Working for Aliko Dangote like doing an MBA, says Zambian entrepreneur

“It’s true that Zambia does present a number of business opportunities… but it’s also especially true that there are not enough Zambians actually stepping up and becoming entrepreneurs and running their own businesses.”

“Dangote could clearly see the opportunities in Zambia, and that’s what encouraged me to see things differently here," notes Monica Musonda, founder of Java Foods in Zambia.

“Dangote could clearly see the opportunities in Zambia, and that’s what encouraged me to see things differently here,” notes Monica Musonda, founder of Java Foods in Zambia.

So says Zambian Monica Musonda, a successful commercial lawyer who left her 15-year career in corporate finance to set up Java Foods in her home country in 2012.

Java supplies the market with its eeZee instant noodles brand, which is currently imported. However, the company is building a factory to start manufacturing locally next year.

Musonda’s inspiration behind starting Java cropped up while working with Aliko Dangote, one of Africa’s wealthiest entrepreneurs and the man behind Nigerian conglomerate Dangote Group. It was during this time that she saw first-hand how a business is run, and got bitten by the entrepreneurial bug.

“I remember thinking to myself that it was almost like doing an MBA,” she reflected.

However, it was Dangote that inspired her to take the leap. “I used to travel around with him, and we came to Zambia a lot… and every time we visited he would ask: ‘Where are the Zambian businessmen? Why aren’t there more and why are they not taking up the opportunity?’ He could clearly see the opportunities in Zambia, and that’s what encouraged me to see things differently here.”

Many entrepreneurs, few sustainable businesses

Zambia’s retail and consumer-facing industries are dominated by large international companies from South Africa, Asia and Europe. While Musonda stressed the market is now seeing the emergence of more and more Zambian owners and entrepreneurs, she believes there are cultural reasons for there being so few local businesses in the country today.

“For a very long time we were taught to work for somebody else. If you are good in school your parents expect you to go work for somebody and that’s the path people take here. No one tells you that you can actually run your own business and its okay to do that. So I think that it’s a cultural issue where you are more comfortable working for somebody else, and you don’t have the belief you can be a business owner,” she explained.

“But it is changing now. It’s just a long process.”

There are other deterrents and limitations for local entrepreneurs, such as a lack of access to capital and the high cost of doing business, according to Musonda.

Zambia – like its neighbouring countries – has a large number of entrepreneurs, but they are mostly necessity-driven entrepreneurs, according to Global Entrepreneurship Monitor.

Necessity-driven entrepreneurs are those forced to start their own business because they have no other options for income or employment. This group (consisting of street vendors and informal traders) are common in developing countries, but are less likely to create sustainable businesses that create jobs or otherwise benefit the economy.

Advice to budding Zambian entrepreneurs

Musonda encourages Zambians to look around and capture some of the business opportunities that exist. However, she advises aspiring entrepreneurs to ask questions, and do their homework before jumping into entrepreneurship. It is crucial to understand both the opportunities and risks.

“Try to get as much information on the market, product, competition, business environment, and so on. But don’t over-analyse which can lead to ‘analysis paralysis’,” she continued.

“And never be afraid to share ideas. Someone has probably done something similar before and can either lead you in the right direction, or introduce you to someone who can help.”

Entrepreneurs should also start small, watch their budget carefully, and only spend if it will bring in revenue.

“And lastly, just start,” she emphasised. “You will learn by doing.”