Leon Damba is the founder and managing partner of The Sous Chef Limited, an environmentally friendly, healthy and affordable catering and food-processing business. Damba is committed to providing food security in Zimbabwe by growing his food truck business, Meals on Wheels, and participating in agriprocessing.
In this YALI Voices podcast, Damba shares his journey as an agricultural entrepreneur and why he is committed to providing healthy and quality food options to Zimbabweans. He expresses the importance of young Africans shifting their perceptions of agriculture. Damba advises, “Go into agriculture. That’s where the money is. That’s where the future is. Food will never go out of fashion. People are being replaced, but agriculture, people still need to eat.”
You can hear Damba discuss developing as an agripreneur and growing his customer base by listening to the YALI Voices podcast or reading the transcript below.
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
YALI Voices Podcast: LEON DAMBA
LEON: My name is Leon Damba from Zimbabwe. I was born and raised in Harare. I run a food truck company called Meals on Wheels. I’m also into meat and agriprocessing. I studied family consumer sciences when I was majoring in human nutrition and diet therapy.
♪ 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 the YALI Voices podcast and visit yali.state.gov to stay up to date on all things YALI.
Leon Damba is the founder and managing partner of The Sous Chef Limited, an environmentally friendly, healthy and affordable catering and food-processing business. An entrepreneur who discovered an underserved market looking for fast food options, Leon began his food truck business thinking that he would find his place primarily near the end of the food value chain — as a retailer selling to the public. But it didn’t take long for him to realize that he could save money and expand his customer base by controlling more of the process.
In this YALI Voices podcast, Leon shares his journey as an agricultural entrepreneur and why he is so committed to promoting food security and providing a healthy, quality product for Zimbabweans.
So, growing up, what I wanted to do was to become a counselor, but then somewhere along the line, I changed, my passion changed, and I went to food. So that’s where I am now.
I used to work for, for when I finished school, when I finished college rather, I worked for a company called McCullough Industries, where we used to do food relief, food for food relief programs, for NGOs, for USA, WFP, and stuff. 2012, I moved to INSCA Africa, which was in the fast food division.
So when I was there, I figured all the turnovers which were happening were between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m., so I said to myself, why are people coming in at this late hours? So I had to do an investigation and find out what’s really going on. So what I found out was that the food at these events where people used to go, the food was not prepared in a hygienic and sanitary way, and then the people [who] were cooking the food were using unsustainable energy, firewood, for example.
And then the food, the guys were cooking the food on demand. Their menu was very limited. So I said to myself, why not go into business and stop making money for other people and start making money for myself? So I decided to go into the food truck business. It’s, for me it was easier, it was more affordable to open up a food truck than to open up a brick and mortar restaurant, so that’s what I did.
We do outdoor events mainly. We do concerts. We do festivals. We do car-racing events. So as a way to cut down on costs, I decided to start making my own beef patties and my own sausages. But then it has now grown to be its own baby, because people now, they’re saying, can we get your sausages? Can we get your beef patties?
So we started supplying supermarkets as well as our competition, because those people were like, how come everytime you got, like, a very long queue, and we don’t? So one of the guys was like, can I taste your burger? So we give them, and then they started saying, okay, can you also supply us with your beef patties? And I said, you know what? I don’t mind. Just as long as everybody’s eating, and they’re eating a Meals on Wheels burger, I’m all right.
So now I’m also going into agriprocessing. What I found out is, what I found out is a lot of the time we’re having food losses after harvesting, and we’re not, Zimbabwe doesn’t have that food security, and the only way for us to be food secure as a country is to further process our food so that we can eat them when they’re out of season.
So I’m talking about your mangoes, dried mangoes, dried tomatoes, dried onions, dried peppers, which we can even further process into a lot of other stuff, for example, dried bananas. You can dry your bananas, and you can grind them up, and then you can also use them as a flavoring in yogurts and in ice cream.
VOICE OVER: With his background in food science and diet therapy, Leon aimed to raise the quality of the products that were being made available to consumers. His goal when he started was to create meat products of a higher quality and healthier than what was typically sold in the local supermarkets. Here he talks about reaching new customers and the process of scaling up his business, including how he engages along his full value chain.
LEON: When I started making my own beef patties, it was just for Meals on Wheels. I was the main supplier. That was our main customer. The food truck business was the main customer. But with time now, what we found out was people coming to events and saying, I really like your sausages, and I’m having a barbecue tomorrow at the house. Can I please have like five kgs? So we found out that we now actually need to produce more to cater for people who want to have their own family barbecues.
We started making more for people like parents who don’t have the time in the morning to cook breakfast or pack lunch for their kids to go to school. And then they say, it’s easier for us to just make a burger for the kids, and then they can take that and have that over the tea break for them.
So it just had its own way of growing into its own self, and initially for me it was just, hey, I need to cut down on my costs, and I’ve got all this knowledge, and I know how to do it. And then now the industry and then now clients — listening to our clients, we decided to give them what they wanted, and that they wanted fresh product from us, and then a little bit of Meals on Wheels when they’re at home, when we’re not at a function.
So, how we scaled up, we identified a place. It’s like a commissary kitchen, but then it’s for meat production only. That’s where I do most of the processing. But rewind to where I can the meat, I actually go to Goromonzi. There’s a farm called Bender Farm. So in Goromonzi, farmers come, local farmers, they come with their cows and they try to sell their cows and send their kids to school, so that’s where I go.
And then I talk to the farmers themselves, and then I give them money, so I’m controlling the whole supply chain from the farmer up to the end products, which is the burger. So we take the meat — usually we get maybe the full cow, and then we use the forequarters for our ribs and then the hindquarters, that’s what we use for our steak rolls and as well as our beef patties and the sausages.
The farmers, we give them cash because it’s really hard to find cash in Zimbabwe. And the lucky thing about the food truck business at outdoor events is most people, they pay in cash because they’re spending less money, less than $10, and it’s really hard sometimes to use your credit card for something like $5, $4.
So that helps in a way, that the farmer doesn’t need to come all the way into the main city to go and wait in a queue for money. I go to them, and then they give me — half the time, they’ll be waiting for you: Ah, Leon, I’ve got a cow. Do you want to buy? I can give you a discount, because now we have established that relationship, so I take care of them, and then they take care of me.
So we take the meat from the farm, and then we take it to — it’s called Central Kitchen. So at Central Kitchen, they’ve got these really amazing food meters and sausage fillers. It’s a communal kitchen. It’s a commissary. But what I really want to do right now is to establish my own commissary kitchen when I get back home, because quality control, as I said, is one of the major priorities for me.
And if I can control my environment, I can produce even better at an even lower price.
VOICE OVER: Leon also works with orphaned children in Zimbabwe by providing support on sustainable food-security projects, such as a community gardening project using irrigation at Good Hope Mothers in Hwange. His work with the orphanage presented another opportunity for Leon to both do good and grow his business.
LEON: So when you buy a burger from Meals on Wheels, you’re not just buying a burger. You are actually doing your bit in community development and helping the underprivileged people. I identified a — it’s a drop-in zone for HIV and vulnerable children in Hwange. When we started, we started by giving them food, when we started supporting, as Meals on Wheels, supporting the orphanage and drop-in zone.
Every month, we used to send them food for their upkeep, but then later on, I found out it’s not really sustainable because you are just giving them food, but then they have to work for themselves. They need extra money for things like a lightbulb and to buy tissue paper, for example.
So now what I’ve decided to do is to put an irrigation system because they’ve got two hectares, and I need to put an irrigation system, drop irrigation system. That will allow them to produce tomatoes.
That will allow them to have their own onions, their own pepper, their own garlic, which they can also sell to make extra money. That also made me think, huh, what else can I do? That’s how I ended up going into food drying, because I found out, okay, if I do this and they are now sustainable, what happens to the excess that they are left with?
Maybe I can dry it, and then I can sell it off. So now that has also helped me. So by helping other people, it helped me to develop another business, which is in the food-drying business. I found a donor, so he’s given me about a quarter of the money which I need to lay out the pipes for the irrigation system. And then at the same time, I found a business partner who is a farmer, who came on board and said, I like your point of view. I like where you’re coming from. Let’s partner up and buy a food dryer.
So we bought a food dryer, and I haven’t started using it because I bought it literally when I was coming here for YALI, so when I get back home, I need to go plug it in and start using it. It makes like, the range of things that you can make after drying food is, like, unlimited, from jams — you can make food additives.
And we’ve got clients already, customers already, because when we’re supplying our sausages and beef patties for Meals on Wheels, some guys, when I told them this is the direction in which I’m going, they really said, you know what? You’ve got a contract with us already, and then we’re going to take on your new product.
At the same time, there’s the tourism industry, because Hwange is in the Hwange National Park, which is part also of the Victoria Falls. So what I found out is in Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, all those countries, the way they’re stocking their dry foods for the lodges in those areas, they’re coming from South Africa. But we’re closer.
We share borders with all those countries, and Hwange being close to all those countries, why not produce and supply all these countries from Zimbabwe? It’s a central place, and it’s an orphanage which is going to be supplying all of this and will be drying the food for them. It’s a win-win.
VOICE OVER: We asked Leon why youth in Africa don’t see agriculture as a desirable career — and why it’s important to change that way of thinking.
LEON: I’ve got friends who’ve been outside the country. One of my friends, I’ll give you an example, is, he was based in the States. He was here in America. So he came back home, and then he was like, I’m now done with America. I need to go back home. So he went back home, and then his father was like, you need to go to the farm and think about what you’re saying. You went to America. I thought your life was going to be better there, but then you’ve come back home. I think you need to go and think about your life, what you’re thinking, what you’re doing. Go to the farm.
So when he went to the farm as a punishment, it ended up not being a punishment because what he found out there, he’s got all this land, and he can transform all this land into money. And right now, he’s one of the biggest tobacco producers in Zimbabwe, all because he made a decision to go back home and then see all these opportunities. He’s also my business partner.
The other guy, another friend of mine, we are now doing cattle ranching together. So when he came back and then I told him — he was in Australia, he came back home — I told him, so I’m going to do meat processing, and then he was like, so where are you buying the meat? Let’s go see where you’re buying the meat and everything.
And he saw how much the cows were costing, from $500 to $1,000, and that’s a lot of money. And he decided, you know what? What am I even doing in Australia? Why shouldn’t I come back home, invest in cattle ranching?
So what we’ve done now, we’ve bought nine heifers and one pedigree bull, which is supposed to produce — we’re expecting about 50 percent of the cost to drop every year, which doubles. So you find out that people, if the information is there, but then we’re not accessing it because we are told when you grow up, you need to be a lawyer. When you grow up, you need to be a doctor. When you grow up, you need to do this.
I was a radical when I went to school. I was supposed to do computer sciences, but then I decided, no, I want to do food stuff because that’s where my passion was, and I didn’t want to spend four years in college doing something which I didn’t want.
Another example is a friend of mine, he’s now going into — he started doing mushroom farming. He is a chartered accountant. So he started doing mushroom farming at a subsistence rate just for the fun of it. And they’ve got this farm. Because in Zimbabwe, one thing that people have is land, and most of the people have access to land. And so either you can rent out land, or you can lease a piece of land, or you can co-share a piece of land.
So one of — my chartered accountant friend started leasing out his piece of land to this one farmer, and all he took was one hectare of the farm, and he put in garlic and pepper. So after two years, this guy made about $30,000 from one hectare, and then my friend was like, what’s going on? This guy is making more money through my land than I’ve ever made.
So when their contract was about finished — it was a three-year contract — the guy went to my friend, to my chartered accountant friend, and said, what do you want? Do you want me to pay you in seed, or do you want me to pay you in cash?
So, him seeing that, oh, this guy really likes, because if someone gives you seed, he sees that you’ve got the land and you’ve got the potential. I told him, you know what? That friend, that guy really likes you, because if it was someone else, they would just come and say, “Here’s your money.” And that’s it, and you’re gone. But then he gives you seed. Why not renew his contract? Give him two more hectares or three more hectares because you’ve got a piece of, a big piece of land.
At the same time, when he grows, if he puts one hectare of garlic, he also puts one hectare of garlic for you. If he puts one hectare of paprika for himself, he puts another for you, so both of you, you’re leveraging on each other because you’ve got the land and he’s got the knowledge. And drop down your, your rates, your rentals for him. At least he’ll be happy, and you’ll be happy. And right now, because for garlic alone, if you put $5,000, you get threefold. You get $15,000 out of that, out of one hectare.
So he’s going back to, he’s going back to mushroom farming as well, and has found a, has found a partner down in South Africa who flew to Zimbabwe to see his piece of land, and then he said he exports to Europe and America and everywhere in the world his mushrooms.
So he’s partnering up with this guy, my Zimbabwean friend, to also produce from Zimbabwe and sell his mushrooms across the world as well. So I think it’s a matter of people finding the right information and being taught, because what you learn, what your hands can do, no one can ever take that away from you.
LEON: I’d advise YALI members, go into agriculture. That’s where the money is. That’s where the future is. Food will never go out of fashion. Everybody has to eat. You can be a pilot, but then there will come — planes will start flying themselves pretty soon, and then you will be left with nothing.
You can be an accountant, but then there are accounting programs which have been created which will take all the people’s jobs. You can be anything and everything. I’ll give you an example of my wife. She’s in HR. She’s in human resources, but then at a global scale in her company, they’ve got a robot system which recruits people.
People are not even being interviewed one on one like what people used to do way back. People just go online, and then a robot asks you questions, your background, where you started and everything, and they can sense from your voice if you’re lying. They can mark everything.
So people are being replaced, but agriculture, people still need to eat. Inasmuch as there’s technology which is coming up through agriculture, new ways of farming and everything, but still the old-school way of farming is still relevant and will always be relevant just as long as the human race is around.
So I would advise people, if you’ve got a piece of land, if you don’t know what to do with it, find someone, go to your Agritex officer, go to your agriculture ministries, and ask them to come and check out your land, check out what your soil really wants, if it’s good for farming maize, if it’s for tobacco or if it’s just good for cattle ranching.
So you need to understand people will always want to eat — today, tomorrow, and forever. Yeah.
♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪
VOICE OVER: Thank you, Leon, for sharing your story with the YALI Network.
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