FemBioBiz country coordinator leads by example to empower women entrepreneurs in Zambia

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FemBioBiz national competition in Zambia, Grand Finale.

In a bid to keep supporting women-owned businesses after donor funding came to an end, WECREATE Executive Director Nambula Kachumi led the organisation’s transition to a social enterprise and found a sustainable business model that serves as an example to the women they help.

As the Executive Director of the Women’s Entrepreneurial Centre of Resources, Education, Access, and Training for Economic Empowerment (WECREATE) in Zambia, Nambula Kachumi is no stranger to the trials and tribulations of making her ambitious goals come to fruition. In fact, WECREATE went through the exact same growing pains as many new entrepreneurial ventures.

Perhaps this was why her leadership has made WECREATE such a success as the Zambian country coordinator for NEPAD SANBio’s FemBioBiz acceleration programme. FemBioBiz was launched in 2017 with support from the Finnish–Southern African Partnership Programme BioFISA II and recently completed its second season in September 2018. The programme partnered with local entrepreneurship organisations in eight of the ten participating countries in the SADC region to provide women entrepreneurs in the biosciences, nutrition, and health sector with training in leadership and business skills. The best participants represented their countries in a pitching competition at the South African Innovation Summit in Cape Town. Four entrepreneurs and two students were selected as winners of FemBioBiz and will be taking part in SLUSH Finland, one of the biggest start-up competitions in Europe. WECREATE produced two of FemBioBiz Season Two’s six winners.

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Nambula Kachumi.

When congratulated on her success, Nambula laughs it off. “It’s really amazing. Sometimes, we ask ourselves, ‘How have we been able to do this?’” Then she sobers and thinks over her own question before answering herself. “Everything WECREATE has done to date has put us in a position to provide excellent training and better serve the women entrepreneurs we work with. We’re able to lead by example, having gone through so many difficulties ourselves. Now we can tell the women, ‘Do this. Do it this way. It works. We know, we have been there.’”

Finding a new way

To understand why WECREATE finds itself where it is today, one needs to start not only at the centre’s beginning, but that of Nambula’s career. “I studied Public Administration as my first degree at the University of Zambia, but took an interest in Development Finance and Gender Mainstreaming at Master’s level. Since then, I have taken every opportunity to improve my understanding and practice of entrepreneurship and private sector development, with a particular focus on women’s economic empowerment.” After finishing her studies, she worked for various NGOs in Zambia and took on several consultancy jobs.

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Zambian entrepreneur and winner of FemBioBiz season 2, Muzalema Mwanza.

While passionate about her work, a trend she noticed in donor-funded projects bothered her. “Working on the NGO side with donor-funded programmes, I was often pained to see good programmes start and then five years down the line, once the funding ran out, people remain even more impoverished than they were before. Especially in Africa, we need to think beyond aid and figure out more sustainable economic development models that could shift towards a culture of change and really empower people. Projects that aren’t sustainable don’t help anyone. People only put a value in what they receive when they co-invest those resources. Only then can they become more efficient about using those resources, because they have a reason to concentrate on being cost-effective. Most times, people tend to rely on the donor money and after the project ends, there’s no sustainability plan. In the end, those people derive little long-term benefit from these projects. I feel that used correctly, entrepreneurship can get people to think about how they could help themselves and make a difference. About how they can build their skills and venture into long-term sustainability with not only the resources they might receive from donors, but with the resources they have right now.”

That was why, when presented with the opportunity to helm WECREATE during its setup, Nambula was filled with a mixture of excitement and concern. “I asked myself, ‘Is this one of the many programmes that leave people even worse off than they were?’ The programme’s rationale for the WECREATE centres was that funding would only be provided for setup in the first 18 months. Afterwards, the local teams would have to go out and mobilize resources and other partnerships to carry on. That worried me a bit, but on the other hand, I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to co-develop a model that proves it’s actually possible to run a social entrepreneurship programme without much support from or dependency on donors.”

In the start-up phase of WECREATE, Nambula and her team spent a year and a half locked in a race against time. As Executive Director, she was responsible for the centre’s day-to-day day operations. Every spare moment she and her team had went towards building WECREATE’s future. Nambula personally spent hours on writing proposals, approaching possible future sponsors, and searching for alternative revenue sources for the centre. “I didn’t get much sleep at that stage,” she muses. But despite her and her team’s hard work and a huge response from women entrepreneurs in the area, time and funding ran out for WECREATE.

“At one point, we thought it was too overwhelming. We had invested a lot of time in writing proposals and trying to get sponsorship, but it didn’t work out. It wasn’t easy,” Nambula admits. “One big lesson we learned early enough was that we needed to quickly figure out how to partially commercialise and sustain operations to get us to the next phase. This meant relinquishing WECREATE’s highly subsidized programs and restructuring our pricing. Our best value was in activities such as Startup Academy programmes and sector-specific trainings that women entrepreneurs would pay for. But while the response was great, I think the entrepreneurs just weren’t ready to pay for those services and they were struggling to raise participation fees. This put a huge strain on WECREATE’s operations. We didn’t make as much money as we thought we would, and that was a huge disappointment. Suddenly we didn’t have enough money to meet costs for the centre. Our activities had heavily scaled down… For a time, we were almost closing the centre and I was starting to wonder, ‘Did I do the right thing?’”

A place of hope

WECREATE’s women entrepreneurs provided her with the answer and the way forward. “The women entrepreneurs themselves said, ‘You cannot close this centre. This is a place of hope for us. This is a place where we come to get connected. This is a place where we feel safe and be inspired that our businesses could actually take off.’ When I heard this again and again, it motivated me and so we decided to put up a big fight.” Foregoing their salaries, Nambula and the WECREATE staff kept going in the belief that they were contributing to something larger than themselves. “What we felt was much more than just what we were getting out of the programme. There’s nothing like the sense of satisfaction we feel when we see women build businesses and contribute to the economy by employing other women. The success stories that were generated in the short time we have operated were what kept me going.”

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Nambula and some of the women entrepreneurs of WECREATE at a design workshop for ecosystem enablers.

Nowadays, the immense work, sacrifices, and investments Nambula and her team made are paying off. Although the fight to keep WECREATE’s doors open continues, they have been able to engage in a variety of projects and activities that gives them the stability they need to keep going. In partnering with other NGOs and delivering services to them, they have found a way forward. “From the beginning of WECREATE, we took an entrepreneurial approach and took nothing for granted in our search for success. Even when working with partners that come in with various kinds of support, we insist on bringing value to the partnership as opposed to depending on pure donation. Doing this, we reached the point where we have built capacity within ourselves to be able to deliver quality entrepreneurship-related programmes that generate real impact and outcomes that can be seen and appreciated by the people we work with. Providing this service is invaluable to our growing number of partners.”

Nambula uses FemBioBiz as a prime example of such a mutually beneficial arrangement. “When I got in touch with FemBioBiz the first time, I said, ‘Listen, we’re ready and we’re hoping we can apply as WECREATE. This is what we do. We’re working with women entrepreneurs and we look at non-traditional sectors that have low women’s participation.’ On my side, one of the positive outcomes of working with FemBioBiz – other than helping these women who had achieved so much – is that we have built a new network of women entrepreneurs in the biosciences, health, and nutrition sector. Those who have applied to the programme but didn’t necessarily make it to the end point have been engaged in other activities here at WECREATE. We’ve also seen it as a point of advocacy to different partners within Zambia to focus more effort on supporting female-owned businesses in biosciences. There are so many opportunities, and helping businesses to commercialise in this sector will definitely have a long-term impact. I’m very excited about that outcome because, as these women entrepreneurs and industries grow, so do we. This is what drives the work we do.”

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