5 January 2013

Zambia: Betty Daka - Determined to Build Food Franchise With Zambian Flag

WHEN Lusaka-based Café Royale' owner Betty Chime Daka and her husband Norman Brown hosted their customers for a free cocktail to mark the restaurant's first birthday, it was an evening to remember.

At first, only soft contemporary music played in the background before the customers were treated to a live performance of the traditional Ngoma war dance by a troop of earth-stomping Ngoni warriors.

But apart from celebrating the once derelict place that has been transformed into a classic eating place, 35 year-old Betty, is a princess by virtue of being a niece of Paramount Chief Mpezeni of the Ngoni people of Eastern Province, who has been married to Norman for the last 15 years, had much more to celebrate.

For behind the glittering marble floor, the colour-ful furniture, fancy menu, good food and drinks obtainable at Café Royale' lies a story of tragedy, endurance and extraordinary faith that has made Betty believe that she would one day fly the Zambian flag among leading food franchise.

It was in 2009 when one day, Betty was being driven home by her young brother - a new driver. They were driving on Great East Road when suddenly a motorist, from nowhere, decided to overtake them.

Betty's brother panicked and lost control of the vehicle which veered off the road before plunging into a ditch on the side.

Betty was rushed to the University Teaching Hospital (UTH) with life-threatening injuries. She was unconscious. She had sustained grave damage to most of her internal organs.

She was operated on locally but unfortunately, little could be done for her. She was promptly airlifted to South Africa's Milpark Hospital where, having lapsed into a coma, she was placed in the intensive care unit where doctors struggled to save her life.

"They operated on me at least 20 times to remove a kidney, to put the half of one kidney with the other half. They worked on my liver that was damaged, the intestines that were crushed; there was a lot of damage inside and my body weight had become three or four times more because the kidneys were not functioning normally and so I was retaining water. If your liver is also not working, that means you start becoming yellow and infection comes into play," Betty recounted.

All surgeries where being done, while Betty was still in a coma and according to her, even the doctors knew that it would be by sheer luck that she was going to pull through and lead a normal life.

She was hooked to 13 life-support machines to keep her alive.

Her brain was barely working because she was on morphine and a lot of other drugs.

"I was realistically pronounced dead," she said. "But my husband did not agree and the doctors said they were going to continue fighting for me because there was nothing much they could do at the time.

"They said if I was not going to come back (to consciousness) within two months, then I would have overlapped on the timespan that they had given me, then they were going to ask him (my husband) whether they should switch off (the life supporting machines) or we should continue, because the more drugs I was receiving I was going to have some serious side effects.

"But I came back before the due date," recollected Betty who, apart from the life threatening injuries she had suffered, had also developed Septicemia (an infection caused by bacteria contaminating the blood).

She had an open stomach for more than one year. Betty miraculously came out of coma two months after the accident and fought through a tough period of recovery with the support of her husband, Norman, who never left her bedside. She credits Norman for having been instrumental in her recovery by speaking to her positively even when she was unable to speak and could not answer back.

"I had a very positive husband. I could not walk. I could not talk. But the time that I was in Milpark hospital and I came out of that coma, despite him being with me 24-7 at Milpark hospital, when I did come out of that coma, he was still there waiting for me and encouraging me despite me not being able to answer back. He was able to keep encouraging me that you are going to walk, you're going to do this," Betty said.

She urged people looking after the sick to be positive, like her husband was, saying one's recovery from any condition is partly a mental process that requires one to be focused. When that is achieved, anything becomes possible.

However, she also has God to thank. She said one's spiritual disposition is important in life because God is truly there.

She urged those who believe in God and those who are not very close to him to call on him and move closer to him.

She said her struggle to recover was long and a lot of work had to be done on her natural stomach which was only closed last year.

She is still undergoing therapy because of the crushed spine she had sustained which at the time of the accident had made doctors to think that she would be paralysed from the waist down.

But today, Betty, who was once "realistically pronounced dead", is a walking miracle. She says the accident made her look at life differently.

In her day-to-day activities, she sometimes feels aches or experiences side effects from the morphine.

Sometimes she tends to be very forgetful and her speech becomes very slow. But she does not treat these as disabilities associated to the accident. Instead, she believes in moving on rather than dwelling on the after effects of the mishap.

Her attempt to move on paid dividends in August last year when she and her husband opened up what was a vacant shop on Lusaka's Cairo Road.

The couple approached the company that was in charge of the building where the shop was located, renovated the shop and opened Café Royale.

The renovation of the shop and subsequent opening of the restaurant went hand-in-hand with the couple's transformation.

According to Betty's Uncle Ambassador Kapembe Nsingo, the couple was not just refurbishing the shop but also rebuilding the physical lives, especially in the case of Betty who was still recovering, and they were preparing to start living their normal lives after the trauma of the car accident.

Betty credits her mother, Georgina Mpezeni Jere for having influenced her business acumen. She says in her heydays, her mother was a hard worker.

"My mother was very courageous, very hard working and her customer service was extraordinary. Her presence when the customers were there was always vibrant and I have always wanted to be like mum," she said.

She described Café Royale as a business of ups and downs, though she believes that businesses are never smooth sailing and their ups and downs must be used as learning opportunities.

She said the most popular dish at Café Royale', which employs between 15 and 20 workers, is spare ribs, although the restaurant has distinguished itself by catering for customers with special needs.

The restaurant, which operates under the motto 'Good food is not everything - it is the only thing' has a healthy menu and provides fresh food like fish, prawns and also serves people with diabetes that require non-sugary foods.

Betty's vision is to grow Café Royale' into a leading brand with more outlets in terms of franchises on the scale of Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) of Louisville, Kentucky in the United States of America, and McDonald's.

"I would be very proud to see a Zambian flag flying out there where it is recognised just as much as these other brands," she says.

But to achieve that she first wants to ensure fair pricing of her drinks and dishes.

"Those that have been overseas know that there's a place called NoFrills, which means you get the same quality of food but for a fraction of the price. And that is my aim. I want to run a restaurant where you do not have to get ribs for KR103 and it's just six ribs when you can buy them for K45, half the price, but just as nice.

So that is my main aim," she says, explaining that local restaurant prices tend to be extortionate.

She thanked her customers for supporting her business from inception.

She said the cocktail party at which the customers were treated to free drinks and free food shows that customer service at her restaurant is outstanding.

She said even the customers knew that fact because there are many places which they have eaten from and none of those restaurants has called them back to have a free cocktail.

"That just shows how passionate we are". Betty expressed gratitude that some women in Zambia were doing very well in business. She urged the women folk to be focused, saying it is very easy to venture into a thing but very easy to give up. For now, Betty, who believes that 'what does not kill you makes you stronger' has consigned her terrible accident to the past and is focused on clocking yet another year at Café Royale'.

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