Awards 2004 The UK Trade and Investment Award for Small Businesses

The UK Trade and Investment Award for Small Businesses

This award is given to a company with not more than 150 employees, for commercial activity that has contributed to viable economic development in a community in a developing country.

The winner: School Chalk Ltd

Receiving the award

It was Brebner Changala's father-in-law who spotted the opportunity to make blackboard chalk for Zambia 's schools. Brebner Changala, who had retired with a handsome leaving cheque after 12 years in banking, realised it was an idea that could not go wrong. He says: "I looked at the number of schools countrywide and I saw gold. When I put in $100,000, I didn't see the risk. I saw a new turn in teaching-aid materials for our poor country."

He approached the Japanese International Co-operation Agency help and they were equally impressed. This would be the first chalk factory in Central Africa . It would save Zambia foreign exchange. It would create jobs in a rural area. It would provide educational tool from local resources. The Japanese agreed to provide the machinery and the factory opened in August 2000.

Brebner School Chalk Ltd now makes 200,000 boxes a year, each containing 100 chalks. This is about a tenth of the chalk which Zambian schools use, saving Zambia $350,000 in foreign currency a year and providing 96 badly needed jobs. It plans to buy more machines and supply a fifth of the market by the end of 2004. It also plans to sell to other countries.

Blackboard chalk is made of calcium sulphate (gypsum), dug out the ground at Monze, 120 miles south-west of Lusaka , the capital. This is in a national park but is the only source of gypsum in Zambia . Brebner Changala says that the mining, in an area without good roads, was the biggest challenge. "This area is tough, to say the least. We had to clear the land manually."

At Monze, gypsum granules are found in clay soil, to a depth of one metre. Forty workers do the mining with pick and shovel, because park rules prevent the use of noisy machinery. This is only local employment apart from cattle. The clay is washed off the gypsum and then used to refill the open pits and restore the ground. "This project is 100 per cent environment-friendly," says Brebner Changala. "You can't go wrong."

School Chalk

A lorry and pick-up, also bought with Japanese aid, take the gypsum to Lusaka where it is first baked then crushed to powder in a hammer mill. The powder is mixed with a similar volume of water to make a paste which is formed into chalks in a moulding machine. The chalks dry in the sun. Women, to whom Lusaka offers few job opportunities, do most of the work.

Brebner has contracts with the Ministry of Education but still has to persuade schools to take its chalk, rather than that imported from China , India or South Africa . Brebner Changala believes that this imported chalk is subsidised in the countries of origin, while his chalk is unsubsidised and carries 17.5 per cent value added tax. The four-wheel-drive pick-up, however, enables Brebner to sell in the countryside, while imports sell mainly to schools near the line of rail from Lusaka to the Copperbelt. Brebner has a nationwide distribution network. It sells a fifth of its crushed gypsum as plaster of Paris to Zambia 's hospitals and clinics. It gives chalk to community schools and churches.

Within two years it plans to start making pencils also. In 2004 it aims for a listing on the Lusaka Stock Exchange and will sell shares to workers and the public. Workers have their own union, which works with the management on their welfare. Brebner Chalk provides medical insurance, lunch, transport and recreation.

The judges say

Brebner School Chalk Ltd provides an excellent example of a rural initiative. A great deal of thought has gone into how the enterprise is strategically diversifying into both the community and the business. We were impressed with the sustainability of the project, the plans to expand, the commitment to being 100 per cent environmentally friendly and the significant saving it has provided the Zambian government.

Brebner School Chalk Ltd,
P.O.Box 36003 , Lusaka 10101 , Zambia
tel +260-1-224203