Q & A With Sylvia Banda: Changing The Way Zambians Eat And Farm

Q & A With Sylvia Banda: Changing The Way Zambians Eat And Farm

Sylvia Banda is not just a business woman — she’s a social activist who’s changing the way Zambians eat and farm.

She is working to increase demand for locally produced, traditional food in Zambia. The owner of multiple restaurants and a successful caterer, she has created entrepreneurial hubs to help promote an appreciation for local food in rural and urban areas.

As early as high school Banda realized she wanted to be an entrepreneur. She started out designing and selling clothes to classmates  and selling food made in the school kitchen.

She went on to study catering and then landed a job at a Lusaka-based catering institute. After being promoted to a human resources position instead of a job in her beloved kitchen, she decided to start her own catering and restaurant business — even though she had no start-up capital.

Without capital, she used cooking oil and vegetables from her kitchen at home. And since she opened her first restaurant with no furniture, her first customers ate while standing. But even this she turned into a promotion –“This is a standing buffet,” she advertised. “Feel free to mingle and network as you eat!.”

In just three years, she was running 16 canteens for corporate clients. Her husband took over the management of Sylva Professional Catering Services as Banda wanted to pursue her other goal – -of helping local farmers increase their businesses. In 2005, she founded Sylva Food Solutions (SFS), a nonprofit called with a mission of promoting local Zambian food.

Today, Sylva Food Solutions, with the help of the World Bank, serves as an innovation hub with 100 percent of profits reinvested in training and outreach for farmers. It also focuses on research and development of new products, invents new preservation techniques and creates new market opportunities including technical support for farmers to run their businesses.

Through Sylva Food Solutions, Banda organized local farmers into 16 farmers’ clubs where farmers help each other.

Sylva Food Solutions has even introduced a modern way of preserving fruits and vegetables: solar drying.

Banda, who has already brought her agricultural techniques to Mozambique, is also working to reach out to more African countries. And one way is through a university-level training program she created in partnership with the University of Zambia.

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AFK Insider: You are working to combat the low demand for locally produced, traditional food in Zambia by creating entrepreneurial hubs. How did this idea come about?

Sylvia Banda: Being a restaurant owner, I would go to the market to
buy provisions – vegetables, tomatoes, condiments and so on. I noticed that large amounts of vegetables and tomatoes were being thrown away at the end of each market day. To me, this was absolutely wasteful, seeing that farmers had put in a lot of effort and resourcefulness to grow these food products now being thrown away.

I remembered that as I grew up in the village my mother and other older women would stock dry vegetables and other products and hang them over the wood fireplace. As the fire burned, the smoke would drift over the processed food thereby protecting it from weevils and other harmful insects. Such preserved foods would last until the next harvest season; often, the shelf life exceeded two years. This meant that there was always food available, in season and out of season. That’s when the idea struck me that by using modern food processing methods, Zambia could achieve food self-sufficiency at much reduced cost.

In addition, the food (vegetables) grew in abundance and was organic and nutritious many times over the foreign food that was being flaunted in restaurants. So I designed a solar dryer which was polished up by a skillful fabricator.

To this day, more than 2,000 Sylvia solar dryers are being used by farmer groups around Zambia, and more than 12,000 rural farmers have undergone post-harvest training in food processing in Zambia and 10 districts in Eastern Mozambique. Several NGOs have latched onto the idea: Catholic Relief Service, World Vision, Africare, Care Zambia International, ASNAP, Action for Enterprise (USAID) and many more. The processed vegetables have local and international markets.

AFK Insider: How many restaurants do you now run?

Sylvia Banda: Out of the 21 restaurants that we once had between 1989 and 2002, we have remained with one which serves members of the public in relation to outside catering (food for weddings, funerals, conferences.) About 95 percent local products are used in all our food products.

AFK Insider: Why did you open your first restaurant?

Sylvia Banda: Initially I was employed by the Ministry of Education as an institutional caterer; however, after a year or two, the government decided to promote me to the position of human resources officer at head office. This job was far removed from the pots and pans and food I had been used to. Therefore, after a few weeks, I decided to try my hand at something else and in 1986 decided to open a restaurant.

Since I did not have any capital, I decided to commandeer provisions from my pantry, booked a taxi and proceeded to start the business. I was the only employee then. When I arrived at the room, having swept the place the previous day, I switched on the two-plate cooker which my husband used to use when he was a bachelor, cut the onions, tomatoes and other goodies and started frying them.

As this was going on, I closed all the windows and the door in order to capture the rich aroma from the frying pan. When the room was filled complete with the steamy aroma, I opened the door and the windows. The aroma rushed out and scattered in all directions. This was my announcement that my restaurant had opened.

The customers were all just standing there waiting. I realized that they were waiting for me to show them where to sit. I panicked but quickly recovered and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is an opportunity for you to mingle and know each other. In catering this is what we call ‘standing buffet!’”

AFK Insider: What are some of the challenges facing a female business owner in Zambia?

Sylvia Banda: First of all, the local culture is mostly paternal and favors men. Secondly, and as a result, financiers automatically mistrust women, to the extent that loan applications made by women have to signed or countersigned by the husband before the banks can consider them.

Another challenge of being a female business owner might come from some family members who might express the view that a woman in business is exposing herself to all sorts of vices out there, and also that she will not have time and inclination to perform her marital obligations to her family and husband. They will top all that with the warning that when the woman becomes a successful business person, she will have no respect for her husband let alone her in-laws.

AFK Insider: What made you found Sylva Food Solutions in 2005?

Sylvia Banda:  Sylva Food Solutions would complement the supply side of restaurant business, so that the cost element would be controlled. Moreover, Sylva Food Solutions was aimed at demonstrating the fact that business is not just for men; it can also be done by women, perhaps even better.

Sylva Food Solutions targets to economically, nutritionally and socially empower rural farmers, especially women. This has already resulted in an improved lifestyle for all family members.

AFK Insider: Has it been difficult to persuade other businesses to invest in and use local products?

Sylvia Banda: A number of businesses have partnered with Sylva Food Solutions, especially in the area of research, training and business development. At the top of the list are the World Bank, the government of Zambia (Ministry of Agriculture), and several non-governmental organizations. Sylva Food Solutions is also receiving the cooperation of some international hotels based in Zambia who have introduced local food fare in their menus and order these items from Sylva Food Solutions.

As for market, at least three international supermarkets in Zambia and several food outlets have SFS products on their shelves as a regular feature.

AFK Insider: Does the government aid in your efforts?

Sylvia Banda: The government has in recent years provided a healthy enabling environment for business people, mainly by (easing) the process of starting a business and managing it. Interference is much reduced, and positive discriminatory empowerment policies are being applied.

AFK Insider: Why is it so important to get people to consume foods grown locally?

Sylvia Banda: The local food is kilometers ahead of ahead in terms of nutrition content, availability, resistance to disease, cost of growing/grooming. Most of them grow on their own without human intervention, and they have a long shelf life.

AFK Insider: What are some of your goals with Sylva Food Solutions?

Sylvia Banda: Some goals are to be the leader in the promotion of the cultivation, processing and marketing of uniquely local foods; to provide the opportunity for the rural areas to benefit directly from the natural resources that are so abundant in the environment still under their control; to present a balanced picture about Zambia’s food culture which also has similar presentations around the table as the much-vaunted Western menu. For example, Zambian food culture has always had menus that have three course meals, with choices, that are taken three times a day. Moreover, like the mid-morning and afternoon tea with cake, Zambia and many other African countries have their own versions of the food consumption behaviors.

The idea is to woo or wean Africans from harmful Western menus that have mushroomed as franchise food businesses all over Africa which has resulted in the proliferation of diseases never before common in parts of the continent. Wellness has flown out the window; it has to come back; it must come back.

AFK Insider: What are some of your business goals?

Sylvia Banda: Personally, to become the Zambian doyen of the promotion, processing and marketing of Zambian food. Moreover, I envision that other African countries can follow suit, especially the 48 African countries of which I am the president under the African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program, an offshoot of the African Growth Opportunity Act, the American initiative that empowers Africans to export to America.

I am also in the process of building a factory that will process and market local vegetable soups and Moringa mixed vegetable porridge for the school feeding program in Zambia which is supported by the World Food Program and our government through the Ministry of Education. I am also finalizing the construction of a university whose bias will be the promotion of food sciences and nutrition. The university is scheduled to enroll it first students in the first quarter of 2014.