What Zambian entrepreneur Monica Musonda learnt from Aliko Dangote

Zambian-born Monica Musonda had a successful 15 year career in corporate finance. She worked with one of Africa’s richest men, Aliko Dangote, as director of legal and corporate affairs at Dangote Group, where she led a project to build a cement plant in Zambia. Drawing from the experience and lessons acquired from working with Dangote in Nigeria, Musonda moved back home to Zambia to set up Java Foods. The firm manufactures the eeZee brand of instant noodles. Musonda told How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi about her plans for Java, the opportunities in Africa and what she learnt from Dangote.

Monica Musonda

Monica Musonda

What inspired you to venture into entrepreneurship, given that you had a successful career in the corporate world?

I qualified as a lawyer in 1996 and went on to work as a corporate lawyer, working in private practice and in-house for 15 years. If you asked me five years ago where I would see myself today, I would most probably have said something like “I will be a partner in a pan-African law firm”. That was my dream – having set up Edward Nathan’s Africa Practice in 2004, with the vision of expanding into the rest of Africa. But then I moved to Nigeria to work for Aliko Dangote in 2008 and everything changed for me. It opened my eyes to business, to the different opportunities that our continent offers and to a new thinking.

What inspired me the 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. I had been going back and forth to Zambia and one thing I noticed was that the economy was still dominated by foreign companies despite the opening up of the market. So with the encouragement of my mentor and former boss [Dangote], I moved back to Zambia to set up Java Foods with the intention of taking advantage of the surplus wheat flour and processing it into instant noodles and pasta.

Describe your experience as an entrepreneur in Zambia.

Operational startup costs, such as distribution and marketing, have been very high. You make a number of assumptions when you start and then quickly realise that the market is in fact very different and the consumer in Zambia (and Southern Africa) is driven by different things.

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs in Africa?

Have a vision and passion. Be courageous, focused and disciplined. Lastly, persist… it’s definitely not easy.

Describe some of your future plans.

We are in the design stages of the Java Foods plant and expect to reach financial close with our shareholders and lenders in the next couple of months in order to complete the plant in 2014. Our intention is to provide the Southern Africa market with “eeZee Instant Noodles”. As Zambia is both in COMESA and SADC, our intention is for Java Foods to distribute eeZee and other food products in East and Southern Africa. Our goal is for eeZee to become East and Southern Africa’s leading quick meal option in the next five years.

Pundits say Africa is the last frontier. How can Africa truly benefit from its potential?

With the economic crisis and recession still hanging over Europe and the US, Africa is the last frontier. However, it’s clearly no longer a secret; you just have a look at all the investment bankers, international law firms and private equity firms roaming the lobbies of major hotels in African capitals. Deals are being hatched. But the real question is what are we as Africans doing? Are we going to be active participants in the growth and development of our continent or are we going to be satisfied with being spectators? As Africans, we need to take advantage of the opportunities, create sustainable development and wealth. We need to lead the way and invest in Africa. Also, governments need to encourage the development of the private sector in key sectors and encourage local participation.

You were mentored by Aliko Dangote. What are the key things you learned from him?

Working with a visionary is always hard work. He never stopped working, which meant we never stopped working. On the flip side, he emphasised the importance of maintaining humility and focus, being driven and working hard and not being afraid to take calculated risks. His motto is “nothing is impossible”. And he was right.