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As a child, I sat on my mother’s lap as she read Aesop’s Fables aloud stories like “How the Leopard Got Its Spots” and “How the Elephant Got Its Trunk” and I knew that I wanted to visit Africa someday. So, a few years back when Columbia Business School asked me if I’d be interested in teaching in Goldman Sachs’s 10,000 Women program at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, I quickly agreed. ’I can take a side trip on a safari,’ I thought. What I didn’t realize at the time was how great an impact the whole experience would actually have on me.
There is a wonderful ancient saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” My journey led me to individuals who taught me a new perspective on the world and its challenges. Oh, the lions and giraffes were interesting. But it was the selfless husband and wife, Dutch physicians, who had left their practices in Amsterdam and dedicated their lives to providing food, shelter, and medical care to children in the remote bush, who really humbled me. It was the kids, orphaned by AIDS or simply abandoned for lack of money but still laughing and playing, who showed me what is really meaningful.
It was also Elizabeth Swai, an incredible woman I met there, who taught me so much. She is a teacher with greater gifts to offer than the many books I’ve read, the business meetings I’ve attended, or the endless presentations I’ve sat through with graphs and spreadsheets. I could go on and on with my impressions of Africa, but I think the best way to convey what I learned is to relay her story.
I met Elizabeth on my first visit to Dar es Salaam and, on the advice of another professor, I set up a meeting with her to hear her story. Two years later, when I returned to Tanzania, I invited Elizabeth to catch up over lunch. It was remarkable how much she had accomplished and how many others she had helped since our first meeting.
Here is Elizabeth’s story in her own words:
“I believe if you love the poor you will be loved in return. I would often think as a child, ’If I could work to deliver to the poor indirectly and provide for those that need me most, my life would be rewarding.’ This idea became my life’s passion.
“I was born Elizabeth Christopher Swai in a safari village in Southern Tanzania in 1968. With its extraordinary diversity of game, birdlife, and habitats, a safari in this part of the world is no ordinary experience. But in reality, for us born here, focusing on survival is almost innate from the time of birth. Since childhood, I was determined to not just survive but to build something meaningful.
“Growing up, I seemed to have an unrelenting quest for truth where knowledge served as the only quencher the secret to what I might become. As a child I sought to understand, to know the ’Why?’ behind everything. It was, however, a real challenge, as my mother abandoned me as a newborn and left me in the care of my elderly grandmother. I never learned who my father was and spent my childhood in the depths of unhappiness doing endless laborious tasks. The one salvation was I did understand that education would provide an outlet, and I spent every free moment learning about something new.
“I worked in my free time baking and selling buns and the few pennies I earned went directly toward the opportunity to go to school. Later, I sold chickens to pay for secretarial training. By the time I finished school, I had been forced into a marriage with a much older man, and, as a very young woman, already had a four-year old daughter. Determined to stand on my own feet and not give up, I marketed my acquired skills and landed a highly sought-after secretary position with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kigoma. I was becoming the independent woman I had dreamed of being.
“I did well at the UNHCR, where I stayed for six and a half years before being transferred to the World Food Programme, and enhanced my skills and vision of the world.
“With $10,000 US dollars I had scraped together from my UN job, I decided to strike out on my own. I started a small chicken farm for my family. Most of my friends thought I was crazy and tried to talk me out of it. I respected their advice, and I don’t blame them for thinking I had lost my senses, leaving a fixed monthly salary and the accompanying prestige. But I was looking for satisfaction and authenticity and to leverage my power as a person.”
Elizabeth’s Business Idea
“I was determined to create a brand that anticipated consumer trends namely healthier, organic foods. From my childhood experience growing up on a farm, I understood the basics of farming and farm animals and quickly sought to put these skills to work. Around that time, I realized I needed real knowledge of business management to be successful.
“I heard about a competition facilitated by the University of Dar es Salaam and, although not experienced in writing a business plan, I gave it a try. My business plan was ranked amongst the top 10 best business plans out of more than 1,000 submitted. I was thrilled. They even rewarded me with a trip to the Netherlands. My world was expanding.
“I then enrolled in an entrepreneurship course at the University of Dar es Salaam in collaboration with Columbia Business School. It was here that I learned business basics like human resources, financial management, marketing, fundraising, and the art of networking. It was a rewarding and coveted experience. It was also here that I met Professor Clifford. Through his lectures, I learned a lot about humanity, commitment, sharing, and integrity. This course has been a blessing in many ways, providing me with a level of confidence I did not have before. Like my classmates, I felt empowered with the right knowledge for the betterment of my commerce.”
More about my experience
From my perspective, having Elizabeth in the program was a profound gift as was the presence of so many other participants. Standing before a classroom filled with people with such a strong desire to learn was extraordinary. The spirit of camaraderie was palpable. These people had developed the perseverance to overcome challenges without complaining, and they were dedicated to improving not only their own lives but the lives of their families and fellow students as well.
On my second trip to Dar es Salaam, I invited a few of the students to a luncheon. Elizabeth sat next to me and shared the following update:
“After the course, I decided to ‘pass it on’ by training local farmers on simple methods of financial management and to train women in poultry keeping to share some of the knowledge I had the opportunity to acquire. So, I translated teaching materials from Professor Clifford’s entrepreneurship class into Kiswahili. To date, I have trained about 300 farmers in Pwani. Many are doing wonderfully. One of my students calls me often to let me know how he is doing. I trained him a year ago, and today he has over 4,000 chickens. His progress makes me very proud.
“Despite the challenges I encounter in business and in life, I remain focused, and I never give up. Today, my business continues to grow. I have 15 professional staff members at my headquarters in Dar es Salaam. Seven employees are non-skilled but motivated to progress and learn to manage the hatchery with a capacity of producing 15,000 day-old chicks, poultry house of 7,000 organic poultry and 3,000 broiler chickens, and a milling with a capacity to produce 10 tons a day. I am now 43 and remain incubated by the University of Dar as Salaam. I have contributed in many ways to their program, including sharing my experience with other entrepreneurs and employing youth from the university who are mostly unemployed. I also continue to consult on business plans and poultry keeping.
“I never tire for knowledge and always remain committed to whatever I do. Every experience is an opportunity to learn and grow, and my sights are set high.”
There is little left to say about this incredible woman. She is a living example of the power of the human spirit. Thank you, Elizabeth, for the profound lessons you’ve taught me.