Farming across the globe is usually treated with contempt. Even in Malawi, where agriculture forms the economic mainstay, the story is no different. But 33-year-old Thokozani Unyolo has opted to change that mindset. Having born, bred and raised in seemingly ‘evergreen’ pastures, she has settled to venture in agribusiness. She confesses she has no background in agriculture, but vows to take the sector to another level through Afriseed, a seed company she has just launched recently and is set to employ over 1 300 people in its first year of operations. I speak with her.
Who are you?
I am Thokozani Unyolo (nee Mijiga), a wife and a mother. I am married to Leon Unyolo and we have a lovely nine- year-old son, Paul.
A last born child in a family of 10, I was born at Queen Elizabeth Central Hospital in Blantyre to Steve and Chrissie Mijiga. As a young girl, I aspired to be a doctor to help people, but with time, I realised that seeing suffering people daily was not my passion, so, I decided to settle for marketing as it was more dynamic and exciting for me. So, I am a professional marketer currently working with Airtel at its Africa Headquarters in Namibia.
Briefly explain more about your background?
I attended Hillview Primary School in Limbe which helped me interact and socialise well with different people from different backgrounds. I then attended Kamuzu Academy where I attained GCSE O-level certificate. Then, I enrolled at the University of Namibia in Windhoek in 2001 and graduated in 2004 with a Bachelor of Business Administration Degree. In 2010, I started a self-sponsored two-year masters programme with the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Illovo Sandton, South Africa. I graduated in April 2013.
What prompted Afriseed?
During my final year of my MBA in South Africa, I selected an elective called advanced entrepreneurship and the requirement was for one to develop a business plan to launch in future, to impact an industry they have passion for; hence, the ideation, conceptualisation and birth of Afriseed.
The faculty leader Professor Albert Wocke challenged each one of us to make it big in various spheres of life. I made a decision at that moment to be one of those who will do something to launch and grow a business. I strongly believe that in life, it is important to build and leave a legacy. Afriseed is my Legacy.
Where did you get the inspiration from?
I have been running a pilot in several areas on contract farming of legumes for one year since November 2013 to draw challenges, viability and potential. I decided it was time to launch and get if fully operational. My passion in agribusiness was inspired by my sister Grace Mhango, a well-known agriculture specialist in Malawi with 20 years experience.
My business plan as part of my assessment was judged by a panel of experts from the International Development Corporation (IDC) of South Africa and a well-known entrepreneur in South Africa, Justin Spratt. Their feedback and advice was to implement my plan. This gave me confidence and determination to turn this dream into a reality. My husband and my son are my other inspiration.
Do you have an agriculture background?
I don’t have an agriculture background, but I have been understudying my sister Grace for the past 10 years and working with her in grains commodity trading arena.
What are your expectations in the company?
To build it based on world-class standards as we intend to expand into the region and to run it very professionally to compete with established players in the industry
How do you expect to employ 1 300 in one year?
We will be doing contract farming by working with several community farming groups in the following areas: Chiyambi in Dowa, 100 people; Golomoti in Dedza, 200 people; Chikweu Machinga, 400 people; Chulu in Kasungu, 300 people; Malomo in Ntchisi, 200 people and Mchinji, 100 people. So, yes, we plan to offer employment opportunities to that many, but we can easily upscale along the way depending on the outcome of this growing season. So long as people—women farmers in particular— are empowered economically, Afriseed has the potential to reach sky-high.
How then do you plan to combine your job and running the company?
I agree. The plan is, I will work on the strategic elements of the business mainly during the evenings after work. I will conduct farm monitoring tours during my free time over the weekends. All day to day issues will be handled by Grace.
Any motivation words for others?
God can do anything, if you believe. Dare to dream bigger. Winning mindsets inspire you to reach new heights and soar with the eagles. One thing that has personally helped me is getting into agreement with God on all my plans, focus, goal setting and pure hard work. I subscribe and live by Ephesians 3:20: “He is able to do above and beyond what we ask or imagine according to His power that is at work within us.”
How do spend your pastime?
I enjoy travelling and I also read a lot. My favourite themes include business, spiritual and motivational. Then there is television. I like watching Personal Excellence and Leadership Inspirational Talks by Robin Sharma. As for the food side, fish (chambo) and Greek Salad always do it for me.