Michelle Kilpin is leading one of Zambia’s largest and most important businesses. She is the new country director of Zambian Breweries, which houses the biggest beer brands in the country. The most popular of these brands, Mosi, has become a national treasure and a proudly Zambian symbol of excellence in beer brewing. The beer draws its name from the Victoria Falls, also known as the Mosi-oa-tunya, located in Zambia’s tourist capital, Livingstone. Michelle has now been tasked with driving this legacy of excellence forward.
Michelle has spent over 17 years working in the beer industry, starting fresh out of university with South African Breweries (SAB) which was acquired by Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) in 2016. The acquisition also included Zambian Breweries which was previously owned by SAB. She credits the high performance culture, the people, the challenges and also the opportunities for her long tenure in this industry, an outstanding feat in a time where people spend an average of three years in an organisation.
“Seeking out feedback, reflecting on it and making use of it to overcome potential blind spots and challenges is an important way to grow as a leader and an individual.”
One of these challenges is leading Zambian Breweries at one of the most difficult times in human history. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted small and large businesses alike. A business as large as Zambian Breweries, with products that serve a large market every day requires energy, disciplined and strategic leadership to navigate the current conditions. And that is what the business is getting with Michelle Kilpin as country director.
AB InBev’s global mission is to bring people together for a better world, but with COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings, executing this mission has been difficult. However, it is clear that the health and safety of the communities that Zambian Breweries serves is a priority. Recently, the business has launched various social initiatives to help communities such as: manufacturing and distribution of alcohol-based sanitizers, providing face masks, providing water to water-stressed areas like George Compound to ensure access to clean water for handwashing among other corporate social initiatives.
Michelle is very clear about the unique responsibility that Zambian Breweries has to the Zambian people as a producer of alcoholic beverages while maintaining profitability in a volatile economy. She comments, “We take our responsibility as a producer of alcohol very seriously. We believe every experience with beer should be a positive one and cannot allow our brands and our products to destroy the communities in which we operate. So it is critically important that we educate our customers and retailers on self-regulation through our smart drinking campaign, we ensure that our products are of a high and consistent quality and we educate consumers on how to consume alcohol responsibly.” Zambian Breweries has also partnered with the Road Transport and Safety Agency (RTSA) to curb the increase in road traffic accidents related to alcohol abuse.
Apart from that, the business has also put in place measures to protect the staff such as flexible working arrangements, giving the staff the right tools to work from home, providing high quality personal protective equipment and running a company-wide vaccination drive. Zambian Breweries is also leveraging the capabilities of AB InBev to better understand the changes in consumer behaviour during the pandemic that will help to deliver better service to Zambian consumers in the current context.
Diversification of the copper-driven Zambian economy to include increased focus on agriculture, among other sectors, is central to the sustained GDP growth of the country. Zambian Breweries has a major role to play in the growth of the agriculture sector. AB InBev has set a goal to ensure that 100 percent of its direct farmers will be skilled, connected and financially empowered by 2025. This goal has also been applied to the Zambian market. Currently, hundred percent of Zambian Breweries’ barley malt, cassava and sorghum is sourced from Zambian farmers. The company also has an outgrower programme which has over 6,000 small-scale cassava farmers and 1,000 sorghum farmers with plans to increase the latter to 4,000.
Zambian Breweries is also using blockchain technology to ensure that previously financially excluded farmers are empowered and given an identity using a technology that allows the farmers to receive payment for the raw materials supplied as inputs for brewing beer.
Having started in her current role in August 2021, Michelle arrives in Zambia at a very exciting time and she is relishing the opportunity. She is excited about the vibrancy of the young people of Zambia who continue to show courage socially, economically and politically. Apart from building on the success of her predecessors, she is hoping to take advantage of the vast opportunities that she believes still exist in Zambia. “I would like to see Zambian Breweries continuing to be an integral part of the fabric of the nation of Zambia. And we have a responsibility to be a part of the economic turnaround that Zambia is on the path to achieving,” says Michelle on her expectations in her new role.
Tenacious is the perfect word to describe Michelle’s rise to leadership. In her 17 years with in the industry, she has had various roles and responsibilities that have put her outside her comfort zone. Despite these challenges, she has pushed forward and carved a career for herself in a challenging and fast paced industry. One of the tools she has used to succeed in her various roles is feedback, which she considers invaluable. “I’ve learned that feedback is a gift. Seeking out feedback, reflecting on it and making use of it to overcome potential blind spots and challenges is an important way to grow as a leader and an individual.” This is a tool that will serve her well as she charts a new path in Zambia.
Michelle’s leadership philosophy also stands out in a world where senior executives lock themselves up in cosy offices shielded by their laptop screens. She believes leadership should be accessible to everyone in the organisation and she views her role as a service role. Michelle holds the saying “If service is beneath you, then leadership is above you” to be true and uses this to deliver results both personally and for the entire business.
Michelle has hit the ground running and the mission is clear ahead of her. She has a great team behind her and a good foundation laid by her previous experience and by those that have held the role before her. She exudes a calm confidence that is backed by sound personal and business principles that will help her deliver success for the business and for the consumers. She summarises her journey ahead by saying, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Michelle is certainly going far, and she can be rest assured that she will not be alone on this journey.
Michelle’s advice to her younger self
- Develop your network carefully.
- Treat your career not as a ladder but as a jungle gym; make use of lateral moves to grow.
- Believe in yourself more and be brave.