When the Czech Republic re-opened its embassy in Zambia last year after a twenty-five-year break, Radek Rubeš handed over his credentials to President Edgar Lungu and set about re-establishing the Czech presence in Lusaka. When I met with him in Prague this week, I asked about the possibilities opening up and how hard it is to build on the Czechoslovak trademark that still rings a bell in Zambia.
“Of course, it has been a long time, so you meet people in Zambia who remember Czechoslovakia, that is the trademark they remember, they remember the old Zetor tractors and something good here and there, but honestly it is a bit difficult and we are starting the whole process from the beginning.”
So what are the opportunities opening up in Zambia for Czech companies and investors?
“There is a big range of possibilities. Zambia is now on the ministry’s list of priority states with which it wants to develop ties. We identified agriculture as the sector in which we would like to be active and in granting development aid we are also providing opportunities for Czech companies. So we want to promote Czech projects, but also help Czech companies and firms to be more active in Zambia in the field of agriculture.”
So are we talking about machinery, electric power generators, water facilities?
“That’s correct, also artificial insemination, which is also an area where we can offer know-how. We have experience with processes in agriculture which can be transferred to Zambia. There are many opportunities for Czech companies. The ministries of agriculture and foreign affairs of the Czech Republic are engaged in a joint program to help Czech companies take part in a big international fair that is held every March in Chisamba – and for three years now we have had Czech companies participating in the Chisamba Agritech Fair. It is one of the biggest fairs in this part of Africa and it gives me pleasure to see the Czech companies present there, establishing ties with Zambian companies. We would especially like to promote this business-to –business cooperation.”
I believe your task is also to oversee the distribution of development aid. What does that entail and where are we helping?
“Here we cooperate with the Czech Development Agency and as I said agriculture is the sector in which we would like to be active. Currently we have two programs. Each involves around one million US dollars for the next three years and both aim to help middle or lower-income farmers to move forward, to become more sustainable with our know-how and technology. These programs are not aimed at Zambia as a whole –they target one region, and in this region we would like to see some small development in the next three to four years and hopefully bring the farmers to a stage where they will no longer need our support and they will be either profitable or at least manage on their own.”
Czech NGOs are quite active in Zambia. Caritas is involved in long-distance adoption programs, there are NGOs helping mothers and children, giving youths vocational training. To what extent are you involved in this?
"The embassy in involved through so-called small scale programs that allow us to support NGOs with small grants – both Czech NGOs and other partners. These grants are around 20 thousand US dollars a year which helps them continue in their activities. It is not just Caritas, it is Njovu a Czech-based NGO in Zambia, People in Need is returning to Zambia –and they have different sources of financing which I am happy about, they do not rely only on Czech grants.”
How valuable is this support?
“I can see from my travels around the country that it is extremely valuable and I am glad to say that Czech NGOs are leaving a very positive mark there. Those programs are not the biggest when it comes to financing, but when you see that they really make a big impact on the local population I have to say I feel extremely proud.”
What about contacts between universities?
"There are a couple of universities which are really active in Zambia – Mendel University, the Agricultural University in Prague, the South Bohemian University….they offer short-term scholarships for Zambian students in the Czech Republic. Hradec Kralove University is interested in launching an exchange program- they would like to send their students for a semester to Lusaka and welcome students from Zambia. They would like to launch an exchange of professors, and there I see the added value. We would like to support that very much, because now that the embassy is there we would like to promote all kinds of ties between Zambia and the Czech Republic.”
How is the Czech Republic perceived in Zambia? What does the man in the street know about the Czech Republic?
“If you ask about the Czech Republic people will talk about the country’s soccer players – for instance Petr Čech and Pavel Nedvěd. People here follow sport more than anything else and soccer is extremely popular in Zambia. There are a few people who know more, they have visited Prague and know something about Czech culture, Czech cuisine, but there are not many of those. So that is also something we would like to promote.”
You have been there for over a year. What is life like for you in Zambia?
“You could say it is pretty relaxed and easy as all Zambians are. They are very straightforward, welcoming people. Sometimes things are very slow for us Europeans, and sometimes it drives us crazy, but this is how they live and we have to adopt since we are there. But life is good - the weather is great and people are friendly, which is important for a foreigner in any country, they have good beer and good African food which I like so, all in all, it is nice.”