Kitawa Wemo is the founder of MAMA Ventures, a women-led growth accelerator that works with business to actualize business ideas towards profitability and sustainability using an in-house custom designed entrepreneurship toolkit.
Born and raised up in the lakeside city of Kisumu, Kitawa has always set the pace towards being a high achiever and this was evident in her studies having qualified to pursue medicine at the university.
“I went to St. George’s Girls High School, Nairobi; I worked hard to become what I thought I wanted to be, a doctor, more specifically, a pediatric neurosurgeon having qualified for medical school.”
But Kitawa ended up attending Kenyatta University and pursuing Environmental Health where she discovered that her passion and satisfaction was more in solving problems. And it was in her 3rd year at the university when she got voluntary opportunities with AMREF and Pacemaker International that that triggered the idea of setting up MAMA Ventures.
MAMA Ventures has developed an Entrepreneurship Toolkit to guide training and workshops for schools & universities, self-help, small businesses, startups and business leaders within the corporate environment. Through Mama Venture, she also runs a monthly dedicated B2B meet-up and platform for aspiring and upcoming entrepreneurs in Kenya called the Mingle.
I sat down with her to find out more about her work and plans through MAMA Ventures.
Below is the amazing interview…
Vallency Otieno: What inspired you to start Mama Ventures?
Kitawa Wemo: After my realization that education is a means to a solution driven approach to life, I looked at life quite differently. Where there was a challenge, I saw it as an opportunity to find a solution. In the community projects, I was part of, I spoke to the community members, from all levels, to carry out an informal market study and research. Quite obviously, I did not know that I was carrying out market research that would build the core pillars of MAMA Ventures. I was stuck in the idea stage that many founders are familiar with. The coffee dates with different people, the hunger for the right mentors and opportunities. This, despite being a great approach to starting MAMA, I realized that I needed to get off the ground.
VO: So how did you start?
KW: I stumbled upon Muhammad Yunus’s book, ‘Building a Social Business’. I realized that it is possible to create gold from dust. I then set out to start my pilot project in Thiririka Primary, in partnership with Girl Aid Foundation to empower rural girls with business and entrepreneurial skills in their context through an environmental project.
VO: What are the core tenets of your accelerator program? Which areas do you focus on when you start working with an entrepreneur?
KW: Over 400,000 start-ups in Kenya do not get to celebrate their second year. This is a piece of statistic shocked me and after 6 months of research, I designed an Entrepreneurship Toolkit that focuses on business and entrepreneurship, leadership through neuro-linguistic programming and life skills. Most of the three are the leadership pillar. When a founder understands their leadership style and that of their team, it is easier to attain sustainability towards the vision. The second is indeed the business pillar, where I focus on how businesses can make profits and cut initial costs to increase the margin. I am working on the business algorithm to make profits a science.
VO: You work with different businesses and startups, what do you think are some of the reasons why businesses fail?
KW: I believe quite firmly that many businesses are innovative, but there are multiple reasons that affect the success of the enterprise. What stands out for the SMBs I work with is the lack of a clear structure in the running of the business. This can make one less disciplined in executing tasks. The second is that most founders have a great vision but are conservative in the execution. We have designed a business evolution model that assists businesses in achieving both profitability and sustainability for their products and services.
VO: Networking seems to part and parcel of the Mama Ventures strategy, how important is this to an entrepreneur in the journey of building a successful business?
KW: Indeed it is. MAMA Ventures has a monthly entrepreneur meet-up, The Mingle. It is important that any networking event should add value to businesses and attendees. I have structured the Mingle to be personal and dedicated to its outcome. There is value in time and I need to maximize the output for those to attend the Mingle – both for those with actual businesses and those with the vision of starting one.
VO: Based on the interaction you have with most entrepreneurs, what kind of leadership traits do you think are ideal for anyone building a business?
KW: I would not really say that there is one particular trait that should determine a good leader. I believe that in their context, everyone exhibits the characteristics of a leader. Being a servant leader is what stands out for me. It is not a weak form of leadership, but it inspires the people around the vision to be passionate about the goals of a business and set out to achieve them. I would encourage founders to understand the leadership styles of the people within their teams – it is a key component of success within the business.
VO: Many accelerators and hubs have come up with special programmes for women when it comes to business and entrepreneurship; do you think the playing ground for entrepreneurship in Kenya and Africa as a whole is unequal when it comes to gender? Why so? And what do you think needs to be done?
KW: Indeed, women have been marginalized by culture and society; I would love to quite neutrally point out that opportunities exist for both genders to fight over. I was raised to have an opinion and see past gender. I acknowledge that in Africa, this has not been the case for all women. I would attribute my ‘success’ to my apparent stubbornness and resilient. I have lost opportunities because I have refused to offer sexual favours to get ahead, and many women have as well. The same does happen to men and therefore I believe that the conversation when it comes to gender wars cannot be won on the basis of who suffers more but on the embrace that women and men lead differently. At the end of the day, we need to change the mindset, for sure, but we also need to solve the problems that affect all of us. I challenge founders, both male, and female, to engage to empower and equip their businesses with a blueprint to solve Africa’s problems.
VO: What are your plans going forward in regards to Mama Ventures?
KW: We are conducting a needs analysis with the businesses within MAMA Ventures. What this means is that we are building a micro-economy and we will be incorporating technology in this economy to solve Africa’s problem. It is both exciting and intimidating to seek out this approach, but that is indeed what entrepreneurship is.
VO: Lastly, what message would you wish to convey to aspiring women entrepreneurs in Africa?
KW: Africa has the highest number of women entrepreneurs across the world. The time to take advantage of the opportunities available is now.