“I borrowed $1 from my brother to start my business”
My journey of working with youth entrepreneurs started in 2005, with the incredible young women from Camfed’s alumnae network, Cama. I’ve written about that first meeting and their ambitious hopes. It’s time I told you what happened next.
I vividly remember Maria’s story, because her success teaches us a lot about entrepreneurship and what is needed. Maria borrowed $1 from her brother to buy a quarter of a kilo of flour, oil, and sugar to make doughnuts. It’s a reminder of the acute lack of access to capital for young people. Even the $1, she had to borrow and didn’t have for herself. But it also shows that it’s possible to build something up from virtually nothing.
It took Maria three days to sell the doughnuts, and she got her $1 back. She bought more flour, and sold the doughnuts more quickly. After a few weeks, she was selling several kilos of doughnuts per week, and buying flour in 25kg bags. She had bought food for her family, and some new clothes for herself. She was very proud of what she had already achieved and optimistic about what she could do next.
We were getting back together with Cama members, a few months after that first meeting. How was everyone getting on? Had they been able to start businesses as they had hoped?
I’ll admit that before that meeting, I was feeling a rare drop in optimism. I was shaken the week before by the sudden death of my wonderful Zimbabwean colleague Judith, and we had been due to travel together to Tanzania for this meeting.
Judith was a bright and energetic newly qualified teacher who in 1994 had found herself the headteacher of a rural school in which girls were outnumbered six to one. She had worked hand in hand with Ann Cotton as the driving force behind Camfed in Zimbabwe, and was now supporting me to set up Camfed in Tanzania. Judith was a fearsome and inspirational advocate for girls. In one landmark meeting early on in Camfed’s work in Tanzania, teachers had been making excuses about not having bought school uniforms for the selected girls, well in to the first term. Judith refused to move on, and the dynamic in the room suddenly shifted. Teachers, headteachers and education officers stood up – literally – and demanded accountability from their colleagues, or showed genuine remorse for the wrong-doing. It was a powerful moment as everyone realised that this was serious, these were the very poorest girls, and we were united in wanting to see them get an education. There was no excuse and the schools had to get their act together. Uncompromising accountability to the girls is the bedrock of Camfed’s programme and a great source of pride for community members as they rally behind this principle.
So Judith was setting the tone for Camfed Tanzania, and I was learning everything I could from her. We worked hard, and we laughed and shared stories. We were just getting started, and then she died of AIDS. It was totally unexpected and I was overcome with the enormity of the challenge. If she, such an exceptionally strong, empowered young woman, had died of AIDS, then what hope was there for young rural girls, pressed by poverty and social expectation? Wasn’t the mountain just too high to climb? It was painful reinterpreting our conversations and having missed the clues. Like this song that she asked me to find her a copy of, playing everywhere in Tanzania at that time. “Bye everyone”, he sings, as he lies dying of AIDS, regretting his life. That was why I wanted to work for Camfed in the first place, having previously worked in HIV prevention and found most programmes ignorant and unresponsive to the reality of girls’ lives.
For just a moment I lost my nerve and wondered whether there was any point. But as Lydia and I entered the room, we could feel it. It was that electric tingle again, and even stronger than when we had last met. The young women talked about the little businesses they had started. Remember their starting point - ‘no money for soap’. From zero, they were starting to earn $50 a month, or even $80, or $100. It was so clearly exhilarating for them, to be able to contribute to their families for the first time, to have some control over their own money. To be seen and valued as someone who could make a contribution, to have a realistic hope at last of financial independence. Bearing in mind that the parents of girls being selected for support from Camfed for their schooling were not earning this much. Already these young women had a reasonable chance of being able to support themselves and pay for their children’s education.
Maria told us about her doughnuts. Some young women had realised that agriculture – which they had shunned because they were secondary school graduates and didn’t want to be stuck in the subsistence farming of their illiterate parents – could have real potential if they did it purposefully and intelligently. Some had started selling street food. Others were braiding hair. One little group (who went on to have very successful businesses later on) pretended to have a fully functioning hair salon. Nobody believed it, but nothing needed to be said. They realised that the others were getting somewhere by starting very small and doing something real.
So obviously these young women were not giving up, not at all. They were full of hope for the future, and looking expectantly at us. It was a great meeting and Lydia and I reflected afterwards. How little these young women had needed to get started – just encouragement and inspiration from their peers. How wonderful that this could be easily made accessible to every young person in Tanzania. But how little they needed to get started! How tragic that so many young people around the country lacked even this small input and encouragement, and were stuck in poverty.