By Kate Douglas*
Divine Ndhlukula started SECURICO, one of Zimbabwe’s largest security service providers, with only four employees in 1995. Now the firm has over 3,500 employees, including 900 women. Ndhlukula is a women entrepreneur in a typically male domain and is an outspoken women empowerment activist in Africa. How we made it in Africa asks Ndhlukula about what it is like to break down stereotypes and be a successful woman entrepreneur in Africa.
What inspired you to start a security service company?
Firstly, I needed to create a decent livelihood for my family and I always knew that I wanted to go into business from a very tender age and would tell my friends in high school that the business I was going to start was going to be significant in size.
Secondly, I identified glaring gaps in the quality of service and professionalism in the private security sector and this inspired me to start a security company and make a difference.
Thirdly, I wanted to make a difference to disadvantaged women who could not get opportunities to get formal employment and I knew the security industry was a mass employer. I became an activist for the empowerment of women when I was very young, at school. When I started working I joined women empowerment groups and I got to meet various role models who inspired me to seek personal self-actualisation. That inspiration assisted me in my professional career and I was able to climb the corporate ladder. By the time that I saw the business opportunity in the security sector I was ready – both emotionally and experience wise.
What major challenges have you faced since starting SECURICO?
The first major challenge was that the industry was heavily male dominated and there was a general perception that security was not a job for women. The challenge was to convince the market that I could do the job despite the fact that I was a woman.
Clients even refused to be guarded by women and it took a lot of persuasion to convince them that their security would in fact improve if they accepted women to guard them. Changing that negative perception about women was not easy but my team and I persisted and with time women were widely accepted in the industry.
The other challenge was that I was coming from a totally different industry and had no knowledge about how security organisations operate. I therefore had to learn the job from scratch. My aim was to learn the job, innovate and improve and perform better than the competition and that worked quite well.
Another challenge was that the industry was dominated by big players who had been in the business for a long time. They had the brand and financial muscle but I was certain that I could beat them on service quality. I also struggled to get funding for the new business. At that time the economic challenges that faced Zimbabwe for the next decade were just starting and the financial sector was very jittery so they mostly refused to provide funding.
I was also unlucky in that I was a woman venturing into a business where there was a general belief that women would not succeed and this contributed to the failure to secure funding. In the end I decided to make do with the little that I had and eventually I grew the business by ploughing back all the profits.
Where would you like to see your company in 10 years time?
In ten years time SECURICO shall be the biggest name in the private security services sector in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.
How did your business manage to survive during the Zimbabwean economic crisis?
The period of the economic crisis was the most difficult for SECURICO but ironically the company actually grew and gained a lot of the market by taking advantage of the hardships that competitors were facing. When the crisis started to bite I assembled a taskforce comprising of identified individuals at various levels. We tasked this team to brainstorm and come up with ideas on whom to tackle the various challenges that we were facing.
The situation called for people to think outside of the box and it is quite amazing how we got excellent innovations that we implemented to our advantage. We managed to keep ahead of the situation because we kept changing our strategy to suit the current situation. Things were changing very fast during those days and something that worked for you at the beginning of the week would be useless by the end of that same week. This called for versatility, constant adaptation and use of creative business methods.
In the end we used a raft of strategies such as providing temporary accommodation to employees, negotiating to be paid in kind for services, paying employees using basic commodities instead of cash, providing transport to employees, deferring payments for service for strategic clients, rewarding employees for going the extra mile, going to the rural areas to recruit staff and a lot more other strategies. We also introduced our Excel Guards – highly trained operatives who were paid twice the normal salary. We sold this new service offering to targeted clients who had the funds to pay a premium price for high quality services.
Looking at that time in retrospect I attribute our survival and growth to the decision to involve everyone in tackling the challenges that the company was facing.
What is the biggest mistake an entrepreneur can make when starting a business?
There are three big mistakes in my opinion. One is failing to learn the job adequately. Second one is not having a strategic vision and thirdly, lacking financial discipline to distinguish personal funds from business funds thus stifling the business from growing.
What does the Zimbabwean economic climate look like today? Is it a good time to start a business in Zimbabwe?
There are a lot of opportunities in Zimbabwe. In fact there are more opportunities now than ten years ago. During the last ten years the economy shrank considerably and there is a sort of a vacuum now. There are very few formal jobs so a big chunk of the population is making a living through various enterprises.
It’s like everyone is an entrepreneur now because all the workers who were laid off are using their skills to start small businesses that sustain their families. Most of the money in Zimbabwe now is in this informal sector were things like furniture, basic foodstuffs, clothes and other services are found on the streets and home industries.
The way I see it people are starting small now in various ventures but in a few years a new breed of entrepreneurs will emerge. It certainly is a good time to start a business in Zimbabwe. In fact we have seen a lot of people coming to start businesses in Zimbabwe especially by people from the Asian countries.
Why do you think there are so few woman entrepreneurs in Africa? Do you think this is changing?
The African economy is actually driven by women at the micro level. Most of the African population lives in the rural areas and women are more active in economic activities there than men mainly for family survival.
However we have very few women entrepreneurs who break into big business, mostly due to cultural reasons. When growing up women are never primed to become leaders. Rather the stereotypical role is that a woman should become a good wife and mother therefore many women simply strive to fulfill this role. Even at school, boys are expected to perform better than girls and in the professional world women simply drift into certain professions that are regarded suitable for women.
So at the end of the day it’s our society that mostly militates against the development of women entrepreneurs. Motherhood is also a big factor that acts as a drawback. Most people do not realise that raising children is a full time job and those women who manage to raise children and advance in their professions at the same time are really strong.
The good thing in Zimbabwe is that we have a very good education system so the new generations of parents are more enlightened about issues affecting the girl child and are raising them differently. This will afford space for women in the future.
Any advice to budding women entrepreneurs?
Women entrepreneurs have to work twice as hard to succeed. They should expect certain difficulties to crop up merely due to the fact that they are women. In such situations the best thing to do is to remain resolute, focused, ethical and preserve your integrity.
It is also very important to network and get to know people – the right people with the potential to help your business either as customers, suppliers or associates.
Keep a sober head and remain focused. Do not rush to conclude that you have made it. Always expand your dreams and reinvest your money into the business. Avoid the trap of leading a luxurious life at the expense of the business.