Likoma — Yamikani Chalundas agency is the only bank on Likoma Island - Pic by Patrick Botha
Moving down Mbamba Market Street, just about 100 meters from Likoma District Council secretariat, one is greeted with a cardboard sign post written "National Bank of Malawi is here now".
"Welcome dear customer, how can I help you?" says 23-year-old Yamikani Chalunda with a smile inside a tiny room that serves as a 'banking facility'.
"For now we transact Mo626 and VISA only. We have been in operation here for a month. So far, so good; business is promising," he explains about this banking facility comprised of the tiny room, him and a mobile phone!
However, Chalunda says he cannot open new accounts for would be customers. The absence of such a service is a drawback because he cannot widen the customer base. He can only transact with customers that already have accounts with National Bank of Malawi.
Likoma has no formal banking system. Public servants and the business community have to endure the rough sail on the mighty MV Ilala to Nkhata Bay and Mzuzu to access banking services.
The trip to the mainland costs one a minimum of K30000 per return trip on travel and accommodation as they have to wait for three days to sail back by the next ship.
In trying to run away from this cost, a few risk takers opt to give their auto-teller machine (ATM) cards to relatives or colleagues to withdraw money on their behalf.
Some people have ended up losing their entire salaries as their friends and relatives they gave money cards ended up being robbed. Others lost the ATM cards in the course of boarding boats or ship.
This development means a civil servant working in Likoma or Chizumulu Island receives K30000 less from their net salary every month while their counterparts in mainland districts where they have several banks in operation get their full salary.
Against such a background, the establishment of Chalunda's tiny bank is a relief to a privileged few.
Assistant district fisheries officer Clifton Suzgo Botha says he is very happy with the coming of the agency saying it is very convenient.
"I no longer have to travel to Mzuzu and spend three days just to access my bank. I have always been a National Bank customer. But when I came to the island I was shocked to find no branch here.
Life was no longer the same. I was encountering unnecessary costs on travel and accommodation," he says.
"Now I have been withdrawing money here since May and I'm saved from those expenses. The money I used to spend on accommodation and transport to the mainland is now channeled into other meaningful things," he adds.
Mo626 is a National Bank of Malawi's mobile phone service that enables its customers to do money transactions via mobile phones. Chalunda gets K500 for transactions ranging from K10 000 to K30000.
A messenger at the district education manager's office George Emmanuel Kumatenje says the absence of banks on the island is a painful experience.
"The situation is worse for low earning civil servants like me. My net salary is about K66000 and if you deduct a minimum of K25000 for transport and accommodation, it means what I really get at the end of the month is about K31000," Kumatenje says.
"Now I have four children; one of them is at a boarding school. You can imagine the plight I go through," he adds.
Kumatenje has worked as a messenger for 17 years and he bemoans that there is not much he can show. He attributes part of the situation to the unnecessary expenditures made to access banking services on the mainland.
"Initially, I was giving my ATM card to friends or relatives visiting the mainland to withdraw money on my behalf. But I had disappointing experiences and I had to stop sending people to get my salary for me," Kumatenje says.
Despite the absence of formal banking institutions, Likoma District boasts of a vibrant fishing business as the backbone of the two islands economy. On a good fishing expedition, one fishing fleet can earn up to K500, 000.
This means that for a commercial fisherman with three fishing fleets, on a good catch, nets K1.5 million.
This is a missed opportunity for banks as this money just circulates on Likoma and Chizumulu islands.
To the fishermen, spending three days just for banking transactions in Nkhata Bay or Mzuzu is a waste of time than hang around the island and rake more money.
A few banks have sent personnel for feasibility studies on opening branches on the islands. But after 53 years of independence and 18 years of attaining district status, Likoma still has no formal bank facility.
The Island is undoubtedly a haven for tourism. Tourists from all corners of the world fly to Likoma to enjoy her virgin beauty, rich historic sites and breathtaking sceneries.
But in the absence of the banks to conduct foreign exchange (forex) transactions, it is the lodge owners that are tapping from the forex services. This, to say the least, is a missed opportunity for revenue collection to the national economy.
Young Chalunda hopes to expand his business to include forex and plans to have a proper structure than the tiny room he is currently operating from.
His agency is dully registered by National Bank of Malawi under CBR Tours and Travel, which runs other two agencies in Nkhata Bay and Dwangwa.
Ralph Mhone, owner of CBR Tours and Travel and parliamentarian for Nkhata Bay Central, had an eye for a business opportunity in banking services on the island.
"I decided to open a National Bank agency at Likoma because I saw potential business in banking. I also wanted to help the community which has been denied banking services for decades," he says.
"I think civil servants and people of Likoma should travel to the mainland for other big business than just to access banking services or withdraw money.
"You can imagine how much they spend per trip. So the agency is aimed at reducing these costs by bringing banking services at their doorstep," Mhone says.
He further says in a month's time, a team from National Bank will visit the island to conduct a marketing exercise so that people can start opening accounts.
This visit by the bank, Chalunda believes, is a step in the right direction towards easy access to quality banking services.
"It's high time we had a fully operation bank on the island," he says.