When Maria Zileni Zaloumis called time on her medical career which put her in the same theater as some of the very best doctors in Australia in favor of a return to her home country, Zambia, where her future seemed bleak at best, it did feel a lot like a fall from grace.
But fast-forward a few years later, though, and the one-time nurse is well on her way to becoming the very symbol of resilience, hard work, determination, and dedication to goals amongst female entrepreneurs. The Zambian entrepreneur can be said to represent a rare breed of individuals who have remained unfazed in the face of overwhelming challenges and kept their gaze on the prize in spite of the numerous spanners thrown into their works to derail them.
Until she truncated her career in the medical field and returned to Zambia to care for her ailing father, Zileni walked shoulder to shoulder with some of the best medical practitioners in the world — cutting her teeth in the field of cardiology. However, her descent from top-notch medical personnel to a housewife who hardly possessed any recognizable stream of income and who was suffering from domestic violence was as swift as it was baffling. But in spite of these setbacks, she emerged; perhaps, not entirely unscathed and unscarred, but in one piece and kicking too.
Having exorcized those demons, thirty-three-year-old Maria Zileni Zaloumis, A.K.A ‘The Zed Farmer”, now holds the reins at Tuzini Farms Limited as its CEO. She is now considered something of a reference point for female entrepreneurs who have battled through thick and thin and established themselves at the top of their respective fields. If a change in position from a celebrated medical personnel in a foreign land to a farmer back in your home country sound like a fall from grace, did any rule book ever say one can’t be a successful nurse and then a successful farmer too? Well, that’s the story of The Zed Farmer.
Everyone expected Zileni to pursue a career in law having been born into a family in which both parents were lawyers. The urge to become an attorney was quite appealing and almost irresistible. And a career in law did seem like a no-brainer to her initially as she left Zambia for Australia in 2003 in pursuit of a law degree after completing her primary and secondary education at Nkwazi, Mpelembe, and Lake Road School respectively. However, she opted to enroll in a Nursing school instead of what seemed like a last minute decision. This eleventh-hour turnaround may not have exactly gone down well with her folks, but Zileni had always had a mind of her own. And to further underline her conviction in her chosen path, she also went on to obtain a postgraduate degree in Cardiology in the same country — leaving no one in doubt as per her aspirations and ambition.
She became a practicing nurse soon afterward, and heart surgeries were her specialty. She worked side by side many renowned heart surgeons in Australia for a long time in what was a storied medical career. She returned to Zambia briefly back in 2008 where she tied the nuptial knot with her ex-husband before the couple returned to Australia. And that may have been the last semblance of peace, quiet, happiness, and tranquility she knew before things began to go south.
In 2015, she made the painful decision to call time on her medical practice and return to Zambia when it became evident that her father’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease had taken a turn for the worse. This marked a significant turning point in her life as she abandoned her glowing medical career in Australia to offer a helping hand in the care of her beloved father who was also battling amnesia due to the condition.
Being a retired attorney and until the bout of Alzheimer’s, Zileni’s father was a small-time farmer himself. But now ravaged by the disease, his productivity and indeed, his life were now threatened. And this weighed in heavily in her decision to return home in the company of her ex-husband. But there was to be even more tragedy as she lost her child not long after the return to Zambia.
This was to be the harbinger of things to come as her once happy marriage soon suffered a meltdown. In 2016, both parties went their separate ways having had the marriage legally dissolved in a divorce.
This was a trying period for Zileni as she battled the emotional trauma of a lost child, an ailing father, and a failed marriage — enough to break just about anyone. But she was cut out of a different kind of material. Where caving in and crumbling under the sheer weight of the setbacks seemed like the easy way out, Zileni was willing to dig in and fight. And so far, she appears to have done so with aplomb.
With only a 40-hectare farm, a bedridden father, and a helpless mother, Zileni almost lost it as her world seemed to have been ripped to shreds around her as nothing seemed to make sense anymore. As if being jobless was not bad enough, she was also divorced and devoid of any stable income source, with the only glimmer of hope being the revised salary she still got from Australia since she had not resigned outrightly but only taken a leave of absence on a sympathetic note.
Her first foray into agriculture may have begun by “accident” in 2016 as she is known to relate it to when a patch of tomatoes was left for her to tend to by her mother who was embarking on a trip that would keep her away for a while. She is also known to associate the growth witnessed by Tuzini Farms Limited with that unintended gift from her mother which went on to transform obstacles into opportunities.
Now gifted with 40 hectares of farmland, Zileni was determined to make the most of it — and that is precisely what she did. She started by improving the infrastructure on the ground to maximize the farm’s productivity. And she soon began to reap the dividends as it wasn’t long before the farm started yielding substantial returns — in an income range that may come across as wishful thinking with everyday jobs.
Things got even better not long after as Tuzini Farms Limited soon became the go-to produce source for some chain stores including Choppies and Food Lovers. She is known to have supplied these retail outlets for a while, but local markets such as Soweto are often mentioned in the same breath as where she made a fortune — and this may have something to do with the attractive price packages in these local marketplaces.
Broccoli, spinach, and cabbage are amongst the various crops she grew in her first year but she was determined to put Tuzini Farms Limited on the map with tomatoes, and since she was also passionate about cultivating this particular crop, considerable effort was put into growing it. Having learned of the importance of specialization in her line of work, she left no stone unturned in making sure that the farm stood tall amongst its peers in the area of tomato production. Zileni is known to attribute the remarkable feats she has achieved as one of the best-performing commercial farmers in Zambia to hard work and perhaps a mixture of misfortunes which turned out to be blessings in disguise.
Situated in Chisamba which is 10 miles to the northern part of the Zambian capital, Lusaka, Tuzini Farms Limited is believed to currently boast a team of over 60 workers with over 40 women on the roster. The farm is also known to open its doors to local youths who are on vacation from school to keeping them engaged and helping them earn some money in preparation for the resumption of school. The workers at the farm are known to also benefit from a weekend literacy program through which many of them hone their reading and writing skills. At only 33, Zileni is now considered one of the most successful farmers of the new era in Zambia. From the farm’s proceeds, The Zed Farmer is known to also cater for the needs of kids who are being cared for by the Mwachikoka Baptist Church in Lusaka.
The young female entrepreneur entered the annals of history when became the youngest individual to ever sit on the Zambia National Farmers Union (ZNFU) board. And it wasn’t long before she again ripped the history books when she was voted into the esteemed position of Director of the ZNFU — becoming the youngest ever individual to occupy that position in the process.
In addition to being at the helm of affairs at the farm, she also serves as an ambassador of such initiatives as the Young Emerging Farmers Initiative and African Pride Insurance. She also holds the office of the National Chairperson for Fruit and Vegetables under the ZNFU — which are just a few mentions of the numerous capacities she serves in and many roles she plays to give back to society.
Having steered the farm away from troubled waters through her informed leadership, around 300 boxes of tomatoes are believed to be produced by Tuzini Farms Limited on a daily basis, boasting an average of approximately USD 500 in daily revenue. The farm is also known to currently be the go-to source for tomatoes for Freshmark (SHOPRITE) stores throughout Zambia, as well as Masala market in Ndola, and Chisokone market in Kitwe, which is considered one of the biggest markets in Zambia. Tomatoes from Tuzini Farms Limited are known even to go as far as the Kasumbalesa border post. Through her entrepreneurial efforts, Zileni is believed to have built for herself a net worth that is currently around USD 2 Mn.
Zileni augments the farm’s famed tomato cultivation with livestock farming as the farm is believed to also rear close to 40 cattle for beef. Plans are also believed to be currently afoot to diversifying into onion farming and some other areas. And having acquired two other farms christened; ‘Tuzini 2’ and ‘Tuzini 3’, presumably to that effect, it would be quite interesting to see how it all pans out given Zileni’s pedigree of turning ailing projects into cash cows. A move of this nature can be thought even to create more jobs for a considerable number of individuals.
While fluctuations in the price of tomatoes are known to pose a challenge to the business as it makes it difficult to project income for the coming month and plan accordingly, the “Tomato Queen” remains resolute in her drive to empower people and reduce the unemployment rate by enabling job opportunities for people.
Going forward, Zileni intends to venture into farm produce value-addition by processing and sun-drying tomatoes for export. Green housing over 50 hectares for the cultivation of organic ginger and avocados for the export purposes is also believed to be one of her future prospects. The young entrepreneur also hopes to impact and empower farmers in Zambia through the establishment of a countrywide scheme for exports; a move that could well do a solid to the Zambian economy.
Although she still takes medication to deal with intermittent bouts of depression, her story can serve to encourage individuals who are caught up in a similar mire that dreams can be achieved, and lives can be impacted in spite of the condition and setbacks. The remarkable journey of Maria Zileni Zaloumis from the School of Nursing at the Australian Catholic University and her over a decade-long presence at Wesley Hospital in Brisbane, Australia, to hugely-successful Tuzini Farms Limited in Chisamba, Zambia, does prove that there is always a way if just the right amount of will is mustered.