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YALI Voices Podcast: Malawi’s Vitumbiko Zgambo Knows Where Her Food Is Coming From
December 7, 2018

YALI Network Member Vitumbiko Fyness Zgambo, based in the northern region of Malawi’s Mzuzu, has been working very hard in the field of agribusiness in her community. Not only does she grow vegetables organically by using manure and eliminating the use of any chemicals in her produce, but she’s also helping to train the next generation of agricultural entrepreneurs in her country.

Vitumbiko sees agriculture and organic farming as a way to encourage the women and youth of her community to begin entrepreneurial endeavors. When working with women in her community, Vitumbiko focuses on educating them on market information. She teaches them to understand what agricultural products people in their community desire and to work on bringing those to the community market. She is trying to steer youth away from the negative stereotype in her community that agriculture is a punishment. Instead, she is trying to teach them that working in agriculture can be a passion as well as a profitable field.

Vitumbiko shares, “If you take part in agriculture, you know where your food is coming from. By the end of the day, you’re also making money out of it, because you’re growing excess you can sell to others.” Malawi, which used to prioritize tobacco, has been encouraging a more agri-based economy based on fruits and vegetables. Nontobacco agri-projects now make up 80 percent of the country’s GDP.

Vitumbiko wants to help agricultural entrepreneurs succeed. A piece of advice she gives is: “Find the right person to mentor you. You know we’ve got crazy ideas. Sometimes you bounce off ideas with people and people just say, ‘You’re crazy. That’s not gonna happen.’ But when you find the right person to mentor you, that’s the way to go.”

To hear more about Vitumbiko’s journey to encourage agribusiness in Malawi, listen to this YALI Voices podcast.


YALI Voices Podcast: Nawsheen Hosenally and Vitumbiko Fyness Zgambo



♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪

VOICEOVER: Welcome to your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to the YALI Voices podcast on iTunes and Google Play. And visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up to date on all things YALI.

This edition of the YALI Voices podcast features two YALI Network members and 2017 Mandela Washington Fellows, Nawsheen Hosenally and Vitu Zgambo.

Nawsheen is co-founder of Agribusiness TV, a web-based platform that features success stories of young agricultural entrepreneurs in Africa and aims to inspire youth to embrace agricultural jobs along the value chain.

Vitu is a horticulturalist and founder of Mivi Investments, an agribusiness enterprise involved in organic farming, mobile extension services, and agricultural consultancy and training.

Their conversation centers on the opportunities and challenges facing agribusiness entrepreneurs in Africa.


NAWSHEEN HOSENALLY: So good morning, welcome to the YALI Voices podcast. My name is Nawsheen Hosenally, I am a Mandela Washington Fellow from Mauritius and Burkina Faso. So today we are speaking to Vitu from Malawi, and Vitu will tell us more what she is doing in the area of agribusiness in Africa, more specifically in Malawi. So good morning.

VITUMBIKO FYNESS ZGAMBO: Good morning, Nawsheen. A pleasure to be with you again this morning.

NAWSHEEN: Yeah, could you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what you do in Malawi.

VITUMBIKO: All right. My name is Vitumbiko Fyness Zgambo, I come from Malawi, I am based in the northern region of Malawi, the heart of northern region of Malawi, Mzuzu. I’m basically a farmer. I grow vegetables organically; that is, I use manure. I don’t use any chemicals in my farm, and this is uncommon, so I brag about it. Yeah, I brag about about it. And apart from that I love working with youths. So I have a group of youth that I’m working with. They are growing mushrooms. Mushroom is also a new industry for me, so I’m sort of also learning.

I have a group of women I’m working with, and these women are — we’ve been doing, like, entrepreneurship courses, but on a grass-root level, where we just have, like, chats, you know, I ask them, “What do you do?” Say, I make pancakes. Then I ask them, like, “How do you put a price on your pancakes?” So they explain. Then I try to give them, say, OK, when pricing, these are the things that you look at: Look at what materials you’ve put in, your work and all that, and then come up with a price. So I do entrepreneurship with them at a very grass-root level.


VITUMBIKO: Basically, that’s what I’m doing.

NAWSHEEN: OK, so these days we see that young people, youth, have the tendency to, I would say, go far from agriculture. Very few of them, you know, embrace agriculture, choose it as a career. What pushed you to agriculture, where the idea came from?

VITUMBIKO: It’s my passion. Growing up, I’ve always had a garden. I love having a garden. I love growing my own food, especially my own vegetables. So that’s really what pushed me. And you’re right, you know most youth, they don’t really like taking agriculture as a profession. You know why? It’s ’cause of the mentality and the background that we come from. For example, in my country, in primary school for punishment they would make you go work in the garden or they’ll make you go work at the orchard. So it kind of felt like a punishment. And growing up, you know, you have that mentality that agriculture is a punishment. Secondly, you find that most farmers are poor, and people really don’t want to be associated with being poor. As a result, you find that they — most youth — just decide to do other professions. But, you know, Malawi is an agri-based economy and being an agri-based economy, honestly, all the worth is in agriculture. It just needs for one to open up their eyes and see.

NAWSHEEN: Yeah, so your idea is to go back to agriculture, contribute to the economy and as well bring more youth to agriculture.

VITUMBIKO: Exactly, exactly.

NAWSHEEN: So when you talk about your work, you are into organic vegetable production, you also work with youth and women. What message you want people when you say about what you do? What idea you want them to get?

VITUMBIKO: I want them to understand that all the worth that you need is in agriculture, one. I also want them to understand that it’s good to know where your food is coming from, and, I tell you, I take pleasure in having my own food that I’ve grown. So if you take part in agriculture, you know where your food is coming from. By the end of the day you’re also making money out of it, because if you’re growing excess you can sell to others. So, yeah, it’s where food comes from, it’s where worth is.

NAWSHEEN: Mm-hmm. And you said that Malawi is an agri-based economy, like, how do you see the situation now, what does it look like? If you want someone who does not know how agriculture is in Malawi, how would you describe that?

VITUMBIKO: Firstly, I must say that for a long time in Malawi we’ve depended on tobacco. But, as you and I know, tobacco is not doing well on the international market. So there are other alternatives, like vegetables.


VITUMBIKO: And, honestly, every day on daily basis we need vegetables in our food. You can never go wrong with vegetables. So, yeah, there are so many opportunities in the agriculture sector, honestly, and there’s a very big market for agriprojects.

NAWSHEEN: Yeah, I heard like in Malawi agriculture contributes to up to 60 percent or 70 …

VITUMBIKO: It’s actually 80 … 80 percent.

NAWSHEEN: Ah, 80 percent of the GDP.

Now, in terms of — you are an entrepreneur. I would like to know how the environment is like in Malawi, like the business environment. How easy or difficult it is for someone to be an entrepreneur.

VITUMBIKO: OK, specifically, being an agripreneur, I would say, as I clearly said in the beginning, that there are so many chances. Being an agri-based economy it means most of our money is coming from agriculture, all right. And we have very good soils, and the weather is good, so basically we have all the resources that we need that one can easily go into agribusiness. But I think the most important things are finding the right team, so if you don’t know how to find the right team, you might end up getting yourself in trouble. So I would say if somebody was interested to go into agribusiness, I would advise that person to say: OK, do your research well. Understand what is it that you can grow better in your area. What is it that people like most?

For example, I grow lettuce. But, you know what? I grow lettuce because I love lettuce. Not many people in the area where I come from they love lettuce. So what do I do? I grow lettuce, I eat it alone. But when I grow mustard, I sell it, because most people they accept mustard. So you know, even if it’s just vegetables, but you need to know what is it that people like most in your area. So that’s getting to know your market and your customer needs.

The challenges are prices on the market. You see, for example, for organic foods, typically, you don’t make a difference. Like here in the U.S., organic foods they get a way big price. But not in my country. It’s just a stamp, no one really … it doesn’t really matter, honestly. And also the government sets prices for commodities. You’ll find that the price that the government has set for commodities is, say, below 50 cents. But what you’ve put in, the labor or the time — you know, vegetables are really quite demanding, labor-intensive — your time, your labor. You find that when you’re pricing it, it becomes, like, maybe two times what the government has set, and then people go like, “Oh, that’s too expensive.” So that’s one of the challenges, like, the pricing.

And lack of market information, proper market information. I wouldn’t say there is no market — market is there, but market information is the problem.

NAWSHEEN: Yeah, and one question that comes to my mind is, in terms of organic vegetable production, like we see in U.S., in Europe, people are going more towards organic production, organic produce. What do you experience in your country, like, are the customers willing to buy organic, for example, if you have the normal vegetables, organic vegetables? Why do they come to you for the organic ones, because from what we know, the prices are also a bit higher, like what makes the difference?

VITUMBIKO: Well, like I said, in my country there is really no difference because they don’t tell the difference. So the prices are almost the same. If you put a bit higher price on an organic produce, they will not buy it, they will not get it. But organic farming is not really a new concept in my country. In fact, it’s known as the traditional way of farming. That’s how people used to farm. But then with issues of land degradation, with leaching, people ended up starting using fertilizers. Now the use of fertilizers has brought so many chemicals in the soil. So if you see people like me doing organic farming, it’s like a reaction as a way of trying to make things better again, as a way of trying to have the fertilities in our soil back.

So, yeah, that’s what I can say about organic farming in my country. But, really, when it comes to pricing of organic or commodities you need to be certified, firstly, and certification process of organic farmer is really a long one. Secondly, on this right now, prices — sort of put an emphasis on that one — prices really don’t matter that much, maybe because we are not there yet. But I hope if one can get certification, I hope that there could be a great market because I know there a lot of Americans in my country who are there as expatriates, and I know they appreciate organic food.

NAWSHEEN: So we see the opportunities are here, the knowledge is here. Now in terms of the, I would say, the policy and also the different factors like environmental, governmental, how easy is it for an entrepreneur, someone who is young, to go and start a business, like registration of the business, like getting a loan from the bank, how do you see it?

VITUMBIKO: Business registration in my country is not really difficult, it’s easy. But getting loans, oh my gosh! Yeah, you’re called unbankable, if they …


VITUMBIKO: … if they just start up, or an entrepreneur who is just trying to start up.

Which is really sad, because they will ask you for collateral and all that stuff. It’s a hectic process. And you look at someone who just has an idea and wants to develop it, and that’s really one thing that drives me crazy. And because of that, that’s why I keep saying I want to have a resource center, especially for agriculture and startup entrepreneurs, where people can come and learn. You know, would train youths as a group and eventually tell banks to say: “You know what? These people have been trained and we’re gonna give them loans, but instead of giving them cash we’d give them input loans to help them with their business, to help them with their farming business. That’s what I really want to do, and I promise you this is something that has been bothering me —


VITUMBIKO: Before I got into the YALI … Mandela Washington Fellowship program, and being a part of the program has just even drove me crazy about the idea because now I’m more determined than ever that this is what I’m gonna do to help entrepreneurs.

NAWSHEEN: Yeah. We wish you really the best, we really want to see that resource center for youth. And if you had to give advice to the YALI Network, like to youth, about getting into entrepreneurship, agribusiness, what advice you have from your experience to give them?

VITUMBIKO: My advice is: Find the right person to mentor you. You know, we’ve got great ideas. Sometimes you bounce off ideas with people and people just say, “You’re crazy, that’s not gonna happen.” But when you find the right person to mentor you, that’s the way to go. So my advice would be: Find the right person to mentor you. Not just in agribusiness — any entrepreneurship. If you want to become a good, a successful entrepreneur, find someone to mentor you. Find like minds that you can bounce ideas with and just go ahead, look forward. You know, people always tell you, “That’s not possible.” We met John, “Papa John,” a business tycoon and a philanthropist. You know what he said? He said, “If I can do it, you can do it.” So I’m using the same concept, honestly. If I can do it, you can do it. If he can do it, we can do it. So, yeah, just find the right people, find the right mentor to mentor you, and don’t listen to the negatives. Take them for criticism, see where you can make things right, but don’t let anyone pull you down, never.

NAWSHEEN: Mm-hmm. And do you have, like, examples of such type of mentorship that you got?

VITUMBIKO: Oh, yes. Oh, yes.

NAWSHEEN: Like, where can the youth find these kind of mentors? Is it people around you? You look for them? How do you get them?

VITUMBIKO: OK. For example — I’ll give you an example in my country. We have Rachel Sibande, she’s the owner of mHub, and look at her as a pretty amazing woman. I really haven’t had much time to interact with her, but I’m very close to one of her workers, the CEO of mHub right now. And these are the type of people who just say, like, just say, “Go for it,” you know. So these are the type of people you look for. I know every previous Mandela Washington Fellowship Fellow would be willing to help anyone, so go look for a Fellow. Go look for someone who is in the YALI alumni network. You know, this program just makes you behave differently, it just makes you understand that helping others is way to go. So if you find any YALI Network people, any past Fellow, they’re going to help you, anywhere. And the embassies, they’re also there to give information. There are so many programs under the, with the embassies in our countries that I didn’t know earlier, but when I met a Fellow, a Malawi previous Mandela Washington Fellow, Andrew Longwe, he taught me about the YALI Network. I was like, wow, so there are these opportunities. So you can visit the embassy in your country and you get a lot of information there.

NAWSHEEN: Yeah, and the YALI Network you can also have different courses.

VITUMBIKO: Yes, even online, that can be online as well.

NAWSHEEN: Yeah, so you have been here in the U.S. for six weeks at the University of Iowa, yeah. What was your experience like? What did you get from there that you will go back home and that will change something?

VITUMBIKO: So many things, my dear, so many things. But I’ll just give you, like, my highlight. One, I’m impressed with the idea of giving back to the community. Working at the food pantry and working at the community garden was fun, at the same time was very educative for me, because I go like, “Wow, this is what we could do in our communities.”

Because if you’ve got someone who is exactly like you on your team, you reach at a point you have the same characters, you’d eventually get bored. You need somebody who is a bit opposite of you so that you are blending, you know, like yin and yang. You need to fight, you have to, if you are yin, have your yang.

NAWSHEEN: Now Vitu is doing many things, she is producing vegetables, she’s working with women and youth, she’s planning to have a youth resource center in agriculture. Where do you see yourself in the years to come?

VITUMBIKO: I would like to be able to tell you that I made an impact to the people in my society. I would like to be able to say: “I managed to reach out to 100 women. I managed to reach out to 100 youths and tell them about YALI. I managed to go back and empower women.” That’s what I want to be able to do in the next year, in the next three years. I hope I could be able to say, “I have made an impact in someone’s life.”

I would like to say: Never be scared to ask for help. If ever you stumble and you don’t know where to go, never be scared to ask for help. Yeah, some people are scared of getting the answer no, but if you don’t ask for help, you’re not giving people the chance to say yes. You just don’t know. So never be scared to ask for help — never. Thank you.

NAWSHEEN: Vitu, thank you very much for your time. It was a pleasure talking to you.

VITUMBIKO: Mine too.

NAWSHEEN: Yeah, thanks.


VOICEOVER: Thank you, Nawsheen and Vitu, for a great conversation and great advice for the YALI Network.

Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast.

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