Business lessons from the entrepreneur behind Zambian noodle brand

Monica Musonda, founder of Zambia’s Java Foods

Taking a closer look at the story of Monica Musonda, founder of Zambia’s Java Foods.

Give us a brief background on this business. Emphasis on ‘brief’.

Before starting her company, Musonda had the fortune to work closely with Nigerian tycoon Aliko Dangote, one of Africa’s most successful businesspeople.

Musonda describes the experience of being a lawyer at Dangote Group – which has interests throughout the continent in industries such as cement, food and property – as similar to doing an MBA.

Living in Nigeria, and working for Dangote, forever changed her perspective on entrepreneurship. “It opened my eyes to business, to the different opportunities that our continent offers, and to a new thinking. What inspired me most about Nigeria was the entrepreneurial spirit – the fact that so many young people are taking the leap and working for themselves. They are not afraid to risk everything for what they believe in.”

So, in 2012, Musonda took the plunge – moving back to Zambia to start Java Foods. The company’s first product was an instant noodle brand, called Eezee Noodles, which continues to account for about 80% of sales.

Many questioned if Eezee Noodles, Zambia’s first locally-owned instant noodle brand, would find traction in the market. “People thought we were mad – that it wouldn’t work,” Musonda recalls.

But despite having no prior experience in Zambia’s food industry, which is dominated by multinationals, the first-time entrepreneur and her team pushed ahead to establish Eezee Noodles as Zambia’s biggest instant noodle brand within three years of launching.

After focusing exclusively on the noodle brand for the first few years, in 2016 the company introduced a fortified breakfast cereal made from maize and soya beans. And in May 2017, it launched a snack product called Num Nums.

Surely it couldn’t have been that easy. She must have faced some challenges?

When starting out, Musonda wrongly assumed that everyone would be familiar with instant noodles, and therefore under-budgeted on marketing the product. “We assumed that people would know what it was, and considering that it’s cheap, it would fly off the shelves. We were actually surprised that people didn’t know what we were selling them. If we had done a little bit more homework, we would have known consumers needed a little bit more education, and perhaps we would have saved ourselves a lot of money,” she explains.

Java Foods currently imports its noodles (although it is packaged in Zambia), while the cereals and snacks are made at a local processing plant. Eventually Musonda wants all manufacturing to be done in Zambia, but in the meantime she has to contend with the significant challenges of importing product into the landlocked country.

“Inland transportation into Zambia is really costly. You are held ransom by many of your transporters and they could absolutely kill your business. We made assumptions that in reality ended up being completely different,” she explains.

“In Africa, everything takes much longer than you think. Bringing in equipment, fixing stuff, getting power pulled into your premises – it never happens as you planned.”

Noted. Anything we can learn from her experiences?

According to Musonda, those seeking quick wealth shouldn’t become entrepreneurs. “You probably won’t be rich within the first 10 years. That is the reality. You must be driven by other things apart from money.”

She advises entrepreneurs to ensure they have enough cash reserves to make it through the initial stages of the business. It is unlikely a company will make money from the get-go.

However, to survive over the long term, bigger is better. “The reality is that to be a profitable, well-run business, it’s all about scale. I’ve never had an ambition to be a small business. I tell my staff they shouldn’t think like an SME. Don’t think you will always be a small business because then you will always be a small business,” she notes.

So when is the optimal age to start a business? Musonda believes aspiring entrepreneurs should jump in sooner rather than later. “I would have loved to have been younger and have less commitments… At this stage, to fail is a lot more painful than if I failed at 20 or 25 or 30, for instance… I think there is never a perfect scenario for you to start a business – but I think if you are going to take the leap, the earlier the better.”