Elizabeth Swai: A lesson in resilience

Saturday October 21 2017

Elizabeth Swai in her office at AKM Glitters Company Ltd in Dar es Salaam.

Elizabeth Swai in her office at AKM Glitters Company Ltd in Dar es Salaam. PHOTO | CAROLINE ULIWA | NATION 

By CAROLINE ULIWA
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It is hard to believe that sitting across the executive desk, is a woman on the other side, giving orders and instructions to several people in person and on the phone, one who knows the in and outs of the poultry business and the workings of a charcoal burner.

She says she can easily bake up to 300 loaves a day using a sufuria (steel cooking pot) and a jiko (charcoal burner).

But that is all in the past. Today, Elizabeth Swai, 50, is a successful business woman and the managing director and majority shareholder of AKM Glitter Ltd, a major supplier of organic poultry and poultry products to over 20 regions in Tanzania.

She founded the company in 2006 and has 70 full time employees. But life has not always been a bed of roses.

Background

In the early 1980s as a secondary school student, Ms Swai started baking bread to raise money for her fees at Zanaki Secondary School in Dar es Salaam.

She did most of the baking during the school holidays, and it proved the first step in her journey as an entrepreneur; then came landscaping and selling khangas. And it all started when she was given a cleaning job when she was just 13.

Her face suddenly clouds up.

“I don’t know why my mother did that to me. I was very young and it wasn’t ordinary cleaning. It felt like a punishment back then, but I now realise it was a gift. My mother was a secretary, and one day she took me along to her office and showed me a room this big.” She gave her four square-metre-office a sweeping look to show the expanse of the space.

She averts her gaze because her eyes are heavy with an emotion I cannot discern, and she continues: “That room was full of dusty files from the 1940s and 30s, and my mother told me to clean it and sort the files by date. Mind you, they were piled up to the ceiling.

The room had not been opened I believe since the colonial days and it was not just dusty and musty, there were scorpions and all sorts of filthy pests. So that was my first real job. I was paid Tsh750 ($0.33) and my mother helped me open my first bank account with the money,” she recalls.

Considering that she was so young, her mother was chided by her bosses for employing a child, although by the time the bosses found out, Ms Swai was done cleaning.

It was not all gloom for her though, as Ms Swai says she learnt a lot of stuff from those filthy files, information which would later help her get her first professional employment at the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Kigoma, in western Tanzania.

“It took me a week to clean that room and I used to lock myself in and pored over the files, reading a lot of stuff. By the time I was done, I had learnt basic filing skills and got interested in secretarial work. I used to arrive at my mother’s office clean and neat, but by the time I was done for the day, I was as filthy as a charcoal dealer,” she recalls.

Independent

Ms Swai had learned to be an independent child at an early age. At only two-months-old, she was left in the care of her grandmother in Mbeya, as her mother had to go back to work in Dar es Salaam.

When she turned six and was ready to join primary school, she was reunited with her mother, who shipped her off to boarding school for the rest of her childhood. It was while on one of the school holidays that her mother “employed” her as a cleaner.

Ms Swai had no sense of what it meant to grow up in a stable home with unconditional love and no wonder — immediately after finishing her secondary education, she was married off to a man who turned out to be abusive.

“My husband was very controlling. He didn’t want me to work, but I was used to being independent, so I got into a secret business partnership with my neighbour. She helped me start a chicken rearing business in the neighbourhood and at some point I was keeping 2,500 broiler chickens. My husband had no idea how I spent my time, and every morning when he left for work, I would also leave to go tend to my chickens,” she said.

Two years later, Ms Swai decided to follow her childhood dream of being a secretary and started teaching herself secretarial skills with plans to open a secretarial bureau.

Kuroiler chicken

Kuroiler chicken. FOTOSEARCH

“I sold off all the chicken and used the money to buy a printer, typewriter and an old computer that had Worldstar and Multimeet programmes. I trained myself in all secretarial duties and how to use the two programmes and in 1985, I opened my first secretarial bureau. Later I hired somebody to hold the fort for me as I looked for a secretarial job because I believed I was competent enough.”

One day, while in Dar es Salaam city centre, she saw a newspaper advertisement for a secretarial post at the local UN office. The job was at the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and she walked in with no appointment.

She recalls that a woman at the office by the name Hellen, talked to her about the job and asked her if she had a certificate in secretarial duties. Of course she did not, but she said she had been reading Pitman books on secretarial work and had taught herself typing and that she was well-versed in computer use and work registry.

She asked to be given a chance to prove herself. Hellen told her that they had already interviewed over 130 candidates but if she were willing to, she could take the practical test. She gladly did. That is how confident she was.

“They gave me a computer, and it had the Multimeet programme that I was using together with Worldstar at my bureau, so it was easy for me. They gave me a comprehension, oral, typing speed and skills test. I was done in a matter of minutes. They checked for spelling mistakes and found none.”

She got a call a few days later to meet the “big boss,” and she recalls that he was Ghanaian. He asked her why she wanted a post that would take her to Kigoma.

She said she wanted to get away from her marriage. The “big boss” said he was not sure if her husband would approve. But Ms Swai says she was adamant that it didn’t matter to her whether her husband approved, she would go.

She got the job and was given two days to travel to Kigoma. Unfortunately, her husband’s best friend happened to be working at the UNHCR offices and got wind of her job offer and informed him.

“That night he beat me up terribly. But I told him; ‘Do whatever you want to do but I am leaving. And I am not leaving alone, I’m leaving with my baby…’” She had an infant. “The following day I sold my secretarial bureau and left a day later.”

Working for the UN

She wasn’t able to take her daughter immediately with her to Kigoma, but came for her a few weeks later. Her husband had already filed for divorce and a custody battle ensued. She won.

The daughter, Maria A. Himud, is today a lawyer and one of the three partners of AKM Glitter Ltd.

In Kigoma, she had her work cut out for her.

She was handed a huge workload, servicing six departments and creating daily situation reports. She recalls leaving the office at midnight as routine. She was promoted within three months, but the promotion could not be activated because she lacked a secretarial certificate.

But the stars were aligned in her favour. She said: “A gentleman in the office then, now a very good friend of mine and currently working in Zimbabwe, was going on leave and he asked me, ‘Elizabeth what should I bring you?’ I said nothing.

He said, ‘All the girls in the office have asked for perfume and you are saying you want nothing?’” I told him what mattered to me was the thought behind the question. So he casually said, ‘Ok, I’ll bring you something.’”

The gentleman is Eddie Rowe. He had learned through the human resource office that Ms Swai did not have a secretarial certificate, and so while on leave in the US, he enrolled her for a long distance secretarial certificate programme at Thompson Rivers University in Canada.

Ms Swai says she was overjoyed when Mr Rowe called her and gave her the news. He had paid for the full course, plus shipping of study materials. She finished the course in one year instead of the designated two, and she got the promotion.

In her 18-year-long career with the UNHCR, Ms Swai was sponsored by two different colleagues for a certificate course in accounting and a diploma course in human resource management. She later put herself through a degree course in development studies at UNISA.

Throat cancer

Sadly, in 1989, she was diagnosed with stage three throat cancer. “I don’t know how I survived because most stage three cancer patients do not. My doctor had given me 90 days to live.”

She was treated at the Mwenge Hospital in Dar es Salaam by Dr Twalib Ngoma for six months before she sought further treatment in the United Kingdom.

She used her savings to pay for the treatment. After three months of chemotherapy treatment in the UK, she was back at work.

Not one to feel sorry for herself, she was involved in organising a major meeting in Kigoma of delegations of 12 different heads of UN organisations, ministers and Members of Parliament.

Her efforts caught the attention of the World Food Programme representative in Tanzania, Irene Lacy, who then asked her boss, Jean Francois Durieux, while he was in the UK, to let Ms Swai come work for her.

So one day, while still recovering from chemo in the UK, she got a call from Ms Lacy letting her know that she had been moved to the WFP and would be moving to pay Grade 6, Stage 7, up from Grade 5, Stage 5.

The poultry business

Ms Swai left the UNHCR in 2003, and in 2006, after much deliberation and research she went into business to do what she had started and abandoned two decades ago: The poultry business.

With the management skills gained at the UN and seeking to exploit existing agriculture opportunities, she registered AKM Glitter Company Ltd.

The company has three partners: Herself, her daughter, who initially was the company auditor, and Placid Athamas Kauzeni. They have been in business for 11 years now, not a small feat for an SME. But it has not been easy.

At some point, she had to sell her home; but her perseverance paid off when the company eventually secured donor funding. It is currently being supported by the World Poultry Foundation.

Elizabeth Swai showing a manual they use for theirl potential customers. PHOTO | CAROLINE ULIWA | NATION

Elizabeth Swai showing a manual they use for their potential customers. PHOTO | CAROLINE ULIWA | NATION

Today, AKM Glitter is in the front seat of the poultry business in Tanzania and is one of few certified Kuroiler chicken breeders in the country.

Kuroiler is a hybrid breed for both meat and eggs and can be reared in free range conditions since it is more resistant to diseases than the traditional free range breeds and has a yield of around 150 eggs per year.

“We import our eggs from India,” she said. As of August this year, AKM Glitter had launched a programme to increase its breeding capacity by creating a credit facility for farmers in 20 regions across the country.

“We have established our own microfinance credit facility department, setting aside about $200,000 to loan out in the form of supplies to poultry farmers.

We have a target of creating 480 franchises of Kuroiler farms all over the country in the next four years. We supply farmers — who have to be women or if the farm is owned by a man, then the manager has to be female — with month-old chicks that they raise for four weeks and in return, they put up a security of $500-$,1000.

We support the farmers by providing free veterinary services from partner doctors who get their medical supplies through our partners, Msami Veternary Services.

AKM Glitter partner veterinary doctor collecting supplies for distribution. PHOTO | CAROLINE ULIWA | NATION

AKM Glitter partner veterinary doctor collecting supplies for distribution. PHOTO | CAROLINE ULIWA | NATION

We currently have in our service 20 veterinary doctors and 20 agriculture extension officers who provide training to farmers, and the vets also provide awareness to consumers who are small scale farmers,” said Ms Swai.

In her efforts to empower women, Ms Swai working with Caroline Mutanamirwa and Mkunde Senyagwa, founded AWAN-African Women in Agribusiness Network in Tanzania, which was registered in 2015. AWAB encourages women entrepreneurs to run an inclusive business model.

Ms Swai is so thorough in her quest to comply with standards that when her company was drilling a borehole for a constant supply of water for the chicks, they sent a sample of the water to India for testing.

The water was found to be deficient and they were advised to use a water filter. The water is checked everyday for quality. It is no wonder that AKM Glitter has an International Organisation for Standardisation certificate and is working on getting better standards.

She is proof of the anecdote, “be the change you want to see.”