Lelemba Chitembo Phiri: Empowering Africa’s Unbanked Entrepreneurs

By Elaine Pirozzi

For a time, during her childhood in Zambia, Lelemba Chitembo Phiri’s ambition was to be a boy. And why not? It seemed to her that boys had more fun, less responsibility, and more opportunity. Her parents saw it differently, though. “I remember my parents explaining to me that I could be anything I wanted provided I worked hard enough – and that being a girl was no impediment.”

Lelemba learned to dream big. She dreamt of being everything from an astronaut to a journalist, but eventually found that her passions led her to the world of entrepreneurship and finance.

After receiving a BS in accounting and while doing a Master’s in development financing, Lelemba worked for variety of corporations. But she knew she really wanted to do something bigger – to create sustainable impact and positive change, particularly for women. Early on, she ran several financial fitness initiatives for women in South Africa where she had relocated but dreamed of expanding her work into Zambia, her home country.

An 8-year-old Lelemba

And then thanks to a friend, one day she became aware of a small startup in Zambia called Zoona, the brainchild of Brad and Brett Magrath, two entrepreneurial brothers from Kitwe, the same city where Lelemba and her ten siblings grew up. The Magraths wanted to address a problem common to many African economies. Their target was the large majority of adults with limited or no access to formal financial services, a constraint that severely impedes people’s ability to participate in economic activity, improve their lives, and contribute to their communities. Zoona offers mobile money solutions for consumers and businesses, primarily by providing a range of products to move money electronically. Last year, it was selected as part of the top 50 of the Global 2016 Fintech 100 list and was listed among the most intriguing 50 “Emerging Stars” described as “new fintechs with bold, disruptive and potentially game-changing ideas”.

“Entrepreneurship can take many forms. You don’t necessarily need to start a business from scratch yourself. Identify what your special talents are and what unique value you can bring to an existing startup to help it scale. I did not start Zoona – but understood early on what role I could play to help build our brand and take it to the next level.”

Lelemba originally got on board with Zoona as a consultant, but quickly realized that she wanted to play a greater role. “My ‘aha’ moment came when I went to Zambia and visited a young female Zoona agent. Through her I saw the impact a woman could have on her community when given the support she needs to become an entrepreneur. I saw Zoona agents creating jobs and building financial inclusion. I saw this ‘business in a box’ concept and knew it was a game-changer for women, as well as youth and entrepreneurs in general.

Zoona Executive Team

“A big selling point for me was the offer of stock options in the business upfront. This not only made me feel highly valued for what I was bringing to the table but also ensured that I was fully invested in the success of the business as a part-owner.” Today, after five years and several different positions within the company, the 36-year-old is the Chief Marketing Officer.

Lelemba has deep roots in entrepreneurship. “I lost my biological mother when I was 16. She was an amazing woman and an incredible entrepreneur who successfully started and grew many businesses. When she passed away, there were times where I was uncertain how I would be able to pay for my studies to get my accounting degree. So I followed in her footsteps and started several small businesses – such as selling clothing, jewelry and lingerie – that helped me pay my way.”

Lelemba and family

Entrepreneurship, she explains, can take many forms. “You don’t necessarily need to start a business from scratch yourself. An alternative could be identifying what your special talents are and what unique value you can bring to an existing startup to help it scale. I did not start Zoona – but understood early on what role I could play to help build our brand and take it to the next level.”

This may also explain why she is passionate about helping other women entrepreneurs. “Zambia is well-known for its openness to women entrepreneurs. I think this stems from the fact that women instinctually work to benefit their communities through their businesses. In fact, I recently saw an infographic that lists ‘women entrepreneurs’ as Zambia’s leading export, so we must be doing something right!” she laughs.

A Zoona booth in Zambia

She is proud of the fact that Zoona was one of just ten startups chosen to take part in the Girl Effect Accelerator in 2014 based on its potential to help lift women out of poverty. “I believe in the Girl Effect – the premise that young women, when properly supported and empowered, can fundamentally improve economies, contribute to development, and help eradicate poverty.”

For Lelemba, the honors and awards have been many. In 2014, she was named as one of Africa’s most influential women in business by CEO Magazine, and she was the recipient of a Zambian Woman of the Year award in 2015. She was made a Cordes Fellow in 2016, an honor awarded to 50 of the world’s most promising emerging social entrepreneurs with a demonstrated commitment to economic justice and poverty alleviation.

Zoona hub office in Cape Town

Which is not to say that it’s always been easy for Lelemba. “I am not sure that I had fully accounted for how hard it could be at times – and that criticism and unwarranted judgment could often come from the least expected places, from the very people and stakeholders who should have a vested interest in your success. The important thing is to persevere and keep going.” And, she adds, have fun. “In life, nothing is certain – so spend your time doing something you love and are passionate about; that way if you fail, you at least enjoyed the ride.”

Lelemba Phiri’s Startup Tips:
  • Pursue knowledge and educate yourself. Take advantage of the internet and new technologies to learn more about your chosen field. Learn from other entrepreneurs that have blazed the trail ahead of you.
  • Find the right people who share your vision. Don’t try to go it alone and be a jack of all trades – you may be limiting the potential of your business to achieve great impact.
  • When the fear creeps in, ask yourself, “What if it turns out to be beautiful?”
  • Happy customers are your best promoters. Take charge of promoting your business, attract and delight your first customers as they will become an important advocate and promoter of your business!

Elaine Pirozzi lives and writes in Washington, DC.