Norma Simpson: Zambia’s Potato Queen

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Zambian Norma Simpson has some strong words of advice for women looking to start a business. The 53-year-old entrepreneur learned the hard way, losing everything before getting to where she is today. As founder of a 235-member strong social enterprise bringing female small-holder farmers together to produce and process organic potatoes, she has applied her learnings to great success.

“If all women could have access to the training I’ve received, the sky’s the limit. But so many are restricted by cultural and social barriers. We need to change women’s mindset – and that of their husband’s – that they should be ready to learn skills that are of value to them, to have the liberty to express what they believe in and do what they want to do … especially if this is starting a business,” says Norma, noting with emphasis, “Even the bible is clear on this. Jesus Christ was one of the great liberators of women.”

Norma with US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, US State Department
Norma with US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs, US State Department

Chawama Women Farmer’s Group is not Norma’s first business. Her initial run at entrepreneurship was in 1991. At the time, Zambia was facing a crisis due to an outbreak of water-borne disease, and Norma, a small-scale farmer, saw opportunity. Although he was not convinced, her husband Ian went along with his wife’s plan to bottle and sell mineral water in the city. They started with five crates a day, and before long had landed a lucrative contract with Shoprite, one of Zambia’s largest supermarket chains. Manzi was the first mineral water on the market and the company grew quickly. Norma and her husband brought on partners to manage the business and the future looked bright.

Until the unexpected happened. In 2002, Ian died and problems emerged with the co-directors.

“There were issues of patent and trademark protection that had not been taken care of, and it was easy for them to push me out. They changed the name, packaging, and location of the company but kept the same product. I was left with nothing. I had taken it for granted that my rights were protected, but the law cannot help you if your product is not patented.”

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Single with a son to raise, Norma returned to farming and for the next 14 years grew vegetables that she supplied to hotels and local supermarkets. It was a small endeavor, but nevertheless she supported four employees and had plans for growing the business.

Just over 18 months ago, Norma spotted an advert on television about the first Startup Academy of a new women entrepreneur’s support centre that had recently opened in Chawama, a hub of economic activity on the outskirts of Lusaka. WECREATE Zambia offers resources, access, education and training to women looking to start businesses.

“At the time I was just curious and wanted to know what it was all about. As small holder female farmers, my colleagues and I were facing a lot of difficulties in penetrating the supermarket chains and getting access to credit. I had brought a group of us together into a community-based organization to become a major producer of fresh organic potatoes with the plan to expand as processors and suppliers of frozen potato chips. With malls popping up here and there, the opportunities were everywhere, but we couldn’t break into the market. We never thought we needed skills to compete, that the product alone would be enough, but it turns out this was our biggest shortcoming.”

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Norma signed up for WECREATE’s inaugural 15-week Startup Academy. She started alone but quickly brought other members of her Chawama Women Farmer’s Group on board.

Legal issues are very important. Never take anything for granted. Even if your partner is your husband or family member or friend, make sure you fulfill all the legal requirements in a business.

“The academy was invaluable. Learning to pitch to investors was key and the mentorship and coaching I received has helped me navigate the technical challenges I face in running the business. But definitely the business connections I’ve made through WECREATE have been the most beneficial in opening doors.”

After the Startup Academy, Norma participated in the Zambian Entrepreneurship Summit and won a tender with Shoprite to supply 45 tonnes of frozen chips per week across the country. The social enterprise was also awarded 52 hectares of land from a commercial farmer and women entrepreneur who is also a mentor at WECREATE to produce potatoes on a commercial scale along with full irrigation and a hand pump, courtesy of SARO investments, and 5000 potato seedlings and technical support from ZAMSEED. And it doesn’t end there. The Common Market for Eastern and Southern African (COMESA) offered Norma’s company free training in value chain standards including processing, packaging and marketing and she recently signed an agreement with Zambia Development Agency to participate in its business development services programme.

Cutting the tape on the new land, Professor Nkandu Luo, former Minister of Gender and Child Development and current Minister of Higher Education.
Cutting the tape on the new land, Professor Nkandu Luo, former Minister of Gender and Child Development and current Minister of Higher Education.

What started as a small venture, barely the spark of an idea, is – one year later – a social enterprise with members comprising 200 subsistence farmers and 30 title holders … all female. The objective is to empower the women to diversify from maize crops by giving them tubers as well as advice on organic crop management and then purchase the potatoes back for processing. The business is registered, bank accounts are open, and branding and packaging is underway.

“Without WECREATE, we’d be at the same level struggling. They trained us on bootstrapping and as a result, we’ve managed to acquire land, facilities and 3rd party support services. We are not waiting for a big investor to come along,” Norma notes, adding with a smile, “Although that would be nice. We’re doing it by ourselves with all the members putting in according to their means.”

It’s an incredible achievement, but the hard work still lies ahead.

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“We won the tender, but now we need to deliver. Forty-five tonnes of potatoes is a lot of potatoes,” Norma says in all seriousness. “Our goal is to process what we buy from the collective but currently our facility is too small. Right now we are only able to supply small quantities to hotels, but Shoprite is waiting patiently.”

Clearly Norma’s biggest challenge has been the premises and associated resources. Processing this volume of potatoes requires space and bigger equipment, and WTO standards necessitate a lot of health and safety issues to be taken into consideration. And then there are the refridgerated storage and trucks that are needed if export to the 300-million consumer COMESA market is to ever happen.

But this agripreneur is optimistic.

“We’re making headway. WECREATE has taught us we can outsource the processing in the short-term. An investment of US$100,000 would get us the equipment we need to reach our target and start supplying COMESA. Locally we have no competition. We’ve penetrated the multi-national chain stores, which was not even a dream ten years ago. In a year and half, we have done it.”

And if you doubt any of this, you just haven’t met Norma!

Norma Simpson’s startup tips
  • Legal issues are very important. Never take anything for granted. Even if your partner is your husband or family member or friend, make sure you fulfill all the legal requirements in a business.
  • Don’t just jump in, make sure you get the skills you need. Get equipped with business resources and capabilities.
  • Literacy and education should not be a barrier to starting a business. It’s about people working as a team, getting a skill, getting trained. The sky is the limit if you can open your mind, the opportunity is endless.
  • As a woman, you should be cautious. You are bound to enter relationships (professional or personal) that might be harmful. Look out for yourself but don’t do harm to others.