BENEDICT TEMBO, Lusaka
ENERGY expert Robinson Chongo Mwansa is a man of many lives who has seen both fortunes and misfortunes and can rightly attest to the notion that no condition is permanent – neither adversity nor success.
He is now focusing his energy on an innovative agricultural enterprise that is envisaged to transform Luapula from a sleeping giant to a major farm block. His chilli farming is the magic wand.
After working for the South African power utility firm, Eskom, for two years [1989-1991], he was enticed by the MMD government in 1991 to come and run Zesco Limited.
As a patriotic Zambian, he left his lucrative job as principal engineer at Eskom to come and run Zesco as managing director from 1991 up to 2002, making him the longest-serving chief executive officer for a power utility firm in Africa.
When he left the lofty position at Zesco, Mr Mwansa went into agriculture â€“ running a farm in Chongweâ€™s Kanakantapa where he grew paprika.
He later acquired a 600-hectare farm in Lusaka West which later grew to 1,500 hectares after amassing more land under Feed Africa, one of the most successful agro firms, which produced about 4,000 tonnes of maize annually.
Mr Mwansa realised that he needed to start growing maize throughout the year under irrigation to make his farming sustainable.
He therefore procured a US$1 million loan from Standard Chartered Bank in 2005 to procure and sink a centre pivot. He also built a dam.
Sadly, that was the beginning of his woes. Mr Mwansa was faced with a huge challenge of repaying the loan and had no option but to sell his farm at a loss, including his house in Kabulonga, virtually rendering himÂ destitute.
A living testimony of resilience in the face of adversity, Mr Mwansa, however, never gave up. In 2013, he resurfaced like the proverbial phoenix and resumed farming, this time growing chilli.
To date, Mr Mwansa is a living testimony of resilience in the face of adversity.
Three years on, the chilli business is promising to restore his glorious days because of the backing it has from the British and Swedish governments which have funded the operations of his chilli business through Musika.
Mansa Chilli Company Limited was motivated by advice from Mark Terken, an expert in paprika and chilli.
Mr Terken, who was a World Bank consultant on crop diversification, advised Mr Mwansa to consider going into chilli production and start collaborating with Takata Seed Company, one of the biggest vegetable seed firms in the world where Mansa Chilli Company Limited procures seed.
So far, Mansa Chilli Company Limited has land worth US$250,000 while Musika procured chilli processing equipment worth US$150,000.
Mr Mwansa attests that chilli has potential to eradicate poverty and create jobs for thousands of small- scale farmers in the country.
Mansa Chilli Limited, whose headquarters is in Mansa in Luapula Province, has engaged 15,000 small-out-grower scale farmers in Muchinga, Northern and Luapula provinces.
The company has extension offices in Kawambwa, Mpika and Nchelenge districts.
â€œWe are like a pilot company in growing chilli,â€ Mr Mwansa says, pointing to East Africa and Congo which grow a lot of chilli.
He says in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, the income from the sale of chilli surpasses that of traditional crops.
Mr Mwansa says Shoprite Zambia has already offered to be the out-taker for all the chilli Mansa Chilli Company Limited will be producing.
â€œShoprite has given us the commitment that they will buy all the chilli to be processed,â€ he says.
Zambia imports chilli from India, Kenya, Malawi and South Africa.
Mr Mwansa says his company is in the process of procuring a US$450,000 loan from the Development Bank of Zambia (DBZ) to boost its operations.
He decided to invest in Luapula to take advantage of the agro-processing opportunities in the province, which has favourable climate, adding that the region has lagged in agro processing.
Mansa Chilli Company Limited, which has capacity to grow 600 tonnes of chilli per annum, has been growing the crop for the past two years and stored 10 tonnes.
â€œMusika has been assisting us with rentals. They have bought us three motorbikes and a truck,â€ Mr Mwansa says.
He says chilli is an export crop which has potential to earn the country foreign exchange.
Internationally, Mansa Chilli Company Limited will compete with Nestle and Unilever, among others.
â€œWe will not compete on volume but quality,â€ Mr Mwansa stresses.
He says chilli cultivation represents the crop diversification Government has been advocating and that the cost of inputs for chilli is much lower than that of other crops.
Mansa Chilli Company Limited has been supporting farmers who would otherwise not have taken up growing the crop.
It is not only his farming business that has been restored, but also his legacy and personal glory. And he is en route to becoming one of Zambiaâ€™s most successful farmers.
Mr Mwansa is not alone in Mansa. Other board of directors in Mansa Chilli Company Limited are Mrs Sylvia Madawaki, Mr Moses Zulu, Mr Andrew Chitembo, Mr Charles Kaisala, Dr DorothyÂ Kasonde, Mr Rudolph Ngulube and Mrs Joyce Muwo-Mwansa.
BENEDICT TEMBO, Lusaka