Four women providing business answers to Africa’s challenges – with a little help from FemBioBiz

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From left to right: Päivi Lehtonen, Counsellor/Head of Development Cooperation at the Embassy of Finland in South Africa, Jennifer Mayer, Bonolo Monthe, Muzalema Mwanza, Maureen Vere, and Mmapitso Mokotedi, Deputy Director at the Department of Science and Technology, South Africa.

The four women entrepreneurs who won Season 2 of the NEPAD SANBio FemBioBiz Programme in 2018 all have one thing in common: the drive to find innovative solutions through business.

FemBioBiz is an accelerator training programme empowering women entrepreneurs in the biotechnology, health, and nutrition sectors. Launched by NEPAD SANBio with the support of the BioFISA II Programme – a Finnish–Southern African Partnership Programme – in 2017, FemBioBiz runs business training boot camps in numerous Southern African countries through local partner organisations, and culminates with a final pitching competition among the best participants each country has to offer. Starting the second season with over 500 applications from 10 SADC member states, FemBioBiz narrowed the participants down to four winners, who were announced in September 2018 at the South Africa Innovation Summit in Cape Town. In addition to prizes, as winners of FemBioBiz, these four entrepreneurs received a chance to represent their companies and countries at Slush Finland, Europe’s premier start-up event.

With businesses and products so different from each other, it might be easy to assume the four winners only have their FemBioBiz win in common, but the truth is they share more than that. When speaking about their companies, each woman was brimming with excitement and passion. All noted how they used innovation to solve problems close to them, ranging from the merely annoying to life-threatening.

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Bonolo during her final FemBioBiz pitch.

Bonolo Monthe, Maungo Craft

Bonolo, from Botswana, is one of three founders of Maungo Craft, an enterprise specialising in gourmet preserves made of indigenous fruit that contain little to no sugar. The team received their inspiration simply by looking around them. “We saw an opportunity because these indigenous fruit are in abundance and often go to waste. They fall off the trees and rot, becoming a nuisance,” Bonolo explained. “We were saying to each other, ‘Hmm … that could be interesting.’ After doing some research, we realised jams could work because the fruit tend to be the most expensive part of jamming, and here we literally had indigenous fruit lying around.”

But Bonolo and her partners at Maungo Craft weren’t only interested in making jams. They were on a mission to make something completely different. “We didn’t want to make an average jam with a simple one-note flavour profile. So, we went on this journey of creating different tastes and combinations that made people say ‘Wow! What is this?!’” The first jam, Old Faithful, was made from the indigenous marula fruit, with chia seeds and vanilla. Then came Nana, marula fruit and banana, and Mara Mara, a savoury jam made from chilli and ginger. Today, Maungo Craft sells five types of gourmet preserves that combine indigenous fruit with contemporary flavours.

When asked about the biggest benefit she got out of participating in FemBioBiz, Bonolo laughed. “You know, running a pre-seed start-up is a lot like learning Business 101 while on the job. So for us, it was important that FemBioBiz really showed us and helped us with those building blocks. We evaluated things like financing, pricing, and so on. Going through FemBioBiz really showed us whether we were on the right path. If we were, we could say ‘Yes, tick that.’ Or if we weren’t, ‘Wait, I’m lost. I need to fix this.’ The training and the teachers helped a lot with that.”

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Maureen presenting her final pitch at FemBioBiz.

Maureen Vere, Verager (Pty) Ltd

Based in Bromley, Zimbabwe, Verager (Pty) Ltd is an agribusiness processing nutritious indigenous foods that supplies local and regional markets. Concerns over food security among the households of Verager’s suppliers – female small-scale farmers – led its founder, Maureen, to start a programme encouraging the women to diversify their crops. What came next turned out to be a win-win for the business, its suppliers, and customers alike.

“We started promoting the planting of legumes, particularly nutrient-dense cowpeas, among our suppliers. At first, there was little interest as the women farmers didn’t know they could do more with cowpeas than just boil them,” Maureen explained. “That made us decide to show them some alternatives. At first, we made fritters, but then hit on the idea of preparing cowpeas in the same way we traditionally make meat sausages. We got a great response, so we packaged them for commercial distribution. Nutri Pea Sausage really took off, as they’re tasty and a cheaper alternative to meat. There are also many vegetarians in Zimbabwe, and the sausages, patty burgers, and other things we’ve started making are very popular. Of course, this also solved our problem with getting the women to plant cowpeas, as now we could offer a market for them, so they kept on planting more and more in response.”

Maureen showed a decided pragmatism when it came to entering FemBioBiz. “I joined the accelerator because I saw an advert saying they were looking for women in innovation, food business, nutrition, and I said to myself, ‘Why don’t I just try?’” She laughed softly, her eyes sparkling. “The most exciting part of entering FemBioBiz was when I realised I was chosen for the initial training on day one. Usually, when you make applications to programmes like this, there are hundreds of women wanting a chance to compete, so it was a big day when I heard I was invited to take part.”

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Jennifer pitching at the FemBioBiz finals.

Jennifer Mayer, Hutano Foods

In the eight years Jennifer has lived in Zimbabwe, she has been mainly involved in agriculture and market development. Today she owns Hutano Foods, which makes delicious, high-quality, snacks and porridges from local Zimbabwean ingredients like millet, sorghum, nyimo bean, marula, mongongo nuts, and baobab fruit. They source directly from about 300 small-scale farmers, increasing the value of the traditional foods. Hutano got started because Jennifer had become increasingly aware of a trend she noticed in the market.

“There are a lot of donors and NGOs talking about how everybody should be growing small grains or local legumes. These commodities perform better than maize, soybeans, and wheat, which is incredibly important when we are starting to see so much change in climactic rainfall patterns. But when you ask farmers to plant them, they say, ‘Why should I grow that? There’s no market for it.’ And then they get told, ‘Oh well, just grow it to eat in case your maize crop fails because of a drought.’ But then the farmers ask, ‘Why should I grow that when we don’t really want to eat it? It’s hard to process…’ and so on.”

This got Jennifer and her business partner thinking. “We realised this was part of a larger problem with two sides. These commodities do grow better for smallholders, but they have fallen out of favour. At the same time, you see consumers shifting to more highly processed foods like breads, salty and sugary snacks, fast foods, and all this unhealthy stuff, while the traditional foods that aren’t popular are so good for you! There was this disconnect,” she explained. “We started Hutano Foods to find a solution. One of the first things we thought of was to make a porridge from traditional grains. Porridge is something that everybody eats, but the market has been taken over by imported products that are so expensive that they are out of reach for most consumers, or otherwise the porridges are made from very-low-nutrient ingredients like maize and have next to nothing in them. Our porridge is affordable, nutritious, and tasty. And most importantly, it is produced from Zim-grown, climate-smart crops, which encourages more farmers to plant them.”

To Jennifer, the attraction of FemBioBiz was in all the non-monetary benefits. “When I heard about what FemBioBiz was about, I thought, ‘This is exactly the kind of thing we are looking for: not really the chance of investment, but the exposure to other ideas, advice, accelerator- or incubator-type services, and support. We really need to get out there to learn and grow.’ And the programme did exactly that for us. FemBioBiz was a chance to cut our teeth on a few key issues in our business model we had not really thought through yet, and then it was really just about the exposure to other female entrepreneurs. We all face so many similar issues, and it is truly helpful to hear how others deal with them.”

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Muzalema presenting her FemBioBiz finals pitch.

Muzalema Mwanza, the Safe Motherhood Alliance

Zambian entrepreneur Muzalema started the Safe Motherhood Alliance as a way to provide pregnant mothers in Zambia a chance to give birth safely, after her own pregnancy made her realise that this is far from something to be taken for granted.

“I was expecting my first child, and I was surprised when I went for my first antenatal. I was given a list of materials to bring to my birth. I looked through the list and there were things like surgical gloves, blades, and disinfectant, and I asked, ‘Shouldn’t the hospital provide these?’ They responded, ‘Look, we can provide these things, but we just don’t have the capacity to meet everyone’s needs,’” she told us. “The challenge is, if you are in labour and don’t have some of the materials on that list, you might be sent home or the person you came with has to go look for them. Otherwise, you might not be attended to. When I realized that, I thought about what I could do in my small space, about how I could make a difference.

“I went to the Ministry of Health and said, ‘Look, there is this challenge. What can we do?’ And they said, ‘Well … we are working on it.’ The more I researched and spoke to people, the more I understood I could do something on my own. So I just decided, ‘You know what? I’ll get started. The government and the ministry … they will find me working when they are ready.’ Because women and babies can’t wait for when government policies are in place.”

Muzalema had struck on an idea of creating birthing kits and selling them into the market. This solution not only offered pregnant women everything they needed in a single convenient package, but did so at a fraction of the costs women would have had to pay if they needed to gather the items themselves. “I decided to start the Safe Motherhood Alliance as a social enterprise. We charge a small fee that we know the women can afford and we leverage our contacts, our market knowledge, and bulk buying to keep costs as low as possible.”

To derive the biggest benefit from FemBioBiz, Muzalema took the approach of not seeing the programme in terms of competition. “I believe in collaboration. I don’t see the other women who took part in FemBioBiz as competitors. I see them as my collaborators, because I want to see how I can leverage the network I have built here and how we can all use the information we’ve been given through the training and networking. I have met some incredible people and had a chance to meet not only women from my country, but also sub-Saharan Africa. That has built my network so much, and I know these linkages will go very far in terms of my business and just going to the next level.”

Muzalema went on to win the Slush Global Impact Accelerator in December 2018. 


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