How Taking a Jobbatical Led to Passion for African Microfinance
Sometimes you need to quit your job and plunge into the unknown to find your purpose. This is precisely what Andrea Bratu did when she quit her steady finance job in her native Romania. In a matter of months she did find her purpose — a jobbatical at a Zambian social enterprise that led her to discover a passion for this region’s microfinance.
Andrea worked in finance for almost a decade and became the Head of a Microfinance Credit Analysis Department in Romania’s largest microfinance institution. But something was amiss.
“At one point I realized this routine would not allow me to travel enough or to understand microfinance at a broader level. This is when I decided to see whether my experience would be useful in other parts of the world. I was really curious to see how microfinance works in different setups and cultures. I quit my job and started looking for projects in microfinance outside of Romania. I needed a challenge,” describes Andrea.
That was a brave move — quitting before having anything else lined up.
“Maybe it was stupid, but I needed to give myself this chance and try. I had worked hard for the last 10 years. I really wanted to find something that feels right. It took me 2–3 months, but I DID find the project that excited me,” says Andrea.
From banking to providing farmers with pumps
Jobbatical came to her attention through some googling. She signed up and it wasn’t for long before a company in the Southern African country of Zambia popped up.
“They seemed a good fit. I did my research on the company. It is called Rent to Own (RTO) and it is a social business that seeks to provide high-impact assets to micro-entrepreneurs in rural Zambia. They function like a startup,” Andrea says and adds, “I really liked their mission — focusing on very small customers and providing them with productive assets.”
These assets (such as refrigerators, hammer mills, and irrigation pumps) help catalyze business growth for clients who do not have access to such equipment in underdeveloped and disadvantaged communities. In Zambia, many farmers and rural business owners lack access to affordable, available and appropriate equipment for key business ventures such as farming and food production. Without productive assets, these entrepreneurs are not able to realize their business potential.
Rent to Own directly responds to this challenge through a holistic approach: not only do they help clients select their assets but they also provide low-cost distribution, tailored financing and training services so each customer walks away with the assets, knowledge, and skills needed to grow their business over the long term.
Andrea had never been to Africa before, but she was not the slightest bit worried. “I did do a bit of homework and found nothing too worrying about Zambia — there were no wars, no disease outbreaks…”
47 degrees of separation
Once Andrea applied for the job through Jobbatical, the company contacted her immediately. It all happened in a matter of days. “The process went very smoothly, we had a couple of calls and came to an agreement.”
Two weeks after signing the job contract, Andrea was on her way to Zambia, landing from -20C in Bucharest to +27C in Lusaka.
“The weather is perfect there. But what really surprised me was the openness of the team, their very constructive attitude and how open, direct, and kind everyone was,” Andrea remembers. “Of course it is a business-oriented company but I really felt they have a genuine interest improving the lives of the farmers. This was very motivating.”
The first thing Andrea liked in Zambia was that she felt safe there. “The capital Lusaka is developed and you can easily find all the basic stuff. Also the expat community is pretty big. Zambians smile a lot. It is so easy to interact with them, to ask them for anything. I did not feel even once that they would take advantage of an ignorant foreigner,” Andrea says. “One thing that surprised me was how beautiful Zambia is. And I have travelled a lot in my life. Places like Victoria Falls and South Luangwa National Park are just splendid.”
Andrea traveled immediately to a small rural village where she spent a week to better understand their company’s customer. “What I saw there — of course you can see it is a very poor country with a lot of challenges ahead. There’s a lack of governmental projects to address the poverty. Life is not easy for the people in the rural areas, but even they were smiling a lot. You do not feel like it is a third-world country.”
The only qualm Andrea remembers experiencing in Lusaka was the lack of infrastructure. “If you do not have a car, it is hard to travel around. I am a keen walker and the lack of sidewalks was not easy, but this is a minor thing. Overall it is an easy country. ”
Andrea joined RTO’s main office in the Zambian capital Lusaka. She was hired to make RTO’s credit processes more efficient, fluid, and client-friendly, but she soon realized she’d have to do a bit of everything. “Being a startup you can’t act in your area of expertise like you would in a corporation, focusing just on your part and letting the other departments do theirs. I loved this opportunity to understand other areas in a company — from IT to product challenges.”
Compared to Europe, microfinance and asset financing in Zambia seems to have a completely different setup. The volatility of the economic status there is high and businesses are very vulnerable. “Most people in rural Africa have no access to loans or asset financing. Their chance to buy equipment that can bring them added value and income is near to 0. Companies like RTO who try to solve this deserve to be admired, because it is also a high-risk business,” Andrea says.
Besides learning a lot about Zambia, Andrea appreciates the opportunity of having worked in a startup. “How team dynamics work in small companies was something interesting to learn. You interact a lot with your colleagues. And you always have to keep a very customer-centric attitude. You’ll also learn how to interact a lot with other areas in the company that are unfamiliar to you.”
Andrea’s jobbatical did leave a mark on the company, too. “They hired a dedicated person for the credit area and that means that they will continue building that area and continue what I introduced there.”
In return, the jobbatical at RTO gave Andrea the purpose she’d been looking for. “It became clear to me that I would like to continue understanding microfinance in Africa and that it would have to be my next project, too. Luckily, I found one in Berlin where I am based now.”
Jobbatical has certainly influenced Andrea’s decisions a lot. “I went to Africa thinking: let’s see how it works out? But then I chose my next challenge exactly in that area I was introduced to. So I do encourage everyone to take a jobbatical. Just do it! There is not much to consider nor a reason not to do it. Just apply, go and experience the world!”
Andrea says there’s not a person around her who does not know about Jobbatical. “Whenever a friend of mine complains about their work, I send them a link to Jobbatical. I really admire what you do. Thank you for existing!