I worked on… providing safe, clean and affordable lighting in Zambia

Published: 04 Nov 2014 By Katharine Robinson

Name: Katharine Robinson ACMA, CGMA

Organisation: Accounting for International Development (AfID)

Role: financial controller

CIMA qualified: 2006

Start date: February 2013

End date: June 2013

Location: Lusaka

My career in business had always been challenging and fulfilling, but it was a holiday in Tibet that opened my eyes to an exciting opportunity in a completely new area.

On my trip I visited an orphanage where I met a finance professional. The work he was doing to manage the orphanage’s funds and coach its operations director was securing the futures of the children in its care. This sparked something inside me. As I returned to the UK, where I worked as group planning and investment manager for the John Lewis Partnership, I started to consider whether I could do something similar with my skills.

By this point I could draw on a wealth of experience gained in a wide variety of industries. Armed with a degree in chemical engineering from Imperial College, London, I had started out in the finance and performance management team at Deloitte Consulting. I completed my CIMA qualification there, working with clients including the BBC, Roche Pharmaceuticals, Siemens and Transport for London. I left to become a commercial manager in Telewest’s regulatory and commercial finance team, joining the group strategy department after its merger with NTL to form Virgin Media. I later decided on a move into retail, which ultimately led me to John Lewis. 

After Tibet, I made enquiries with Voluntary Service Overseas, but I felt that the placements it was offering were generic business roles that wouldn’t be challenging enough for me. A former colleague suggested that I get in touch with Accounting for International Development (AfID), because she had volunteered successfully with the organisation in Tanzania in 2012. Sure enough, AfID quickly found me an exciting role with UK charity SolarAid on its Sunny Money project in Zambia.

Sunny Money is a social enterprise that enables people to access clean, safe and affordable solar-powered lighting. Its ultimate aim is to eliminate the use of dirty and dangerous kerosene lamps. The business sells solar lights wholesale to local retailers and directly to the public via its offices and school outreach programme. All profits are reinvested.

I volunteered for Sunny Money in Lusaka for four months last year in a job akin to that of a financial controller. My main tasks were to prepare its year-end accounts and manage the local and UK compliance audits. But I arrived at a difficult time because the organisation hadn’t had any in-country finance support for about eight months and was running low on cash. This meant I needed to cut expenditure in many areas without affecting Sunny Money’s operations or hindering its growth – a tough task in any business, let alone one that you are new to. There was a lot to do in such a short time, but the operations director was extremely supportive and keen to learn. The enthusiastic local staff and the fantastic accommodation were also a great help.

The business needed practical help with cash flow forecasting and reducing debtor balances, not in-depth explanations of accounting standards. My CIMA qualification and background in a range of industries were invaluable here. I used every bit of my experience to achieve my goals – even the time I had served as company secretary for my block of flats back home proved useful, as I worked out the nuances of Zambian business administration. It was as if everything I’d done before was leading up to this, which was hugely fulfilling.

Now back in the UK, I work as a provider appraisal manager at Monitor, the health sector regulator. I would strongly recommend the kind of work I found through AfID to others. The main benefit is that it can help both you and the organisation you’re supporting to develop. As with any job, the more you put into it, the more you get back. 

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