Mweshi Chilima Maina: Zambia’s Queen of Discount Deals

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Mweshi Chilima Maina knew from a very young age she wanted to be her own boss. The self-starter took a few detours in life, including studying and working abroad, but is now firmly rooted in her native Zambia where she joins a fresh line-up of female entrepreneurs taking advantage of the supportive environment, sociocultural changes, and technological developments enabling women to launch and grow their own enterprises.

“Access to finance remains a problem, but attitudes have really changed towards women entrepreneurs in recent years in Zambia. It’s a great place for women to start a business. Just look at examples like ChizO, MaFashio, and Zed Hair.”

Born in Lusaka, Zambia, Mweshi lost her parents at 11 years of age and was raised with her three siblings by her aunts and their husbands on her mother’s side of the family. She threw herself into her studies and did so well, relatives in Tanzania sponsored her to study in the UK, where she earned an advanced diploma in business administration from ABE and an honors degree in accounting from the University of Wales.  She stayed on for four years working in London, but the pull of family was too strong.

“I missed my siblings a lot, it was hard to be so far away. So I relocated to South Africa where my two sisters had settled and got a job as an accountant for a property management company in Joburg before opening my own hair salon. I used to make extra money as a student doing women’s hair and I thought I had the experience it took to run a hair salon,” Mweshi explains with smile. “It wasn’t quite what I anticipated.”

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Looking for inspiration to shift gears, Mweshi, who had since married, turned to her home country of Zambia where there was political stability, the economy was taking off, and startup businesses were aplenty.

“Participating in the program at BongoHive really helped us in a lot of ways. We got support when we were setting up the company in terms of guidance and advice. They also gave us office space when we really needed it, and through the hub we have met and established relationships with people and businesses who are essential to the growth of 360deals.”

“We were motivated by the direction the country was going in. There were lots of opportunities, particularly in tech where Zambia has started to make its mark in Africa. We also wanted to raise our kids in a secure environment. And besides, most of my extended family was there, the people who raised me and without whom I wouldn’t be where I am today. I wanted my children to know their family.”

Once settled in Lusaka, the couple started brainstorming business ideas centered around their own interests. Both serious travel hounds, they made sure to visit two places a year they had never explored and did most of their research online to find the best deals.

“It became clear very quickly that there was a gap in the Zambian market for an online platform offering the best travel and vacation deals out there in terms of cost and quality. We started with tourism, but it expanded more generally to discounted goods and services showcasing the best that Zambia has to offer.”

An ecommerce platform, www.360deals.co.zm sells products and services at IMG_5744discounted prices of up to 70% off. Current offerings fall into popular categories such as travel & tourism, beauty & wellness, things to do, eating out, wedding services, and house & home. The model is built on the Groupon and Living Social approach. In fact, Mweshi and her husband had even approached several international companies seeking to license their platforms in Zambia, but the processes were so complicated they decided to build their own platform using local resources.

“Based on what we’ve learned, this worked out for the best because many of the companies we targeted don’t have an offline selling strategy, which is critical in Zambia. Most people want to come to the physical address of the business even if you are trading online. They would rather pay at your offices at least the first time before they can trust you and purchase online,” she explains.

Building the platform was probably the most challenging part of the process. Mweshi shares the growing pains she and her partner experienced in finding the right tech partner.

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“Unfortunately, we had to redo the website three times because the initial service provider did not understand our business concept and really didn’t have the expertise to execute the project as they had claimed. This is partly attributed to our lack of experience in the tech arena. The third time we got it right because we thoroughly vetted the developer, but it was an expensive lesson. Before choosing an IT service consultant or – for that matter – any service provider who is critical to the launch of your company, ensure you do extensive research because all that glitters is not gold,” she says wryly.

Another piece of advice that the 30-year-old freely offers is to get involved with an incubation program for startups; 360deals was hosted at BongoHive, a tech and incubation hub in Lusaka.

“Participating in the program at BongoHive really helped us in a lot of ways. We got support when we were setting up the company in terms of guidance and advice. They also gave us office space when we really needed it, and through the hub we have met and established relationships with people and businesses who are essential to the growth of 360deals.”

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Today 360deals has four full-time employees. Having used their savings to start the business and continuously allocating part of the monthly household budget to sustain operations, Mweshi and her husband are seeking investors.

“We’ve had a lot of support from family and friends who offered services for free to help kickstart the business, but if we are going to move forward with our plans to grow and expand into other markets, we need financial partners. We just brought an angel investor on board, which is key to our mission of making an impact in ecommerce in Zambia.”

Mweshi and her team work long days, starting early meeting customers and ending late with planning sessions. It’s been tough to spend time away from her 3-year-old son, but she knows she’s building a legacy not only for herself but also for him.

“My late aunt Harriet Mwape, who helped raise me, always encouraged me to seek wisdom in life not just knowledge, to believe in myself and plan for my future. I know she’d be proud of what I’ve achieved. My best professional moment was the day 360deals was registered as a company, but that was just the beginning. There is so much more to look forward to as we grow the platform and expand it beyond Zambia’s borders.”

You can connect with 360deals on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.

Mweshi’s Startup Tips:
  • Believe in yourself!
  • Get involved in an incubation program for start ups.
  • Stick to the plan, do your research, get a business mentor and by all means network as much as you can.

 

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