ZIO MWALE, Lusaka
FOR Esther Phiri, 57, her entrepreneurial journey has not been an easy one but she is an inspirational example of how to triumph over adversity.
Known today for her Fresh Spring cooking oil, Esther’s story epitomises real challenges of starting a business while one is active in formal employment, and taking the risk of quitting one’s job amid an uncertain future.
Married with four children, Esther is one of Zambia’s budding small entrepreneurs and a co-owner of Fresh Spring Farm in Kanakantapa, Chongwe district.
Prior to this, Esther was a civil servant who was working as a nurse at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) in Lusaka. Her husband was also working and providing for the family.
But for Esther, having a formal job and a husband who could provide did not make her content, instead, she opted to quit her job to establish her own business.
And this was the beginning of her entrepreneurial journey.
When she began her nursing career in 1986, she immediately started saving money to start her own business as a subsistent farmer. As a woman, she wanted to prove that even if her husband was capable of providing for the family, she too could be economically productive and supplement the family income.
That’s how in 1996, after 10 years of service, Esther quit her job and started growing vegetables for sell.
“I started by growing vegetables on the farm I own with my husband. From there, I made a lot sells as I sold my vegetables on a larger scale at local markets,” she shares.
Two years later, Esther got established in vegetable production and also started producing cooking oil at her farm in Kanakantapa.
In 1998, she managed to raise funds to buy a manual oil mill that she uses to produce cooking and massaging oil on a small scale.
“I used to buy sunflower, groundnuts and soya beans from small farmers near my farm, but for groundnuts, I used to travel to Katete district to buy from farmers” she explained.
Despite the challenges that come with producing oil using a manual machine, the positive response that the business was receiving from residents of Kanakantapa made Esther optimistic that she could realise her dream of becoming a successful entrepreneur.
Slowly, the business started growing and by 2012, she started rearing pigs and had a poultry farm which was supplying over 2,000 chickens monthly to butcheries in Lusaka and Chongwe.
“My business grew and I was very happy because I had a lot of customers, especially small butcheries around Lusaka” she explained.
In the middle of a thriving business, suddenly, Esther’s enterprise hit rock bottom. This was after she fell ill in 2014 and could not manage her business anymore.
However, she trusted her workers with her business as she was battling her sickness.
“When I fell ill, my business went down, my husband who was helping me with my business was taking care of me, while my children were away” Esther recalled.
To make matters worse, some of her animals and farm equipment got stolen by a trusted worker who was in-charge of the farm at the time.
“When I heard that the things had been stolen, I visited the farm only to find that almost all farm machinery was stolen. The pigs too were stolen,” she said.
Through this encounter, Esther learnt that in life, one should never put one’s eggs in one basket.
“I was very disappointed with what happened, I trusted my worker at the farm but he stole from me. But while I was recovering from my illness, I begun making fruit juices for my visitors and family, which they liked so much” she said.
Although devastated, Esther swung over her challenges and started all over again, but this time making homemade fruit juice.
Somehow, she realised that there was a gap in the market for locally produced fruit juices and being the ambitious woman that she is, she took advantage of the situation.
She went back to her entrepreneurial networks in her business and on International Women’s Day, she was picked to exhibit her fruit juice under the Women Entrepreneur Development Association (WEDA).
“I made some fruit juices that I exhibited last year and gladly, people that tested my juice loved it. I was so encouraged that when I went home, I started picking any ripe fruit in my back yard,” Esther said.
She thanks her mother for teaching her how to process homemade fruit juice, saying this has now become her source of livelihood.
She has since honed her skills by pursuing a certificate programme in food processing and entrepreneurship from Graca Machel Trust.
Her entrepreneurial spirit combined with the knowledge she acquired through training, gave Esther the technical expertise she needed to put her new business idea into action.
“My mother had taught us to process local fruit and I underwent training with the Graca Machel Trust for Women Entrepreneurship where I got a certificate. So, I have specialist knowledge on how to make pure juices” she explained.
Esther hopes that her home made juice which she calls ‘Fresh Spring Juice’, will become a drink of choice for her consumers.
She hopes to start producing the juice on a large scale, but right now, her major obstacle is capital to reinvest in the business.
“I have already started selling my juice to residents of Kanakantapa and small retail shops, this has revamped my farm and some of my workers are back for work” she said.
This time around, Esther has learned lessons from her past experiences by ensuring that she is firmly in control of her business which she has since formally registered.
“I have lost a lot but an entrepreneur never fails, when you fall, you’ve got to rise up and work again’’ she said.
The added complexities of being a wife, mother and grandmother, as well as businesswoman in a traditionally male-dominated business environment, present different challenges to her business, but Esther is equal to the tasks involved.
“I am currently engaging with banks so that I present my business plan [for a loan], but it’s not easy “she said.
Reflecting on her successes, Esther says what gives her satisfaction is being able to create jobs for other Zambians. And losing everything when she fell ill taught her unforgettable lessons.
So, if she gets a loan from the bank, she will invest it wisely and hopefully grow her business.