FROM selling roasted cassava and brewing moonshine, Mansa-based business executive Barbara Chilufya has dragged herself from being a charity case poster-child to a highly respected business person.
Widely known as Bana Chakwe BKC, which is a moniker for her business, her story begins in the year 1988 in Kitwe on the Copperbelt.
Her husband, Elias Chalwe, who was an employee of the State-owned and now defunct United Bus Company of Zambia (UBZ) had just lost his job.
Suddenly jobless and without a house, Mr Chalwe moved his family with his cousin’s household. The quarters were cramped as the cousin had a family of his own.
Making ends meet was a problem, Barbara says she sat and thought about what would become of her family.
She then suggested to her husband that they leave Kitwe and move to Mansa to try and make a new life.
“When we arrived in Mansa, we again went to live with another of my husband’s relatives.
“The situation there was not much different from the one we had left in Kitwe and I was determined to move my family into our own home,” Barbara recounts.
She gathered all her clothes and those of her husband which qualified as their Sunday-best and sold them to pay rentals for a thatched house in a shanty township called Puluputwe near Sumbwe Village.
Puluputwe was referred to by locals as akamushi ka bwafya as it was notorious for its anti-social vices. The remainder of the money was what she invested in a hand-to-mouth business of selling roasted cassava and groundnuts.
Barbara would wake up at the crack of dawn in the morning, roast cassava over a brazier before packaging roasted groundnuts into small portions which she then sold for what would suffice for 20 ngwee today.
At the time the central business district would come alive, Barbara would set off on foot for the UBZ station where she would sell her pre-cooked food.
Cassava and groundnuts are a staple of most tribes in Luapula Province and are jokingly referred to as the poor man’s sausage and chips.
Its affordability and ease of handling meant Barbara was at least assured of sales every day.
“It was amazing! When my very little seed money grew, I involved my sister and one of my children in selling the cassava and groundnuts.”
Then she had an epiphany. Cassava, owing to its starchy nature, usually makes the person eating it thirsty. So Barbara then started brewing a local root sweet beverage known as umunkoyo which she would sell in 2.5 litre containers for K3.
This increased her income as umunkoyo was a hot seller, especially in the summer.
As she had school-going children, Barbara started thinking of other means she could increase the family’s income.
“I am not ashamed to say that I brewed moonshine from my home. Owing to this, I made enough money to move from Puluputwe to better-living quarters in Maiteneke, Barabara narrated.
The only concession she made was not to sell the moonshine by the bottle from the confines of her home.
This was meant to protect her children from being groped by drunken patrons.
“I did not want my children to become morally corrupt by running a shebeen. So when my moonshine was ready, I sold it in bulk to people who had bars in the township.
What helped her grow was maintaining a simple eye. She was not envious of goods she could not afford nor did she lose any sleep for not keeping up with latest trends in fashion.
“Dressing trendy takes money. If you want to be the owner of each and every new item of clothing on the market you will not be able to save. My priority then was to save enough money to buy a small plot at Maiteneke Market which I managed to do after months of putting away money bit by bit,” Barbara said.
The little plot she bought would later become a thriving chibuku bar.
It did not take long to cultivate regular customers because of her sunny disposition and honesty in her dealings.
While other traders would water down their beer to increase profit margins, Barbara did not. Customers would flock to her establishment as one of the few places that did sell watered-down chibuku.
Looking for other avenues for diversification, Barbara did a little research at the market and figured a restaurant would be a good return on her investment. Both her bar and restaurant flourished and her enterprise grew. She now employs 18 people.
“I had a dream of owning an up-class drinking place where I could sell bottled beer like Mosi and Castle instead of the bulk chibuku I was dealing in.
Through hard work and a habit of saving each and every spare ngwee in a manner that could rival Ebenezer Scrooge, Barbara is now the proud owner of three bars and three restaurants.
She has also involved some of her children by mentoring them on the various pros and cons of what has now become a family business.
“It is important that there is at least one family member capable of taking over the reigns should I suddenly become indisposed. They can also keep an eye on operations when I am occupied with other pressing issues,” Barbara said.
She, however, cautioned against letting an enterprise to be run down by over-involving children and giving them free reign.
“Though I allow my children to learn the ropes, I have a manager who keeps an eye on things. Having relatives all over your business without defined roles is a recipe for going bankrupt. My manager calls the shots here because she knows for her, it is a job and she can be fired if she messes up things.
“So although I encourage my children to have interest in the business, they have limits as to what they can or cannot do. I actually encourage them to venture out on their own and begin their own enterprises.
The young sister she mentioned earlier is married in Kitwe and is the owner of two businesses. Her oldest son has two shops in Livingstone while another is looking for space to open a shop of his own.
To achieve this, Barbara is always willing to learn new ways she can expand her business. She was part of a group of 60 women that benefited from a Ministry of Gender’s countrywide training programme.
Talking to her colleagues who are at different levels in their businesses, she had words of advice for her colleagues.
“What has helped me grow is hard work and being honest in my dealings. Right now as you see me standing before you, I move around while seated because I now have a car.”
The training package Gender and Entrepreneurship Together (GET) Ahead for Women in Enterprise aims to assist International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s partner organisations in promoting enterprise development.
One of the consultant facilitators at the training programme for women in Luapula Province, Maureen Sumbwe simplified issues for the women in terms they could assimilate into their small businesses which ranged from catering to beekeeping.
The GET Ahead training package promotes the economic and social empowerment of women alongside men in enterprises.
Economic empowerment because poor women engaged in income earning usually have had few opportunities for education and training and a double workload that combines economic activities with primary care for the household.
Social empowerment because women in many countries have a lower status as compared to men.
Barbara will benefit from the training programme as it will help her employ new interventions to grow her business and keep it from folding.
Closing the interview that this writer had with her, Barbara stood in the dining area of her spick and span restaurant and boldly declared she was looking for land in the nearby area.
“My next project is to build a lodge. Some of my customers, too inebriated to go home after leaving my bar, can go and rest at my lodge when it’s complete,” Barbara said jokingly as she stirred a pot of beef stew.
She may have started small, but Barbara is an inspirational story to all the wannabe entrepreneurs both, male and female in Mansa.