Monica Katebe Musonda, CEO and founder of the proudly Zambian food processing business, Java Foods, has a secret sauce. It’s not the key ingredient in her eeZee Instant Noodle or eeZee Supa Cereal line but rather the chief factor behind this visionary founder’s success: resilience.
“I left Zambia to pursue my career early on and I wasn’t afraid to try something new. I have taken the same approach with my business. I took a big risk but even if it failed, I knew I had tried my best. I wanted to show Zambians that it’s possible to step up to the challenge and take a more prominent role in the growth of our economy. It’s been a long hard journey going from being a lawyer to business owner, but I’m still here so that’s half the battle.”
Monica first left Zambia when she was three and moved to the US where her father was doing a PhD. She returned home for high school and studied law at the University of Zambia. After earning a Masters from the University of London, she went into private legal practice in the UK but moved thereafter to Johannesburg where she rose to Partner rank with the firm Edward Nathan. In her early 30s, Monica was recruited to the World Bank Group’s International Finance Corporation in Washington DC where she stayed for two years before being enticed back to the continent with a lucrative position in Lagos as Director of Legal and Corporate Affairs for the Dangote Group, the African manufacturing conglomerate owned by billionaire Aliko Dangote. She became General Counsel soon thereafter. But that’s where her legal meteoric rise ended and her life as an entrepreneur began.
“After venturing into production, I can now say I’m a grown-up kid but I aim to get out of the playground and become a 10-million-dollar business in five years. In the meantime, I’m on a mission to create aspiration and show everyone it is possible. Things won’t change on the continent if we look for jobs and get paid a salary, we have to be part of what we want to see.”
“Working for Mr. Dangote was a life-changing experience. During those three years, I followed him into every country where he set up operations and saw the impact with my own eyes. When we travelled to Zambia, he asked me why so many foreigners – as opposed to locals – were running the show at banks, insurance companies, and the like. And it hit me, we were not active participants but spectators in our own economy. I have always been inspired by the Nigerian entrepreneurial spirit where so many people take the leap and work for themselves. The reality is that most Zambians are happy to work for someone else, taking the easier, more secure path. For months after I thought ‘if not you, then why not me?’ and knew then I needed to create a legacy, have an impact, and grow a proudly Zambian brand while hopefully making some money in the process.”
So, at the height of her legal career, working for one of the continent’s most successful businesses, Monica resigned and returned to Zambia after 13 years abroad. Four months later, self-funded and with monies she raised from family and friends, Java Foods Limited opened shop. A food processing business with 25 employees, Java’s vision is to manufacture high quality nutritious food using local products and sell them into the market at an affordable price. Monica’s team started with eeZee instant noodles, which are produced under contract mainly because of the lack of insight on the size of the market for such a product. To set up production facilities right away without understanding the size of the noodle market would have been expensive. Nevertheless, the market surprised her; eeZee Noodles quickly became a huge hit with students and kids (over 50% of Zambians are under the age of 18). It is now the number 1 instant noodle brand in Zambia known for its high quality, good flavour, and great value. The success of eeZee Noodles laid the groundwork for what was to become a proudly Zambian company.
“As our mission is to make affordable, nutritious food using local products, we turned our focus to maize, soya bean, and sorghum and decided to invest in in-house production. I raised some money by mortgaging my house and borrowed some funding to get the plant up and running. It’s been an incredibly difficult journey mainly because interest rates are so high but also because we have seen incomes of many of our customers contract. But both my feet are still in it,” Monica says, adding with a laugh, “As well as the feet of many others.”
Today, in addition to eeZee noodles, Java Foods manufactures a high-energy fortified called eeZee Supa Cereal and Num Nums corn snacks, which are a by-product of the line. Given the huge success of eeZee Noodles, the goal in 2017 is to bring noodle production in-house using locally grown wheat but this requires $2 million investment to finance a second manufacturing facility.
“It’s a challenge,” Monica says with emphasis. “Foreign investors look at 5-million-dollar projects before they get out of bed. Unfortunately, we don’t have an international shareholder who can lend us working capital at 1% and locally, interest rates are extremely high. We are currently borrowing at 35%. Zambia is an expensive place to do business. There are multiple license regimes and regulatory hurdles, high taxes and labour costs, and exchange rate fluctuations. Small Zambian businesses also don’t have the benefit of investment incentives or exemptions and, in my personal opinion, this will affect their growth in the short term. Food prices are quite high and rising while people’s income remains static, so we are all fighting to get that K10 ($1) from the customer.”
And access to affordable capital is not Monica’s only challenge. Recruiting skilled labour remains an issue, but probably one of her greater tests has been learning how the market operates and coming to grips with manufacturing.
“As a lawyer who had not lived in Zambia for many years, I had little-to-no experience in this field. It was baptism by fire. I wish I had understood the market better. We would have saved more money with better due diligence. For example, I assumed when you deliver a product, you get paid. But it doesn’t work that way. Supermarkets often work on credit, paying sometimes up to two months after delivery so revenue can fluctuate and you quickly run out of money. I also assumed that the South African retailers had a central hub for suppliers and all we had to do was deliver to this distribution point. We learnt very quickly that we had to deliver product to all their stores across the country and bear the costs, no matter how small the order! In the early days, our distribution costs were sometimes more than the cost of the product itself,” she says in disbelief.
With four years under her belt, and experience from the several corporate boards on which she sits, the 41-year-old founder has plans this year to export to Tanzania and beyond. Zambians are happy to support the home-grown brand, which, as the business expands, will venture into contracts with small shareholder farmers to ensure more sustainable incomes for the local population. And they are rightly proud of their native daughter who went from distribution to manufacturing in such a short period of time.
“After venturing into production, I can now say I’m a grown-up kid but I aim to get out of the playground and become a 10-million-dollar business in five years. In the meantime, I’m on a mission to create aspiration and show everyone it is possible. Things won’t change on the continent if we look for jobs and get paid a salary, we have to be part of what we want to see. It’s still very hard for me and it would be great to have company so we really need more women to step up and start businesses. But that requires funding and support because with entrepreneurship comes sacrifice as well as gain. It’s a process.”
Having given up her spectator seat and joined the band on stage, Monica, ever resilient, is in it for the long haul.
- Start small, manage your costs, understand your market and how you are going to be paid before you expand. But don’t be afraid to start – learn by doing.
- Pick the right team: those who will challenge you and also those who believe in your company’s vision.
- Leverage your networks! For anyone at any stage in a startup, realizing you are not alone is key.
- Remember “The Customer is King” – focus on giving the customer what he/she wants. But make sure you get paid before you spend!
- Don’t be afraid to fail or make mistakes. Pick yourself up and continue to focus on your goal but change “the how” (strategy). Then let your success speak for you.