Tired of the band-aid approach to solving the problems African youth face, 27-year-old Kitawa Wemo launched MAMA Ventures in May 2016. She tells Christine Odeph how she was driven by the strong desire to find active solutions for women and girls
I got an internship at a multinational donor agency at a WASH project in Kajiado. During this internship, I interacted with the Maasai and I was challenged to think outside my comfort box and do more. I felt a hunger to empower communities — especially the youth — in a more practical and sustainable way.
I designed an Entrepreneurship Toolkit in 2015 — focused on business, leadership and life skills and took the risk to jump into the harsh business ecosystem. I tied this tool kit’s module to the real conversations that I’d had with the communities on the impact of working from the grassroots up — for the people, by the people and with the people.
With the exception of my experience in Kajiado, the idea of MAMA was a challenge. I wanted a solution that did not rely on hand-outs but focused on the strength and resilience that I observed among Kenyans, especially those from underprivileged communities.
Information for my initial research was in plenty, especially online. However, I had to filter out the facts from the assumptions. I visited the library to get more resources and spoke to entrepreneurs, both locally and globally, to get a 360-centric view of business.
The light bulb moment came after stumbling upon Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank business model. It was then that I truly realised that my idea was no longer a pipe dream. I approached Girl Aid Foundation to begin applying and testing the Toolkit’s impact. It was a successful failure as I realised that I needed to make my model easy to adapt and relatable.
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Starting a business was not the first time I had defied the norm. Back in university, I had to make an honest and tough decision to switch my major from Medicine to Public Health. This was my second strike and at the beginning it was tough, especially for my family to understand why I was making that decision.
My mother and siblings have been supportive through the pressures. I have lost friends along the way as I had to prioritise the business while sacrificing time and money. My circle has simultaneously shrunk immensely and grown in terms of value and quality.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT
Being a young woman, a person the business community would consider unimportant, I had to think on my feet. After understanding my product, I identified my market and started working conservatively with groups of young people.
As a founder, it was important to realise that MAMA was not a personal money machine, but a channel to empower and equip the weak. This model has allowed us to grow a slice of market that the ‘big fish’ would otherwise fail to notice because they are seen as insignificant and a liability.
RUNNING A START UP:
I have four full-time team members and 10 curators across the community projects we run as project leads. I split my day into three 8-hour pockets of productivity; 8 hours of rest, relaxation and sleep, 8 hours of work in two-hour sprints, mixed with 8 hours of social time and logistics. This allows me to avoid burnout – which was a recurrent characteristic in my early months of setup.
My greatest challenge at the beginning was getting things done while staying cordial. I ended up picking up a lot of slack from the team for fear of confrontation. This was a classic case of one step forward and three steps back. When I realised that we were drifting away from the company’s goal, I had to take a stance and act.
The business challenges are both generational and ethical. As a millennial, one is almost always labelled as incompetent. This is detrimental as most organisations and companies are led by the people with this opinion, straining any hopes of growing beyond the early adopters of the business.
By offering to mentor and guide young founders, we will bridge the generational management gap that exists.
Young businesses get frustrated when people in government agencies ask for bribes to support growth or open doors for growth.
A lot of the funds advertised by the government are also in a sense inaccessible to the youth, causing businesses hit the plateau phase at a very early stage.
This is only the beginning phase for the business and my worry is towards the people who work at MAMA. The cost of living is very high and it is in my interests to support them as they pursue their own personal goals. As the business owner, I need to ensure that we maintain a healthy turnover to grow with them.
WHERE I AM NOW:
We are focused on digitising the toolkit’s curriculum as an innovation that will encompass all our beneficiaries under one umbrella to allow us to grow easily with minimum human capital. We are also seeking to grow to include more counties and special groups.
We started with what many would consider as nothing and leveraged on our skills and talents as a team to achieve and meet business milestones. As a young business, we find it important to automate at an early stage to allow us to easily on-board staff who would seamlessly plug in to our existing resources from anywhere in the world.
Entrepreneurship is a journey that needs discipline, patience and tenacity as the corner pillars that support the business foundation and growth plan. Being in business has taught me to be a good planner, almost obsessive.
I am better at managing time and people. It is important to keep breathing, and see the opportunity in the challenges and adversity. I always say: it takes falling to see just how high you can go.