Rob Katz

Zambia Journal: Lusaka’s Consumer Culture

Shopping mall AfricaGuest blogger Brian McBrearity will be reporting from time to time about his experiences working in Zambia on SME and financial services development. His Zambia Journal posts will appear about once a week here on This is the first in the series.

I am not a development expert, nor do I pretend to be one. I cannot say that I have spent years in the industry, or have vast amounts of knowledge. In fact, this is my first international development role, and it happens to be in the area of microfinance.I landed here in Zambia a couple of weeks ago. My base of operations is the capital city of Lusaka, with planned field visits to more rural parts of the country. While I did have some expectations, having spent a good portion of 2004 volunteering in rural Tanzania, I was not expecting the level of commercialization and consumerism that I was confronted with upon landing in country.

It seems as though South Africans have entered the Zambia consumer market en masse. They have opened retail chains, fast food franchises, and strip malls?all enticing shoppers with western-style goods. ShopRite (the South African mega-mart chain) has various stores in and around Lusaka, including a warehouse outlet where one can buy in bulk. Game is a store not unlike Walmart, though smaller but just as robust. The pride of Lusaka seems to be Manda Hill, the strip mall near my apartment that is anchored by both ShopRite and Game.

And it is packed?all day, every day.

Surprisingly, the predominant customer at the Manda Hill is local. Sure, there is a higher proportion of expats and foreigners than elsewhere in the city, but it’s the local consumer’s buying power that makes Manda Hill the success that it is. A second strip mall has been built down the road, and a third hotel/shopping center is under construction across the street.

It is a quandary in my mind. On the one hand, the stores provide employment, which is desperately needed in this country. On the other hand, the stores have a reputation for low wages, sell a large proportion of imported goods, and send the majority of profits to South Africa. Do the benefits outweigh the costs?

While giving me a tour of Manda Hill, a local told me, ?Sure, Manda Hill is expensive, but people here are willing to pay for quality.?

I am not sure Old El Paso Enchilada Dinners and foot-long Subway sandwiches are synonymous with quality.

Is this progress? Is the goal of development strip malls and fast food chains?