca earned a pittance of a wage, and had never once complained about his situation in the nearly two years we'd known him. He'd never had the handout attitude of "Estou a pedir-e" or "Está difícil, pá", and this very fact made us respect him even more.

Rico, M. and I hatched a plan to do something to support Zeca and help him reap the benefits of his hard work. We decided to finance a car for him. We did the math, and found that the 14,000 to 17,000mt (US$560 to $680) that Zeca averaged in revenues per month could easily cover his fuel and maintenance costs, as well as a small car payment and insurance. We decided that Rico and I would buy the car, and that M. would cover the insurance cost.

When we told Zeca about the idea, he was ecstatic. We were clear, however, that we wouldn't be able to purchase his car immediately because we didn't have the extra cash on hand. Zeca didn't mind, and patiently waited multiple months for us to save the necessary amount. In the meantime, Zeca started saving as well, as he wanted to make a contribution to the insurance cost. Even on a salary of US$80 per month, he somehow managed to save 5,000mt (US$200) by the time we were ready to purchase the car.

Zeca did all the legwork, and identified a silver Corolla that was in good condition and had a reasonable price. We gave him the money - just over US$5,000 for the car and US$500 for the insurance - and he and Ricardo went together to buy his new taxi. He asked Rico to bring a camera so he could record the day his life changed and - in his words - we became his "parents". Zeca and his wife always refer to us in this manner, and I find it funny but really endearing.

The day Zeca announced to his old patrão that he had his own car and wouldn't be working for him anymore, his patrão was in such a state of disbelief that he actually accused Zeca of stealing. He thought it was the only way Zeca could have possibly come across the necessary cash to buy a car (or get the minimum collateral for a bank loan) given the miserable salary he was paying. In order for the patrão to believe that Zeca's clients had financed a car for him, Rico had to draw up a "contract" with Zeca attesting to the loan, as well as talk to the patrão himself. I can only imagine how that man (and his wife with a hefty shopping habit) must have felt the day they saw their goose with the golden egg walk out the door, ready to become an entrepreneur.

As a guarantee, the taxi is in Rico's name until Zeca finishes paying us back. We have an arrangement whereby every Monday he deposits 2,000mt (US$80) in our account - the equivalent to his previous monthly salary - and the same amount each month in M.'s account. We charged Zeca a modest interest rate for the financing, more than anything to respect the idea that money has value over time rather than to cover our risk as lenders.

To date, Zeca has payed back over 75% of the value of the loan. He has never missed a payment or been late, and we never have to remind him that he needs to deposit the funds. He is like clockwork. Zeca has also started putting away a bit of money each month so that he has enough savings in a year's time so that he can buy a second car, or upgrade to another vehicle should he want to.

Since Zeca became self-employed, his income has increased multiple-fold and he will soon have an asset in his name. He and his wife just moved into a larger house in a better neighborhood. Because of Zeca's improved financial situation, his wife was able to leave her job as a maid in an abusive family and find a new employer. They are both much happier.

To say thank you, Zeca threw a churrasco party for me, Rico, M. and his wife K. He made it clear that he wanted to cover all the costs, up to about US$100. He bought us meat, shrimp, beer, sodas and all sorts of other treats. We had a nice barbeque in M. and K.'s backyard. Zeca and his wife gave us a heartfelt toast of thanks, we took some commemorative photos, and then settled into a comfortable rhythm of conversation, chatting about current events, sports, Maputo politics, cultural differences and whatever else came to mind.

Without a doubt, helping Zeca get his own taxi was the greatest "development" impact we have had during our time in Mozambique. Rico and I often muse about opportunities for replication of our intervention with another decent taxi driver, or perhaps something with our maid or our security guards. However it's not easy to find another Zeca. The combination of his personality, his work ethic, his line of work and the timing all made it a unique situation.

Still, we're not giving up hope. We're doing a bit of an experiment with our maid, Dona Lídia, to finance a small house adjacent to her own residence that she can rent out for a modest income. I'll keep you posted on the progress as things move forward...


Anne said...

Beautiful! I'm so pleased for Zeca.
Perhaps you'd be more satisfied working for a microfinance NGO, like the Grameen Bank?

Ali la Loca said...

~Anne - It makes me happy to read back through this story. Zeca is such a deserving, hard working guy.

I greatly admire Grameen Bank. Truth be told, however, I don't think I want to work at any NGO at this point, regardless of the focus. The model isn't aligned with my perspective, and development work, I've discovered, simply isn't my passion...not that I'm in any way knocking NGOs - I'm sure there are still some good ones out there - I just have to call a spade a spade.

Brandie said...

I like the honesty!

What would you prefer to be doing instead?

Ali la Loca said...

~Brandi - Girl, I wanna make jewelry!!

Ali la Loca said...

Sorry, Brandie, I forgot your (e) in my reply!

Brandie said...

And I wanna design interiors, write, design furniture, and grow beautiful things (i.e. flowers/food)!!!

Oh Ali -
Let's shed this development cloak and follow our passions!!


(in goofy moode ;)

Marcia Francois said...

Now that is a wonderful, inspirational story, Ali.

I wish Zeca all of the very best :)

Stacie said...

You all can do your passion..I am doing mine (making jewelry) and it has been the ride of my life...and I am only getting started. Start towards doing your thing...and the universe will conspire to make you realize what you visualize....rock on!

Ali la Loca said...

~Brandie - I'm on board, girl!!

~Marcia - Thanks, we are looking forward to the day when we transfer the car to his name. It's coming up pretty soon.

~Stacie - You star! Thanks for that message. I'm starting to make concrete plans. :)

Fly Brother said...

Wow...this is a phenomenal story; I felt my smile growing bigger the more I read. Congrats to both you and Zeca!

Thanks for stopping through my spot; I'm glad to know that I'm not the only one who's been worn down while "fighting the good fight." Sometimes, we have to be selfish in order to save our sanity.

Mozambique still seems like a wondrous place to me; though I've never been, I have friends who loved Maputo (and Lisbon and Mindelo and Sao Paulo) and have encouraged me to go. I looked online for some one- or two-month volunteer projects there, but haven't had much luck. Still, I'd like to spend a few months there sometime within the next two or three years.

Anyway, I say get to work on your jewelry. The anxiety about finances lessens the closer I get to my last day. I'm just ready to re-start my life.

Paz e bem,
Fly Bro

Ali la Loca said...

~Fly Brother - Thanks for the visit. I left a comment in response to the volunteer thing on your blog. Contact me and we can chat about the possibilities - after 4 years I certainly can advise you on a couple places to look.

Boa sorte nessa viagem!

Teej said...

I'm completely inspired by this story! So glad that it worked out for everybody.

La Strega said...


estou sem palavras. Gostei muito da história, e acho que é assim mesmo. Encontrando pessoas honestas e merecedoras, e criando oportunidades proporcionadas pelo contexto, com muito pouco se pode mudar o mundo.

Eu espero que outras pessoas se inspirem na sua experiência e vejam que não é tão difícil assim impactar na vida de outras pessoas.


MarkS said...

Hi Ali

Please can you give me the number for Zeca the Taxi Driver (if you still have it)?
I would like to use his services in Maputo.

Kind Regards

Mark Strydom