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After a dramatic conversion to Christianity, former hedge fund manager Martin Zuch changed career direction, launching two banana farm projects in the African bush. His latest project enables a community in Malawi to support itself through a beekeeping enterprise. He shared his story of faith-fuelled entrepreneurship with Lucinda van der Hart.
What prompted you to leave banking and set up banana farms in Africa?
When I found faith, I was working in hedge funds in the city of London. As time went on, that felt very empty and I needed to be fulfilled. So I took the opportunity to buy land in Zambia and turn it into two banana plantations to employ local communities, and set up schools.
Why Zambia, and why banana farms?
I didn’t want to do anything in the UK, as I felt that most [social] needs were covered... The only thing I could do here was give money. Something in Africa would give me the opportunity to be pioneering; a real difference could be made.
I’d always had a heart for poverty, even before I came a Christian. Before I had a faith, I would give money but not get directly involved. Even when I was giving it never felt enough; I wanted to get involved on the ground. Even though I had never had any experience in anything like this, I was drawn to it.
How did the banana farming projects work out?
We created farms out of bushlands; both of those farms still exist today and they employ hundreds of people. Alongside those farms are schools; supported through Give Hope International. So in some ways, the project worked. But in terms of my own pocket, I got nothing out of it financially and nor did my investors.
I would say it was a success, but I lost the farms because I couldn’t pay the interest back on the loans on one farm, and the other got a banana disease. I had to hand it over to someone who had more funds to manage the disease and rebuild.
Sometimes I look back on it and think, ‘Gosh, what a disaster’; but it’s a selfish thing to say it was a disaster.
How have you reconciled the way that panned out with your earlier sense that God was calling you to turn your hand to those projects?
I experienced some serious disasters in my life around that time; in my family as well as in my finances. It was a difficult time. Prior to having invested into the farms I was a successful city worker; I had a lot of money. I was confident, and prideful even, that I could do anything. Having had these major failures, I was brought on my knees. It gave me the opportunity to know God better and rely on him… I see it very much as being refined in the fire. That refining is still going on.
Tell us about your latest project.
I found a business partner in who is a Methodist missionary in Zambia; he had started a beekeeping operation but needed funding for it…
I’m a business man, so this isn’t just a social enterprise; I saw the opportunity to make money. But it has taken longer to do that than initially expected. We had a 2-3 year business plan; now we are in year four and we haven’t made any money yet. That’s because we put all the money back into building the beehives; we build 200-300 hives a day, five days a week. Any profit is made through reinvesting it in the business.
The Scandanavian government has seen what we are doing, and is interested in funding us to expand it into surrounding nations. With this extra funding, we could do much, much more.
I’m now setting up a company in the UK called Mama Buci, which means mother honey; I will be marketing the honey in Europe. We’re certified organic and won a Great Taste award in the UK last year… now we’re in process of getting our fair trade certificate.
You’ve talked about the way your Christian beliefs have shaped the macro of your career direction. How does your faith affect the micro – your day to day business decisions?
It impacts everything. I pray about everything. I’m also proactive in doing things about it.
I write all my prayers down… and I look for a peace. I follow HTB’s Bible in One Year reading programme; I hear many of my answers through that. If there are three doors before me, I’ll open them all and see which one is the way. That’s my way of doing it… it’s a bit messy, but it works.
Have you seen answers to some of those prayers?
We now have 40,000 beehives in the bush, and we are sustaining 6,500 families. I could never have done that with two commercial farms… this is a different level. Yet still I’m not particularly being rewarded financially, but the Lord is sustaining me. So I have seen answers to prayer, but not how we always expect them. There are also unanswered prayers.
What advice would you give a Christian looking to move from business into social enterprise?
Get in touch with the Transformational Business Network (tbnetwork.org). Someone who wants to dip into social enterprise can see what opportunities are available, go abroad and visit projects, pray into it… there are so many opportunities to get involved as opposed to just being a donor…
If I had done that at the beginning I wouldn’t have made so many mistakes. But in a way, I had to make those mistakes, because otherwise the Lord couldn’t have taken me on the journey.
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