What Can One Dollar Buy in Zambia?

“… living on less than one dollar a day”

You hear this phrase on commercials to sponsor children in Africa, a catchphrase when it comes to describing the complicated issue of poverty. It’s tossed around often, as is the idea that most people on the ginormous continent of Africa are poor. Yes, poverty is certainly a major issue affecting the lives of many.

We have now seen people struggle to make ends meet, like a farmer who had to put off buying 200 fingerlings (baby fish) for $10 USD in order to pay for unexpected medical expenses for his family. Sometimes the choice is to pay for school fees or have enough food.

However, not everyone is in this dire situation. There are also successful people in our village who may not make a lot compared with Western standards, but they can make ends meet, have enough food all year and enough left over to pay for workers to dig fish ponds in order to have more money in the future.  Additionally, there are highly educated people in big cities leading lives not so different from Americans. Not all people in Africa are living in abject poverty. But yes, sadly, it does exist. Poverty, unfortunately, exists everywhere, but that’s not an excuse.


How much, on average, does a person make in Zambia?

Household income varies greatly based on region. Over half of Zambia’s 16 million people live in rural settings. City dwellers earn significantly more, skewing the nation’s average income. So I will present statistics based on the region where we live, Northern Province, which is one of the least developed regions.

According to the 2015 Zambia Living Conditions Monitoring survey, the average monthly income for a household in Northern Province is K895.9 per month ($74.80 USD), while the country average is K1,801.3 ($150.79 USD). Urban households earn on average K3,152.4 ($263.65 USD), significantly higher than rural households (K810, $67.75 USD). The term “household” is a loose one – it is not uncommon for a couple to have five to seven children. Additionally, a housing compound can consist of even more people with extended family.

Zambia map

Zambia’s nine provinces. We live in Northern Province.


What do people do for money in rural Zambia?

Most people living in our community are subsistence farmers; they grow most of the food they consume and sell the rest. As with the weather (and climate for that matter), their income varies with the seasons. Half of the year is bone-dry and the other six months are blessed with abundant rain, so this is when people grow most food because irrigation can be a challenge. When the rains finish up in May, the fruit of labor is realized. Food is relatively abundant during this time; it is also when people earn most of their money. The government buys maize for about $6USD for 50kg of shelled corn, which seems low for the amount of work, space, and inputs the staple requires. Other cash crops in this region include peanuts, cassava, and soybeans. Unlike salaried employment, subsistence farmers earn most of their income in a short time window. When the rains come back in November, some people have depleted both money and food during a period known as the hunger season. Unfortunately, proper budget planning is also an issue. Paired with higher incidences of malaria and heavy physical labor required to cultivate fields, rainy season can be a challenging time.

Maize is a major cash crop. Everything is done by hand.

Growing soybeans

There are other ways people earn besides growing food. Molding 500 bricks in our community can earn one K75, about $6.27 USD, but that doesn’t include burning them (to properly harden). Other trades include bricklaying, carpentry, construction, digging/preparing fields for cultivation, animal husbandry, tailoring, brewing alcohol, hair braiding, and selling basic groceries at tuck shops. There isn’t much regular employment in rural setups, so people must be self-motivated to create their own work.

Many Peace Corps volunteers work with various groups to teach skills to earn money in a sustainable manner, including maintaining a tree nursery, beekeeping, gardening, food processing, animal husbandry, baking, etc.

As aquaculture volunteers, we promote small-scale fish farming raised in earthen ponds. Farmers can earn up to a nearly 10x return on their investment of fingerlings within six months while only taking up a small 200m2 plot (that’s a 900% return in only 6 months while just 10% is considered a good year for the US stock market!). As long as the natural resources, market, and motivation are there, to say fish farming is an excellent business opportunity – in addition to improving household nutrition – is an understatement.

Read more about what we do as Rural Aquaculture Promotion volunteers.


Common Expenditures

In Northern province, the average monthly household expenditure is K691 ($57.82 USD) with 56.3% (K389, $32.55 USD) going to food and 43.6% (K301, $25.19 USD) going to non-food items and services including housing, transport, medical, and education.

One of the biggest hurdles is school fees. Tuition is free until grade 7, but from grade 8, fees are required for each of the three terms. In our community, that comes out to K300 ($25.11 USD) per term, so K900 ($75.34 USD) per school year. All students also need to purchase uniforms and supplies, which can be a burden on families, especially those with several children. Unfortunately, fees can be so expensive that many youths, particularly girls, don’t finish school. Another problem is that sometimes, school fees are due at a time when maize prices are at its lowest. So instead of waiting to sell their crops at a higher price, some people sell early in order for their children to continue their education. Depending on the school, students can get kicked out until they can pay fees. And while some schools are more flexible with payment plans, still, some aren’t.

20 Grade 9 Students, 1 Computer

20 Grade 9 Students, 1 Computer

The “living on one dollar a day” catchphrase can be taken out of context. Sure, Americans cannot fathom how anyone can survive on that because the average lifestyle is costly stateside; a dollar can’t buy much in America. But that same dollar can go a long way in other countries.

Further, many people in our community don’t spend money every day; they utilize natural resources for fuel and shelter in addition to growing and foraging for food. In our community, that includes maize, sweet potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, onions, various greens, pumpkins, mangoes, bananas, mushrooms, caterpillars, beans, and the occasional chicken or goat. If people are short on cash, they can pay with a chicken or exchange with food. For example, a counterpart told me that people used to pay teachers in cassava when the community school first opened. The village tailor sometimes takes maize or other crops in exchange for her services. When I got my skirt tailored, she wanted to give it to me as a gift and refused to accept my payment. So I came back the following week with a bottle of vegetable oil and chlorine to clean drinking water, which may be more valuable since it is not sold in the village. So even if somebody doesn’t have physical cash, they still have resources that can be just as valuable.

There are no bills for electricity, water, taxes, insurance, or gas. Basic healthcare is free, but it can be burdensome for some to reach the nearest clinic. Our clinic is four hours away on foot, so when bedridden with malaria, it is not easy to get treatment even though it’s free.

Some other common expenditures include cooking oil, matches, talk-time to make calls, sugar, clothes, and alcohol. They can build a house mostly from local materials: mud bricks, mud mortar, poles, grass for a thatch roof. Their resourcefulness continues to impress me.


Do Peace Corps volunteers earn money?

People ask how much Peace Corps volunteers “earn”. Well, as the title suggests, we are volunteers, but we do receive a monthly living allowance to cover necessities like food, transport, clothes, etc. Anything medical is covered. The stipend varies in every country, but it is enough to survive and even save for vacations. Every Kwacha really counts, though.

I want to caution that what may seem cheap to Americans isn’t necessarily so here. If a taxi driver wanted to charge me K50 ($4.18 USD) to get from the Peace Corps office to the supermarket (about 5 km, normally K25), I would be offended by the price gouging, but actually, that would perhaps be cheap for a private taxi in the states. Context is everything. It sounds absurd to think I’d get annoyed with a $2 price difference, but with our small allowance, K25 goes a long way. Then again, it does get ridiculous when I see people arguing just to save K5.

Vegetables can be difficult to buy locally, so many PCVs grow their own!


So… What can one dollar buy in Zambia?

As of today, Feb. 2019, the current exchange rate is $1 USD = 12 Zambian Kwacha.

We have small shops in our village with packaged goods and the occasional vegetable. We bike ride an hour every other week to a market that consistently has basic produce. For $1 USD/K12, we can buy one of the following:

  • 12 ears of corn
  • A branch of bananas right from the tree
  • Up to 48 tomatoes, depending on the size
  • Up to 36 small onions
  • 12 bunches of leafy greens
  • 6 heads of cabbage
  • 24 lollipops
  • 24 boxes of matches
  • 1kg of sugar
  • 1 bottle of vegetable oil
  • 12 eggs
  • 12 scones/fritters/rolls
  • 6 packets of biscuits
  • 1 (2 meters) Citenge (versatile fabric, mostly used to wrap like a skirt)
  • 2 small bags of beans
  • 12 small bags of white eggplant
  • A pair of flip flops

Not to mention a “top up” or mbasela. When purchasing a decent amount from a vendor, it’s almost expected the customer ask for a top up, in which the vendor will throw in a few extras, like a few tomatoes or onions.

Biweekly trip to the market (1 hour bike ride away)

In town, at the supermarket prices are pretty comparable to American prices. $1 USD can buy:

  • 1 chocolate bar
  • 1 small jar of peanut butter
  • 3 packs of ramen
  • 1 liter of milk
  • Medium container of yogurt
  • 500g bag of pasta
  • 2 bars of soap

At a restaurant, one dollar can buy you a bottle of beer or a simple meal of nshima and vegetables. Add another dollar or two and you can get chicken or fish.

$0.83 for a beer at one of my favorite places in Kasama, Thorn Tree


What can a dollar buy in your host country?

Read how I traveled full-time on $15 a day.

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