Jennifer Shigoli: A Lesson in Enlightened Self-Interest

She may have the makings of a highly successful entrepreneur, but Jennifer Shigoli is the first to admit, once a girl guide, always a girl guide! Like all guides who take “The Promise”, the 29-year-old Tanzanian is an active citizen of her community and committed to helping others. She also just so happens to be the youthful force behind a growing consumer products company that has enabled her to take The Promise to the next level, having a far-reaching impact on women and girls while making a profit for herself. 

“I have always wanted to be part of the solution by creating jobs and solving social problems. Starting my business, which does both, enables me to have a direct impact on people’s lives, especially as it relates to sanitation and hygiene, which is a big challenge for Africa. From an early age, I was told everything is possible: ‘what you think about, you bring about’. This has stuck with me and is the basis for my positive mindset because I know if I think I can, then I will!” 

Jennifer was born in Dar-es-Salaam and studied international relations and diplomacy at the Center for Foreign Relations (CFR) before earning a Bachelor of Law from Tumaini University. She went on to work as a legal officer at the Attorney Generals Chamber, but just couldn’t kick that desire to start a business so she signed up for a 3-month manufacturing course. After one year, with a promising legal career ahead, she quit her job and with just Sh111K (US$50) in savings launched Malkia Investments in 2013.  

“I’ve always had that entrepreneurial bug. I started my first business when I was in secondary school, selling beaded accessories to my fellow students and around our neighborhood. I also ran a cleaning company while studying law. I went into manufacturing because I had researched the potential and knew this was where I could make the biggest impact for myself and others.” 

Jennifer started with small quantities of liquid soap under the Bubbly brand, which she was licensed to produce, sell, and distribute to cleaning companies, hospitals, schools, hotels, and retail stores. Always having the intention to expand the product offering, she registered the business as Malkia Investments Company Limited and relied heavily on social media to spread the work.  

“The harder you work, the luckier you get. Push beyond your comfort zone and do more.” 

“It was really difficult at first because we were new in the market and encountered challenges like not being paid on time, but later we concentrated on door-to-door sales and I hired salespeople on commission basis.”

After a few months, seeing how quickly she was growing, an investor came on board, enabling her to scale up her production, branding, and distribution. 

As part of her desire to impact social change, Jennifer partnered with government-run schools, to launch Choo Salama, a programme that worked to educate more than 20,000 children on water, sanitation, and hygiene. Malkia Investments also sought out donors to help renovate and build toilets in schools. 

The results were so impressive, she started researching other areas where her business could make a difference and then saw the market potential for reusable sanitary pads. 

“In Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa, there is a huge problem with girls missing school due to lack of access to sanitary pads. The materials they do use are often unhygienic … things such as rags, old newspaper, chicken feathers, leaves, and even school socks! I knew girls and women needed affordable and safe alternatives and that this was a great opportunity for Malkia Investments so we added Elea Pads to the line and later ran the Binti Huru campaign with the Tanzanian Women Teachers Association to raise awareness about menstrual hygiene.” 

As if running a manufacturing company that aims to be a leader in the industry within three years was not ambitious enough, Jennifer also founded the Tanzania Institute of Manufacturing.  

“One of my challenges has always been to get the right people to work with. Manufacturing is not well established in Tanzania so I thought why not invest in some enlightened self-interest and offer trainings on entrepreneurship, manufacturing, value addition, and agro-processing to create a skilled labor pool and increase the growth of the small and medium scale industry in our country. If we had more entrepreneurship training in Tanzania, things would move faster.” 

A turning point came at the end of 2016 when Jennifer was one of three and the only woman to win US$150,000 from a pool of 8000 participants applying for the African Entrepreneurship Award. After the ceremony, the government of Tanzania offered her a hectare of land in coastal Kibaha region to build a manufacturing plant and the Tanzanian Private Sector Foundation stepped forward with an offer of free entrepreneurship training.

“Winning that money and receiving the support from government will allow Malkia to scale up immensely. With 28 employees, today we can produce only 2500 Elea pads a day in our current facility which is semi-automated, but our goal is 10,000 with the new facility. With that capacity, we can reach Southern and Eastern markets and beyond. Unfortunately, the menstrual hygiene challenges women face are certainly not restricted to Tanzania,” Jennifer says matter-of-factly.  

And while lack of access to sanitary products may not be something to celebrate, for a social entrepreneur like Jennifer, there is no denying the market potential. Good thing that Girl Guide spirit is navigating the way as she lifts while she climbs.

Startup tips from Jennifer Shigoli
  • The harder you work, the luckier you get. Push beyond your comfort zone and do more. 
  • It’s important to have mentors, especially those in your industry. When I started, I had no idea about the importance of mentorship. With a mentor, I could probably have avoided a lot of loss and trial and error in the beginning.
  • Respect money first and foremost because it’s the blood of your business. We have strategically developed a good system that manages and tracks all our income and expenses and that really gives a clear picture of where we are heading.

Jennifer’s story first appeared in Women Creating Wealth, A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from across Africa. You order or download a copy here.

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