Downtrodden and out of job with four children to support, Mary Shikukutu didn’t find much support among family and friends when she proposed the idea of starting an urban milling business for a traditional African grain.
“‘Are you crazy?’ was all I heard. `Who’ll support your business? You need to think of something else because there’s no market for that in the city.’ Yes, sometimes it’s good to listen to other people’s opinion, but if you give too much weight to what others think, you’ll never know what you are capable of or discover what life has in store for you. So despite all the no, no, no’s, I went ahead anyway.”
The fourth of six children, Shikukutu was born in Ondobe village in the Ohangwena region in the northern part of Namibia. According to Oshiwambo custom, which dictates children be split up and raised by family members when one or both parents dies, a five-year-old Shikukutu was sent to live with her aunty in the nation’s capital following her father’s death. Her oldest brother joined SWAPO, Namibia’s former national liberation movement, in exile where it was fighting for independence from South Africa in the 70s.
Shikukutu was reunited with her mother when she was 14 but she was to never meet her brothers again.
“My second brother followed the first to SWAPO in 1987. A year later, I joined my high school boycott against bantu (segregated) education. We stayed away from school for two months, and I decided to go into exile with 17 other students. We went to Odibo in the northern part of Namibia and from there walked more than 120 km into Angola. By the time I got there, both my brothers were in a fighter’s camp where teenagers were prohibited from entering. I finally went home, but they never returned. I was devastated and it’s so frustrating that no one knows what happened to them. I like to believe they are alive somewhere, married with a family of their own.”
In exile in Zimbabwe during her young adult years, Shikukutu never had the opportunity to attend university. On returning to a newly independent Namibia
in 1991, she signed up for training in computers, planning and control, human resources, and hotel management in the hopes of finding direction. Shikukutu landed a housekeeping position at the Windhoek Country Club Resort and Casino and progressively moved up the ladder to waitress, restaurant cashier, and finally the hotel’s switchboard operator.
She was 30 years old and married with two children when opportunity came knocking the first time.
“Disney World crew members came to Namibia looking for dynamic English-speakers who know what to tell the world about Namibia. I was one of six to get a one-year contract to work at Epcot Center as a Namibian Ambassador. I was so thrilled. The crowds were huge, and it was a challenge for me to stand in front of thousands of people every day talking about my country, but I got used to it.”
On coming home, she returned to the resort and got promoted to hotel reservationist and, after a few years front office manager until a run in with some colleagues who felt threatened by her success. The 37-year-old was framed for a theft and found guilty with no evidence and was dismissed although a labor court ruled in her favor.
“When I lost my job, I went back to square one. I had four children to feed and my husband’s salary was not enough to cover everything. I tried to find another job with no success. Sometimes I hid in the restroom and cried and prayed to God to give me strength. My turning point came when I realized I needed to take charge of my own destiny.”
Striking around for inspiration, Shikukutu finally found it on her plate one morning. “I have been feeding my children mahangu [a nutritious pearl millet] since they were babies, but it’s difficult to get in Windhoek. Twice a year, my mother brings some back from a village in the north and I try to make it last. Because mahangu provides a lot of energy and fills you up, I was eating it for breakfast when the thought struck me: ‘What if I start a mahangu milling business in Windhoek? Maybe there are others like me who are having trouble finding it in the city.’”
A determined Shikukutu started researching the grain, uncovering its importance as a staple grown today around the world under different names but regarded as a traditional food for rural areas only. She conducted market research in the city trying to understand why supermarkets don’t sell mahangu product. “Their answers really motivated me. They told me many people are looking for mahangu and only Namib Mills sells it. But the product is not processed the way customers want, so they just buy it because they have no other choice.”
Armed with this information and the fact that more than 75% of Namibians eat mahangu regularly, Shikukutu decided to go for it.
She invested in a small grinding machine and some raw materials, which she bought with her personal savings. Working with her sister and another employee, Shikukutu began milling for customers who had their own mahangu but no machines. As word got out, she bought mahangu grain from small scale farmers to process, grind, package and sell.
“Operating with one small machine, we worked from 6 am to midnight and as our business grew we worked through the night to keep customers happy. We took breaks in shifts but worse was the pressure on the machine. It trembled and parts fell off when it was overused, sometimes it got so hot we have to stop milling for two hours to let it cool down,” Shikukutu explains.
The greater the success she had, the more her operations became unsustainable. She needed more machines, but – without a payslip – no bank was willing to lend her the money. She was just covering her costs and not able to pay herself. “I had no choice but to leave my family and my business behind for two years to get a hotel job in another town. My sister and best friend, Hilma, took good care of the mill. She was there when I needed her the most.”
After two years away from her home, Shikukutu was finally approved for a loan and resigned her job to run the business full time. She upgraded her skills taking training in business and financial management, pricing, sales and marketing, project management and packaging design. Like previously profiled Career 2.0 stories, the Namibian has benefited from FEMTECH training, sponsored by Finland, and the FABLAB Namibia Technology Centre program that works with small business.
Today NT Oshini Mahangu Supplies has five permanent and three temporary employees who operate six machines and produce 25 tons of mahangu per month. A symbol of her success, the 44-year-old Shikukutu sits on the Namibia Agronomic Board under the Ministry of Agriculture Water and Forestry.
Any regrets? “I definitely would not want to leave my family again. That was very difficult. But in the end, I am very happy because I love what I do but also because of what I went through and the person I have become today.”
- Plan and do as much research as possible.
- Everyone has a challenge, the only difference is how we go about overcoming it.
- Start small, but do not stay small.
- Don’t allow failure to determine where you will end up. Let it be the beginning of your success.