• David Grammig

100% Women-Owned. 100% Women-Run: Thandeka Nombanjinji-Nzama About Her African Construction Business

Thandeka, thank you so much for agreeing to speak to me today. I had the pleasure of meeting you earlier this year at the Africa Family Office Summit in Mauritius. For those who do not know you – tell them a bit about yourself and your family business.

You’re welcome David. I’m the Managing Director of Mbokodo Building, a 100% woman owned and led construction company that specialises in general construction works and civil engineering. We pride ourselves in ensuring that we minimise the gender gaps and that females form part of an equitable and inclusive part of the construction sector by creating opportunities for females in our industry through prioritising the employment of females, offering skills development programs to assist in equipping females with CETA accredited qualifications and procuring all our goods and services from female owned entities. We are an unapologetically woman empowerment focused organisation.

You run a firm that is 100% women-owned and women-run. I feel this is a lot more common in Africa than in Europe or the US. Would you agree? And why is that?

I fully agree, in Africa, and in particularly South Africa, our government has been quite intentional and vocal about the advancement and participation of females in different sectors and business. Woman empowerment has been central in government policies and regulatory reforms. Our government has been quite supportive in ensuring that women are given equal opportunities to their male counterparts and that a certain percentage of work opportunities in the public sector are allocated to females.

How important are female entrepreneurs for the economy of the African continent?

I am of the firm belief that women are quite meticulous and take pride in everything that they do hence you would find that most female owned entities offer high quality levels of service due to the afore-mentioned factors. Also, as Africans we grew up with the saying that says “it takes a village to raise a child” which means that as females, we naturally do not only look after our own immediate families but also the community as a whole, therefore, by introducing and empowering more females into entrepreneurship; that would translate into creating more job opportunities and the creation of a more strengthened fiscal economy.

As a woman in the construction business – what experiences have you made in this male-dominated industry?

When I got into the construction industry, I realised the major gender gaps and the lack of female participation in our sector due to patriarchy. Making it in the industry and having doors open up took me ten times longer than what my male counterparts did. It was during that difficulty I vowed to myself that I will ensure that the construction company I grow comes with a difference and that is to unapologetically empower women and create opportunities for them.

How did the African construction sector develop over the past decade?

Africa is a developing continent with a lot to offer and in South Africa infrastructure is one of the major contributors to our country’s economy. With infrastructure being a significant contributor in boosting our economy, we have seen many opportunities become more available in the construction sector. With our political history of apartheid and segregation, we have seen more opportunities being created and becoming available in the construction space with the post-apartheid government. The growth trajectory over the past decade has been quite a positive one, and there has been quite significant strides within the infrastructure sector with sustainable mega projects and smart cities in progress and in the pipeline.

What is the impact the pandemic has on your business right now?

It has been quite a turbulent and precarious period for most of us if not all of us. We have experienced quite a number of challenges with longer project completion periods and delays due to only being able to have a specific number of labourers on site at a time while adhering to strict COVID safety regulations. Some pending contracts were also compromised due to budget re-allocations and certain entities being forced to revisit their initial project plans and re-direct budget allocations elsewhere. We are however grateful that we managed to slowly emerge out of that difficult period and continue to slowly recover.

Let’s be frank, Africa has many problems to tackle. But it offers also many opportunities for local and international capital. What makes Africa unique and attractive for investors?

Africa continues to boast attractive returns across automotive, manufacturing, mineral extraction and agricultural industries. The advancement in political and legal reforms have seen increased prospects for economic growth and mitigation of risk which has made it attractive to foreign investors. Togo has made great strides in ease of doing business with the world bank citing it as the top 10 reformer in the world. We have also seen a massive influx of China across the continent because they saw huge potential in what our continent has to offer. We have been seen as a continent made for tourism and safaris for far too long, but this has now been taken over by vibrant city skylines bustling with cranes and construction. Africa is not a jungle!

When speaking to non-African investors and businesses, what do you feel are the most deeply rooted yet unjustified stereotypes with regards to Africa?

That Africa does not have any luxury or any adequate infrastructure, that Africa is a jungle with animals and human cohabitating, that Africa has highly underdeveloped infrastructure, that there is extreme poverty in Africa, that Africa is disease infested and unsafe to visit.

Has this ever harmed your ability to do business?

Not at all, I enjoy and thrive in speaking about the greatness that is our country called South Africa. My husband and I always make it a point to teach people more about where we come from when we travel and show them the immense potential our country has. We unpack the true value of doing business in Africa.

A trend emerged among the biggest of Africa’s single family offices – they tend to deploy their capital outside the continent, especially Africa. Can you understand this trend?

Not all investors do so, those that do are those who have most likely grown significantly within Africa and attempting to spread their footprint and diversify. Globalisation in business and investments is no longer hurdle like it used to be, we have become a global village and opportunities present themselves much easier than before. Majority have been doing that in efforts of diversifying their capital, creating a footprint outside their borders, some sort of stability in the volatile markets and for higher return on investments.

How can Africa continue to attract investments if the continent’s own investors seek opportunities abroad?

In South Africa we have an initiative called “Proudly South African” where we are encouraged to purchase local goods, travel locally, procure local services and invest in our own economy. The government does well in instilling those values within us as a nation to support our own, so when investors go abroad, it is mostly in efforts of diversifying and not completely taking all their investments out of Africa.

At the beginning I mentioned that your business is 100% women-owned and women-led. What is it that Africa lacks and that women can offer to bring the continent forward and support its development?

Patriarchy continues to be a big stumbling block not only in Africa but the world in general. We are happy to see efforts from government and the public sector in being intentional about female inclusivity within different sectors. We have a very long way to go but it is about us as females being vocal and creating opportunities for our fellow sisters. There are many skilled and brilliant females out there who are not given opportunities due to their gender it is up to us within the private sectors to ensure that try our best to bridge the gender gaps within our societies. I always say “Making a difference should not only mean vocalising an issue over and over again without any action; but being able to stand up fearlessly and doing something about it”

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