Zambia’s Dr Tamara Kaunda, 27, was once a medical doctor – albeit for a short time. And that is until she decided to take farming, a switch that saw her start farming seedlings.
Off went the stethoscope – and in came the seedling tray.
It was a decision that she made when she first went to University Teaching Hospital (UTH) and she was shocked by what she saw: “It didn’t look like a place where a patient could recover. I wondered what good I could do there, when people could not afford decent food, let alone drugs,” she said.
The granddaughter of Robert Kaunda, older brother of Zambia’s first Republican president, Kenneth Kaunda, Tamara was raised on her father’s farm outside Chinsali, in the north-eastern province of Muchinga. Here the older Kaunda brother grew bananas, cabbages, sugar cane, tomatoes and other fresh produce. He ran a productive farming business and was a successful farmer in the district.
“I realised that agriculture had really improved the quality of our lives when we were growing up. We farmed and my mother traded and sold the produce. Farming gave us our living, put food on the family table and paid our school fees,” says Tamara who was trained in China.
It was this believe that she could encourage other youth to get into farming that saw her drop her medical internship and go into agriculture.
Now the co-founder and CEO of Billionaire Farmer Agric Solutions, a vegetable seedling company in Lusaka’s Silverest Estate, Tamara is creating credible evidence of farming as a viable option that can uplift the lives of many Zambians. Her motto is: “We can farm Zambia out of poverty.”
Tamara formed a business team with her husband, Dr Chiluba Kunda, son of the late George Kunda, former vice-president in the MMD-led (Movement for Multi-Party Democracy) government.
“Going into the seedling business was a practical decision. We had to make the most of our limited space and seedlings seemed the way to do it.” At first, the business grew in an organic fashion, as the Kundas bought second-hand materials as and when they could afford to.
After three months they planted the first batch of seedlings around their house, and 25 days later made their first sale. “We sold to less than five customers,” she recalls. “Then we hit a snag with our second batch of planting when power outages and water supply become a huge challenge.”
As if that was not enough, the only vehicle the fledgling business had access to, which belonged to Tamara’s sister, was written-off after an accident. This was yet another hurdle for their start-up venture, by this stage desperately looking for finance.
Finally, a breakthrough came from an unexpected source. The insurance pay-out for the vehicle gave them their first real start-up capital with which they funded the building of a greenhouse. It has been said that growth generates growth and this proved to be true for the Kundas business. “After that we began to build more greenhouses around the house.”
Then Tamara’s mother gave them access to more land in Silverest, from where the company currently operates. “Because of our space limitations, we decided to cut down the mango orchard at home. My mother loves mangoes and offered us the use of her land in Silverest, so as not to lose the orchard.”
Tamara’s brother-in-law, Muwowo, immediately volunteered to work from the Silverest site, with only a tent as his basic infrastructure. Financial discipline, a strong work ethic, determination and personal sacrifice have now made it possible for Tamara and her team to buy a state-of-the-art 40m X 8m greenhouse.
“There is a saying that to become successful at business you have to do hard labour for a thousand days. My partners and I have done this journey, so success is bound to come.”
Initially the company supplied customers in Lusaka, but it is expanding to meet a nationwide demand for vegetable seedlings, especially in tomatoes and cabbage. The team has also started training programmes in seedling cultivation as a way of empowering Zambians.
A secondary, but vital, focus is to create value for customers. “The value we consistently offer our clients makes us grow and is fully in line with our passion for quality and innovation,” she adds.
“I don’t think preaching the message would have had much impact. Farming like this sends a powerful signal to young fellow Zambians who think an improved life revolves around having a job. It simply is not true. In fact most wealthy Zambians are actually running their own farms.”
She says it’s a pity that many young people continue the search for scarce corporate white collar jobs. Some outward seeking and inward reflection may give them time to think about getting into the farming sector she adds. “This is the best time to join the farming sector, where the future is promising for young people with some drive and a willingness to learn.”
A major percentage of Zambia’s estimated 13 million people is between 12 years and 35 years old. These are the people most affected by the high rate of unemployment and related poverty. The agricultural sector employs 75% of the nation’s labour force, either directly and indirectly. And 1.6 million smallholder households make up more than 80% of Zambia’s farmers.
“I’m confident that Zambia can dramatically reduce unemployment and poverty in the next few years with an aggressive investment in agriculture. Yes, access to capital is a challenge but it can be overcome if government creates an enabling environment to attract young farmers,” she says.