Rudo Boka-Mutambanengwe: The Tobacco Trader Empowering Farmers

Rudo Boka had a rough start to her entrepreneurial career. The first born of seven, she was at the front of the line to take over her father’s business dynasty when her parents passed away almost two decades ago. As if losing her parents, one after the other in less than a year, were not bad enough for the then 22-year-old, the once renowned business conglomerate she inherited was on the verge of collapse and the family estate was facing tremendous litigation. Stepping into the fray to save the family assets from liquidation, Rudo was frustrated at every turn by extended family members who refused to accept that a girl child could lead her younger siblings in handling business affairs.

“I had to defend my rights of inheritance, which were being infringed upon, so I stood firm and fought back all the while dealing with my grief. The resolve to survive has always been my main virtue. As it says in Zechariah 4:6 ‘… not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ and I have plenty of that,” Rudo says unapologetically.

In the 1980s following Zimbabwe’s independence, Rudo’s father Roger Boka set about building a business empire that included mining operations, banking, and real estate. A tenacious merchant, he broke into the white-dominated tobacco trade and created a multi-million-dollar business that culminated with the opening of a colossal tobacco auction house in 1997: Boka Tobacco Floor.

Rudo with brothers Martin, Matthew, Charles and John

Rudo’s father died of a long-running illness in 1999 and a year later she lost her mother unexpectedly from an uncomplicated surgical procedure. At the time, the Boka family business was in dire straits due to the collapse of the Boka-owned United Merchant Bank. Rudo had been working with her father since she was 19 and, as the eldest and most familiar with the business, took up the reigns while fighting off wholesale liquidation of the Boka family assets in the courts, a process that took five years to resolve. Another protracted litigation ensued for a further six years with the Zimbabwe Industry Tobacco Auction Centre (ZITAC), a former tenant of the building who refused to pay rent for more than five years. Rudo won that battle too.

Today Boka Tobacco Floors, although operating in a stagnating Zimbabwe economy, is surviving with 40 permanent staff and 450 seasonal employees. With five strategic business units, the company facilitates and underwrites trade for agro-producers and merchants, finances small-holder farmers and offers free agronomic support through a social responsibility platform known as the Growers Forum. Rudo is CEO and her brother and co-owner in the business, Matthew, is Chairman.

“The original focus was the running of a tobacco exchange, but more recently we delved into logistics and the production and trading of other agricultural commodities, such as chia and maize. We will soon commence bee-keeping, honey production and the planting of pecan and macadamia trees with our growers, expanding our client base significantly. With the fast-growing number of small-holder growers in the country, we realized the need to be more user friendly for our stakeholders and train farmers in quality assurance, traceability, and compliance with the law. It’s exciting because this outreach is making a difference in people’s lives. To date, more than 25,000 customers use our facility,” Rudo explains.

She may sound humble in her description of the Growers Forum, but it’s an important contribution to social and community development in Zimbabwe as it addresses the importance of diversification, reforestation, prevention of child labour, and support for women farmers while encouraging safe and best practice among farming communities. The 40-year-old recent mother of one, is also passionate about youth and has adopted Chiendambuya Primary School in her late father’s rural home and launched an internship program for university students to prepare for leadership positions in accounting and finance, marketing, agriculture, and information technology.

Zimbabwe’s struggling economy continues to be a challenge for Boka Tobacco Floors. But fortunately Rudo has been able to turn to siblings for capital and establish a credit lines with  local banks.

“This was only possible due to the collateral we could offer. In 2011, interest rates were extremely high, hence the need to restructure the facility the following year. We negotiate for finance on an annual basis to provide encashment services for our clients. Bank loans are not an option for most women embarking on business in my country. Lack of collateral is the single greatest hindrance for women entrepreneurs, but regardless I think we need to be more persistent and aggressive when we present ourselves for funding,” she says.

Rudo with the Zimbabwean Minister of Agriculture

And while Rudo has been fortunate to have inherited a solid foundation from which she and her brother could rebuild along with a tremendous infrastructure and loyal staff, her vision and leadership are key to guiding the company through what can only be described as an extremely challenging environment.

Rudo with her husband and newborn baby

“I’ve never felt entitled to anything but rather built my reputation on the merits of my work. To remain relevant, we are adapting the business and in the coming years will evolve to provide secure market services that will enable our customers to diversify their farming activities.  Afterall, ensuring their sustainability is the most significant success factor for the continuity of the business.”

Rudo may have inherited a great legacy but the one she will leave behind is how she has transformed Boka Tobacco Floor into a venture that will safeguard and improve the livelihoods of so many Zimbabweans for years to come.

Rudo Boka’s startup tips:
  • Consistently formulate and stick to your budget. Never put all your eggs in one basket, spread your savings into different nests.
  • It’s okay to make mistakes but when you do, analyze them to understand where you went wrong. The most effective way (not the best way) of learning something is doing it incorrectly and learning from the experience.
  • Plan, plan, plan! It’s important to forecast business-related risks, manage your cashflow and prepare for the unexpected.
  • Networking is central to building enduring, mutually beneficial relationships: it delivers value that is impossible to quantify.
  • Leverage your support structures, partner, family and friends

Be confident and always get up each time you fall!

Rudo with sister Chido and sisters-in-law