This inspirational and award-winning entrepreneur is a testimony to hard work, perseverance and a can-do attitude to building a major food brand, Java Foods, and also improving the nutrition of a country and a continent.
In Monica’s words….
We have been focused up until now for the last two years, on building a brand for one of our two food products, Eezi Noodles, and we are now about to go into full manufacturing, so actually expanding the business to incorporate the manufacturing aspect. This is a lot more complicated because it looks at things like production processes, quality control and other such manufacturing issues. So we have focused for the past two years on building the brand, on marketing, and on understanding the distribution market in Zambia. As a result, we have definitely got to understand it better and we have now reached a pivotal new stage in our business. 2015 is going to be very exciting for us because firstly, we are going to be introducing a second new product, a porridge made out of local grains such as sorghum or soya, and we are also going to be manufacturing our first major product, Eezi Noodles, here in the country. At the moment, they are manufactured for us by one of the leading manufacturing companies in the world under a contract packaging arrangement, and as of next year, we are actually going to be doing that manufacturing here in Zambia. So, we are taking quite a brave step to set up two new factories, each one slightly different to the other, as from next year.
Setting up the new factories has been a gradual process because of a number of challenges, for example, there have been financing issues. We have had a situation where we were hit with a huge depreciation here in Zambia which slowed us down a little and made us a little more cautious about spending so much money so soon in the new expansion. However, we are now in the final rounds of raising money, we are pushing forward, we are hiring some pretty good food technologists who will come and work with us, so this is all really exciting. We are now getting the right skills to support our new expansion. In terms of the new factories going live, it looks like our porridge production line will go live in April/May next year, to be followed by our Eezi noodle production line. 2015 is going to be a hugely exciting time for our company, and we are taking great new steps forward.
In terms of the challenges and hurdles faced over the years in building the business and the brands, there have been a number of them. Financing is just one of those challenges; another is access to key markets, for example here in Zambia, the market is dominated by South African and other supermarket chains. Understanding how they work, how to gain access to them, understanding their payment cycles – all these factors represent a learning curve – none of them is impossible, but some of them are harder to get access to in terms of the market. Today, however, we work very well with them and as a result, our brand and our products are in all the leading supermarkets in the country. So, access to markets has been one of the challenges. Human capital is another key challenge. You make assumptions that because a country such as Zambia is English speaking, that everyone is running at the same pace as you, but in fact the depth of people skills is not there, even for simple things. This ultimately means that you take on a lot more trying to build the capacity that will take you to where you want to go, so there is definitely a challenge with human capital. The other challenge is the product itself – perhaps we could have started out with producing the porridge first which here in Zambia is much more well known as a product, whereas noodles were new to consumers and they needed to become familiar with it as a food option of choice. So, this told us a little more about the market, whereas we had made previous assumptions about it for our noodle product. The market has definitely grown for the product, but perhaps if we had known all the market information that we do today, we could probably have grown much quicker as a business. However, on the positive side, everything we have learned with producing our Eezi noodle range of products has definitely prepared us well for the launch of our next product, our porridge. We are taking it all as a positive learning process. Financing has also been a challenge but I think when you have good ideas, and if you run your business in the right way, there is financing out there. Access to that finance is hard, and it takes a lot of work to get that money in for the business, but I think people are looking for good projects which are run by people who are dedicated to building those businesses.
When you are an entrepreneur, another of the challenges is to keep going when you encounter hurdles and when the going gets tough – it is not easy. At these times, there is a human tendency to want to panic, and as an individual you question whether you can do this, whether you can see the business through to its full potential and to a level that people expect of you. Even when you are growing as a business, there is a fear and a doubt that remains, and you are almost afraid of your own success. In recent times when Zambia was going through its depreciation, I personally experienced doubt in such times, but I felt that despite the challenges, it was too soon to give up. I found great people I could speak with, both men and women, but I found that particularly other women were interesting to engage with in order to get feedback on how they manage to balance the pressures of expanding a business with maintaining their own personal and family lives. Often, I found it so worthwhile to engage with other women and get their insights and hear their own experiences in similar circumstances. The great thing was that I heard from other women entrepreneurs that the experiences I was going through were normal and that despite the challenges, the journey would be worth it and the challenges got over in time. So now as I move forward with the next phase of my own entrepreneurial journey, I am interested to speak to more women who are doing similar things in business, as their insight is really useful. In the past, I have had more male mentors, but now a combination of perspectives is refreshing. Today, I hear from so many other women entrepreneurs that they have gone through similar experiences on their business building journeys and have successfully come out the other side of many challenges – this is always reassuring to hear.
What makes it all worthwhile is, for example, when I visit a supermarket and a man or a woman that you don’t know comes up to you to tell you that you have inspired them, that they are buying your products, that you are making a difference in their lives – that is so gratifying. Particularly because Zambia is pretty male dominated, especially in the manufacturing and food processing field, and I think it is important that in a country where there is such a small manufacturing base, we can lead by example, and perhaps inspire people to start out on their own entrepreneurial journey. That is what makes it all worthwhile for me. It is very rewarding to hear a customer tell you that all their children eat your products today, particularly as in the early days, it was difficult to get people to make that purchasing choice. Today, when I visit supermarkets that are selling our products, I have people coming up to me with their children, telling them that this is the lady that makes the food they love to eat. This is an amazing part of the business journey. Being the public face of the company, being a woman, has really helped to build the business and the brand. People have engaged with the fact that, as a woman, I am building a business on my own, even though it has been hard. They feel they can engage with a tangible, quality and nutritional product that is seen everywhere today, and that is being produced by that business.
In terms of future plans for the business, as we have seen in the market and as we have grown, we have gradually ascertained where our products and our company slot in. Today in Africa, nutrition is the big issue, and when I first started the business I was looking at aspects such as convenience and innovation, and producing a product that was accessible and which everyone could buy. But as we have continued in the market, we have realised that despite Zambia being such a big agricultural country, that people are not eating right, and it is not because they can’t afford to, it is because nutritional foodstuffs are not readily available. So, simple things such as porridges, in a market where we grow so much sorghum, so much soya or millet which are very healthy grains, you can’t find a porridge made out of these ingredients. Here, we have a lot of wheat based porridges and as you know with wheat there are a lot of allergies with these porridges, so we want to give mothers the choice for their children’s diets, and produce alternatives to wheat based products, but at the same time, make it affordable. So today, it is about affordable nutrition and making it available for everybody in the country. We have definitely seen that this is where we want to go as a business. We are working with government and civil society to ensure the right messaging is sent to consumers about eating well, the importance of varying the diet of young children under five years old, and as a company, we are really happy to be on board in terms of promoting and scaling up nutrition in the country. That is why the manufacturing of porridge is going to be a great direction for us as a company. We want to fortify our porridge with vitamins and minerals, but keep it at a good price point so it is affordable for everyone.
Interestingly, in terms of the future, we are getting requests from other countries in Africa for our product and price lists and the interest levels from the region in terms of the products we produce is increasing, which is good news. It signifies that we are going to have go grow fast in the future to keep up with the interest in our products and market demand. As the continent starts to look at healthier and more nutritional food options that exist in the market, and when they are offered real consumer choice at a price point that is genuinely affordable, then their eating habits will get better and they will get healthier as a result. It is a long-term view but I would really like people to see that Java Foods is about providing healthy, affordable nutrition and that is what our future focus is as a company.
So, what advice would I give to other women entrepreneurs in Africa as someone who is well underway with their own entrepreneurial journey? Firstly I would say, don’t be afraid to start. I think we find in Africa that women carry so many things, they have so many great ideas, but often are afraid of starting. The point is that you are not going to build a factory on day one, but you can start small with what you can manage – the idea is to just start. Start thinking about your business idea, start doing something about it day by day, and see what you can manage, what you can achieve. Ultimately, do not be afraid. Challenge yourself and realise that we are all, as women, really capable and we instinctively know that. We often doubt ourselves more than we should, so we have to be more confident in our abilities and just start. Secondly, I would say that it is important to leverage your network to help you with whatever business idea you are trying to create, not only from a business mentorship perspective, but also for business ideas, potential partnerships, technical assistance, etc. You can’t get this type of help unless you ask for it and leverage your existing contacts and networks.