She has been a television presenter, a university lecturer, a public sector and corporate key executive as well as an author and recipient of prestigious awards like the Zambian Woman of the Year Award in 2015, but it is with her gender-lens angel investment fund, that Lelemba Phiri believes she can make the biggest impact on the continent she loves.
Last year, Lelemba Phiri took time off work to travel. While touring in France, she was struck by how fortunate she was to be an educated, black African woman under 40, from an ordinary family, with plenty of work experience but no need to work at that point in her life.
“Don’t get me wrong: sheer luck didn’t bring me to this point,” says the Zambian-born mother of two and qualified chartered accountant. “I worked hard to get here, but I had many angels on my journey, beginning with my parents.”
Her moment of truth in France got her thinking about how she could use her resources to be an angel for other African women and this set the ball in motion for her journey towards angel investment.
It resulted in her founding the Africa Trust Fund (AFT), a gender-lens angel investment fund aimed at investing in both female entrepreneurs as well their businesses in December 2018, opening doors to finance and support for them, and giving them business tools as well as access to markets.
“Across the world, we see a lag in the participation of women in economic activity and this is more pronounced in Africa. We understand that women in Africa also have cultural and social barriers around access to finance, technology and education.” Lelemba tells of the research she did before starting AFT, and how she discovered that while financing was an issue for some women, others expressed the need for more support, personal and leadership development and advice on how to navigate hostile and repressive social and cultural business environments.
“We knew that finance was a boy’s club but we also learnt other lessons about women’s access to growth capital,” she says. These include the difference in how men and women pitch their business ideas - with traditional pitching styles favouring more typically masculine approaches, which can be problematic in cultures where women are expected to be subservient. Women also often don’t have collateral for loan financing, for instance in societies where husbands usually hold land titles.
While she is not blind to the problems on the continent, she does believe that Africa could be the next superpower and that there is opportunity in adversity. Women have a vital role to play in this economic future, but she believes individuals, corporations and government have to work together more deliberately to push for greater gender equality.
She credits her studies at the UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) with showing her how to be more effective in the world of development finance and inclusive economic growth which paved the way for her to launch AFT. She completed her Master’s Degree in Development Finance — one of the few degrees on the continent offering this specialisation — in 2013 and says it not only shaped her thinking but helped her right away in her position as an executive for start-up Zoona, a financial technology company that strives to bring financial inclusion to the underserved in Africa.
“Studying at the UCT GSB was definitely a stepping stone to help me get to where I wanted to be professionally,” she says. “I got so much more from the school than I initially expected, especially in terms of the connections and how my networks expanded. The opportunities that were created for me were beyond anything I could have imagined.”
Even though she has already achieved much, the 38-year-old entrepreneur, educator and angel investor still wants to do much more. “I want to make more of a contribution towards really advancing African women in leadership, equality and empowering women on the continent. It is a mammoth task but I am really positive and excited about the future of Africa.”
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