Her CV is intimidating. Sherifah Tumusiime is the co-founder of Zimba Women, a Ugandan-based enterprise that uses technology to equip young women and girls with skills requisite for running their businesses. In 2015, she was inaugurated as a YALI Fellow, an exceptional leadership program initiated by former U.S president Barack Obama to foster leadership training among young African leaders on the world stage. She is the founder of Uganda’s first online babystore. And among others, she is a comp science grad from Uganda’s historical and most prestigious university, Makerere.
While she expressed discomfort toward the label “social enterprise," and particularly social tech because she felt it was limiting, she was generous enough to share with us her experience in the trenches. We had the opportunity of picking her brain on social tech entrepreneurship in Uganda, and sub-Saharan Africa at large.
The fledgling Zimba Women has big plans. It has trained over 250 women since its inception in 2014, 60 of which are actively running their own businesses. Zimba Women recognised a significant void in the ecosystem that wasn’t inclusive of women and girls' participation. Progress on gender equity is somewhat feeble and lacks the ambition the media has conditioned us to expect. The first steps are what are the most important: a foundation that is built on solid rock. One that can withstand difficult phases and can take on any form of tribulation without sinking.
“Social tech ecosystems,” she says, “just like any other ecosystem, should be self-servicing.” For example, the Madhvani sugar factory that opened shop in Eastern Uganda decades ago, by virtue of having a conveyor belt and machinery to breakdown molasses, set the pace for development of ancillary services and infrastructure like schools, hospitals, airstrip, among others. The unseen factor at play is the intensity of capital and labor.
Sherry seems to suggest that social impact is just something you can’t control, at least implicitly, without developing the supporting structures. This directly influences the almost cliched call of solving problems, and in this case not first world problems.
For her the most pressing problems to deal with are inclusion and access; to markets, education, good governance. But she is skeptical on the role of the government as the master of fate for her people. “Taking on the government is like putting a band aid to a bleeding artery. There is only so much it can do.” She asserts. She remains optimistic of the initiatives to extend services akin to public goods that should otherwise have been rendered by the government. She hopes that maybe, and just maybe, these little initiatives can stoke a fire that would later on spread wildly.
History has showed us the succeeding state of affairs especially when governments (African governments) receive alms for development (with exclusion of emergency and debt relief), the script usually involves newly acquired posh apartments in Europe and flashy brand new jeeps. This dilemma is sucked up in an infinite loop only getting close to answers when tough speaking commissions of inquiry are instituted, but yet, only getting parabolic; so close but never offering conclusive findings or prescription of punitive measures to the indicted.
“However, government is intrinsically preeminent,” she quips, with a look resigned to fate. The concerns Sherry raises about the rot in government coffers are genuine, but she still believes in the long term commitment to good governance, mitigation of abuse of tyranny and iniquities of evil men, hence fostering projects of great social impact. In the short term she calls for a mixup of strategies from the more frugal and astute private sector. “The Tony Elumelu Foundation has showed us that it is possible,” she says. Tony Elumelu is a Nigerian billionaire who is giving back to society, $100 million to support entrepreneurship among young Africans.
She was also quick to mention a strategic, and perhaps philanthropic move, by James Mwangi, the chairman of Equity Bank Group Kenya. He is funding talented and underprivileged Kenyans to join leading schools in the West, upon whose graduation they’d return home and give back to their communities. This is almost in the same spirit as the Tom Mboya Foundation, named after Kenya’s erstwhile vice president, which funds air travel tickets for young Kenyans going to study abroad.
The skills they get, and the experiences they have, foment a chain ripple effect of redeeming the home countries when they return. That’s where the core element of social impact lies.
She says if there are several such programs through the year, the ecosystem would self-service with such fluidity that pressing societal problems would be tackled one by one by the young people, who are one of the biggest resources the continent has. Yet, if not mentored and provided with meaningful opportunities, could potentially be the greatest source of anarchy and undoing meted on the continent.
When asked about fundamental issues holding young Africans back, from social tech enterprises mostly, she was quick to refer us to a study carried out not so long ago: the East Africa Youth Survey Report, published by the Aga Khan Foundation in the first half of 2016, which contained dumbfounding revelations about the values, concerns, attitudes and aspirations of a predominantly young populace in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda, about 80% of the population being less than 35 years.
The study reveals that while youth are suffering from and concerned about unemployment, they are willing to be part of the solution by creating jobs through entrepreneurship. The study also reveals that while the youth hold positive values, they believe political participation is a critical civic duty.
However, between 40% of the respondents would only vote for a candidate for political office if they received a bribe. With the exception of Rwanda, there is a veritable crisis of integrity among East African youth. For example, over 50-58% of the youth in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania believed it did not matter how one made money as long as one did not end up in jail. Only 21% of Rwandan youth held the same view. Similarly, only 10% of Rwandan youth said they would take or give a bribe, compared to 35-44 % in the other three countries.
Overall, East African youth are positive and optimistic about the future and are confident that it will be more prosperous, offering more jobs and better access to health and education. However, with the exception of Rwanda, youth in Kenya and Uganda believe their societies will only become more corrupt and poorer in values and ethics, and that youth will engage in substance abuse.
While the findings may seem contradictory – hopeful and depressing – there is an opportunity to focus on developing and channeling strongly held, positive values of faith, family, hard work and entrepreneurship. The strongly held values and the spirit of enterprise, along with impressive GDP growth, must be leveraged to address the challenge of unemployment, especially among university-educated youth.
In short, Sherry saw the East African region as the ultimate showdown of making it against all odds. Whether through hard work (underhandedness and unscrupulousness inclusive), or through sheer chance and good old traditional luck, survival was second nature. And it is not like there are incentives for that.
What is happening in East Africa is basically what political scientists have called “personal anarchy,” where one’s moral decisions are mostly based on their impact on oneself. For example, why is there no perceived benefit to an East African youth to behaving in a way that strengthens civil society? Whatever the reasons, clearly if social good is not at the top of your mind, or something you consider routinely in your daily decisions, it seems unlikely to provide a fertile ground for social tech.
This article is republished with permission from Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute, conducting a study of social tech ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa, commissioned by three UK foundations: Comic Relief, Nominettrust and Indigo Trust.