“I was fired when I was on a work trip to Hong Kong, infact when I was connecting from London to Hong Kong, I found my Secretary’s missed calls but I didn’t return them not until I landed in Hong Kong that is when she broke the news that I was one of the ten Directors along with Miles Sampa who had been fired,” Noel Nkhoma narrates.
This was December 10th 2010 and Mr Nkhoma was Director of Corporate Banking and Marketing at Finance Bank which was considered a hugely successful story in the Zambian corporate circles.
The Bank founded by Dr Rajan Mahtani had grown to become the country’s largest commercial bank by branch network and Mr Nkhoma was one of Dr Mahtani’s trusted lieutenants.
“Imagine, moving from a place where you never even knew the price of fuel because the bank paid for our fuel to now start monitoring how many litres you would manage to top up at the filling station,In his 25 years at Finance Bank, Mr Nkhoma had risen from a bank clerk to an Executive Director, the only Black Zambian to hold such a position in the bank at the time.
He was also serving as President of the respected Economics Association of Zambia which made him highly visible in the media as he issued commentary on economic and business issues.
Mr Nkhoma, with his fine business suits was by any measure a high flyer until his world seemingly came crushing down.
The Bank of Zambia seized Finance Bank from its shareholders in 2010 for what it called legal violations and questionable loans.
Dr Mahtani called the seizure politically motivated.
So for Mr Nkhoma, he says what followed was a period of serious readjustments and recalibration.
“When I was on this flight back home from Hong Kong, I could feel a sense of sympathy towards me from fellow passengers who had heard about what had happened to Finance Bank.
What was interesting is that when I called my wife telling her that I have lost my jo, she had not heard then and her first response was, so what will happen to the children and their education.”
Mr Noel Nkhoma, 50, was speaking Thursday evening when he featured on Prosperity Insights, a business motivation radio programme on Hot FM hosted by motivational speaker and life coach Reverend Walter Mwambazi.
“So the office grabbed the keys to latest Range Rover the office had just procured for us as Directors. I had to call for an urgent board meeting of the Economics Association of Zambia and tendered in my resignation. The other board members wanted to convince to stay saying I had not done anything wrong but I told them I would rather sacrifice myself than see an organisation that largely depended on donor funds suffer, so I left EAZ and started a private life,” he said.
I thought, there is no way I would allow those Zambians to see me mopping floors here when back home in Zambia, Noel was a star.“It was really a private life because even my phone which was constantly ringing when I had the bank job suddenly started ringing, the people I thought were my friends simply ran away. I moved back to my farm and started selling chickens and eggs at Mtendere Market and Independence stadium market.”
“I remember what Fred M’membe told me just when I lost my job, he said “Noel, you may have to give us some of the fancy lifestyle you have become accustomed to,” and so I followed that advice and I stopped drinking from fancy hotels and I started drinking from Kaunda Square with my old friends.”
Mr Nkhoma said, “ My wife Alice one day just told me do anything that can make us survive and I had to go into chicken business.”
Mr Nkhoma shared that reverting to manual job was not difficult because had done some odd jobs in the past.
“After leaving Munali Secondary School, my first job was in an abattoir. So I know how to slaughter a cow and get it ready for sale. When I went to the U.K for my postgraduate Diploma, I had to work as a cleaner at McDonalds near the Piccadilly train station.”
He said he had to quit that job when one day as he was busy mopping the floor, a large group of Zambians who had just landed from a Zambia Airways morning flight were walking past McDonalds chatting away in Bemba.
“I thought, there is no way I would allow those Zambians to see me mopping floors here when back home in Zambia, Noel was a star. So I quit that job and luckily got another job as a waiter in a job at Kings Cross. For the duration of my stay in the U.K I survived on tips because my wages from my bar job was so low.”
He added, “When I was selling chickens and eggs at Mtendere Market, I would hear people talk behind my back ‘Siba Nkhoma baja, what has happened?”, I didn’t mind much because all I wanted was to get by.”
“She says, you are a still very energetic and smart. You know banking very well. You were at Finance Bank for many years. Why don’t you set up something of your own? I asked her, so where do I get the money from to set up a bank?”Mr Nkhoma admits that the period after losing his employment was a stressful one and that he only managed to pull through with the support of his ‘solid’ wife of 27 years.
“My wife is solid. She was always encouraging me. And my neighbour at the farms Reverend Rex Nalumango, the husband to former Deputy Speaker Mutale Nalumango offered spiritual and moral support during an otherwise difficult period.”
“So I continued selling chickens and eggs and I would do anything from feeding the birds, picking the eggs, cleaning them, loading them unto the van and driving the van to the market. So I couldn’t even turn on the air con in the van because I couldn’t just afford fuel.”
“Imagine, moving from a place where you never even knew the price of fuel because the bank paid for our fuel to now start monitoring how many litres you would manage to top up at the filling station,” he recollects.
Mr Nkhoma said the key turning point in his life came when one day his wife sat him down and encouraged him to get back to doing what his knows best.-Banking.
“She says, you are a still very energetic and smart. You know banking very well. You were at Finance Bank for many years. Why don’t you set up something of your own? I asked her, so where do I get the money from to set up a bank?”
Mr Nkhoma said that discussion marked the transformation in his life as together with the wife, they managed to set aside K70,000 (K70 million unrebased) to launch Better Now Finance Limited.
“So 70,000 was our initial capital but today we have mobilised and grown the firm and we are now sitting at US$5 million in market valuation. Our goal is to grow this to US$8 million by end of 2017.”
Mr Nkhoma said BetterNow Finance Limited where he currently serves as Chief Executive Officer plans to issue a corporate bond and list on the Lusaka Securities Exchange in the near future.
“We are currently the fastest growing microfinance institution in Zambia, we have opened several branches over the last few years and we will soon be opening our Kitwe branch,” he said.
Mr Nkhoma encourages young Zambians to venture out into entrepreneurship as a way of creating jobs.
“Sometimes I feel I actually delayed, I should have left the bank much earlier,” he says.
He honesty, passion, commitment, sacrifice, dedication and focus are some of the key ingredients to success.
We now have institutional investors who have pumped in money and we are probably the only microfinance that is able to pay dividends year in, year out. So young entrepreneurs should seek to keep their word.”“As BetterNow Finance, we have grown our working capital because people have been able to trust our word. We now have institutional investors who have pumped in money and we are probably the only microfinance that is able to pay dividends year in, year out. So young entrepreneurs should seek to keep their word.”
He added, “Sometimes I say to myself, a man without a past cannot be reliable guide into the future. If you don’t change nothing, nothing will change. I have experienced the worst that one can possibly experience in the sense that it is at that time you realise that actually manual work does pay.”
“It is something you call an induced transformation. Its not something you have prepared for or volunteered and I think this is something that we Zambians should start to think about. When we are in these offices, we think we have arrived,” he said.
Mr Nkhoma said young people especially should realise that in life, nothing is permanent except change.
Mr Nkhoma’s three children have all excelled in their education.
“Our first born is Chikubabe, she just completed her degree in Economics and she is starting her internship with KPMG and the second Kautengeni has proceeded to do his Masters in international relations and Economics in China while the third Menyani is at WITS University in South Africa where he is reading law.”