… the hand of God at work
By BENNIE MUNDANDO
SHE fell from being one of the best and most celebrated medical personnel who shared the same heart operation rooms with the world’s best doctors in Australia to being a mere housewife without any steady income and later a Gender-Based Violence (GBV) victim at the hands of her husband when fate yawned on her face, but never gave up.
Maria Zileni Zaloumis, 33, the chief executive officer of Tuzini Farms Limited, which is located 15 kilometres north of Lusaka, a few kilometres off Great North Road, is a true emblem and torchbearer of female entrepreneurs who pride themselves in hard work, resilience, determination, and dedication to their goals and is among few people who have never allowed the changing tide in their lives blur their vision and objectives.
Born from a family where both parents were lawyers, the urge to pursue the same career path was irresistibly tempting and after pursuing her primary and secondary school education at Nkwazi, Mpelembe, and Lake Road school, Ms. Zaloumis left Zambia for Australia in 2003 to pursue a degree in law but when she got there, she changed her mind and instead went to a nursing school before enrolling for a post graduate in cardiology.
She then got a job as a nurse where she specialised in heart surgery and worked in close collaboration with doctors for a long time. In 2008, she and her ex-husband Manjuzi Nyirenda, got married here in Zambia before they went back.
Her life changed when her father lost his memory in 2015 due to Alzheimer’s disease as his productivity on the farm grounded to a halt, forcing her to return to Zambia, mainly to help her mother nurse him.
Her devastating moment came when she lost her child upon her return but the final blow hit her as she watched her once happy marriage turned into what she terms as “Shipikisha club” as her ex-husband started “torturing her mentally and physically,” leading to their divorce in 2016.
With only a 40-hectare farm, a bedridden father, and a helpless mother, Ms. Zaloumis almost lost her mind as her world seemed to have crumbled around her as nothing seemed to make any sense to her especially that at that time, she was not only jobless but also divorced and without any stable income save for the salary she still got from Australia as she had not resigned but only gone on leave.
“Due to the Alzheimer’s disease that dad suffered from, he would not farm anymore and I had to come to help mom nurse him but that is where my story changed into a sad affair. I lost my child upon arrival and then divorced with my ex-husband. On top of that, I was jobless for six months without a stable income.
“My life became unbearable but I thank my family because everyone played a critical role in helping me heal. My mom played a huge role in helping me get over all these challenges I faced and she remains the pillar on which I lean when things don’t work accordingly,” Ms. Zaloumis narrates.
She explains that her starting point in farming was “by accident” where her mother left her with a patch of tomatoes and went for a holiday and she recounts that the success of Tuzini Farms Limited, which is now harvesting 300 boxes of tomatoes per day, is from that gift from her mother which turned her challenges into success.
“I started farming by accident. My mom went on holiday and left me with a small patch of tomatoes on the farm. I made up my mind and decided that if I was to be successful in agriculture, I needed to change the way I did things and so, I changed a lot of things on the farm including water pipes. At that time, half an hectare was fetching about K120, 000 a week and I thought it was more profitable because a job could never pay me that kind of money,” she says.
From that humble beginning, Ms. Zaloumis found business with chain stores such as Choppies and Food Lovers whom she supplied tomatoes for some time but maintains that local markets such as Soweto and others are what made her who she is today because they provide attractive price packages.
“In my first year (2016), I grew various crops such as broccoli, spinach, and cabbage but of course with a bias towards tomato because that is where my passion is. I realised that being a farmer, you really need to specialise in what you do. I started supplying Choppies at the time and I immediately became their main supplier. Food Lovers then came in also. I also started going to Soweto market and believe me, it is the most paying market,” she insists.
She believes hard work and a mixture of misfortune was what shaped her life to become one of the best-performing commercial farmers in Zambia and advises women to be determined and resilient if they are to achieve their dreams.
“This farming really helped me heal because it is founded on what I wanted to achieve. I wouldn’t have been where I am today if not for what I went through. For me, that setback was some sort of setup to success. I would not have been focused if I was comfortable at home. Because I wasn’t comfortable at home due to all the bad things I went though, it helped me to be focused,” she recounts.
She says despite being successful in her farming, she does not relent on planning as she and her team have dedicated Sundays specifically to review her work and plan ahead of the week.
“I have nine hectares of tomatoes, all at different stages in different fields. A lot of planning goes into this. Every Sunday, we have a board meeting with the partners which is my mum and my sister. We sit down and plan, I have three mentors that have been helping me because as an entrepreneur, it is very important to have people who guide you through what you are doing,” she says. Other than growing tomatoes, Ms. Zaloumis also keeps cattle for beef and that her plans are to expand her ranch by moving the animals to another farm. She is also running a seedling project where she supplies different types of plants to her customers. “I have a seedling project which is done in conjunction with MRI. It is a USAID grant where 20 people were chosen in Zambia but it is a loan where we are given a year before we start paying back and that is another line of business. I also have a livestock project where I keep cattle for beef though I have just started and I only have a small herd of 37 animals.
“My plan is to make it a huge project and I am moving them to our other farm. We have three farms; Tuzini 1 which is here, Tuzini 2, which is down Leopards Hill and Tuzini 3 in Mungule area.
Having achieved almost everything she has aspired for other than being named the emerging young farmers’ initiative brand ambassador, the Africa Pride insurance company brand ambassador, the ZNFU fruit and vegetable chairperson, and also the youngest person to sit on the ZNFU board, Ms. Zaloumis is challenging youths to change their mindset about agriculture being a sector for the uneducated because it had immense benefits which could not be compared to anyone with a white-collar job.
“Agriculture is supposed to be a preserve for the young people whether educated or not because it needs energy and it is highly rewarding. Those who think agriculture is synonymous with poverty and illiteracy are misguided. Your mindset should prioritise what you want to do.
“For me, it is a situation where all I do is about passion and this is true for any entrepreneurship journey, in everything you do, it must be about passion so that even when challenges come, you won’t give up. You have to spend extra hours and put in a 100 times what the employees put and when you do that, they will also work hard,” she says.
She also advises women to look ahead of their lives and stop thinking they can only succeed in life if they are married, adding that most women have remained disadvantaged because they were scared of stepping out of an abusive marriage by thinking they could never make it on their own.
She says she is an example of the potential that youths have as well as testimony to women that they can still make it in life despite their past lives.
“I feel that a woman can do anything she wants. Of course she needs that support from her husband but when she doesn’t get it, she must leave him. Why are you still staying in an abusive marriage? I was a case of GBV. I moved out and here I am, more successful than I was when I was in that marriage.
“I personally do not believe in ‘Shipikisha.’ Maria does not believe in ‘Shipikisha.’ If one person wants to leave, let him leave. I don’t feel sorry for abusers. As a matter of fact, all abusers should be locked up as far as I am concerned because no one has the right to make another person suffer,” she reiterates.
While she has distinguished herself as one of the best female entrepreneurs within and outside Zambia and earning herself titles such as the “tomato queen” and “Zed farmer,” Ms. Zaloumis says it was God’s hand that had elevated her to this level within a short time.
“I don’t forget to tithe. I give 10 percent of all my income and make donations to the local Baptist church and I have seen the hand of the Lord working wonders in me. I am not the only commercial farmer and for me to be at this level is nothing but the hand of the Lord upon me,” she says.