Recruitment pioneer Miyanda Maimbo Katiwa taking farming by storm


By Davis Mulenga | 3 March 2017
Katiwa
A great part of Miyanda Katiwa (middle) success is due to her human resources background - she tends to treat her staff like family.

When you meet Miyanda Maimbo Katiwa, you understand why this veritable pioneer of Zambia’s job recruitment industry is making waves in farming.

She charges around her farm with unrestrained enthusiasm, showing off her prized products with obvious pride. One minute she is explaining the market realities of farming, the next she dashes off to check out the greenhouse. And all the while she is talking to employees as though they were family members.

This approach is not only successful, it is also seen as an example of innovation on Katiwa’s 20 acre Pamushana Farm, located in Chamunuka, about half an hour from Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka.

Coming from a human resource development industry where “performance” is key, Katiwa gives attention to the things which have the greatest impact on her seedling and vegetable business.

Katiwa
Miyanda with her farm manager Kenny Sambambi.

AVOIDING THE ACTIVITY TRAP

“With dozens of farming activities I could do, I chose seedling and vegetable growing because market realities indicated enormous growth opportunity,” she says. It sounds simple enough, but arriving at the decision first took Katiwa on a detour of raising chickens. She realised she couldn’t effectively combine a poultry farm with seedling and vegetable growing.

The essence of Katiwa’s message is clear: “Because there will now be fewer activities, we will have to perform far better”. The payoff from the focus on seedlings and vegetable growing is remarkable. Within six months of becoming fully operational, Pamushana Farm was earning a good income. The newly erected 50m x 8m greenhouse, put up at a cost of K60 000, was driving the growth.

Katiwa says the earnings from the erection of the greenhouse puts her in a position to pay off the mortgage on the remaining 10 acres of her 20-acre farm, build additional greenhouses and sustain her permanent workforce of 11 workers.

Nearly 90% of the business is driven by supplying seedlings to large and small scale farmers nationwide. The remaining 10% involved contract farming of high-end vegetables like lettuce, cauliflower, green pepper, broccoli for a fresh vegetable retail chain. This side of the business is on an upward trajectory. The demand is high, and so are the prices for luxury products.

Katiwa sold her vehicle when it became obvious that the opportunity to expand was by building a greenhouse.

A head of cauliflower is sold at around K30, or almost US$3 at the current exchange rate. “This is a sweet spot and up-scaling will ensure the good times keep rolling,” Katiwa says.

On the seedling side, the business started with a few hundred plants, but is now producing thousands. Katiwa and her team spend an average of eight hours a day working in the nursery beds filling soil bags with plants. Until the greenhouse was completed in December last year, this was done under a makeshift netted structure.

Katiwa sold her vehicle when it became obvious that the opportunity to expand was by building a greenhouse.
She says cultivating seedlings and growing vegetables is an intensive job, both in terms of capital and labour. A single soil bag, for example, costs K280, and that’s not counting the display tables and other inputs. These are essential to ensure the right conditions always prevail to produce quality products.

Miyanda sets an example in her business by doing manual work.
Miyanda sets an example in her business by doing manual work.

But, again, the toughest tasks attract Katiwa like a moth to a flame. And she says the support from her husband Trevor helps to get the impossible done.

Katiwa is, by her own confession, a workaholic. After graduating with a higher diploma in human resources management, she worked for an international courier company. She later went on to revolutionise the recruitment industry, setting up a high-profile consulting firm.

Katiwa stresses that switching from power suits and heels, to overalls and gumboots was not an emotional decision.
“I had been working towards this for many years, and thankfully, my husband supports me. This encouraged me to take the decision,” she says.

MOTIVATED BY MARKETS

Producing tomato seedlings formed a major component of Pamushana’s business. Plants included hybrid varieties such as newtons, simone and cherry tomatoes. Complementing that are onion, cabbage, lettuce, cucumber, ginger and other high-end vegetables.

The customer base for the seedlings is large and small-scale farmers, scattered across the country. The orders range from ‘one seedling to 5 000 seedlings’.

Alongside that, the farm is creating a new niche of customers – the urban dweller with limited space for growing vegetables. Katiwa and her team have developed a specially designed tray or crate which can be bought off the shelf and placed in a customers’ backyard.

Driven by the knowledge that the custom made product will become very popular as urban populations and the demand for food increase, Katiwa and her team are actively promoting the backyard and indoor farming culture among town dwellers.

‘There is absolutely no excuse why everyone could not have fresh vegetables, even with limited space’

They reason that the tailor-made offering will inspire people to become farmers with the ability to grow vegetables in limited spaces anywhere and create their own sustainable food production. The trend is already a hit in major capitals across the globe.

“There is absolutely no excuse why everyone could not have fresh vegetables, even with limited space,” Katiwa says.
For easy customer access, the farm created a pickup point in Lusaka’s Northmead for its seedling business. For customers in remote areas, the use of public service buses proved an effective solution.

Additionally, a distributor network in various geographical areas was being developed to enhance customer access to products. Recognising the benefits of e-commerce, Katiwa’s says Pamushana Farm will by next month also be online. This will help serve the customers on a 24/7 basis.

Katiwa
Miyanda with her husband, Trevor Katiwa.

“Taking the business online is well-suited with the changing environment of business in general. A high proportion of transactions are conducted online, and this will be a big factor as we move forward,” Katiwa says.

The integration was also a natural fit, as the farm already had a huge presence on social media like Facebook and Instagram.

According to Katiwa, virtually everything they do at the farm is rooted in taking a tough look at the marketplace realities. They immerse themselves in the marketplace regularly through interacting with customers and observing and conducting informal feedback interviews.

Katiwa
Pamushana farm’s Strawberry pots that can be planted in limited urban spaces for all year round strawberries.

This resulted in developing value-added services for customers. The Pamushana Market Price Watch is one such product. Disseminated through Facebook and WhatsApp, the price watch provides data on prices for fresh produce.
Katiwa also provides free advisory services on light, water and soil techniques.

“A lot of problems can occur when growing vegetables, much to the frustration of growers. So, our advisory services cover the entire spectrum from planting, watering, controlling diseases and much more,” she says.

CHALLENGES

Farming, like any other business, can only be sustained if revenues and profit flow. But it is also one area where many farmers get it wrong. To avoid a downward financial spiral, Katiwa hired an external consultant who tracks expenditure and income trends monthly.

“Of all tasks involved in farming, it is the numbers that are slippery. The external accountant helps us to be focused on running a viable farming business.”

In the seedling and vegetable business, financial challenges are compounded by climatic changes and fragile markets, increasing the risk for farmers. This means farmers like Katiwa must constantly adapt.

Miyanda's choice of crops and products is motivated by marketplace realities. Here she is growing green peppers.
Miyanda’s choice of crops and products is motivated by marketplace realities. Here she is growing green peppers.

For Pamushana Farm, this would entail investing in more greenhouses that will allow customers to ‘see, feel and touch’ the final product, just as they would in a supermarket.

“Regardless of the size, the challenge for the farmer is to grow healthier and more productive seedlings. The climatic and related market changes will put a greater demand on our business to invest in best practices of growing vegetables and breeding the seedlings,” Katiwa notes.

But the challenge of growing twice as much food by 2050 to feed nine billion people – with less and less land – is what keeps Katiwa excited about the future of her business. And Pamushana, which in Shona means “basking in the sun”, is ready for big changes.

“The answer lies in understanding how to grow healthier crops in extreme weather patterns to meet the increasing consumer demand. It is this knowledge that will keep driving our growth,” Katiwa believes.