Thursday, July 17, 2008

'I don't want to die poor'

This is a very inspirational story. To all the women out there, be encouraged, move forward, things are not going to just happen for you, you have to make them happen... only if you truly want them to.

‘I don’t want to die poor’
By Wilfred Zulu

Sylvia Banda was only 24 when she realised that if she continued with her job in the public service, she would, like many who have gone before her, die in poverty.

The 49-year old Sylvia with an investment capital of US$100 in her venture is now standing on the threshold of US$4.7 million hotel-and-lodge development, making her one of the most enterprising persons not only in Zambia but the region at large.

She reminisced: “The start of my business was not easy…challenges were many but what mattered most to me was a better future for my family, country and Africa as at large,” she told API.

Having left the poorly-paid job as a teacher 25 years ago, Sylvia ‘invaded’ her kitchen; she took away a stove, fridge, mealie meal, chicken, salt, cooking oil and the like. A proprietor of a warehouse in the city’s industrial area had agreed to allow her use his premises free of charge – perhaps thinking that she would not go far.

“The first day was funny. My small restaurant had no tables, no chairs, so I simply said to my customers, ‘welcome to a standing buffet’. Amazingly the first meal was all sold out”.

The next day, the woman whose government service monthly salary amounted to not more than US$ 150 (K500, 000), put the US$100 she had saved into the new business which was promising good returns.

Shortly afterwards, Sylva Catering was born. Within a year, she was running a full operational cafeteria with many outside catering orders.

But even under the cards of limited funds, Sylvia feared getting a bank loan because the then “49 percent interest rate was too high”.

She managed on her own, though. Today she has expanded her catering business to include a guesthouse, catering college, and cafeterias spread across the capital Lusaka. They operate under the banner ‘Sylva Professional Catering Services’ and is situated at the University of Zambia.

As you enter her office, you will be greeted by several trophies decorating her desk and shelves. In 2001, she bagged the Arch of Europe 20th century Award that she consecutively retained in 2004 and 2005. In the year 2001, she was honoured as one of the six most outstanding African entrepreneurs and in 2003, the American biographical researchers voted her as Woman of the Year. Not to mention a string of local honours.

In the recent past, she has ventured into the promotion of indigenous food. This includes dried pumpkin leaves and seeds, pounded groundnuts, dried black jack leaves, dried and fresh okra, among many others. These foods are packaged under the label Sylva Food Solutions.

“We package almost all known indigenous Zambian food and sell them in supermarkets besides putting them on our menu. We also do exports to countries like Angola Congo DR and Nigeria,” she added.

The promotion of indigenous food has been well received both locally and internationally. In 2005, she exhibited at the Japan-Expo.

Locally, it is no surprise that high profile organizations ‘queue’ up at her office for orders. Her clients include Unilever South-East Africa, British Council, hotels and lodges.

Professional bodies are also tapping into her knowledge. She sits on the boards of Zambia Chamber of Small and Medium Scale Business Associations, Vocational Training under the Ministry of Science and Technology, and the newly instituted Zambia Development Agency.

In order to compare her achievements with those of the outside world, six years ago, she joined the US-based Professional Women’s Advisory Board. And in 2003, Sylvia toured Washington DC on a USAID educational and cultural programme.

“It is hard to accept that having started with almost nothing and without any loan, my business is being appreciated worldwide. This tells me that money alone is not a launch-pad for success but commitment, ability driven by vision,” she said.

Despite all these successes scored, her journey has not been devoid of challenges. The 1980s-90s unstable economy chorused by high inflation threatened her business. While trying to beat the inflationary effects, her customers complained that the products were too expensive. The other area is corruption.

“There are times when we have failed to get business from government institutions because our competitors opted to corrupt some official. But as God-fearing people, we cannot give kickbacks,” said Sylvia who together with her husband are devout Christians.

She added that costing mechanism of products is important in business. “We are not bothered by the pricing of our competitors. We would not change the price of a product merely because somebody is pegging the same at a lower cost”.

But what is the secret to her achievements? “God!” she emphatically responds.

“In whatever we do, we always put God first and seek His guidance.’