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How an inquisitive mind led Monica Musonda on a very extraordinary journey.

Monica Musonda was riding high in the legal profession when - seemingly out of the blue - she quit her job and entered the world of manufacturing.

Unusual?  For most definitely, but for Monica, just the next step in a life of discovery.

Monica was a curious child; always asking questions. Born in Zambia, a middle child; the only girl with three brothers. She describes herself as having been passionate and vocal. Her parents were academics and, interestingly, far from seeking to shelter and protect their one girl or to push her into the background she was encouraged to explore - in every sense.

From a young age she wanted to be a lawyer - at the highest level. She recalls writing her dad a letter telling him she was going to be the first Attorney General of Zambia - a position that to this day has not been held by a woman. Perhaps Monica may yet fulfil that ambition.

Monica did become a lawyer and absolutely loved it. She began her career working for the Attorney General in Zambia (although he was probably unaware, she was out to get his job eventually) and then being open minded by nature, she left Zambia to pursue her legal career elsewhere. She came to London to work for Clifford Chance. Johannesburg was next with a job at Edward Nathan, corporate legal advisers owned by Nedbank, South Africa’s largest bank. She advised South African corporates looking to expand into the rest of the continent, which fitted neatly with Monica’s interests. It was here that Monica learned about leadership; how to grow a team, how to develop and instil a culture and how to create relationships.  

Whilst at Edward Nathan, Monica developed a curiosity for finance and, in her thirst to learn more, moved to the International Finance Corporation (‘IFC’), a member of the World Bank Group.  This enabled her to expand her knowledge beyond Africa and entailed a move to Washington where she stayed for two years, finding it a big adjustment particularly because it was a governmental type institution, so very different from the more entrepreneurial private practice culture she was used to.

IFC taught her that she loved being in-house - but that the entrepreneurial style suited her better than the more structured one; and it also made her yearn for Africa. So she snapped up the opportunity to return to the continent and work for the Dangote Group in Lagos, Nigeria where she quickly worked her way up to General Counsel.

“Working for a family business, I learned to navigate without structure. In the world of entrepreneurs, nothing is certain - a far cry from the legal world where the start point is ‘you cannot do that because x, y, z’. I had to shift from being that type of lawyer to one that found solutions, one that could make it happen. My curiosity has always led me to make these big shifts - and I am eternally grateful for that.”

It was while working at the Dangote Group that Monica’s biggest shift was to be born, effected by her boss Aliko Dangote - reputedly the wealthiest and most successful entrepreneur in Africa.

Nigeria’s fabric is made from a strong local business culture. They are used to seeing their own in every sector. When Dangote were expanding, Monica and Dangote frequently visited Zambia and Dangote found it curious (that word again) that none of the businesses were run by actual Zambians and questioned why.

“I had always taken it for granted but when I looked at it, it made no sense. The people setting up are not there to develop the country long term. I started to wonder whether I could move back and start a shift myself. To continue with law was not a viable option as most of the job opportunities were in litigation, not corporate. Then I had the crazy idea of starting my own business and trying my hand at manufacturing.”

Yes, you did read that correctly! A random conversation led Monica to give up a highly prestigious legal career and enter a world she knew absolutely nothing about. A world that meant her yet again packing her bags and moving country to somewhere she no longer had work allies around her. And a world that was highly male dominated and not particularly welcoming to women wanting to enter it.

Monica chose manufacturing because Dangote was itself a manufacturing company so she had some knowledge of the sector and could leverage some of her experience and contacts - but in terms of what she was going to produce, she decided on food, an area she had never worked in.


“I looked at how I could best impact Zambia as a whole. We grow food here, but we don’t process or add value. We import a lot. There was the opportunity to change. My goal was to make something people loved, that was affordable.”

Java Foods was born.

Monica was excited - and frightened. Every day she hit a brick wall. People did not believe the business was hers - because she was a woman. While she could access finance, it was less than a male counterpart would be offered. She had stepped out of formal employment and had no fixed income. But she was determined to not just survive but to succeed.

“I knew that ultimately everything is learned. Nobody knows a monopoly on knowledge or information. It is about how much you are committed to learn. You need to believe everything is possible. And to stick to it. To not be afraid to ask questions, to ask for help.”

Ten years later, Java Foods is a great success employing 100 full-time and around 130 including part-timers and is the biggest manufacturer of instant noodles in Zambia, with 70% market share.

Monica believes in paying forward all the help she was given by supporting the increasing number of young women in Zambia who are challenging themselves to step out of the conventional and to develop their passions into businesses.

Does she miss the law?

“Sometimes yes. But law is so granular, microscopic, and detailed. Now I get to be more strategic. I colour outside of the lines.”

Is Java her greatest achievement?

“Raising my five-year old daughter is what I am most proud of. Making her believe that nothing is impossible, and she can do anything she wants to do is what I am teaching her. I got to a point in my life where I had to make a decision about whether to have children. Every time, I look at her I know it was the best decision I ever made.”

A curious answer? Hardly. This is a woman who knows what she wants, what is important and how to create legacies.

Maroulla Paul

March 2024