Features

School dropout turns entrepreneur

NKOLE NKOLE, Lusaka
NJAVWA Mutambo can easily be referred to as an accidental entrepreneur but as is true to life, many things that happen by accident have the potential to later surprise.
Not too long ago, he dropped out of school in 11th grade but just last year, he had the privilege to travel to Guangzhou, China under the tutelage of co-founder and executive chairman of the Alibaba Group, Jack Ma.
Njavwa was born in 1995 and attended a number of primary schools in Lusaka before attending Chilenje Basic School for his junior secondary years and David Kaunda High School for his senior secondary years.
He was an afternoon pupil at Chilenje Basic School because, he says, his grades were appalling. But they also did not improve in senior secondary school at David Kaunda, where he was an afternoon pupil.
“Just to show my parents that I’m a very consistent person, I went to David Kaunda in APU as well,” he says wryly.
He didn’t find secondary school engaging, which he somehow links to his background of private schooling.
Being at a government school proved challenging for him. Discouraged by the high number of classmates he had, it seemed he needed to do something extraordinary simply to get noticed.
Instead, he found himself exploring minor entrepreneurial pursuits and as such, wasn’t taken very seriously nor did he take himself seriously.
He sold phones and conducted other side deals and although he was not conscious of it then, it was really the academic practice as opposed to the theory that he was missing.
By grade 11, Njavwa had quit school and started business. His parents were unaware that he was skipping class and innocently continued paying his school fees.
“As an APU student, I was going to school when my friends were returning from class and so it was so easy to camp out at their houses. I can count how many days I went to school in Grade 11,” he shares.
In the third term of Grade 12, he was hardly prepared for his school-leaving examinations but gave it a go anyway.
Other than English, he had unsatisfactory results in all the subjects he sat for.
When he was 18, he moved out of his parents’ house and started living in Libala, a time he describes as the roughest in his life as he transitioned from being taken care of to taking care of himself.
He worked for two months at a supermarket in Kabwata and then started a business of selling popcorn.
He personally operated his popcorn machine for six months and overall sold popcorn for at least a year.
He raises his shirt to expose his wrists that still bear the scars he acquired from selling the popcorn because he was unskilled in popcorn preparation.
When he finished school at 17 in 2012, he wasn’t certain he would pursue entrepreneurship.
“I knew that I had what it took to be entrepreneurial, not even to run a business, just to be a business person,” he shares.
Everyone was encouraging him to rewrite his examinations or to go back to school and so he saved up money to start studying but he did not enroll into any school.
He did eventually start studying although on his own and not in a formal class set up. Njavwa borrowed books from his friends who were studying accounts.
When he started running the popcorn business in 2013, he made K30 a day and was not realising any profit from it.
However, with influence from his friend, he started another business of delivering food. That business lasted approximately two weeks.
“I actually owned a small restaurant in Kabwata in 2014. It lasted at least two weeks. In the first week I realised that I shouldn’t be in the restaurant business because my food was cold and the worst thing is that it had cockroaches, so I lost all my clients,” he says.
At this point he was almost giving up and thinking he should go back to school instead. He found a second job in a supermarket but was fired after two months and saw it as a sign.
He realised that failing was easy if it involved what one does not like to do.
So he started attending an event hosted by Matthew Groelnek called Startup Junction, where he became exposed to a lot of Lusaka-based entrepreneurs.
Matthew started Startup Junction after realising there were a lot of people who loved entrepreneurship in Zambia, and in Lusaka, particularly.
“But none of them were talking and no-one was really collaborating,” explains Njavwa.
The event started at Matthew’s house and, shortly after, was moved to a public venue due to the noticeable interest.
Matthew also introduced Njavwa to the technology hub, BongoHive.
In 2015, Njavwa began working on a project with Matthew and a couple of other colleagues to create an alternative work space built on the foundation laid through Startup Junction.
He spent most of his time working from BongoHive’s Lusaka office, where the project was based.
One specific night, he was seated next to a young man called Charles Mwanza, who happened to be an application (software or computer programme developer, and was hungry.
The young man asked Njavwa if he knew any restaurants that delivered food at night and out of that conversation an idea was born.
They decided to create a website through which people could order food. With Njavwa’s background in food delivery and the experience in building apps, it seemed like a workable idea.
Within a couple of hours, they came up with a website called Msanga.Com. The following day, they had one client who passed on the message to someone else.
The company name was later changed to Musanga Logistics.
Despite the company name being derived from the Nyanja word for ‘fast’, Njavwa is in no hurry to claim accolades.
He attributes the company’s growth so far not to himself but to the team of people helping him run his business.
When Njavwa first started the business, the people who inspired him are those he would see on television but it is entirely different today, he admits.
The businesses he admires today are run by people who get things done and build institutions that last. These are also people that may not necessarily be known by the public.
“Running a business is hard. I always say it’s like building a building. You don’t tweet for every block you put. Every morning you try and lay a really nice brick. You put as many bricks as you can that day and then you go back home,” he shares.
Three years ago, Jito Kayumba, a Zambian entrepreneur Njavwa looks up to, advised him to put together a board of directors.
In hindsight he says it is the best decision he ever made because soon after, they were able to attract capital and better talent.
“Every three months I have a boss I have to report to. Even though I own the majority of the company, the board of directors have power over me,” Njavwa says.
His biggest lesson in business has been to have the right team. He has deliberately surrounded himself with people that are really good at what they do.
His previous chief finance officer worked with the audit firm KPMG before lending his expertise to Musanga Logistics.
“I have a phenomenal team,” he admits. “My friends tell me I am lucky all the time and I think it’s true. I’m extremely lucky in that I have people who are willing to go above and beyond for the business.”
Njavwa is open about his flaws and in admitting that he does not have it altogether. He is of the fundamental belief that most organisations in Zambia fail because the smartest person is the CEO (chief executive officer) and also because people are hesitant to hire people that are better than them.
He has also developed the habit of asking himself if he would work for any of his employees should his business fail. If the answer is no, then he cannot work with that person.

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