Growing up, she wanted to be a bank teller or a teacher. Now, she is a professional IT engineer, internet marketing expert and entrepreneur.
“I never had a specific dream. I admired the ladies who worked in banks because of how they dressed and looked. At the same time, I wanted to be a teacher, getting inspiration from my mother who was already in the field,” she said.
Her name is Tofara Chokera. She was a bit confused about what she wanted to be growing up; all she knew was that she wanted to make her mother proud. Many youths in Zimbabwe and in various developing countries are in the same situation Tofara was in. They lack career guidance and go for anything that comes their way, but how did Tofara end up an IT engineer?
“I did not really get information on career guidance or career development,” Tofara told The Weight She Carries. “I studied commercial subjects at school and my aim was to pursue a career in the commerce field, but when I got to Midlands State University, I was introduced to a new degree, Information Systems and had a change of mind. I applied and got a place. I must say I had to summon a lot of courage because I had never touched or used a computer, yet I was applying for a computer degree. That is how I became an IT engineer.”
Tofara proposed that lack of career guidance is a stumbling block for many youths, especially those in remote areas. She is already taking the initiative to help them. In her home town, Zvishavane, Zimbabwe, many youths drop out of school and go into illegal mining.
“Many youths do not have exposure that life can give them anything beyond what they are seeing. That is why I’m going out there and teaching on online marketing. I also use online methods like WhatsApp to teach on career guidance and if I push on, the youth will be motivated,” she said.
Tofara says she was raised by a single mother who never lamented about her situation or begged for survival. Her mother worked hard in order to raise Tofara and two other siblings, taking care of their extended family at the same time.
“My mom was a teacher; taking care of us was her priority. We were never chased out of school for [lacking] fees; my mother used to sew and sell things. She would do everything to supplement her salary. My mother was never negative. Sometimes as a single woman, life is tough because you never have anyone to help you with fees or food, but one should stay positive and prioritize education,” she said. “Do not sit down and cry about your situation. Start working with your hands; if it is necessary, go back to school. There are many opportunities to learn skills for free online. I have used websites like canva.com, 21cskills.Africa and factory24.org.”
Being a single mom did not stop Tofara’s mother from being a source of inspiration to the community. She assisted a lot of women with a dressmaking school that she started and Tofara only realized the lessons she learnt from her mother later on in life.
“When I graduated, I started working as an engineer. I started to notice that my salary was not enough and needed to do something to increase my income,” she said. “My mother never taught us to be entrepreneurs. Her focus was on getting us an education but I learnt a lot from what she did.”
A lot of people want to supplement their salary; they want to do business, but the biggest challenge is how and where to start. Such was the case with Tofara. She started doing any business that was profitable at the given time, from selling clay vases to secondhand clothes to cakes. Each time sales dropped, she would quit.
“I ran with anything that was selling at that time. I would start and stop selling like nobody’s business. At that point I started reading on entrepreneurship. I gave myself time to study my passion. That was the birth of African Queen Zimbabwe, where I sell African print material, finished products and accessories,” she said. “Selling is good, but you should ask yourself, ‘What am I selling?’”
Tofara was fortunate enough to realize the mistakes she was making in business early and dealt with that, but she started a business many would say is flooded. In Zimbabwe, almost every street has a shop that sells African print. How then did Tofara manage to succeed?
“My research really helped me. I had a lot of negative feedback even from family. They told me the African print market was already flooded. I had to stand strong. I had the genuine products, which was an added advantage,” she said. “Through researching, I found out there is a potential and open market in Europe and other continents. I grew my business online and soon my products were being sold in South Africa and shipped to countries like the UK and New Zealand. This led to the opening of Tofara Online.”
Yes, she started to market her business online, but it also grew locally. What are some of the key pillars that made her succeed on both selling platforms? Many business people complain of low sales and some even fail to penetrate the online market.
“Innovation is key. People who use traditional methods of selling are the ones always complaining [about] low sales. Find ways of making your product accessible like doing door to door deliveries. You can even use public transport. When selling online now, you can design posters, create an application, create a website,” she said. “Content drives online sales; do not just engage [with] your clients when you want to advertise. Share information that is relevant and beneficial so as to capture new customers. That way, you are different from a person waiting for customers to come.”
“Online marketing is not something you start today and wake up big, it’s not yet a thing in Zimbabwe, but that is where all the foreign currency is. As long as we are in our country and selling our products locally while importing raw materials then it will be a struggle. The problem is people limit themselves a lot,” she said. “You can sell anything online be it peanut butter or madora or even share recipes on how to cook traditional meals. The future of online selling is bright if we embrace and incorporate it. It is time to embrace technology for business growth.”
Tofara is not just an entrepreneur, but also a wife and mother to two boys. Many mothers use family as an excuse for not starting businesses, and she has a word of advice for them.
“It’s no longer an era for women to sit down and wait for their husbands to bring food on the table. Being a stay-at-home mom is not even an excuse; you [can] be online and start a business from the comfort of your home,” she said. “Even if your husband is well-to-do or has lots of money it’s not the time for you to let him do everything. Make your own money. It doesn’t make sense for you to wake up and sit; it’s time for you to explore. Start small and grow. “
Time management is a bit tricky when you are doing business, entrepreneurship and raising a family. Tofara reads books on time management which she says is very critical if you want to create a balance in all three. She gives herself working hours and if she has to do extra work, she makes it a point to communicate it with her family. She also allows herself to rest after overworking.
“Give yourself time out. Business is [stressful] and there are times when you burn out. We need to make sure as much as we are working, we are resting, but not too much. I personally cannot sleep the whole night. I read and research when the boys are sleeping so that I accomplish more,” she said.
Her top three books are Soar by T. D. Jakes in which he likens starting a business to the taking off of a plane. Second on Tofara’s book list is You Have All It Takes by Edna Mukurazhizha where Edna writes about cultivating the seed of greatness. Last but not least is Cindy Trimm’s Commanding Your Morning which inspires Tofara to have a positive mindset even when going through a rough patch.
Tofara is passionate about women and young entrepreneurs and believes that they have the power to turn things around.
“If we do not have a link to the global world and if we do not have access to the internet and people who are doing well then we will not have inspiration. That is why I’m going to remote areas and educating them on digital marketing. I believe the world needs every woman and young entrepreneur to work towards a better place for us. We should not come to a point where we suffer and quit. We need to act and make sure the world is a better place because of our efforts.”
Tofara’s parting words are:
“An entrepreneur is someone who looks at problems in his or her community and strives to solve them. It comes with a passion and desire. Make impact in your community whether online or offline. Travel out there; impart knowledge. Do not limit yourself to selling products only; sell ideas and services. Make yourself visible.”
“My power quote is ‘You have all it takes’ by Edna Mukurazhizha. Success lies in you. Success is not about monetary things; it’s about your ability to make changes in your community. Success is making sure someone is benefiting or getting inspiration from your life. Let’s get soaring!”
Through digital marketing, Tofara was identified by Afrolynk and she is currently pushing their agenda in Zimbabwe. She has an online magazine, African Queen Zimbabwe and an online bookstore, Rava. She is a well-known speaker. She has achieved a lot in a short space of time and the sky is the limit for her.
Phoebie Shamiso Chigonde is a journalist passionate about gender equality, social development programmes and grassroots-based solution seeking initiatives. She has a passion for women and community development. Phoebie is also a radio personality at a regional commercial radio station, a platform that enables her to network with like-minded women, journalists and activists as she continues to document and tell the story of the ordinary woman from the lens of that very ordinary woman.