By Aditi Maheshwari
Lelemba Phiri a Zambian-born business owner, an award-winning educator, writer, keynote speaker and gender-lens investor is flexible and open enough to enter unchartered territories. Her belief in herself encourages her to take the leap of faith in business and in life.
“When I am clear on the ‘what’, I simply take the leap. I jump in with lots of intention and clarity on where I eventually want to land, never being too perturbed about exactly ‘how’ it is all going to happen,” says Phiri
She had entrepreneurial skills from a young age and acumen for wealth. Being a bright learner with high education, she proved that a dedicated lady can offer more than the stereotype expectations and thus breaking the norms can lead the way where it matters most. Her qualification preferences were based on her desire to understand numbers better and enable herself to multiply her income streams thereby.
However, the journey had its roller-coaster experiences, she experienced a period where she and her husband had no job while having the responsibility of their two kids in hand and the savings left over were fairly exhausted.
“The times we ran out of money were definitely challenging,” Phiri says, remembering the time shortly after the move to Cape Town, South Africa. “These moments test you to the brink of your faith and wits.”
Soon thereafter her husband got employed, she got employed as well, and her life got balanced and the forward momentum began.
She progressed from being an accountant at an oilfield services company – Schlumberger to becoming the regional asset manager for eight of its African markets. Yet she felt there was more to life and she wanted to explore a meaningful life so she resigned from there.
Phiri embarked on her journey to open up the Africa Trust Academy, providing financial education training to clients.
She then pursued her Master’s Degree in Development Finance with distinction from the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business.
She has extensive work experience in private, public and government organizations at strategic and executive levels holding various capacities like managing director, head marketing, people development and finance functions in multi-nationals, etc. She has also received extensive personal and business development training from various world-renowned experts such as Dr John Demartini and Roger Hamilton.
Soon she got associated as a consultant with Zoona, and provided the business with the requisite exposure in brand awareness; strong team development and a laser focus on customer experience. Her contributions were remarkable, leading the company to provide her with more responsibilities. In her seven years at Zoona, the company increased its agents from 70 to over 3, 500, resulting in more than 5,000 indirect jobs. She drove the expansion into Malawi and received that market as part of her responsibilities along with Zambia. Phiri’s acumen got her involved in every fundraising activity the company undertook, paving her way as the fund manager and investor a reality.
“As I was heading big parts of the organisation, I often had to lead investor conversations, taking possible funders on field tours, explaining the business and its growth potential,” Phiri says.
As part of the C-suite executive team and a shareholder at Zoona, Lelemba was a key part of successfully growing the business from one operating market to three, raising over $25m in financing and scaling of their agent network that provides entrepreneurship opportunities to women and youth from poor communities, which created over 5000 jobs across Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.
In 2018 she made a tough call and left her job as a chief marketing officer of Zoona. She knew she had made significant contributions to Zoona and now another facet needs to be conquered, so she started the Africa Trust Group (ATG). The business offers early-stage gender-lens funding, entrepreneur and enterprise development, access to markets and trade facilitation as well as business research and support services.
She had the courage and honesty to lead transparently. At the end of 2018, she announced the launch of ATG’s gender-lens investment fund at a regional SADC development finance conference. The fund had no committed investors, yet, which led her to start her fundraising roadshow. Various proposal and pitches made by her finally landed a successful meeting in May 2019 between Sarah and Jacob Dusek. The two companies joined forces and launched an R100 million ($5.7 million) venture capital fund to invest into women-owned or – led businesses that can grow and be scaled.
Phiri credits her networks for being instrumental in her growth journey. She diligently protects and appreciates this asset and advises other entrepreneurs to build good business relationships.
Phiri says: “You have no idea how small the world is. Maintain those business relationships. Good goodbyes create more scope for a bigger support system for you in the future.”
Her credentials include the following:
Lelemba was the financial expert TV presenter for SABC 3’s lifestyle magazine show“The Power Within”. She is also the author of an e-book entitled ‘Financial Fitness in Five Workouts’. She has been featured in several media including CNBC Africa, the Oprah magazine, Destiny Magazine, Cosmopolitan magazine, the New York-based Diaspora Voice Talk Show, Radio France, Zambia Daily Mail and South Africa FM.
- 2017: Named 50 Change-makers Advancing Gender Equality in South Africa
- 2017: Awarded global top 5 most influential marketers by World Marketing Congress
- 2016: Named Cordes Fellow for 50 most promising social entrepreneurs globally
- 2015: Zambian Woman of the Year – Rising Star Award
- 2014: Awarded one of Africa’s Most Influential Women in business and government by CEO Magazine.
- 2012: Shoprite Woman of the Year Nominee
- 2010: Rising Star Award for 2010 at the Mwape Peer Awards in Washington
DC in recognition of her contribution towards financial education in the community.
Women are powering the economies but we need to act as their support system rather than pulling them back. Use your mind for thinking, not simply as a warehouse of facts. Fight mind freezing traditional patterns. Challenge the status quo and add value to people, to things and yourself in the process. Grow the “Women-Are-Important” Attitude.