As an economist at the Tanzanian Central Bank, Devotha Ntuke Minzi had a prestigious job with the dream employer of most graduates. And although she remained with the Bank for close to 20 years before leaving to start a new microfinance business serving the informal sector, her success never quite sat right with her. “My main responsibility was to support policymakers to facilitate economic growth, but I wasn’t seeing this manifested in the lives of the average Tanzanian. My well-paid job made me feel like a traitor, a person with no purpose except personal gain, someone having no impact on my community and society at large. I dreamed long of starting a business that would have an impact on others and my community at large. With some perseverance and a lot of courage, I left.”
Devotha’s feelings of dissatisfaction at being an employee rather than a business owner have a long history. As the second born of eight growing up in the Mbeya region, she always looked up to her father, a government-employed rural medical assistant who worked very hard and was highly dedicated to his work yet retired with just enough to survive. This was in spite of other activities he and his wife undertook to subsidise their income such as farming and baking on a small scale.
“It never seemed fair to me. My parents worked incredibly hard to support me and my seven siblings. With all that effort, it was a mystery to me how they could work like that and yet never afford a motor vehicle. I thought they deserved better for their efforts,” she
With her family placing a strong emphasis on education, Devotha worked hard to qualify to attend the Government-sponsored University of Dar-es-Salaam Tanzania. Considering a postgraduate education was outside the family’s economic means, she was lucky to win a competitive scholarship from the US government to study at Youngstown State University in Ohio before returning home to work for the Central Bank.
“After many years at the Bank, I felt it was time to do something to help others who did not have the opportunity I had to improve their economic situation. With my background in economics and poverty analysis, I knew providing support to small and medium-sized businesses would be felt across the economy. My experience in the US showed me that SMEs are critically important to the strongest economy in the world and if they could have such an impact in the US, imagine the knock-on effect in a small economy like Tanzania.”
Devotha didn’t jump right in. Her transition was a long time coming. Probably ten years into her career, she started thinking of moving to the private sector. It was only in the last three years of a 20-year career that the internal pressure became intense and she was increasingly unhappy at being an employee. With three children to support – the eldest at college, the second in the college admission stage, and the youngest in lower secondary school – leaving her policy and research position at the Bank was not a decision Devotha took lightly. To say it was not a move widely supported by those around the then 48-year-old would be a big understatement.
“It was so absurd to everyone that I would consider leaving a well-established job with a good salary and venture into the unknown that no one took me seriously. That was really frustrating because I needed serious advice and at times even started doubting myself. The courage to leave came mostly from inside. Over the years, I had developed an elaborate plan and did a lot of self-counselling by documenting my thoughts and challenging myself. But I don’t blame anyone for the lack of support because it was done out of love. It’s a decision I have never regretted a day since.”
With small but growing entrepreneurs in the informal sector as well as like-minded employees seeking to start businesses as her target customers, Devotha set out to establish an Enterprise Facilitation Center, which is essentially a business providing microfinancing, mindset change towards success training, and insurance services.
“I launched the company with my savings and retirement benefits. As we grew, we managed to get credit from banks. I think my experience at the Central Bank was helpful in terms of being organized and building a creditworthy company. This involved establishing business systems and financial documentation. From day one, we worked with very formal arrangements and clear documentation, which is a key requirement to access credit,” Devotha explains.
Today K-Finance Limited is a microfinance firm with 20 employees providing financial services and business mentoring to SME entrepreneurs in Tanzania, mostly in the low-income bracket. Devotha’s husband and three children are shareholders and, for now, one new shareholder has been invited to join the team. Devotha expects to bring others on board, not only for money but also to inject new skills and ideas and to develop a succession plan. After almost nine years in business, her decision to start afresh has paid off. With corporate assets valued at about US$500,000 and more than 4000 clients, the former banker has proven there is profit in doing good.
“K-Finance started as just a dream; there was no operating manual to guide me. Although I worked with the Central Bank for two decades, I was a policy analyst and didn’t understand the nuts and bolts of banking required to operate a microfinance company and operate in a risky sector. I know there is more work to be done – particularly in rural areas where our services are most needed – but I‘m confident K-Finance will continue to touch people’s lives with or without my presence.”
Let’s hope Devotha isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon. But regardless, she’s built a successful and growing enterprise that will continue long after she’s gone, a legacy that has impacted many lives just as she always wished.
Foster that burning urge inside that drives your momentum. This is critical. If you don’t have it, it is very easy to give up. Being your own boss is not easy.
It is a sacrifice that you have to make. You have to be completely committed to your work, and enjoy it.
It can get very lonely at the top. People think you have made it, while you know how much there still is to pursue and solve. I have learned so much from good mentors in my industry.
Always be open to new ideas and opportunities.