woman in traditional Tanzanian attire hugging a schoolgirl
Mentor Chonge Tukwa hugs her graduating scholar. Credit: AfricAid/Glami

At just 24 years old, Ruth Shayo is what some might call an experienced entrepreneur. 

She has already had one failed business (selling porridget. Now, she’s building a second one, a cake shop, that is growing. 

The difference? In between, Shayo took part in a accelerator called Kisa operating in 25 schools in Tanzania. In a world of accelerators, it’s unusual because of its two-year length, the number of young women it serves — 2,000 across 25 partner schools — and the connections it makes between university educated women and ambitious girls. Interviews with participants and its director hint at the complex changes needed to help women feel confident to succeed.

One of Shayo’s favorite lessons was to “lead from the back and let others believe they are in front,” because it is a way to help persuade customers, she said. That comes from Nelson Mandela’s leadership principles. The porridge business was also unsuccessful because she was focused on doing well in school — she’s now graduated.

Accelerators focused on helping women develop agency or entrepreneurial entities are common. Yet, research into high-growth startups – not Kisa’s focus – suggest that it’s harder than it seems to help women succeed.

Ruth Shayo. Credit: Ruth Shayo

Allie Burns is CEO of Village Capital, an organization that supports impact-driven, seed-stage startups. Since 2009, Village Capital has worked with more than 1,100 entrepreneurs in 28 countries. She also worked on a report that showed that accelerators in general have been ineffective in emerging markets, as measured by the amount of equity raised. 

In 2018, startups in emerging markets with a woman on their founding team received only 11% of seed funding in those markets, according to a report called “Venture Capital and the Gender Financing Gap: The Role of Accelerator.” Male-led startups increase the amount of equity they raise post-acceleration by 2.6 times as much as startups with a female founder.

“Tthe causes of that gap are still poorly understood, and while there has been a proliferation of new interventions over the past decade aimed at addressing the gap, progress towards a more equitable gender balance in venture funding has been limited.”

Reporting on Kisa suggests that change may need to start earlier, and be more holistic, than current programs aimed at producing increases in equity financing.

Challenging Deeply Held Beliefs

Social norms in Tanzania, a country of 62 million, hold that girls are less important than boys, that they are weak, and that being confident and determined is rude, and that her main purpose is to take care of the family. Girls who enroll in Kisa Project are exposed to ideas that may be new to them: they learn their worth, they understand they can make decisions for themselves, and are encouraged to be what and who they want to be. 

Kisa means “story” in Swahili. The idea is that the two-year leadership course for girls in their last two years of secondary school helps them shape their future stories.

“The Kisa Project mentoring program that we support through our local partner, GLAMI, is incredibly holistic, and incredibly robust,” said Jessica Love, executive director of AfricAid.

AfricAid, a $770,000-budget nonprofit whose Kisa Project operates in 25 schools throughout the Arusha and Kilimanjaro regions of Tanzania. AfricAid funds the project through GLAMI, a nonprofit based in Tanzania that also operates Binti Shupavu, which is geared toward young women in their first four years of secondary school.

The Key Role of Mentorships

“There are other organizations that provide mentoring in some capacity, but GLAMI’s approach is unique in that the same group of girls meet with the same mentor each week, so it’s a very high-touch program that promotes deep bonds between the girls and their mentor.” 

“Many of the girls enrolled in these programs do not have a strong female figure in their lives. The university-educated women mentors who deliver the programming play a role in a girl’s life that nobody else can,” said Love. “They create a safe, consistent space for girls to ask questions they cannot ask of anyone else.”

The Kisa Project started in 2010. Surveys of girls in the programs are conducted at various times to make sure the programming is effective, said Love, who previously worked for the Fistula Foundation and said both organizations believe in local leadership — one of Burns’ key criteria for success.

“A lot of entrepreneurship activity has been concentrated in just a few people, places and problems,” she said, adding that local leadership will have the best understanding of an ecosystem. 

The Kisa Project is run by the local partner, GLAMI. 67% of GLAMI employees are alumnae of GLAMI mentoring programs, sharing lived experience with the girls they now mentor. The women running GLAMI are university educated Tanzanian women, as are all of the Kisa and Binti Shupavu Mentors. The program is locally led and implemented.

About 75% of AfricAid’s funding comes from institutional grants from places like Segal Family Foundation, She’s the First and Imago Dei Fund, The remaining 25% mainly comes from individual donors, and a small amount comes from corporate sponsors, Love says. 

Each week, the girls learn about personal leadership, financial literacy, entrepreneurship and other topics. They also take part in three health symposia throughout each program year that covers topics they may not learn elsewhere, including reproductive health, mental health and other topics that are driven by the girls.

Shayo, who shares pictures of her cakes on social media, hopes to open a cake shop in early 2022.  “I would like to say this to any young girl out there: never lose focus of who you truly are, never lose hope because it’s always hard at the beginning, messy in the middle and wonderful at the end,” she said.

The Dream of a Studio 

Woman in front of art work
Mhelepu Shillingi Credit: Mhelepu Shillingi

Mhelepu Shillingi, is a 2018 Kisa alumna living in Dar es Salaam who used the entrepreneurial skills she learned to start a business selling her artwork in order to help pay her university fees. She received an award in March 2021 from a Member of Parliament, celebrating her creativity in turning her art into a business by partnering with a local restaurant in Dar es Salaam. Her dream is to open an art studio and help other girls see that art can be a professional job and a good source of income.

“Being an entrepreneur is really a great thing for me,” the 24-year-old said. “I like how I’m running my art as a business, owning it, and mostly the freedom I have to create and design artwork to sell them the way I want [with] no limitations.”

While Kisa doesn’t offer funding directly to participants, Love said the curriculum comes in to really support girls in becoming resilient and creative problem-solvers. “These critical skills help prepare girls for the realities of life, so they can adjust course if necessary to reach their goals. Mhelepu, for example, was creative about partnering with a local restaurant in a way that let her showcase and advertise her art but also sell it to patrons,” Love said.  

Burns says the best accelerators follow their participants afterwards, tracking and measuring the accelerators’ impact.

Love  has three tips for others who want to start a socially driven impact organization:

1 – Regular access to a consistent mentor. Strong, consistent relationships between girls and the same mentor over time has been key to the success of GLAMI mentoring programs. 

2 – Involve girls in curriculum design and development. GLAMI has found that by involving girls in designing the curriculum, they are not only responding to girls’ needs, but they are also creating a more rich and engaging experience.

3 – Involve parents. Parents have always been a consideration in the design of GLAMI mentoring programs. By involving them in the process and engaging them through regular communication and annual meetings, they find that parents are more supportive of their daughter’s participation and better understand the value of the programming.

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.