When torrential rains destroyed a bridge that some 5,000 Copperbelt residents relied on for going about their daily business in February 2016, Mopani Copper Mines Plc was not directly impacted. Nor was the mine affected by the July 2018 fire that devastated one of Mufulira’s biggest markets, which destroyed 317 vendors’ goods and source of livelihood.

But, just as Kitwe-and-Mufulira’s biggest private employer dropped everything to build a temporary bridge – and, later, an entirely new bridge across Kitwe’s Mwekera stream in 2016 – so the company saw assisting the traders of the burnt-down Buteko Market in Mufulira as its duty.

“I saw the news in the media, and through Facebook,” recalls Brian Chilekwa, who started working for Mopani in 2006 as a civil engineer. “That day I was in Lusaka, on my day off. The CEO (Chief Executive Officer) and the COO (Chief Operating Officer) went to the site of the fire and saw how the people were affected. They lost everything, their source of livelihood. The following morning, they [CEO and COO] made a decision for us to help in whatever way we could. That day I was assigned to come up with some plans.”

The CEO and COO went to the site of the fire and saw the way people were affected. They had lost everything, their source of livelihood. The following morning, they made the decision for us to help out in whatever way we could.

Chilekwa went to the spot where the market once stood. “It was really in a bad shape – completely blackened. The problem was, the market shelters were built using timber. It burned very easily.” Fires were regularly used on site for cooking food, which is one possible cause of the blaze.

The vendors who lost their stands had soon set up makeshift stalls in front of one of the main public hospitals in town, outside the local municipality offices, and along the main roads. However, the scruffy ad hoc market in front of the hospital was an eyesore for passers-by, and soon people were complaining.

After a series of meetings between Mopani and local government officials in the area, a decision was made to erect an alternative trading area at Malela, which at the time was being used by the community as an illegal dumping site.

The aftermath of the fire that destoyed Buteko Market

Mopani took up the task and an ad hoc team led by Chilekwa quickly began clearing the refuse at Malela. “My role was everything from the design of the structure to its construction. I used to spend my nights there – knocking off at midnight or 1 AM, and back by 6:30am.” A locally employed team also supported his team of Mopani employees.

Buteko Market provided a vital source of income for the 317 vendors who saw it all go up in flames that day in July, so they did what entrepreneurs must: they got back to work immediately.

Buteko Marketplace had always lacked sufficient ablution facilities, and many of the timber structures under which people sold fruit, furniture, vegetables, and other produce were not sturdy enough for all seasons.

Mopani’s aim was to make the Malela marketplace an upgrade in every sense. “We also created an all-year access road to the site, in addition to constructing an ablution facility with ladies and gents toilets and shower rooms,” said Mopani’s Chief Executive Officer, Chris Vermeulen.

“For ladies, we constructed five toilets and two showers, and for gents three toilets, four urinals, and showers.”

An all-weather drainage system was constructed around the market to prevent flooding. “Although our initial target was to cater for the 317 affected traders by the Buteko market fire, we have constructed a total of 338 stands at this market,” Vermeulen said on the day that the new Malela Market was officially handed over to the community on 17 December, 2018.

“To avoid the incidence of any possible future fires, we deliberately erected the trading stands using concrete,” he added.

Copperbelt Province Minister, Japhen Mwakalombe, attended too, as the guest of honour. “This incident [the Buteko Market fire] posed an emergency to government and in particular, the local authority in Mufulira to find an immediate solution given the many competing needs in the district for the government’s limited resource envelope,” he said. “It is, therefore, gratifying to see private sector stakeholders such as Mopani and its partners coming on board to support government in providing a solution to the problem of restoring people’s livelihoods.”

The construction of Malela Market required an investment of over K1.5 million from Mopani, at a time when cash-flow remains a major challenge for the mine. But Mopani didn’t stop there.

Mufulira’s new Malela Market in progress

The company facilitated the raising of K158 000 from local contractors and suppliers, to be allocated to the 317 affected traders as start-up capital to help them get back on their feet.

It is gratifying to see private sector stakeholders such as Mopani and its partners coming on board to support government in providing a solution to the problem of restoring people’s livelihoods.

“Mopani will match these contributions,” Vermeulen announced at the handover ceremony, bringing the total amount to K316 000.

“We trust that this kind of collaboration with our contractors and suppliers will continue as we all work towards bettering the lives of Mufulira residents,” he said.

Chilekwa shared his thoughts on where generous gestures like this come from. “Employer-employee relations are not about what you get at the end of the month. Mopani is one of the biggest investors in Mufulira, so Mopani responds quickly to show that they care about the community. It’s assuring to the community that Mopani is there as a business that they can lean on – one that can support them. And then, hopefully, the community can support Mopani too.”

As a final confirmation of the impact that Mopani had on the Mufulira community, the Malela market project received the award for the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiative deemed to have had the biggest impact on the community in 2018 by the Zambia Public Relations Association (ZAPRA).

See also: The collapsed bridge that left thousands stranded