Mariam Bibi Umarji: Dogged in the Face of Crisis

Mariam Bibi Umarij is pretty sure she’s 38. She’s lost track and who could blame her. Times are tough in Mozambique – a once promising economy currently drowning in debt – and keeping a consulting business afloat when contracts are far and few between would be enough for anyone to pack it in.

But Mariam is stubborn. So don’t count her out just yet.

“I am responsible for 60 employees. They’re my team, my family. My proudest moments are when we get together to celebrate an occasion and I look around the table and see what we’ve built together. The current economic situation is really difficult and our traditional clients have dried up, but we are working in other countries and have developed a separate training and capacity-building line of business. This has potential so with some effort and partnerships with accredited external institutes, I see the road ahead with more confidence.”

Some of the MB Consulting team

Mariam runs MB Consulting, a public financial management (PFM) consultancy based in Maputo that has made the Top 100 SMEs in Mozambique two years running. Launched in 2010, the firm traditionally provides advisory and technical assistance services to development partners, governments, civil society organizations and parliaments, which gives the team and practice a unique skillset. The firm also offers a wide variety of strategic support such as planning, technical advice, capacity building and short-term training, project management and fund management. When business started to get tough in recent years, Mariam expanded her customer base beyond the local Government and donor community to include the private sector. Hedging the risks and determined to stay afloat, Mariam also continues to take on projects outside of Mozambique’s borders, including countries like Malawi, Tanzania, Angola and Cape Verde.

When she was four, political tensions pushed Mariam’s Muslim family, like many other Mozambicans with roots abroad, to immigrate to Portugal. Despite having more than 20 aunts and uncles and a plethora of cousins, she was the first woman in her family to finish university. Her incredible work ethic began at an early age when at 17 she took a secretarial position with a Portuguese legal firm (Rebelo de Sousa). Within five years, while getting her degree in business, she had climbed to the position of Admin and Financial Director. So valued an employee was she, the then 25-year-old was tasked with expanding the business through a partnership in her native Mozambique where she returned with her husband, a fellow expat who wanted to put his much-needed spine and brain surgeon skills to good use.

“I started working in the office in Maputo for the company and then worked for other consulting firms’ through subcontracts, but really felt like I needed to do my own thing. I also wanted some time to start my PhD and needed to prioritize time with my children. It started with small assignments and individual contracts. But as the work increased and the piles on the dining room table grew, my husband subtly implied it was time to find an office,” Mariam recalls with a laugh.

Mariam and her husband

Together with a secretary and another consultant, she rented work space in Maputo using savings and some funding from family as well as a high-interest line of credit from the bank. As the workload grew, so did the team, and the bank loan was quickly repaid and another taken out to buy property to house the staff and ensure greater financial stability. But still there were hurdles.

“As a young businesswoman with a capable team but lacking seniority, I faced a lot of prejudice. It was a bit of the ‘chicken and egg’, we weren’t getting jobs because we needed more experience but without the work, we couldn’t build the capacity. After three years, I invited two former colleagues as senior partners – Bridget Muiambo and Zuber Ahmed – and previously closed doors suddenly opened.”

“Train others and spread the knowledge; don’t keep anything for yourself – information sharing is critical for a country development. What will distinguish you from others is what you or others make of it. So don’t think that by not sharing you are in an advantageous position.”

MB Consulting has grown so rapidly it sold its office space last year to fund the purchase of a larger facility with training rooms to support its new line of business: the development of a Finance Academy as a training institute to build capacity, particularly in the private sector. A costly investment but one Mariam believes will pay off.

“This is where I see our growth potential but it’s really tough going during this time of political and economic crisis. We’ve always stood firm in the face of corruption and, as a signatory to the UN Global Compact, are committed to not paying bribes. Unfortunately, in Mozambique, people tend to do business in a very nontransparent way. If you don’t know the right people in the right places, you can’t bid on tenders. And if you do bid, you are expected to pay a ‘commission’. We absolutely refuse to do this and certainly have lost a significant amount of business as a result, but it’s critical not to back down. Especially in a time of upheaval when you want change to come, better to close shop than acquiesce.

“Access to credit is other huge constraint we face. I have assets so I am lucky compared to most, but right now I am not taking any margin out of the business because the interest rate is 20% and upwards. But I firmly believe you have to invest to get to where you want to be. That’s why we hire and train permanent staff and pay for everyone’s higher education; we want to make our Mozambican employees global professionals,” Mariam says with emphasis.

 

Given her experience, knowledge and connections abroad, it would relatively easy for Mariam to walk away from MB Consulting and even Mozambique during this trying time. But that’s not her style.

“This is my home, my children are born here, I’ve been on a journey to rediscover my own country. I see a lot of potential here despite the corruption. Mozambique is a wonderful nation with huge resources, great people, and fabulous quality of life. But public services are poor or nonexistent. I want to contribute to elevate the level of those services – health, education and so on – and make a positive contribution in my field to ensure that all children, my own included, have access to all that they need to thrive and be successful in their own country. So, I just have to keep going. No one can convince me otherwise.”

No, definitely don’t count Mariam out. She’s only getting started.

Mariam Bibi Umarji startup tips:
  • Ignore the naysayers! Don’t give up and continue doing what you are doing. The little voice inside you that keeps you going is much louder than anything: listen, plan and implement.
  • Never hesitate to deliver on time and with high quality, even more than what you are being paid to do.
  • Train others and spread the knowledge; don’t keep anything for yourself – information sharing is critical for a country development. What will distinguish you from others is what you or others make of it. So don’t think that by not sharing you are in an advantageous position.
  • Educate yourself all the time; our rule in the company is that we all must be studying or investigating something – if you gave done your degree move on to your post grad studies and so on – but do not become just an academic – use what you learn actively to deliver more to your client.
  • Never take no for an answer. The saying is true: sometimes a door shuts but a window will open if you pay attention and pursue it; always insist until you succeed – plan and replan until you get there.
  • Always go out of your comfort zone and always be open to do and experiment new things.
  • Never ignore your parent’s advice and teachings: be humble, respect yourself and others, prioritize your family and always keep some savings for a rainy day!