Shingi Nyamwanza is the country director of TechnoServe’s South Africa office, managing a portfolio of $4 million a year. Prior to this role, she directed the Zimele program, an Anglo American-TechnoServe collaboration promoting entrepreneurship across South Africa, which was recognized for outstanding work on impact and with youth at the 2021 Absa Business Day Supplier Development Awards. She has over 15 years of experience in development, specializing in enterprise and youth development.
At a recent TechnoServe international staff meeting, Shingi was invited to share the story of her personal career journey. Below are the remarks from her presentation.
In some ways, I owe my career in international development to the humble house fly. “How?” you may ask. We’ll get there in a moment.
When I was younger, I was sure I knew what I wanted. My family nickname is mhiripiri in Shona, which in English translates to “chili peppers.” You get the gist.
I come from a family of scientists and doctors. My great-aunt was the first black woman doctor to graduate from the University of Zimbabwe. My dad was a biochemist who headed up one of Zimbabwe’s largest medical aid societies. My uncle was a pharmacist in the United States. So it made sense that I would follow this route too. That was, until biology class in high school, where I discovered that I don’t like blood. So medicine was out, but pharmacy still kept me in the science field, while helping people get better.
Combatting Several Challenges, She Persevered
In August 2000, I packed my bags and moved to rural Ohio to study biology-pre pharmacy at Denison University. I was well on my way – and then the economy in Zimbabwe collapsed.
I got a phone call from my parents at the end of my freshman year telling me that I had two choices – either to go back to Zimbabwe and study at a local school or make my own way.
For three years, I made my way: working two to three jobs per semester and through the summer to pay for my tuition. To supplement my expenses, my mom left Zimbabwe and worked in England for three years, sacrificing her happiness and comfort. I still carry that guilt today.
Like my name, which means “perseverance” in Shona, I persevered, and made it to the summer before my senior year. It’s an important year for pre-pharmacy students, as your internship sets you up for your acceptance into pharmacy graduate school. I was one of the top five students across biology programs in the state who was selected for a prestigious internship.
I had finally made it. My hard work had paid off. I was doing research to prepare for pharmacy school.
Taking a Gap Year to Find a Clear Direction
But as I sat one afternoon counting flies with my professor while studying the exciting topic of genetic mutations of house fly wing growth, I asked myself if this was really what my purpose was. Was this what I worked two to three jobs per semester for? Was this what I had sacrificed summer holidays, weekends and evenings for? To sit in a lab counting fly wings?
That summer, while my mom was toiling away in London to supplement my expenses, I called my parents and told them that I would finish my degree, but that I wasn’t going on to pharmacy school. For the African children reading this, you can imagine that it’s a wonder that I’m alive and standing to tell this story.
So I took a gap year and used my 12-month work experience visa not to get more experience in pharmacy, but to work for the university while I volunteered for nonprofits. Being a pharmacist didn’t feel impactful enough, and counting flies certainly didn’t. What I found in that gap year was more of what I didn’t want to do. While the nonprofits I volunteered for had heart, passion, and great missions, the impact and business sense was lacking.
So after my gap year, I confidently marched myself into the office of Dr. Joseph McGowan, the university president. I told him that I had figured out my life plan. The first step was obtaining an MBA, and the university needed to pay for it because I couldn’t afford it. I proceeded to pitch him about how my experience over the last year working with non-profits had made it clear to me that well-meaning people often didn’t drive much impact in nonprofits and in the communities they work in. The answer was clear that I needed to get an MBA and work in international development to solve Africa’s problems. Oh, the innocence of youth!
He was probably shocked at my audacity – but he was sold. And he organized a full ride for me to study for my MBA.
General Electric Lights the Way to Nonprofit 4-H
During that time, I then secured a role with General Electric (GE), where I honed my business skills, and at 4-H, America’s largest youth nonprofit.
For seven years at 4-H, I studied and observed how a large nonprofit is run. But in all those meetings about our work in Africa, I never met one person who looked like me or sounded like me.
So you know what comes next, right? I marched into my CEO’s office and with tears in my eyes, I told him that while I loved working on African issues from afar, Africa needed me more than America did. I explained that I was tired of being the only African on our field trips and wanted to do meaningful work on the continent making meaningful decisions with my toolbox of skills. With tears in his own eyes, he said he understood. A year later, I had sold everything I owned, packed four suitcases, and landed in South Africa in 2013.
How Shingi Found Herself at TechnoServe
Three years later, I would find myself at TechnoServe, an organization that provides business solutions to poverty. As a praying woman, it seemed that God himself had orchestrated this match made in Heaven. It’s like the words I had spoken to Dr. McGowan had manifested into this organization. But this is not the fairytale ending you expected. Three years later my contract wasn’t renewed. I was so disappointed.
But I took that as an opportunity to continue building my toolbox of skills and to spend some time at an African-based management consultancy. It was hard and had its shortcomings, but it opened my eyes to the power of localized leadership and solutions. While no organization is perfect, what I learned there motivated me to return to TechnoServe.
I came back to TechnoServe because I believe that my conviction to work in international development was as strong then as it is now. I believe that business solutions to poverty are needed now more than ever and that those solutions must include local leadership. I’m encouraged that TechnoServe strives to walk that talk.
How Women Leadership Is Teaching Me Valuable Lessons
Most importantly, I came back because the leader of my region, Pamela Chintenhe, is a strong African woman leader who also has a strong belief in scaling impact across Africa. She, together with other leaders, are advocating for the next generation of African leadership within this organization to promote local solutions. Today, she is one of my biggest advocates in the organization and is part of the leadership team shaping our new culture.
So while my journey hasn’t been linear, and there have been detours and disappointments along the way, I’m hopeful when I participate in strategy sessions and see where we are headed as an organization. As an African, I’m really excited to be a part of this new chapter we are embarking on.
And for launching me on this exciting journey, I have to give credit to the humble house fly…and of course, my mom!
My name is Shingi Nyamwanza, and this is my story.