BY SHAME MAKOSHORI
LAST week, Vineyard Funeral Assurance, one of Zimbabwe’s fastest growing sector players, commissioned a new fleet of hearses to beef up its capacity. The commissioning came as the industry faced multiple headwinds, mostly stemming out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Our Business Editor, Shame Makoshori (SM) took the opportunity to discuss industry issues with Solomon Chikanda , the managing director of Vineyard. He said this was only the beginning of a strategy that would see the firm expanding across Zimbabwe, and into southern Africa. But before the discussion was up, and having sat at the top of an industry that has interfaced with Covid-19m victims, Chikanda poured his heart out, warning Zimbabwe to stop the laxity before a third wave explodes. Here is how their discussion turned out…
SM: Take us through the journey that you have travelled as Vineyard; How did it start? What motivated you to establish this business?
SC: Establishing Vineyard Funeral Assurance wasn’t a stroll in the park. You can imagine how many storms we have weathered since 2003 when it was formed from the meekest of beginnings up to this day when it has become a force to reckon with. The company was started because of a burning desire to turn funerals into celebrating life and avoid the double tragedy of mourning the deceased and failing to buy the resting unit. We had seen many funerals at which feeding mourners was a struggle. Gone are the days where a funeral should be a burden to communities and close relatives of the deceased. Vineyard Funeral Assurance (Pvt) Ltd is a registered funeral assurer in terms of the Insurance Act. The company was incorporated in April 2003 and is regulated by the Insurance and Pensions Commission.
SM: You came into a market that was already dominated by big brands. Competition is stiff. How have you survived?
SC: Competition in business is a blessing. Without competition we wouldn’t be motivated to improve. Thus, having dominant brands in the market wasn’t a distraction for Vineyard. We have looked at competition and said we are going to do it differently. That is exactly what we have done. We have run and focussed on our race differently.
SM: Apart from the big brands, Vineyard came into the market during the most difficult climate in 2003. The economy was going through hyperinflation and foreign currency shortages. What strategies have you pursued to remain afloat?
SC: We also got a pinch from the harsh economic conditions that bedevilled the country. But as a company our principle has been to stay afloat whilst providing quality essential services to our clients. We have had cash challenges and our strategy was to move with the times and accept plastic money just like other businesses. Without giving much detail, we have also experienced fuel, electricity and foreign currency challenges during the years that we have operated. We have survived because of the strategies that we have mentioned above. We had to think outside the box. We always reviewed our operations to make sure business didn’t collapse. Our presence today is testimony that our strategy worked. Of course, we couldn’t have survived without the grace of God.
SM: Your industry is largely a Zimbabwe dollar transacting market. But you say you need foreign currency for your operations. Tell us how you have managed this. How have you secured policyholders’ funds?
SC: Luckily, it’s a multi-currency regime and we accept all forms of payments at the existing market rates. Our suppliers also exist in the same market, and hence no one exists in a vacuum. Therefore, we take what they also take as payment.
SM: What challenges is the sector facing today, and as Vineyard how are you managing them?
SC: We don’t grow when things are easy but we grow when we face challenges. Our challenges have ranged from the current Covid-19 crisis, business closures that have affected payment remittances, policy lapses, fuel shortages, cash challenges just to mention a few. These have affected the sector at large, including Vineyard. But we find solace in our belief that business opportunities are like buses; there is always another opportunity coming.
SM: Did Covid-19 present opportunities or threats to Vineyard, and the industry?
SC: There was indeed a misconception that Covid-19 brought more business to funeral assurance firms because many people were dying hence a boom for businesses. But the truth of the matter is we don’t celebrate the loss of life at all. Covid-19 actually kept us busy and it gave a huge strain on our operations.
SM: What was its impact in terms of costs? Did it push players, including Vineyard, to the brink?
SC: Covid-19 caught everyone flat footed such that small businesses faltered. One had to remain strong and ensure that the ravaging Covid-19 pandemic didn’t destroy the business. We tried our best under the circumstances. The lockdown was harsh and restrictive with many people staying at home and no payments coming through. But more deaths meant that more services were required. There was fear amongst the workforce of contracting the virus and as an organisation we had to ensure that we provided adequate personal protective equipment to the workforce, which was very costly and scarce, thereby pushing us to the brink.
SM: As Vineyard, are you prepared for a third wave? What’s your reading? Is a third wave on the way or the threat is behind us?
SC: Indications on the ground are that we are heading for a third wave. Authorities and the populace have lowered their guard and the last time that happened, when people lowered their guard, was during the festive season. We all know what happened. The country experienced deaths and high infections including of high profile personalities. These days people are partying without ceasing, people are congregating oblivious of the set World Health Organisation Covid-19 regulations. This is extremely dangerous. Winter is upon us and we hear Covid-19 usually takes centre stage in cold weather. We can’t be ready individually as Vineyard but it must be a collective responsibility. We hope and pray the authorities will speed up the vaccination process. If this is achieved, everyone will be safe.
SM: Last week, you unveiled a new fleet of hearses. Are you planning to expand across Zimbabwe?
SC: That has always been our plan from the day Vineyard came into operation. The unveiling of new hearses was a manifestation of our ambition to expand. We have branches in Masvingo, Karoi, Bindura, Bulawayo and Kwekwe. Plans are underway to spread the Vineyard wings across Zimbabwe. Our desire is to take our services closer to people.
SM: Do you plan to invest outside Zimbabwe?
SC: Zimbabweans, being industrious all over the world and culturally, believe that no matter where you breathe your last, home is where one comes back to rest. That is our culture. We are committed to bringing every Zimbabwean who dies outside the country back home. We are looking into setting bases closer to home, that is in SA, Botswana, Zambia and other countries. That is in the pipeline and we are getting there soon. Within the next five years Vineyard will have a presence all over the country and in some targeted African nations.
SM: Is there anything that gives you sleepless nights? Please share with us.
SC: The thought of someone having no funeral policy gives me sleepless nights. I have seen people struggle to bury their loved ones; I have seen desperation; I have seen the agony of relatives turned into beggars for basics; and that pains me. What all this means is someone did not prepare for the inevitable, which is death, which strikes like a thief when we least expect it. Having a funeral policy and preparing for the future is about making a choice and making it right!