Monday, 13 November 2017

Never say 'never' Elizabeth Swai

It’s hard to believe sitting across from this woman in her office, as she’s dishing orders giving clear instructions. That she is versed with the inns & outs of a charcoal stove like few Tanzanian women are. In a day she can bake up to 300 bun loaves, in our local ‘sufuria’ using a charcoal stove! 

Elizabeth Swai in her office at AKM Glitters HQ in Sinza A, Dar es Salaam
This was a long time ago, Elizabeth Swai-50 today is a notable business woman.  The Managing Director and majority shareholder of AKM Glitters Ltd, a company she founded back in 2006. Now with 70 full time employees, working as suppliers of organic poultry products & chicken feed in over 20 regions of Tanzania.

Her journey wasn’t paved with sunshine or roses, indeed she’s had her share of storms & thorns. Join me as we unveil the story of this local S/hero. 

Early Years…

She was baking those bread buns back in the mid 80’s, as a means to pay her school fees for high school at Zanaki Secondary School in Dar es Salaam. She baked them during the school holidays. By the time Elizabeth was in high school, she already had tested her muscle as an entrepreneur, working as a gardener and later as a vendor selling khanga’s and the like. 

Flashbacks of Elizabeth Swai in her career
She recalls her first employment in a nonchalant tone, eyes heavy with emotion, a reduced tempo to her voice with eyes frequently looking down. “I don’t why my mom did that but uhmn…I was hired to clean but it wasn’t normal cleaning.  For me it was like a punishment but now I realise it was a God given gift. She gave me a room like this one (she’s showing me her office about 4 m square) she was the secretary. 

That room was full  of files since the 1940s, 30’s, she told me to sort all of them they reached the ceiling! The room wasn’t opened by the British for many years, so it was full of terrible dust there was scorpions and whatever filthy pest you could think of.  So that was my first employment…I was paid 750 TSHS.”  Elizabeth recalls.

She opened her first bank account with that money, she was just 13. Why she deems the job a God given gift, despite her mother being chastised (though too late as Elizabeth had already finished the job) See Elizabeth found information in those filthy files, knowledge of which later helped gain her first notable employment, at the UNHCR offices in Kigoma.

“I used to lock myself in those things, I was reading a lot. I got a lot of things out of there, even my filing skills came out of that assignment. I also learned how to persevere, I would enter clean and come out as black as charcoal…”

At just two months old Eliza was given to her grandmother in Mbeya, by the time she was ready for primary school. She was returned to her mother only to be sent to boarding school for the rest of her childhood. It’s no wonder she ended up attracting a husband just off high school, who would abuse her.  For growing up she wasn’t shown the examples of a healthy home.

Overcoming an Abusive Marriage

“I was married, my husband he was very controlling, He didn’t want me to work but I got into a secret partnership with my neighbour rest her soul in peace…At some point I was keeping 2500 broiler chickens. In the morning when he went off to work, I would follow soon after, going to feed my chickens…” Elizabeth 

By the mid 80’s Eliza had moved from the poultry business and was now heading a secretary bureau. “Soon as I collected enough profit I sold off the chickens. With it I bought things like a printer, typewriter. I started training myself on secretarial duties. I got an old computer we were using ‘worldstar and multimeet’ back then. I opened my first secretarial bureau office frame in 1985. Later I hired somebody to hold the fort and I started walking to offices…”

She was looking for a job at the offices in the city of Dar es Salaam, when she stumbled on an ad in the newspapers, for a secretarial post in the UN offices. It took her a long minute to find out, the exact office in the UN that was offering the job. Learning it was the UNHCR offices, she arrived and was greeted by a lady named Hellen who asked her if she had a certificate as a Secretary.

To which she replied no, though she emphasised that she had been reading the ‘pitman’ books, practising typing on a typewriter and was versed in using the computer and work registry. She added that she didn’t want any favours and could prove herself. Helen then told her that already they had tested over 130 candidates and was she willing to take the test  right then. Eliza responded yes.

“They gave me a computer it had multimeet…so it was very easy for me. They gave me comprehension I think, also a book they told me to type a few pages with a timer. I did that in record time. They went and checked spelling mistakes as well my organisation of work…I also had an oral examination”

It was flashbacks from that dredged room filled with files, that allowed her to know exactly how to draft her assignment. After they went through her results she was called to see the ‘big boss’ as she recalls. A Ghanian man, he asked her why she wanted this post which would take her to Kigoma. She replied that she wanted to get away from her marriage, he asked her if her husband would approve her getting the job. She replied it didn’t matter that she would go anyway.

The good news is she got the job and was given two days to travel to Kigoma. Unfortunately Andrew, her husband’s best friend also worked at this office. He got wind of the news and told Eliza’s husband. 

“That night was terrible I was beaten, I told him ‘do whatever you want to do but I am leaving. And I am not leaving alone I’m leaving with my baby…’ The second day I sold my secretarial bureau…”

Working for the UN…

She wasn’t able to take her baby daughter when she packed her bags and left for Kigoma, though she went back for her in a few weeks time. Later her husband took her to court this followed her divorce and eventually she won the custody battle. That baby daughter today is Maria A. Himud a lawyer & one of the three partners in AKM Glitters Ltd.

Entering the offices at Kigoma, she was immediately engrossed in a big workload. Servicing six departments, having to create daily situation reports. She recalls leaving the office at midnight as a norm. Within three months she was given a promotion, however in order to activate it, she had to have a Secretarial Certificate.

“I was talking to this guy he’s now a very good friend of mine, currently in Zimbabwe. He was going on leave, he asked me ‘Elizabeth what should I bring you’, I said nothing. He said ‘All the girls in the office are telling me perfumes… & you’re telling me nothing?!” I said what matters is your thought count not what you bring. So he said  ‘Ok, I’ll bring you something’.”

The guy is Eddie Rowe, he was one of her colleagues at the time, through HR he had gotten wind, that Elizabeth lacked a secretarial certificate. On his leave in the US, he enrolled Eliza at Thompson University for a long distance certificate program. Elizabeth was overjoyed when he called her telling her he’s paid for the full course, plus shipping of studying materials. So in turn she finished the course in one year instead of the designated two, aptly activating her promotion.

This trend of working hard and the fates opening doors for Eliza, continued in her 18year + career inside the UN. Later on whilst in Kigoma offices at UNHCR, two other staff members a gentleman and a lady sponsored her to get an Accounting Certificate & a  Human Resources Diploma respectively. She paid for her own tertiary education at UNISA and got her degree in Development Studies. 

Battling Cancer

Sadly in 1989 she was diagnosed with stage 3 ‘throat cancer’. “I don’t know how I survived because most of stage three cancer patients do not survive, Dr Ngoma here gave me 90 days…” 

Her treatment under Dr Twalib Ngoma at Mwenge, saw her in hospital for six months before she was transferred to the United Kingdom. She is grateful her habit of prudent saving pulled her through this difficult time, as insurance wasn’t enough to cater to her expenses.

In between these treatment she was back at work, in fact before she went for three more months of chemo in the UK. She was involved in organising a big meeting that saw a delegation of 12 different heads of UN organisations, as well ministers & parliament members in Kigoma. Her efforts here caught the attention of the representative in Tanzania of the World Food Program (WFP) Irene Lacy.  Irene later contacted her boss Jean Francois Durieux while she was in the UK,   letting him know she’d like Elizabeth to come work for her.  

So it fared whilst she was still recovering from chemo in the UK, she got a call from Irene Lacy letting her know that she can come work for WFP. Where she would be getting a bump in her pay grade from Grade 5 Stage 5, which she currently was, to Grade 6 Stage 7.  Elizabeth was overjoyed and the rest as they say is history. 

The jump to AKM Glitters Ltd

Among the employees of AKM, an Agriculture Officer
ready with supplies to go to mother units in
the regions for the Kubroiler franchises of AKM
Elizabeth’s jump into running her own company was done with deliberation & research,  her passion for chicken farming gained from her days of running a ‘banda’  of broilers in the 80’s.  Had since evolved with the knowledge she had gained working  in the UN on management & agri farming opportunities, in 2006 she registered AKM Glitters Co. Ltd

The company today that has three partners including herself, her daughter and Mr Placid Athamas Kauzeni. AKM Glitters Is 11 years old, not a small feat for an SME, the journey hasn’t been easy at some point, Elizabeth had to mortgage her own home. In time AKM managed to secured some donor funding, currently having support from the World Poultry Foundation.

AKM Glitters today is on the front seat of chicken farming in Tanzania, currently being the only certified Kuroiler chicken farm in Tanzania. “We got our certification from the government, we bring our eggs directly from India.”  Elizabeth

Among the staff of AKM Glitters Ltd
Kuroiler is a hybrid breed of chicken developed in India, derived from crossing either coloured broiler males with Rhode Island Red females, or, White Leghorn males crossed with female Rhode Island Reds.-source wikipedia. This breed which serves both as a meat & eggs supplier is a type of our ‘kuku wa kienyeji’ , that is better resistant to diseases with a yield of around 150 eggs per year. It’s already gained rave success in Ethiopia & Uganda and now AKM looks to pioneer this success in Tanzania.

At the end of August this year AKM Glitters Co Ltd launched a program to scale up their Kuroiler farming in Tanzania, by creating a credit facility for farmers in 20 regions in Tanzania. 

 “We’ve established your own Microfinance credit facility department, setting aside about 200, 000 USD which we loan as supplies not cash. We have a target of creating 480 franchises of Kuroiler farms all over Tanzania in 4 years. How this works is we supply farmers (has to be a woman or if owned by a male then the manager is female). With poultry supplies, they in turn put up a security of 500 USD-1,000 USD. 

Then on a monthly basis we supply them with month old chicks, they raise them for four weeks. Where we provide them with free veterinary services, from doctors who get their medical supplies through our partners ‘Msami Veternary Services’. 

To agriculture extension officers, currently we have employed 20 Veterinary doctors and 20 Agriculture extension officers. They provide training to the farmers, later they also provide awareness to the final consumers who are mostly small scale farmers. On the benefits of the Kuroiler chickens like their reduced mortality risk as they get them from 2 months old…” Elizabeth

Giving Back...

Elizabeth’s passion for empowering women didn’t begin with this program. She is also the founder member of AWAB-African Women in Agribusiness Network in Tanzania, that was registered in 2015 with funds from their own pockets, together with the trustees Caroline Mutanamirwa & Mkunde Senyagwa. 

Elizabeth noticed in growing her own business the challenges of financial inclusion, compliance and marketing that go hand in hand with running an agribusiness.  She thought to mentor and learn further through unity on how to overcome these challenges.

In AWAB she encourages running an inclusive business model, as in her own which has seen AKM working with companies like USOMI Ltd & Vodacom.  She also encourages fellow women ‘Agri-preneurs’ to be friendly with the Government  “With this new government you can even knock on the Minsters door and he will look at you…”

“There’s a lot of fraud, copycats, over sabotaging that can meet your business. So it may be cumbersome & expensive to meet these compliance standards of the government or other international bodies. But by investing in say financial manuals, human resource manuals, administrative manuals, risk management logs etc you are protecting your business in the long run allowing it to grow…”

Elizabeth strongly believes in meeting compliance standards, sharing with me how in preparing to get the Kubroiler hatches. AKM by digging a well to provide water for the chicks. Went further and took a sample of the water back to India. They found deficits in the water,  taking the results to a chemist. They now have filter and everyday the water is checked for quality.  Aplty AKM has an ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) and is working to get better grades.

Elizabeth in raising women entrepreneurs all over Tanzania, through AKM’s kubroiler franchise program. She is living proof of the saying ‘be the change you want to see’.

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