Eleph Gula Ndebele is one of a good number of people that have come back to Zimbabwe from the diaspora to pursue their dreams. He came back at the advent of the new dispensation in 2018 and has since established himself as a fairly successful businessperson. He is in the meat industry and has a gripping tale to tell about his entry into business in Zimbabwe, the perceptions and realities, including a face-to-face encounter with the brutality of elements in Zimbabwe’s security sector. Eleph (EN) sat down with Trevor Ncube (TN), chairman of Alpha Media Holdings, on his programme In Conversation with Trevor.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
TN: We decided to have you here, Eleph, because your story represents the story of many Zimbabwean youths, your generation who are trying to make it in these tough times and we thought your story would help navigate the problems they are dealing with. You decided to come back home in 2018 and you started the Nyama Dot Bantu. Talk to me about Nyama Dot Bantu, the interesting name and what it is about.
EN: Thanks for having me and I am actually honoured to hear you say that my story might inspire other people and lead to understanding the decision that I took to come here. I think in our family we have run a lot of cattle ranches and we have also had a lot of beef outlets like butcheries in the past 20 or so years. So, this beef business is not something foreign to me, but something that I am comfortable with aside from the professional qualifications that I hold.When I came back in 2018, I decided to start this business because I saw there was a gap in the market, I felt this specifically with the diaspora market in mind. Probably there was something like a trust deficit with regard to people who are outside the country and people who are at home. Sometimes you send money and that money disappears, “mari yazodai”, when you actually want to send people food. So the idea was to create a platform where people, who are outside the country can actually send food, meat or whatever.
The business started in a way where initially we would go out to rural areas like Muzarabani, Hurungwe and all those kinds of places that we used to go to. We would spend two or three nights in the bush making friends with mosquitoes and the local people there and buying the meat and cattle from them. So that is what we were doing initially at the inception of the business before we came to even decide a name for the business. We realised that there was an opportunity to vertically integrate as opposed to just being cattle traders.
We could actually become a vertically integrated business where we would actually control most, if not all, of our processes and value chain from production and procurement and all the way up to sales distribution. Just as it is with production, we do not have an abattoir yet. So that was the idea behind Nyama Dot Bantu.
TN: Before we get to the name, describe to us the process of the business and what does it look like?
EN: What it looks like right now is that there is a feedlot process being constructed where we are going to be feeding our own beef and slaughtering. So every 90 days we take beef out and get it slaughtered at an abattoir that is close, around Harare, and we distribute through our own retail outlets.
We also have an online platform that is supposed to cater for the diaspora market where anyone in New Zealand, South Africa and Botswana can order meat online and we will take payments via credit cards and other payment methods. We will deliver to your relative here. We also have a retail site where we basically deal with walk-in traffic. We operate from Machipisa in Highfield where we opened a butchery seven months ago, facing and dealing with many ups and downs.
TN: We will get to the ups and downs, let’s talk about the name.
EN: The core of our identity as Nyama Dot Bantu is the creed of ubuntu. Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, munhu munhu nevanhu. In our interactions, especially with the rural community and the way we were going about buying meat, we were not buying from abattoirs or big commercial suppliers, but we were going and interacting with people on the ground, your grandfather and so forth.
So it is more about exchanging values than just buying the cattle because we also teach them breeding techniques for the meat that they sell to us.
TN: Clearly from what you are saying, the inspiration comes from the fact that this is something that the family had influence, how much has that been?
EN: Yes, I think probably 90% of it. From a family point of view, the idea was always to do better and improve on what previous generations have done and that is exactly what we are trying to do with Nyama Dot Bantu. It has been a baptism of fire, but I am very grateful for the experience of the last 8 or 9 months and it has been amazing.
TN: Let’s talk about the baptism of fire, let’s talk about the ups and downs and starting with the ups in the first instance, the capital to start this.
EN: Talking about the capital to start this; I am not in a position of many people in this country. I was fortunate enough to find people, who could help me with the capital to start my project, people who would help me and who believed in me.
The ups came in where we were delivering meat to people. You cannot put value to the happiness of someone in Chitungwiza receiving meat and you telling them their relatives in Canada bought them some meat. Their happiness is priceless. To me, it is intangible, but it means so much and I think that’s what really drives us when we are trying to do that kind of business.
TN: And the downs.
EN: So much happens in our economy that makes it hard for young businesses like ours. Startup is very challenging like we have huge competitors that have been in the business for years and who have got large tracts of land full of cattle.
We cannot compete with them at that scale. So the down is that we are in a very competitive market and we constantly have to adapt, adjust in order to stay competitive, relevant and loyal to the people who have decided that we are their supplier of choice.
There were a few incidents with soldiers. It was a very traumatic experience at the time because I was made to watch my staff member being beaten by soldiers during the lockdown.
TN: What was the reason?
EN: The reason was that someone, who had just left the shop was not wearing a mask and I asked them where this person was. I think it was just after they had announced the 3pm cut-off time. So these soldiers just burst into the shop, I think the most senior of them then left.
The two subordinates stayed behind and just started asking questions like meat packing, what is happening here and what is happening there. All our papers were in order. Then it just went from zero to hundred so quickly and you could tell that these guys were just looking to inflict harm on something and they just took my staff and the manager to the back and they whipped them and I was made to watch.
To me when people talked about these things, I used to think it did not really happen, but when you get to see it with your own eyes it brings reality much close to home and it begins to dawn on you that this is the kind of situation that we are having.
TN: What did they do to you?
EN: For the most part I was very traumatised, I do not fear law enforcement, but soldiers are different, these are just people who are trained to just shoot, so there is no talking from a legal basis with soldiers.I looked the guy in the eye like what are you doing, asking silently what is this, but he did not seem to care at all. I could tell that he was an animal that was out to inflict harm on someone and he was like “chero imimi mudhara togona kutokurovai.” My question was why are you are even beating up people in the first place and there was no explanation. Then they just went to the next bar, raided alcohol and they left.
TN: As a lawyer yourself, did you report and has anything happened?
EN: Yes, I did report, but nothing has happened. So the experience just left me with a feeling of helplessness. You see my parents were in the military, so I can only imagine what someone who doesn’t have that background will feel when faced with such a situation. Today I worry about what kind of society we are living in if those kind of things go unchecked.
TN: We will get to the society that we live in. So for the moment you have got one outlet in Highfield. Is there a plan to have more outlets?
EN: The idea is to have at least two outlets in each province and we are in talks to expand with a few of our partners.
TN: There are some people who believe that they will sit in the diaspora until things change, or until the opportunities are there, but you are seeing those opportunities already.
EN: That’s how I see the challenge with that kind of thinking. There is no line in the sand where the opportunities will tell you that we are here. It’s not going to happen like that and that was also part of my thinking when I stayed away a lot in South Africa.
TN: You are saying you see the opportunities, can you be specific where you are seeing opportunities.
EN: For young people there is agriculture, mining, commerce and I see a lot of e-commerce that is coming up in Zimbabwe. Not everyone is supposed to be entrepreneurs, but some need a job and be able to pay mortgages, be able to go to a bank and say I have got money.
l “In Conversation With Trevor” is a weekly show broadcast on YouTube.com//InConversationWithTrevor. Please get your free YouTube subscription to this channel. The conversations are sponsored by Titan Law.