Towela Phiri is a medical school graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Biomedical Sciences but she considers herself as a Digital Marketing Strategist and Entrepreneur and has chosen to work with youths seeking employment.
Having previously struggled to find formal work and with the current unemployment rate in Zambia at 13.30% as at 2016, she started a company called ZedLance which is an online digital marketplace meant to help job-seekers and freelancers make money using their skills.
Towela was selected to be part of the 2018 Mandela Washington Fellowship. Whilst at the fellowship she hopes to improve and perfect her leadership, entrepreneurial and technical skills so as to help more people using her platforms. She is placed in the Business and Entrepreneurship Track at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, a great institution that has produced some great people like Meghan Markle (The Duchess of Sussex) and David Schwimmer (American Actor from “Friends” popular Tv Drama) to mention a few.
KAPA: Briefly tell us about yourself.
Towela Phiri: I am a 27-year-old female born in a family of five and residing in Lusaka. I have two older sisters, one older brother and a twin sister. I was born and raised in Ndola. I did my primary school education at Ndola Trust Primary School and Sunbes Primary school. I did my secondary school education at Fatima Girls’ Secondary School and I attained a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Zambia.
I can say that my entrepreneurship journey started way back in primary school. I would fix my fellow pupils broken stationery for a small fee. My mother was an enterprising woman who loved what she did and I would say that I gained my interest in entrepreneurship from her. My father still lives in Ndola and is very supportive of my choices and my dreams.
KAPA: Having a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Sciences what made transition to digital marketing and entrepreneurship?
Towela Phiri: From the day that I graduated from medical school, I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur because I am passionate about entrepreneurship. I started to work on my first business idea which involved filtration of used cooking oil in restaurants. My idea was great but required big capital investments. I then transitioned to writing business plans as a service as by then I had already written a number of them when seeking funds for the cooking oil filtration services.
In marketing for the business I discovered digital marketing, this was about 3 years ago. The digital marketing industry is amongst the fastest growing industries in the world and more so in Africa especially that we have caught on the bandwagon a little too late. It’s an industry that is so dynamic and changing every day. It requires creativity and an interest to learn. And so, I naturally fitted in because it compliments me.
KAPA: Having your educational background in a different field, did you find it difficult to follow your passion?
Towela Phiri: Yes and no. Of course transitioning from a medical career to entrepreneurship was frowned upon by many people including those in my circle. But then it wasn’t so difficult to follow my passion because I believe in living my dreams. I tell people to never listen to somebody that hasn’t tried the thing they are telling you to stop. I couldn’t imagine doing work that I didn’t enjoy doing every day of my life. But with digital marketing and entrepreneurship, I can work till the late hours of the night and get up very early and it doesn’t feel like a burden.
KAPA: Many youths are venturing into entrepreneurship, but it is not an easy road. What would you say to someone who is having a hard time getting his or her venture off the ground?
Towela Phiri: I encourage you to get started with whatever you have, even if it’s just a drawing of a prototype or a couple of items to sell. The problem with many startup entrepreneurs not only in Zambia but worldwide too is that we wait to have everything in place before we start. As a startup entrepreneur, you cannot afford to be a perfectionist. Perfection will come later, things are always changing and growing. You will never feel like you have everything you need to get started. Start with what you have, and take small steps. Then continue to add on and grow from there.
KAPA: Tell us about your company Zedlance, how are you using it to help the youth.
Towela Phiri: ZedLance is an online platform or marketplace that links freelancers or part-time workers with virtual jobs. Virtual jobs are jobs that do not require one’s physical presence to do them. For example typing, proof reading, editing, web design, app design, graphic design, motion graphics, etc.
The reason I set up ZedLance was to help young people make income using their skills online. One of the biggest problems we have in Zambia is unemployment and that provides a lack of income revenue for many. However, each of us has some sort of skill(s) that others are willing to pay for either for lack of it or for convenience. But the question that comes to mind is. “How and where do I find clients that are willing to pay for my skills?”
This is where ZedLance comes in, it works in the form of a marketplace, similar to Ebay but for services and allows people to sign up, post jobs and have freelancers bid for these jobs. ZedLance also enables somebody in Nchelenge work with somebody in Siavonga without ever having to meet. We give people the freedom to choose.
KAPA: You were selected to be part of the Mandela Washington fellowship. Tell us what it is about, and what you hope to gain from this experience.
Towela Phiri: The Mandela Washington Fellowship, the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), empowers young African leaders through academic coursework, leadership training, and networking opportunities. Fellows come from every country in Sub-Saharan Africa and have established records of accomplishment in promoting innovation and positive change in their organizations and communities. There are three main tracks; business and entrepreneurship; public management and administration; and civic leadership. This fellowship takes place in various universities in the United States and 25 fellows where selected from Zambia for this year’s cohort from over 1000 applications.
I have been attached with 24 other vibrant young Africans at The Kellogg School of Management which was entered into partnership with the Program of African Studies at Northwestern University in Evanston, just a few kilometers north of Chicago, Illinois. Highlights of this year’s program include: academic courses focusing on new venture formation taught by faculty in the Kellogg School of Management; site visits to Chicago businesses and nonprofits, including World Bicycle Relief, World Business Chicago, and 1871; community service, involving mentoring high school students through the Youth Organization Umbrella, Evanston’s Young Entrepreneurship Summer Camp; and cultural activities, such as an architectural boat tour of Chicago, museum visits, concerts, and festivals.
I want to learn how to be an inclusive leader and learn how to combine leadership and diversity with my businesses as well see the examples of companies here that are making things work for them especially in the digital marketing industry.
KAPA: This was your 3rd time applying for the fellowship program before you were finally picked. Make made you keep attempting it, when others would have given up.
Towela Phiri: The reason I kept applying is because I believed that if I could try just one more time, I would make it. I first heard of the Mandela Washington Fellowship when I attended one of the free women’s Wednesday sessions at the US embassy here in Zambia. I didn’t know how to apply the first time, I had nobody to help me and I was just starting on my entrepreneurship journey. I knew that there was room for improvement and so the 2nd time around I made it for the interviews but wasn’t successful. I admit that I was heart-broken. I took a short break and started to work on the next round. I had the belief and the determination as well as the help of an awesome 2017 Fellow. The reason I kept applying is because I had already experienced the worst and I really had nothing to lose. But my biggest lesson was to not do it alone. Always find somebody that has succeeded at what you are trying to achieve and seek help with humility and openness to learn.
KAPA: When you return from the fellowship what do you plan on doing?
Towela Phiri: My plan when I get back firstly is to officially launch ZedLance. My team of 3 and I have already done testing and pre-marketing and currently working on a few technical things. Secondly, I plan to add more E-books on my website www.tpmoments.com and write more articles, blog posts and tips for my Chatbot so that I can share the knowledge gained from the Mandela Washington Fellowship. I also plan to do some speaking events and mentorship sessions especially with those that are just starting out on this journey or are conflicted about believing in their dreams.
KAPA: Any last words…
Towela Phiri: For those that follow my social media channels, they know that my slogan is “Believe in Your Dreams”. Life isn’t meant to be lived doing what you detest. Do it for a while if you must, then start to work on your dreams, whether it is entrepreneurship or not. Will it be hard? …yes. Will it be difficult? …yes. Is it impossible? …no.
BY KAPA KAUMBA