Alice MpholoBy Alice Mpholo|April 21, 2021|11 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

Shoot for the stars sister!

It is tough raising capital in Africa – it is even tougher if you are a woman. A company led by female entrepreneurs is trying to change this by putting women first.

It all started in the kitchen. Lelemba Phiri baked and sold cakes to pay for her studies on the way to becoming a chartered accountant – now she has made it to the boardroom she is poised to turn up the heat. Her goal – a better deal for the overlooked and underfunded woman entrepreneurs of Africa.

Raising capital is hard in itself and 1000% harder as a female raising capital outside of Silicon Valley. Combined with the fact that to globally women are overlooked and underfunded, we wanted to level the playing field and bridge a gap with access to funding. The lack of access to capital and the huge potential of the continent, makes Africa an obvious venture capital opportunity,” she says.

This opportunity led Phiri and a bunch of female entrepreneurs to found a company, in October 2019, by the name of Enygma Ventures. Its aim is to identify businesses that have existing track records and show the ability to scale. Phiri says they are looking for resilient female entrepreneurs who are passionate and hungry for growth.

The company invests in beauty, education, food and technology. Its portfolio of investments includes Black Mamba Chilli- an Eswatini business that works with small scale farmers to make hot sauce. The business was South African focused business, but has now broken into European and American markets.

“We had a company in Zambia that provided micro loans to other businesses and was also more inclined to fund female businesses. They grew with over 300% in five months since we invested with them. Pick investors that can support you beyond funding. As female shareholders we have gone through what these entrepreneurs go through,” says Phiri.

Struggle could be her middle name. Phiri was born and raised in Zambia in a big family. Her mother was an entrepreneur and an inspiration.

“She made it very normal to see women being entrepreneurs. She passed away when I was 16 years old and I had to contribute to paying towards my college fees and I became an entrepreneur myself,” she said. She started out making money, with a handful of coins, lending to her siblings.

“I was a loan shark,” she laughs as she tells how she used to hound her brothers and sisters.

“They had to give me a whole reason as to why they are borrowing money in the first place and bringing it back with interest, that was my first business.”

As she got older, Phiri baked and sold cakes to raise money for study. Soon, she was selling, rice, fish, chickens and later lingerie. Giving up was never an option ; life handed Phiri  lemons and she made a vat of lemonade.

Phiri obtained her qualification, as a chartered accountant, from the Zambia College followed by a BSc in Applied Accounting from Oxford Brookes University in the UK; followed by a Master’s in Development Finance from the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. She is working towards her PhD at GIBS.

Entrepreneurship might have been her bread-and-butter from an early age, but as she entered the world of start-up business she realised quickly this was not so for many women.

Women often run very small businesses; their access to finance is limited or sometimes they have little idea what to go for,  how to apply, or how speak the language of investors.

“I thought that my next step is definitely going to be in investing where I can support women entrepreneurs and that’s how I set up Africa Trust Group. The focus for ATG was on getting women entrepreneurs to invest or connecting them to capital,” says Phiri.

“After a year, I realised that we definitely need a bigger fund and that’s how we partnered with Enygma Ventures, they were looking to invest in Africa, it is a US-based fund, looking to invest in Africa and our investment thesis and theory were just so aligned that we formed our partnership so that ATG would focus on all of the operational elements and Enygma Ventures could be the funder.”

With a strong belief that every idea is viable, the company calls for entrepreneurs to apply to their start up school three times a year. Women can be awarded support in getting investor ready and shortlisted entrepreneurs are provided with scholarship programs run by a company called Startup Circles. This equips them with the  knowhow to snag investors.

A 2018/2019 Global Entrepreneurship report on Women’s entrepreneurship found that women in Sub-Saharan Africa had the highest rates of entrepreneurship activity with 21.8%. This region also has the highest rates of established business ownership with 11.3%.

Phiri says their passion for investing solely in women was because women-led startups are still lacking even with the current statistics because very few women are growing their businesses.

“This leads to less profit and the business itself being seen as less valuable to invest in. We want to close that gap between by providing access to capital and support to women.”

She said the ecosystem of investors in South Africa has been amazing as people shared information, gave advice and much needed support. She said asking for introductions and joining investor groups has been a great way for them to get their foot in the door.

Enygma was born in the worst of times – a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic. This could have closed the doors of many a new business, but the company learned to adjust.

Phiri said the new company aimed for eight investments, when they first started, but ended up with 10, surpassing their own expectations. She said being efficient and quick to change how they conduct business kept them going.

“This is really how our business was born, through challenges. We had all these strategies in 2019 for our clients, by March they were out the window. We had to go back to the drawing board but the change was good,” she said candidly, “I think women shine the most when there is a crisis, actually and so the timing couldn’t be better for investing in women because naturally women are problem solvers and so we are seeing so many interesting business models coming up and it might be that the model comes out from a woman’s need to try and solve something that is happening in her community but then you see that thing has got potential for global use and so how do we support them to just package this better and think bigger?”.

“I am super excited even for the next five years because even the ones that might have been in one line of business, when the pandemic hit some of the pivots have been phenomenal – like… how did you even think about this type of pivot?”

It certainly looks like the future will continue to be good to them with plans to expand in Malawi and Tanzania. They have exciting new entrepreneurs that have applied for investment all across the SADC region. Phiri said the world is shifting in favour of entrepreneurs and it is crucial that they stay in the game. According to her, it is important to stay in entrepreneurship because the government cannot solve all the problems and entrepreneurs are needed to come with solutions. Reaching out to people and getting support and feedback is how one can grow themselves and be limitless. She encouraged people to “think big. Do not limit yourself geographically. Start locally and grow globally. Entrepreneurship is a Journey. Enjoy the journey as you pursue the dream.”

Her advice? Learn, adjust and adapt.

Globally women are overlooked and underfunded, we wanted to level the playing field