WOMEN face a lot of challenges, including in the world of business, and yet there are many who are excelling despite the harsh economic climate prevailing in Zimbabwe. Our reporter Ronald Muchenje (RM) spoke to Ruvimbo Vambe (RV), who is making strides in the food processing and packaging business through the Tammy’s Classic Foods brand which operates under Ruvade Incorporated (Pvt) Ltd. Vambe says the journey has not been smooth in such a tough environment, but the commitment and determination of a woman know no defeat. Find excerpts of the interview below:
RM: Take us through your journey in business.
RV: Ruvade Incorporated (Pvt) Ltd is a wholly owned indigenous company which was established in 2007, as an integrated manufacturer and distributor of snacks and dry groceries. What started as a school leaver’s dream has actually grown into an establishment that is and will cause a shift in the food manufacturing industry.
I must say the journey has not been an easy one, but at the same time it has been an exciting and eventful process. Having established the company in 2007, proper operations started in 2010. I started with snacks in the form of roasted salted nuts and roasted corn. Back then only sports bars and small shops would accept our product. I also saw that people loved the corn and nuts but there was also need to spice it up and we started adding flavour to the products, adding spices and food flavours to both the nuts and the corn.
As demand grew, I approached the big players in the retail sector and only one was confident to open its doors for us in 2011, but only accepting roasted salted nuts. I had to push through and make sure that my product was accepted because back then the condition was that if the product did not perform well within a year it would be taken out. That year was a success and we then introduced peanut butter under the Tammy’s Brand. From then onwards the journey which marked what would be the beginning of an upward trajectory towards establishing Tammy’s Classic Foods began.
RM: What motivated you to start this business?
RV: Unsurprisingly, I grew up in a strikingly entrepreneurial home, with a strong female role model to look up to. My mother is a strong entrepreneur and I believe, had she found the right mentorship and guidance through her journey, she would have made it in life.
Through the sponsorship of my parents, I attended Mufakose 2 High School and UMAA Institute in Marondera. Having finished high school and college, I had to go on attachment and the company I was attached to was willing to offer me training and nothing else. As a young lady I also had other needs, so l decided to start packing small packs of roasted nuts and selling during lunch breaks. I raised enough money to start cross-border trading.
I would do these trips over the weekends and had to be sure that I was back by Sunday. It became taxing because Mondays I was supposed to back at work. I realised that I had gathered enough money to register a company and start a proper business. My heart had always been in the food industry, so I thought to myself let me perfect what I had been doing, something which I know and which I have an experience doing and that is when I started Tammy’s.
RM: The business world has never been kind, especially to women. What have been the challenges you faced in establishing your business?
RV: It is a fact that we, women entrepreneurs, in our endeavour to grow our private enterprises, we start from a disadvantaged platform since there are gender-specified roles that are predetermined by our cultural dispositions. For example, I didn’t have business-related exposure except the theoretical knowledge I gained from the business courses I learnt.
I had no access to business networks and it was very difficult for me to learn the practical ropes of business, so that I could also be competitive. Everything I have learnt has been through my experiences in the journey. We as women should come up with programmes or platforms whereby we share contacts that related to our various in order to have access to information to the market, business systems and global trends which will help us improve the way we do business.
The other issue I have experienced, which I think does not only apply to women in particular but to all entrepreneurs, is the issue of access to funds to grow the business. It is clear quickly that banks are not willing to fund anything before you gain considerable traction. I think there are a lot of dreams that have been shuttered out there because of these declines and closed doors.
Also, as a woman in business, who is also a mother of three small children who still require attention, you find out there is no perfect balance as you try to make sure that you are at home on time to be with the kids and assist with homework and lessons at the same time you have to be at the factory and ensure that things are running smoothly.
RM: The onset of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdowns have not been easy for every business. How have you survived?
RV: Covid-19 was one big blow that hit everyone no matter how established you were. As a small business we felt a huge impact because, unlike bigger operations, we have scarcer cash reserves to manage such sudden drops should they occur.
As much as we are in the food manufacturing industry and we had the opportunity to be supplying during the time, business was not the same. Our clients, who are the retail stores, had to close early, which meant that their sales were limited and in return their ordering patterns were reduced. We had to relook at the way we manage and operate our business. We had to start tracking our expenses, doing a feasibility study of our business model and come up with plans which are not for longer periods as we are not aware when this pandemic will go.
RM: Tell us about your footprint and expansion plans.
RV: While being a small business is already a massive undertaking, there is need to think globally from the start. It has always been our vision to grow internationally providing health foods not only to the Zimbabwean market but also to the world at large.
I want my company to grow to its utmost potential. The barriers that held organisations back from going global, like worldwide communication and difficult logistical processes, have all been almost eliminated by technological advances, making it easier than ever for an organisation to adopt a global mindset from inception. As Tammy’s we intend to expand into other markets to increase our customer base. We also want to be in other areas where our competitors aren’t. I also believe that expanding our product globally will help us to contribute to the growth of our economy and also open up job opportunities.
RM: What is your capacity utilisation at the moment and what are you looking at in the near future?
RV: I aim to make the most out of the industrial capacity of the business that I have built, but I have faced so many challenges. Currently we are operating at about 30% of our potential. Our products have been well accepted in the market, but like I mentioned earlier it has been a difficult process to access financial support to operate at full capacity.
Having Tammy’s operating at full capacity will not only improve our business, but will also help job creations. Zimbabwe has been witnessing a rising number of aspiring young entrepreneurs who have the talent and skill to make it big in the market, but they struggle to raise capital to set up their own industrial capacities. We are still hopeful that we will reach our full potential and be able to produce quality products, which are delivered on time and we offer better customer services.
RM: In every sector there is competition. How are you able to compete with established brands in the market?
RV: Being a newcomer in an established industry comes with its own battles. When we started the peanut butter and we got the opportunity to be listed by some of the big retailers, it was what they say in Shona “kurova shumba nembama” (slapping a lion in the ).
The industry is accustomed to dominant players, which then makes it difficult for small businesses who come in to face these giants who are coming with a daunting array of advantages which include substantial financial resources, advanced technology, powerful brands, and seasoned marketing and management skills. We have tried our best to maintain our position by offering our products the natural way that people love it.
We have also made it our point to tailor make our products to meet the expectations of the consumer. With today’s customer being health conscious, we have also taken it upon ourselves to ensure that our products promote healthy living. We have also formed partnerships with our local farmers so that we get our raw materials on time and locally so that we maintain the natural Zimbabwean flavour that we are accustomed to.
RM: Going forward, do you have any plans for diversification?
RV: Well, diversification is a high-stakes game that requires thorough deliberations. Considering the extraordinary risks and rewards, we are still assessing the strategic assets that we require in order to succeed in a new market, and if we will be able to jump high enough and beat competitors at their own game. At Tammy’s we believe that we are not supposed to be just a player when we get into a market but we should always emerge as a winner.