She stands amongst erect tomato plants taller than her, holding four fruits in her left hand and spotting a huge smile, happy with the success of her produce.
Beautiful Maria Zaloum is a 32 year old trained nurse and cardiologist who in 2017 abandoned her medical career to become a “Tomato Queen” exercising her passion for entrepreneurship through farming.
Maria’s entry into farming was after completion of her education in Australia returning to the family farm that only had a half hectare of tomatoes and an ailing father unable to manage it.
Armed with a few savings from her school days and her parents’ 40 hectare land, Maria set out on the agriculture path with only one goal; to succeed.
She has since managed to expand the operation from half a hectare of tomatoes to over 15 hectares from which she harvests between 250 and 400 boxes everyday giving her approximately daily revenue of K12, 500 [US$688.32] at the lowest price of K50 [US$2.75] per box.
“I am the type of woman who loves challenges. I needed a change in my life because I have an entrepreneurial mind as being in medicine and nursing you always work for someone so I wanted to work for myself,” she says in response to a question on what inspired her to give up a prestigious job for farming.
Maria says her start was on expanding the half hectare of tomatoes by planting 13,000 plants with huge returns being re-invested in the business for further expansion.
For young people wishing to get in to farming, her advice is for them to raise capital through savings and downscale their lives.
“Young people with jobs should save up some money to raise capital and also adjust their lives. Something I had to do with my life through cutting down a lot of things. I am not on a salary from the time I started as I put back all the monies I make for expansion so I have not benefited much from this venture so that I secure a better future,” she says.
Adding, she said that “building a business empire takes time so I have given myself two years to be on a salary. The first two to five years depending on how big you want to grow you won’t get a salary because you getting the money meant to expand to look after yourself, so it’s either you grow yourself or grow your business.”
The 40 ha farm is slowly becoming small for her vision hence she is looking at a second farm to expand operations.
Currently Maria has dedicated 15 ha for tomatoes, 8 ha for maize meant for her cows, some grazing pasture and about 20 beds for rape meant to service bills for chemicals which she gets from some company.
Her venture has since created 32 jobs, 25 full time, two taking care of her cattle and four guards of which two take up the night shift and two day shift.“
“I take good care of my workers especially my women because they mean a lot to me and I make them to run the farm once a week,” she notes.
“I have learnt a lot from farming, the short period I have been in it. Tomato prices got depressed in January and they were like that for about three months during which we went through a hard time until recently when they started picking up,” narrates Maria.
Among key lessons Maria says she has learnt about farming is financial discipline. She says tomato farming especially requires high level of financial discipline because all anticipated fortunes from the crop can be overturned over night by diseases like Tuta absoluta which recently raked havoc among many farmers.
Maria adds that she has also learnt to be focused and consistent because the two are key weapons in one’s success as doing the same thing every day makes one become better at it.
“When you do something as a young person, do it very well, you may not be recognized by your bosses but other people and eventually doors open. So put your heart into it through being focused and consistent,” she said.
With the latest trends indicating that many young people are developing interest to venture into agriculture, land acquisition remains a major challenge because of the complexities and high costs involved.
Land remains a key factor of production in agriculture and its proximity to town makes it more expensive. Thus Maria observes that “the deeper you go, the cheaper land gets” a statement which makes that land in the outskirts of town which people are avoiding is cheap.
True to the Tomato Queen’s words many Zambians want land that is close to town which is however very expensive and beyond the affordability of an average young Zambian, worse still youths wishing to try their luck at a sector set to create the next generation of self made millionaires.
Maria advices government to develop a scheme for young people wishing to venture into agriculture which will provide them with incentives that will see them easily access land.
In addition Maria is appealing to government to consider developing ways of funding young people involved in the sector through loans or grants subject to serious scrutiny of their credit background.
Five year projection
“It is positive at the moment and a lot of people are getting into farming as seen on social media. I see Zambia feeding itself in five years time,” observes Maria.
However, Maria is quick to emphasize the need for crop diversification among new entrants in the sector.
“Just because I grow tomatoes and it is lucrative for me does not mean that everyone getting in agriculture should grow tomatoes. Young people should look at other fields of agriculture such as production of fruits which is not common in Zambia,” she says.
In wrapping up our interview, the Tomato Queen says farming is not an easy thing but with focus and consistency it is doable for young people.
She says the best time to venture into farming is now for young people because of the high energy.
Her final words were, “You don’t need a lot of money to start farming, even just 5,000 plants on a small field and then you start expanding with time.”