Marlin Express on the first floor of Arcades Shopping Mall, sister establishment to Marlin Restaurant, was a hive of activity as usual. No doubt many patrons were there for Marlin’s famed steak dishes. This was the setting for my interview with Seed Co Zambia Managing Director Grace Tumeo Bwanali.
Grace struck me as warm and personable from the moment we met. Despite being at the helm of one of the major players in Zambia’s agriculture sector, and in the Southern and Eastern African region, Grace accepts the label of ‘successful woman’ with a degree of reluctance. A combination of humility and a desire to raise the bar higher has helped her get to where she is today. “You need to convince yourself that you can do anything…Our school system needs to encourage students, to be a lot more competitive and not laid back. That’s where it starts.”
After we placed our orders Grace told me about her early career days. She ordered the pepper chicken and I couldn’t help but go for the pepper steak, one of several steak dishes Marlin is well known for. A chartered accountant by trade, Grace has ascended the corporate ladder in many organisations. Starting out in insurance, she first joined Seed Co as a financial controller, before being promoted to finance director and then becoming managing director in 2010.
“I’ve always found Seed Co to be an ideal environment for someone to thrive in. They give you the room you need to excel and encourage a work-life balance. Because of that I found it very comfortable to be there.”
Soon after she joined Seed Co, Grace had her third child. Whereas this might have been a potential impediment to her progress in many corporations, Seed Co went the extra mile to accommodate her. “They were very understanding of my desire to be both a parent and a career woman. And because of that I could give my best.”
She was able to excel at her work with a level of focus that may not have otherwise been possible. Shortly after her superior was transferred to head the company in another country, Grace was immediately appointed to take over as MD for Zambia.
Grace is not a proponent of micromanagement; her managerial style focuses more on output. The one thing she feels she has had to learn over the years is to manage people according to performance. “As Zambians we, sometimes, find it difficult to tell someone they aren’t performing well. But it is something I had to learn fast. If you can’t deliver on your promise you are shown the door. With time it gets easier.”
Grace’s management approach is informed by her personality. A self-described introvert, she believes the ability to find one’s space and be oneself is key to success. Growing up she was an avid badminton player for precisely this reason. It allowed her to interact while still enjoying her personal space and she could withdraw when she felt the need.
Grace believes knowing oneself is vital to successful leadership. And once you know who you are “you can capitalise on your strengths and minimise your weaknesses. If you don’t know who you are, you’ll always be a shadow of yourself. I can openly tell you I’m an introvert and I’m fine with that. Regardless of how hard it is to accept certain traits you possess, the sooner you do it the better.”
Not a fan of meetings, Grace says she much prefers to meet up with her team when necessary to check on their progress. Grace’s aversion to micromanagement is borne out of a belief that a minimalist approach, especially with senior staff, yields better results.
This is not a position that can easily be argued against as Seed Co continues to be one of the best performing seed companies in the region.
“Providing leadership wherever you find yourself is simply a matter of getting everyone on board and sharing a vision of what you think should be done. Managing people is something you must learn because everyone is different. And you can’t have a blanket approach, especially to the staff who report directly to you. Each has a different style and set of skills, so the key is to treat people equally and remain as professional as you can.”
Regarding the agriculture sector, Grace has a positive outlook. “In the past 15 years we have come a long way. With the right policies in place and emphasis on the contribution agriculture has to make to the economy, we can get there.”
Despite the words of optimism, Grace notes that climate change has had a significant impact on farmers and the agriculture sector in general. If Zambian agriculture is to flourish, it will take dynamism in the stakeholder response. It is no wonder Seed Co was early to invest in research for climate varieties for different field crops, especially maize, which is our staple food. They currently stock varieties that suit all the agro-ecological regions of Zambia, including varieties that thrive in the very low rainfall areas. The challenge remains timely access to information on expected climatic conditions to empower the farmers to make the right choices on which seed or crop to plant for that season. It all starts with the right seed.
“We have the land and water, we have good soil. All we need is to harness these resources. If we can, then we are almost there. Farmers need to use climate smart products.”
While she is committed to her work, Grace also prioritises her down time. Enjoying scheduled trips with her family is one of her favourite pastimes. Grace was quick to recognise the help she has received from her supportive family structure. For her, family must also be prioritised and not neglected in the pursuit of career success, although she admits that it is not easy to juggle the two.
As our conversation wrapped up and we tucked into our desserts –luxurious brownies with a side of ice-cream – it became clear to me that Grace was concerned with far more than just the bottom line. Grace Tumeo Bwanali is a people-oriented leader who believes that the success of the one leads to the success of the many and that delivering excellent results is a function of a team, not only an individual.
For Seed Co Zambia MD Grace Bwanali knowing oneself and capitalising on your strengths and those of your team, is key to being a successful leader.