Nambula Kachumi: Champion of Zambia’s Women Entrepreneurs

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Zambia-based Nambula Kachumi firmly believes in taking a holistic approach to the economic empowerment of women. Establishing policies and programmes is all very well, she argues, but unless barriers are addressed at the micro-level, the needle will not move.

“It’s important for the very basics to be put in place; health, sanitation, cultural norms, all must be integrated into our approach if we are to overcome the challenges preventing women from excelling. Education is key, but should not be a barrier for anyone to access economic opportunities or resources. But most importantly it must be a common effort. From government and business, to the community, families and women themselves, we must all see this as an investment in our common future if we are to see a change.”

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As Executive Director of WECREATE Zambia, a community centre supporting women entrepreneurs, Nambula has a long and impressive record of supporting gender equality and women and girls’ empowerment at grassroots and government level. Early in her career, she worked on the European Union’s Mining Sector Diversification Project, connecting with women who had the unenviable and high-risk task of crushing artisanal limestone to sell at market. Her work educating this vulnerable group on how they could capture value, organize to negotiate better prices and be more empowered in business decisions gave Nambula key insights that guide her work even today.

“This project opened my thinking not only in terms of the potential of certain businesses and the possibilities for women to penetrate new economic zones, but also the challenges and opportunities related to that in terms of health, social or cultural barriers, and what resources need to be mobilized to ensure empowerment programs are effective.”

“How do we help women overcome barriers to business growth? You can’t talk about women getting access to financial services and other resources when at household level there is no dialogue on these important matters. We need to deal with the root causes that disempower women from accessing resources.”

Working at Population Council where she engaged with financial institutions to increase access and link adolescents and youth to financial products and services, Nambula had always been interested in how an idea can grow into a meaningful source of income. So when a colleague  brought an advertisement to her attention seeking an individual to oversee a new WECREATE (Women’s Entrepreneurial Centres of Resources, Education, Access, and Training for Economic Empowerment) location planned for Zambia, Nambula thought it was a great opportunity.

“I loved the idea of an actual physical location offering empowerment resources to women. I was particularly keen to operate in a high-density area like Chawama, a hive of economic activity in the outskirts of Lusaka. There’s a lot of micro businesses and cash movement. I really felt I could make a difference to the community, helping women to invest in themselves, grow their businesses and accelerate their revenue while organizing some of the chaos,” she says with a smile.

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Nambula with partners from GriffinWorx and the US State Department.

WECREATE is a hyper-localized, public-private partnership between the US Department of State, the US Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, and GriffinWorx – a global network of locally-driven “accelerators without walls” founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Sean Griffin. The goal is to establish resource-rich spaces to support entrepreneurial women in their efforts to launch and grow businesses. The initiative has seen great success because it cuts across different education and business levels and fills a niche for women who are hungry to empower themselves.

WECREATE centres globally hire employees like Nambula who implement the GriffinWorx approach and expand entrepreneurial services offered in a hyper-local environment. Income is generated through programmes and events, a consultancy arm that supports already existing businesses, an incubation and co-working space that is let out to entrepreneurs, and sponsorship from institutions and corporations with an interest in women’s economic empowerment. In addition to Zambia, WECREATE operates in Pakistan, Kenya, and Cambodia, with a centre planned for Mali next year. While the program launches one centre in each country it operates, the goal is to see expansion to other areas, with satellites opening in second- and third-tier cities in partnership with other stakeholders.

Nambula feels the WECREATE programme has come at a very interesting yet critical time.

“Zambia is attuned to the opportunity of innovation and entrepreneurship in driving economic development. Entrepreneurship development in Zambia might be in infancy stage compared to other regions in Africa, not only in terms of innovation policy but also in applying action plans that accelerate entrepreneurship, but progress doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process that requires investment and commitment to execute. Zambia needs to understand that. There is currently a lot of talk around investing in the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Zambia. Government knows we are at a critical stage because entrepreneurs can help it deliver on its job creation commitment to drive economic development,” she explains, adding, “We now have so many fragmented interventions, but I am happy that WECREATE has been recognized as one of the few specifically addressing issues surrounding women and entrepreneurship.”

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Launched only in 2015, WECREATE’s efforts are targeted, drilling down to the core issues. Nambula explains, “Our women’s entrepreneurship program operates at a basic community and household level. How do we help women overcome barriers to business growth? You can’t talk about women getting access to financial services and other resources when – at household – level there is no dialogue on these important matters. We need to deal with the root causes that disempower women from accessing resources. So a key learning for us has been to have male champions in our programmes that support women’s economic empowerment efforts.”

Zambia has recorded the highest number of participants of all the WECREATE centers with 8900 women accessing its programmes, but the walk ahead is long.

“Our challenges are many, the biggest one being getting our participants connected to access to capital. It’s often about mindset. Many private investors are not willing to invest in startups. Women come to the Centre with high expectations of being introduced to markets, investors and mentors. We try to address these challenges by working with different partners but it isn’t easy. We are constantly trying to negotiate terms with the traditional lenders, but this also requires advocacy with larger institutions. The WECREATE business model is also very unique because it educates entrepreneurs to apply bootstrapping strategies and go for the low-hanging fruit rather than waiting for that big investor to jumpstart your business.  This has helped to change mindset that what one actually needs is revenue and not capital.”

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Energy and motivation is not something this 36-year-old, mother of five lacks. When asked what’s the best part of what she does, Nambula shares an example.

“Not long ago, a woman walked in the Centre with just an idea but so much passion. She was determined to push the limits and scale her organic potato farming to become one of the leading suppliers of frozen chips in Lusaka and have many women farmers and their families benefit from this business. She was determined to take on the challenges that came with value-chain processes. Today she’s already brought on more than 200 other women farmers and garnered so much support she’s been able to purchase an 82-hectare plot and has orders waiting to supply 18 tonnes of frozen chips per week to one of the biggest supermarket chain stores in Zambia. For me, the greatest part of my work is being able to support her efforts and build her networks to essential business resources. She’s literally in my office every day, whether it’s just to have a chat or share her experience excitedly. We women have to balance a lot, social and economic pressures and so on. So seeing the drive of these women every day, that commitment to change one’s life and that of their families, that’s the greatest part of my work. I know we’re making a difference.”

Nambula Kachumi’s startup tips:
  • Execution is everything! It’s really important in the entrepreneurial journey. We spend a lot of time, thinking, planning, designing but at some point you have to think about implementation and jump off the fence. So “Stop Talking and Start Doing!”
  • Starting a business is easy, but building one is hard work. Take stock of all the lessons along the way and use them as your building blocks. When you launch your business today, think of how it will impact your community, your country and the global economy years from now.