Selina Chipeta Mwenelupembe is the epitome of the African woman’s entrepreneurial spirit. What started as a necessity-driven business selling used clothes and small food items on the side of her job as a midwife has grown today − through tremendous hard work, bootstrapping, and bank loans − into a 50-employee strong construction company in Lilongwe, Malawi. Imagine … from nuts to pothole patching in ten years, that’s got to be some kind of record.
“My strategy was simple. Any little profit I made, ploughed back into the business so we were able to grow little by little. What I know now is that self-employment creates self-reliance, which motivates you to work harder to achieve an intended purpose, since you have nobody else to blame but yourself.”
The third child in an evenly divided family of five girls and five boys, Selina has lived in all three of Malawi’s regions. Her father was government officer, so life was good by most standards until he got early retirement after only 20 years on the job. Returning to the family village in final year of secondary school was hard enough but worse was the realization Selina would not be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a lawyer.
“I didn’t get the opportunity of being selected to a government university and had to help raise my younger siblings who were still in primary school. My father could not afford a private university but told me it was not the end of the world. I should just pray for the gift of life and all that I would need would be received with self-determination.”
Accepting her situation, Selina enrolled in a nursing school run by Catholic sisters in Mzuzu and then went on to St John’s Nursing School, where she completed nursing and midwifery training. She married her husband Godfrey and worked as a nurse and midwife as well as doing small-scale food vending and selling of second-hand clothes during her days off to help meet the family needs. But she found she really enjoyed it.
“I was doing well and loved the extra income and economic independence so I hired someone to work alongside me selling packed deep-fried, grilled or ground nuts and packed grain meal. I wanted to learn more about how I could develop my own business so I took leave of my nursing job and enrolled with DAPP Vocational School to study business for one year.”
After the course, Selina was emboldened and registered her businesses, Mount Carmel Investments, although she continued working in nursing for three more years before leaving the sector and becoming self-employed. She started with a secretarial bureau, offering office and secretarial services with a small investment of two computers, desks and chairs, a printer, photocopier and fax machine all which she bought second hand from an auction. One year later, she opened Mount Carmel Nursery School, providing daycare and early childhood learning services in a renovated boys’ quarters behind her home that was available rent-free.
With success came the realization of where this could go and, to grow her skills, Selina enrolled in a distance learning Bachelor’s degree programme in business administration. The timing was perfect as a great opportunity came her way.
“At that time, the Malawi Government created a deliberate policy to empower women in construction and required a percentage of road rehabilitation tenders had to be allocated to women-owned businesses. I joined a capacity-building training and the project was overseen by engineers employed by the European Union. I hired a site agent as my project coordinator and a qualified road foreman as well as casual labour as well as tools and equipment. It was labour intensive work that paid very well and was a stepping stone to reinvesting and growing my construction company. As my relationship with the bank solidified and my financial capacity grew, so too did my ability to carry out larger jobs.”
As profits increased, Selina pumped them back into the business and, only two years after graduating from vocational school, registered another business: Mount Carmel Construction Company. Using her savings, she purchased a plot of land and built a small house that she could use as collateral for the bank enabling her to purchase machinery, which she then hired out to other contractors.
Established in 2014 as a private limited company with shareholders (Godfrey and their three children), today Mount Carmel Construction Ltd is a civil and building company that runs projects such as road resurfacing, river drainage, slurry sealing, canal irrigation, bridge renovation and construction of schools, offices, and warehouse buildings. With 50 full-time employees and more than 300 casual labourers in season, it’s an important source of employment in the small southeast African nation.
“My husband has been my mentor, a great teacher despite a rough beginning. At first, he did not think I could manage such a demanding business in a male-dominated field. He was sceptical when I wanted to register a construction company. But when he saw my determination, passion, and hard work I was putting into the business, he believed in me. He even left his job to come work for the business and together we are a strong team. We appreciate each other’s strengths and compliment each other well.”
Selina has faced prejudices as a woman in the construction industry but feels, little by little, the attitudes are changing. For her personally, she just aims to deliver goods and services to the required standards without compromise and provide customers value for money so they keep coming back. She has also invested in knowledge to cement her reputation and has a Bachelor’s in social sciences with a major in marketing and Master’s in Business Administration through the Eastern and South African Management Institute in conjunction with Lund University with a special focus on executive entrepreneurship.
In the next five years, this proud mother-of-three envisions owning her own quarry with stone crushing equipment for production of eco–friendly bricks. A succession plan is in the works with first-born son Godfrey Jr soon to graduate with a civil engineering degree from Canadian university Thunder Bay. Looking to the future, she wants Mount Carmel to grow further and be able to compete for jobs outside Malawi. There are even plans to diversify into agriculture and tourism but that’s a whole other story! The path to self-employment has been an extremely fulfilling one for Selina.
“I am able to balance my time between work and family. I like to make my house a home, I cook for my family and like gardening. I am very proud having created employment and contributed to my country in employment reduction. I have created a job for myself, my husband, my children and my permanent employees. During the season, my employee number increases due to casual laborers and the nature of the job. I feel very proud of this.”
Start with what you have, do what you know, and bootstrap what you can to avoid costs as much as possible in the beginning.
Set clear goals you want to reach and work towards them. Be passionate with what you are doing, believe in your idea, commit yourself to it. Nothing should stop you growing what you have started until you achieve your goals.
Any profits realized have to be ploughed back especially at the foundation stage in order to grow your business. Limit profit spending before the business grows stable and is able to withstand
Invest in knowledge and education to know and understand your business as well as
to be aware of the
Identify new opportunities, seize them as they arise, be quick to adapt by trying different approaches to fill in the gaps with
your ideas, while you make profits.
Selina Chipeta Mwenelupembe: Cementing a Reputation in Constructions story first appeared in Women Creating Wealth, A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from across Africa. You order or download a copy here.