Sylvia Bwalya Mutale-Mwansa: Zambia’s Spirited But Tough Negotiator

It’s no surprise that Sylvia Bwalya Mutale-Mwansa’s nickname is Sunshine. The 55-year-old founder and CEO of SBM, a long-running Zambia business group practically glows with good spirit and positive energy. Clearly her business smarts, strong negotiating skills, and supportive family have had the greatest role in the success of SBM Investments, but her ability to connect with others and good humour have played an equally important part.  

“I love to network and create linkages but right after that comes football,” she says with a wink.  “I support the Chipolopolo boys. My second choice is Manchester United and, to please the hubby, I also support Liverpool but only when they’re not playing Man U. After football, I love travelling, and have been to at least 45 countries – Zambia being by far my favourite destination. And dancing, I love dancing.” 

Standing for “Simply the Best Merchandise”, SBM Investments is a 22-year-old family-owned and operated venture with several outlets and distinct business lines. Located in various malls across Lusaka, the SBM What’s New boutiques offer up-market apparel for men and women, accessories, and maternity wear, as well as manicure and pedicure services and wedding gifts. Another outlet sells small hospital equipment and orthopaedic accessories while a sixth location hosts The Change Agency Initiative, a change management consultancy. SBM also provides bulk orders of uniforms, protective work equipment and related merchandise and runs an advertising and printing service at its own facility. In a further diversification of its offerings, the company sells a plethora of materials, such as bedding, towels, cutlery and plates, to the hospitality industry and has its toes in the entertainment and events management business in collaboration with partners. Supported by family members in a variety of positions, Sylvia oversees operations as CEO.

Why so many different types of businesses? “Diversification has been a critical strategy for the business − it is necessary to spread risk and ensure our survival in a highly competitive environment,” Sylvia explains succinctly.    

“Never take ‘No’ for an answer. I have refused to accept any ‘end of the road’ situation and, with support, worked the business out of many challenging situations.” 

At its peak in 2006, the business employed 45 staff but had to downsize as a result of the global economic downturn. 

“Currency volatility has been one of our biggest challenges. The kwacha has had spells of depreciation, which have made rent costs high − as mall rates are pegged to foreign currency − and reduced our ability to import as cost of goods increases. This is compounded by access to affordable finance, which impacts nearly all SMEs in Zambia and is really a serious barrier to business development and growth. Banks often view SMEs as delinquent debtors and a high risk to credit finance. Even the creation of a credit bureau has not helped allay this fear. This is why we grew so slowly but also why we had to cut back when the economy slowed.”

The fourth born of 11 sisters and 5 brothers, Sylvia completed 12th grade at Kasama Girls Secondary and did the compulsory National Service before getting secretarial training and finding employment in the diplomatic corps and later with the Chibote group, the second largest corporate business group in Zambia at that time. Working for Chibote was a turning point for Sylvia.

“As an executive secretary, I was privy to grueling business negotiations. I didn’t have any formal business training at that stage, so this was a great learning opportunity. It was during that time that I decided I would start my own business. Mine may have been from the boot of a car, but I still applied those tough negotiating skills I’d picked up from my time at Chibote.”

Accompanying her husband on foreign trips in his capacity as president of the Round Table organisation and later with her own involvement in the Ladies Circle, Sylvia bought lots of clothes and accessories that she would resell on her return to Lusaka. Like most businesses, she started small, going from office to office and selling from her car. Then she started to travel regularly by train to Dar-es-Salaam to purchase garments for resale. 

Sylvia and her family

In 1994 she formalised the business. “With a little savings, I formed a trading company, ASK-SBM,  with a colleague in a 50/50 partnership of K5,000 (then equivalent to US$5,000) each. We opened the first shop but split the business after three years, each going our own way. This 60 m2 shop was the beginning of SBM’s What’s New boutique that today is a four-branch operation,” the veteran retailer says proudly. “I financed growth by ploughing profits back into the business and taking some soft loans from family and friends.”

Sylvia is the first to admit when she started SBM more than 22 years ago, she had very limited understanding of business management. But she’s worked hard to overcome any deficiencies by getting an MBA from the Edith Cowan University in Australia and has taken a number of formal and informal training courses in leadership management. Today she is doing a PhD in business administration with the Binary University of Malaysia.

Apart from her own commitment to self-improvement, there are a number of strategies this grandmother of four employs to move SBM Investments forward.

“Like any business, our main objective is to make a profit and build-up cash reserves to drive growth or act as a buffer during challenging times. With increased global competition, we aim to engage in innovative and profitable partnerships, invest in systems and processes to cut operational costs, and consider local production of some goods. Our broad-based strategy is to maximize cash sales and provide very tight credit terms to clients while getting the longest possible credit terms with suppliers. I’m a good negotiator, a skill that has also enabled us to secure credit lines and consignment stock,” she says matter-of-factly. 

With Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first President.

A no-nonsense businesswoman she may be, but Sylvia has an endless list of accolades for her service to Zambia and the community to her name. Contributing to the local economy is so important to her, in fact, that she set herself a big audacious goal of expanding her Change Agency Initiative into a new business line.

“My dream is to create a co-working space where startups can get advice and grow. I envision a SBM finishing school where entrepreneurs can be rejuvenated and inspired to pursue their dreams. I want every Zambian citizen to play their part in creating positive change for the economy so we can all prosper. We need a revolution in mindset to get there, but I believe together we can.”

And with 22 years of business experience and six business lines, all of which grew from selling some dresses from the boot of a car, there’s no doubt Sylvia Bwalya Mutale-Mwansa is the perfect person to inspire this change.

Sylvia Mwansa’s startup tips
  • Never take ‘No’ for an answer. I have refused to accept any ‘end of the road’ situation and, with support, worked the business out of many challenging situations. 
  • After pushing my educational levels and capacity higher, I have had a different perception of business management and now see the bigger picture I never saw then. 
  • Don’t feel shy to drop friends and relatives who are continuously pulling you down − just drop them, really!
  • Invest in training for staff, especially family members, as it ensures stability and supports succession planning. This also gives financiers confidence in the business.
  • Join existing networks of business women and financiers, this is something I really regret not having done sooner.

Sylvia’s story first appeared in Women Creating Wealth, A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from across Africa. You order or download a copy here.