Maida Waziri Juma: From Hawking Shirts to Building Dams

Pictured: Maida Waziri Juma

Before hustling her way to the top of the male-dominated construction industry in Tanzania, Maida Waziri Juma tried her hand at many ventures. She’s sold used clothes on the outskirts of Dar-es-Salaam, ran a tailoring shop, raised cows, owned dadadalas (public minibuses), sold office supplies, uniforms, furniture, and car seat covers, and even ran a sea transport business before quitting due to a fear of drowning! Some of these endeavours were successful, others not so much, but the common element they share is that Maida has not been afraid to work hard and keep pushing forward no matter the result. If something didn’t pan out the way she expected, she’d pivot and try something new.

“I walk around with my eyes wide open for opportunities. Following my instincts has served me well when chasing business deals. You don’t need an education to start a business, you just need creativity, the ability to understand what customers need, and the courage to follow through,” she says simply.   

As a secondary school student, Maida always admired the street vendors. At 16 years of age, after completing her O-levels – and to the dismay of her parents who were hoping she’d continue her education – she knew what her next move would be.

“My heart was beating with anticipation. I wondered which business a young girl could start with the least capital? I had seen some hawkers selling used clothes door to door. They were all men, but I didn’t care so I took all I had – Ths 10K (about US$12) – and started. My parents could not believe it, but they knew I was a very strong-willed girl and allowed me to follow my heart. Every morning I would get up at 4 am and spend the day walking long distances selling mitumba (bundles of second-hand clothes). It was exhausting and there were harsh words from many people as I was the only female hawker in sight. By the close of day, my whole body ached, but seeing that profit gave me the strength to do it all over again the following morning.”

Selling mitumba was lucrative and Maida managed to enrol at YMCA College for a tailoring course.  A year later, she opened a tailoring shop in her parent’s home where she continued to sell mitumba and items that she was making. After two years, she married and left home but continued her entrepreneurial efforts raising cows for milk and producing car-seat covers for government vehicles after her new business, Ibra Enterprises won a tender. That big break where she earned her first one hundred million shillings (about US$50K) enabled Maida to expand operations to cover office stationery, furniture, and carpeting services.

Business was going well until Maida had her next great insight!

“Visiting my clients in their offices, I noticed how run down the building was. I imagined there was a market for good affordable construction, so I studied the sector and learned the ABCs of the business. I’ll never forget the day I told my friends and family that I had registered for a construction company. Most of them thought I was mad. I had no background in the profession, no experience, so no one encouraged me

 

I was told I was wasting my time and money. But I didn’t listen to anyone, only my heart,” Maida recalls, “I had seen a need. I had seen a business opportunity.” 

That was 17 years ago. IBRA Contractors has emerged as one of the most respected general contracting firms in Tanzania employing over 300 direct and indirect workers. Starting at class-7 with simple renovations and the sale of building materials, the now class-2 registered building and civil engineering construction firm have leveraged its reputation for quality, timeliness and on-budget delivery to borrow funds to finance complex projects such as the construction of high-rise buildings, roads, bridges, and dams.

Yes, dams and 200 other big projects including the People’s Bank of Zanzibar, National Microfinance Bank, and the Sinza District Court. In 2011, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete declared it the best female-owned construction firm during the opening ceremony of the country’s annual gathering for engineers and contractors.

Maida is keen to drop the woman-owned part of this accolade and simply become the best performing construction firm overall but she acknowledges the obstacles to such an objective. “Since Tanzania gained independence over half a century ago, the construction industry has been a man’s domain. Many women crowd the lower end of the sector’s supply chain, but very few own their own construction firms. This is the case in many businesses but more so in male-dominated sectors where a woman like me have to force our way forward despite heavy opposition. We also have the problem of perception. People believe women cannot do difficult jobs or have what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. But that’s nonsense. Women just need self-confidence, to dream big, and be prepared to go that extra mile.” 

Regardless, Maida doesn’t dismiss the challenges women face and for her part has established VoWET (Voice of Women Entrepreneurs in Tanzania), a dynamic not-for-profit women’s partnership that seeks to revolutionize the way women do business in Tanzania. Through advocacy, capacity-building, and networking, the organization will harness female power for nationwide economic transformation
and empowerment.

Keep your eye on this dynamic entrepreneur. She recently established Ibra Afrika, a holding company that has a lineup of new housing estates, and has plans to branch outside of Tanzania’s borders and capture the larger East African market in Ibra’s area of expertise. “You might find it funny to hear but selling mitumba all those years ago, helped me understand the importance of creative thinking in business and why the needs of customers are the best business opportunities. I’m still walking around with my eyes open waiting to see where the next fortune lies. I guess I will always be a big dreamer.”

A dreamer perhaps but with planning and careful execution, also an incredible success.

MONEY

It is not easy to account
for every single cent in
your business but make it a point in your work ethic to
 do your best to stay on top
of finances.

2

DREAM BUT PLAN

Chase your dreams!
Even when you don’t have funds, go for a loan or borrow from friends and family, but have a strategic plan to reach your objectives and avoid misusing money. 

3

BE INFORMED

Information is power.
Get as many facts as possible before investing in a business. Being well informed will make the difference between a failed or successful venture.

4

BE INDEPENDENT

I urge all women to
be hard working and
innovative rather than
being dependent on
their husbands’ pockets.

Maida Waziri Juma’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