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YALI Voices Podcast: Phyllis Zyambo Is Empowering Rural Women and Youth Through Fish Farming Cooperatives
February 12, 2019

Phyllis Zyambo describes herself as always having a “thirst for knowledge.” Graduating at the top of her class in secondary school, Phyllis applied to the most prestigious universities in her area, finally deciding to attend the University of Zambia. Phyllis found a course in real estate to be her ideal subject of study, as it combined her interests in both law and business. Her studies eventually led her to accept a competitive position at Zambia’s Anti-Corruption Commission, where she now works as an investigations officer, specializing in valuations and real estate management.

Phyllis Zyambo on fish farming
Phyllis Zyambo with fish farming trainees. (Courtesy of Phyllis Zyambo)

While working, Phyllis says, her business ambition remained strong. She was always looking for new entrepreneurial opportunities. She noticed many problems in her community, such as the lack of fish due to unsustainable fishing practices. To solve this problem, Phyllis worked to create a cooperative for fish farming, with the aim of empowering women and youth in rural areas.

In this YALI Voices podcast, the 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow discusses her experience forming the fishing cooperative and her hopes for the business’ future. She also offers advice for members of the YALI Network who are trying to engage in similar development projects, noting the importance of community involvement.

“I think the involvement of your community is very important,” Phyllis says. “Just explaining the objective where people understand and are able to relate … when it’s so simple to understand, people are ready to be on board with the idea … for us, involving a counselor, it has proved to be beneficial.”

Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below.




PHILLIS ZYAMBO: My name is Phyllis Zyambo, and I’m from Zambia.


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

VOICEOVER: Welcome to the YALI Voices Podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. Be sure to subscribe to YALI Voices wherever you get your podcasts. Listen to all the podcasts at yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com, where you can stay up to date on all things YALI.

Phyllis Zyambo grew up in Zambia’s Copperbelt, the youngest of a family of six girls and three boys. A self-described quick learner, she appreciated that her family pushed her to get her education, something she wholeheartedly embraced, finishing high school at the top of her class.

Phyllis works for Zambia’s Anti-Corruption Commission as an investigations officer specializing in valuations and real estate management. But it’s her work training rural women in fish farming that she sees as a way to empower women and youth in rural areas. As she builds the cooperative and trains more women and youth, she hopes fish farming will become, as she put it, a way to keep growing as a community.

Here now is our YALI Voices podcast with Phyllis Zyambo.


PHYLLIS: That’s the one thing like I really respect my parents for. My parents were not really educated people. But the way they like just pushed me out to the edge of going to get that education is like — because nobody like told them maybe I have a future or anything. But they never treated me like somebody who would not have a fair chance at life.

I came out top in my class and went to — applied to almost all the universities because I wanted to have a few of everything. Yeah, so I was accepted at all of the universities, and I decided to go like to University of Zambia to just like have that experience. So I found myself doing land economy at the Copperbelt University, which was named real estate. Yeah. So I chose that course because it had a bit of law, it had economics and business, because I always wanted to, like, do business things. So I found the course of real estate to be ideal for me. So that’s how I reported, and I had a nice time at the university. Of course I had that thirst for knowledge.


As I was working for the government Valuations Department, like, I was together with some of my former classmates at the university. So we applied to the Anti-Corruption Commission, and then we were short-listed, like four of us, went for the interviews. But like always, the example (?) they’re like, ah, you can never be beat.

But at the end of the day, I was the only one like who was accepted to work there. So we started, and then when we were being addressed, they were coming to us. The then-director general, Mrs. Rosewin Wandi, told us to say we have come here, it’s not about money, but it’s a noble cause, and we should focus more about making our country a better place than enriching ourselves.

So those words were like very good — did a positive impact to me because I always wanted to make a positive impact, and at least that gave me a platform to do that. Yes. So when we started working, I enjoyed the work of investigations, yeah. I enjoyed when people came through to come with their complaints.

You’ll refer them to relevant institutions and then they are helped, so they’ll always come back to say, “Oh, thank you so much for help, that you did that for us.” And that way I did it so like at least I’m making a positive impact in people’s lives. Yes. So as I was enjoying my work, I was just surprised to say like okay, I won an award for education to youth and courage. I was like, oh, really? I was just enjoying my work!


PHYLLIS: So basically as I was working there, I saw, like, I still had that business ambition, and I was doing several, like, small businesses, but they were not, like, as profitable because I didn’t have the knowledge and I will always like consume the profit and go back to the start to capitalize my business.

So I decided to like, okay, let me invest in myself. I have to make a real business work. So I started by — first I wanted to remove rentals. So I started by buying land and getting a house. And there, as I was doing that, I also involved in, for a master’s in finance distance. So I was going for work, building and studying. Yes.

So now I kept looking for business opportunities, and like as I was doing my other businesses, I discovered that there was the need for fish in our country.

Because they kept on saying that we have a deficit of fish. So I started paying attention to the news about fish. I started researching about it, and coincidentally, my sister, she’s a headmistress and a lawyer where my father is in Muchinga Province. So whenever I visit, when I would tell her that I’m about to visit you, she would say, “Oh, bring these fresh things for us, fish, what.” Yeah. So we would take them to her.

Whenever I would visit her, there would be these women, because she was a coordinator for a nongovernmental organization as well as a headmistress, she used to coordinate the distribution of learning materials for girls, yeah, for an organization called Camfed, the U.K.-founded organization.

So this organization takes care of orphan girl children from grade eight up to college. So now there would be these people who would be coming, even people’s parents to say no, help us, help us, help us. They will be there at my sister’s place, and I used to hear a lot of, like, stories, like, people did not actually have an income.


PHYLLIS: There was a time when government used to provide like free fertilizer for these people. So now government could no longer sustain that, and then government introduced — say you should pay a decent amount for us to give you fertilizer. But even that small amount they were supposed to pay is too much for the women, and they are directed (?) in their field. So their yields were ever going down.

They could not produce enough for them to feed themselves first, as well as, like, investing enough to sell so that they can sponsor their children to school. And almost the entire village was facing the same problem. Yes. So the only alternative was to engage in brewing of the illicit beer, which again, their same children became addicted to. So at the end of the day, it was just like, it will give you — the beer will give them a bit of an income.

But at the same time, it will make their children get addicted to it such that they cannot continue with their school.

So when I noticed these adversities in our community, I started to say, how can we empower women with a profitable business that can help them sustain their family? Because when I look at women empowerment mostly, it talks of just giving women something to do, but not something that can be profitable enough to sustain their family.

And you can see that there are some projects which are like that, aiming at women empowerment, but they are not profitable. As a result, women don’t become like dedicated to those, because at the end of the day they are not getting a meaningful income from those employment schemes. So I looked at what do we have that was available? We had — there was plenty of land and water.

And then that water — it used to have fish, but due to the unsustainable fishing, the fish had depleted from those streams, yes. So I thought if I have to make this work, I have to, like, think how we will execute this. So that’s how I went back and started thinking of how to.

So I looked up about how to — how to run a cooperative. Yeah. So that’s how I looked at the advantages and the disadvantages, and I found that when you’re in a group, you’ve got a much — like, bargaining power becomes, yeah, stronger. So that’s how I approached the area councillor to say, okay, I wanted to form — I wanted to start fish farming.

But I want to do it like a group, so that we can — because the most important thing was land and how to get that land cheaply. Yes. So I said if we can come up with a group, the village head man, if we sell our idea to the village head man, he’s more likely to listen to us and obviously land will be — you can have your land even if you have to pay to get a cheaper price.

VOICE OVER: Phyllis takes us through the steps she took in order to develop the fish farming business, including locating land, establishing the cooperative, figuring out profit sharing and appropriate wages, and providing security for the fish. Later, she talks about her vision for growing the business and providing more opportunities for women in her community to develop as entrepreneurs.

PHYLLIS: The land there is traditional land, so the village head man has authority to give land.

So that’s how now, we decided to — I took up and went to see the village head man. So we said we need to form this — we need land. We are going to do fish farming. He said, “Oh, is that so? So how will this work?” So that’s how we — I explained it to him to sell or we have a number of women that we will work with.

And then through that will be teaching each other how to do this fish farming, because we’ve got this demand for fish, and the market is quite good for it. So he said okay.

So as we were talking, we agreed to say — he told us to say if you are going to work with my subjects in the village, I can give you land actually for free, and then if — the councillor also said organize people, because for us to start that fish farming, we have to have, like, trainings.

So he asked us now, how am I — because my subjects don’t have money to like contribute to this kind of venture, so he said — I said with the little money that I will be putting in, we can at least start the venture, but the women, since they offset the share of owning in the cooperative by contributing to — by them working on the fish farm.

And we were converted, like, the monthly wages that I’m supposed to pay them, who use that as — we’ll use that like — the monthly wages, if you are supposed to get about maybe $10, and then maybe the price of shares is $10, so maybe if you work for two months for $20, you will have maybe like two shares, that kind of conversion. So he said okay.

And anyway, like, because the farms would also need to be protected against theft or something, so that’s how we said also like incorporate some men, just for, like, enforcing the security-wise. They say — they will also contribute to the shares using like the same method.


PHYLLIS: Because tilapia fish from, in an urban area costs between $3 and $3.50 per kg, so that’s a good price for us. So that’s how we agreed on the terms for owning land, and then even said, initially he’d give us like 12 acres. So he said that he’ll give us more if we needed expansion.

And we approached the Department of Cooperatives. So they said for us to register a cooperative, we needed to do all this kind of registration, the trainings, and that required a bit of money. So again, I had to just like put up the money so that we were trained as well as we’re getting the registration done.

Then because we had involved the councillor, she talked to the Department of Fisheries. They were able to, like, train us in fish farming. Yeah. So that’s how at least we saved. So we started at this, we made about three fish ponds.

Lucky enough for us, it’s located near a stream. So we didn’t need any to — they just used, like channeled the water in a pond that they had dug. So it’s a continuous supply of water that we — yeah. So for us, that was a good deal.

The business looks promising because whatever we grow there, it’s like people register by the number in their households, they say, “When are you doing another harvest?” — that kind of a thing. And it’s a promising business. The only challenges we have is like the expansion part of it, because people — women can’t see how, like, it’s going to, like, affect them, like, their end result of it, like how are they going to own their own fish ponds? Yes. So like trying to keep them interested in that venture, to say let’s do a startup, at least we know where we, we just, mistakes. It’s a learning point, but when we like expand, we’ll have had the knowledge of how to go about it.

But so far, it’s quite promising.


PHYLLIS: The plans for the business is to like, first, to reach its full potential. That is like providing fish to the peri-urban areas because that’s the market we are targeting. This market is like far from the urban areas and far from the fishermen in the rural areas. So we want to target this market, and we hope that we’ll be able to grow the business in such that we’ll be harvesting maybe like per week. Yeah.

And then when it grows, that’s when we need to reach the full potential where women can like gain the knowledge of doing the fish farm. We help them set up their fish farm on their own, and then they will be able to, like, sell their fish through the cooperative. Yeah. We’ll be able to sell it as a cooperative. So that’s our vision.

It’s not like — we don’t want to like — the cooperative itself will be a means for women to just (?) learning, but also to be generating income because the fish are to be grown will be — will be sold, and when a woman has worked at that fish pond for some time, will be able to say, I’ve got now enough knowledge.

Let’s — through the profit that we’ll be generating from the fish pond, we’ll help them set up their fish farm, and through their fish farm now they can start sustaining themselves, like buying fingerlings. If they want expansion, they can also, like, set up their additional fish ponds, so that way we’ll keep on growing as a community.

So thankfully by involving the community, things become, like, easier because everyone feels part of it, and then the village head man, like, he understands.

So if he ever talks to people, how important that is to our community. So it’s like that way at least I don’t have that kind of disruptive actions towards the fish farm. So that arrangement has really worked out for us. I don’t have to be there all the time, but at least things can still be moving.


PHYLLIS: The hopes for the cooperative is I want it really to be like a real business. I don’t want it to just be like a cooperative just for registration or anything. I want to run it like a real business. So that’s why I’ve decided to expose myself to this, even the YALI things, yeah, because at least now I know how to run a business that is profitable.

You can make an impact in the community. But you can also make profit. Yes. So as we are running that cooperative, I want it to be — it will just be a cooperative, but it will be a profitable company, so like a company that is profitable.

Basically I think the involvement of the community is very important, and just explaining the objective where people understand and are able to relate. Because when you tell them, for instance for us fish farming, you tell them to say we have a deficit of fresh fish and look at the people like the [microphone rustling]. They don’t have access to this fish. So don’t you think if we are able to provide them with fish, they’ll be able to buy the fish?

And everybody — when it’s so simple to understand, people are ready to be on board with the idea, and just involving the local, like, the village head men in this compound, in these villages, as well as working for a government official. Because government officials, they’re able at least to access these government officials, and you don’t have the bureaucracy. At least it’s a bit — it’s not that much when you involve a government official, yes.

So like for us, involving a councillor, it has proved to be beneficial because at least she’s able to lobby for us. We are not — because I’m working, I’m not able to go to every offices, but for her day, she’s got access to those offices. Yes. And like for — if you just look for like fish and agriculture, just looking for land. Land is very vital, and finding a means of getting it cheaply.

VOICE OVER: Thank you Phyllis.

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