Africa: Forging Strategic Alliances – Maureen Sumbwe’s Journey With the Graça Machel Trust

In Africa’s dynamic landscape of trade and agriculture, the partnership between the Graça Machel Trust’s Network of African Business Women (NABW) and the Zambian Federation of Associations of Women in Business (ZFAWIB) is making noticeable progress. Established in 1993, ZFAWIB has developed a formidable track record under the visionary leadership of its Chief Executive Officer, Maureen Sumbwe. Maureen’s dedication has helped many women acquire land for farming via land resettlement schemes, secure loans through collaborations with local banks, and access micro-insurance for essential needs like funeral cover.

Moreover, Maureen’s influence extends beyond ZFAWIB. She also serves as the chairperson of The COMESA Federation of Women in Business (COMFWB) board. In this role, she leads programmes integrating women into comprehensive trade and development activities across Eastern and Southern Africa. In this interview, we highlight how she contributes to tackling some of the challenges women in business face, fostering long-term capacity building, and providing mentorship and guidance on navigating digital barriers for women in their entrepreneurial journeys.

Question: How did you get involved with the Graça Machel Trust?

Maureen: I was with the Trust from the beginning. As one of the first networks established before the Trust was born, we formed the basis of the rest of the networks.

Question: What do you find most rewarding about your work?

Maureen: I come across so many success stories about what these women in business are doing, and they can trace it back to the work we do as a network. For me, that has been the most rewarding thing.

Question: Have you experienced any challenges in your work, and how do these affect your goals?

Maureen: The work is inherently challenging but fulfilling, as overcoming obstacles allows us to achieve rewarding outcomes. The main challenges arise from the barriers women face in accessing opportunities due to financial constraints, lack of connectivity, and inadequate digital tools. For instance, despite advancements like the Ministry of Small and Medium Enterprise Development’s call for funding applications, many women in rural areas struggle due to the digital divide – they don’t have smart phones for that would help them apply. These challenges are compounded at the country level due to the need to disseminate information effectively across vast rural areas. Another example is helping a cooperative complete government funding forms, which demonstrated the growing need for direct support and capacity building. Addressing these challenges head-on help will help solve immediate issues and foster long-term development.

Question: How do you think being a woman has advantaged you in your work?

Maureen: Being a woman allows me to empathise more deeply. I always emphasise the importance of capacity building. It is about more than just technical skills, like writing business plans or calculating profits. Women need to develop softer skills, like self-confidence and the ability to assert themselves. Understanding where they are coming from helps me guide them more effectively.

Question: How do you think being a woman has disadvantaged you? Are there any instances you can point out?

Maureen: It has not at all, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I often reflect on my upbringing; my father always instilled in me that being a girl wouldn’t limit what I could achieve. My mother, a very strong woman, always encouraged me to ‘do it.’ So, I have never really felt disadvantaged. I’m not saying discrimination doesn’t exist; it does. However, I have not gotten into spaces like the political arena, where many women feel very disadvantaged. Regarding challenges like access to finance, I’m afraid I have to disagree with the idea that banks would discriminate based on gender. We need to introspect and ask why something has not worked. It is not because I’m a woman; perhaps there’s something I’m not doing right. What should I do right to participate equally with everyone else?

Question: Could you describe your collaboration with the Trust and elaborate on the type of partnership you have?

Maureen: Our partnership with the Trust, initiated in 2017, has evolved beyond basic collaboration. Initially drawn together by shared goals in advocacy, capacity building, market access, and financial inclusion, our relationship with the Trust has grown to integrate their projects into our ongoing initiatives, enhancing the sustainability and impact of our efforts in Zambia. This partnership has involved various projects that have strengthened our operations and provided crucial insights, such as a survey on networks that informed our strategies. This revealed that our role with the Trust is not just as an implementing partner but also as a strategic partner. This dual role allows us to influence both the direction and execution of projects, thereby enhancing our collective impact across regions.

Question: What have you learned from working with the Trust?

Maureen: One key takeaway would be the importance of women working within networks. The value of networking is immense. Trust me, it’s not just about money. I’ve interacted with colleagues from other countries who immediately ask about funding, but for me, it’s different. I focus on connecting with as many people as possible, understanding their perspectives, and localising and implementing those ideas at home. It’s about learning and applying that knowledge locally. I can reach out to a GMT network sister in any country, even at midnight, to discuss an issue, and they’ll be there to help work through it with me. It’s about building those meaningful connections and having a supportive community across borders.