Thelma Chimbganda is our kind of woman. Her take on life and the tenacity she has demonstrated in being a serial entrepreneur and navigating the failures along the way are just what we need to start the week! Get to know who she is by reading her entrepreneurial journey.
Tell us about yourself.
[I am] the girl next door with big dreams and ambitions. I was born in Chitungwiza (Zimbabwe) and did primary school there. We moved to Prospect (Harare) in 2001, where I went through adulthood. My grandmother bestowed upon me the most hardworking grandchild title, something I embodied and tried to live up to.
She herself was a hard worker and enterprising. My dad would tell us stories of how Gogo (grandmother) would travel on the bus carrier from Mutoko to Harare to sell African broomsticks (mutsvairo) at Mbare so that she could send her kids to school. My Dad also left formal employment to pursue several business ventures. He had a furniture manufacturing company, went into transport, safety and health consultancy then established a school together with my mother. I was blessed with an enterprising spirit too.
How did your upbringing shape the woman you are today?
I come from a tight knit and loving family, that is for sure. We tease our husbands [saying] if you married one, you married all three. We are three girls, and back then, the girl child was frowned upon. My mum had her fair share of being shamed for giving birth to girls. My parents taught us to love one another, to carry each other’s burden, to uplift each other and to be humble. My father was the type of man who would show up in shorts at your wedding because he was comfortable and proud of where he came from.
We didn’t have much. My mother was a primary school teacher, and my Dad was trying to make ends meet through his business ventures. Mind you, he didn’t have a college diploma or degree. So I come from a humble family, really, and we have worked so so hard to get to where we are now without influential networks. My older sister is a qualified nurse based in the UK, and my younger sister, the one I partnered with, has a degree in chemical engineering.
My upbringing has helped me to be genuine about myself. I chose intimate and authentic connections over fame. I am able to clap hands and celebrate other people. Someone once said that my compassion was a weakness. [I would later realize] that it helps me to be patient and listen to people, which has been a source of strength to our business. Success to me is when everyone who is around me is winning.
What are Beyond Borders Logistics and TSOKA™️?
These are companies registered in Zimbabwe and South Africa respectively. We provide air-, sea- and land-based first mile to last mile logistics solutions for start-ups and small and medium entrepreneurs in Africa.
Beyond Borders Logistics (BBL) focuses mainly on international freight forwarding, procurement, project management, customs clearing and consultancy on how to shop and ship from abroad. On the other hand, TSOKA™️ International’s mandate is to provide last-mile delivery solutions. TSOKA™️ offers customized corporate delivery solutions, standard and on-demand local delivery services as well as intercity delivery services in Zimbabwe and South Africa. TSOKA™️ has recently added distribution to its portfolio.
Tell us more about your journey in starting business.
I returned to Zimbabwe from Malawi in 2010, where I had acquired a professional qualification in management accounting. My hopes were to get employed by a bank as a strategy consultant for SMEs (small and medium enterprises). That did not happen.
At that time, my dad had just registered a new venture: training organizations in fire safety practices. He brought me on board as his PA, I believe – he didn’t give me a job description .
The company was new. That meant we needed clients, and I assumed that role of writing up the company profile, proposals, quotations. I essentially carried out the administrative work, business development, marketing and finance. The exposure was great as it capacitated me to understand what building from the ground meant, and it re-enforced my abilities to create relationships and to be self-efficient.
I later enrolled for an undergraduate degree in management and entrepreneurial development studies, majoring in finance at the Women’s University in Africa (WUA). Our learning campus at TelOne at that time [had] no canteen. I immediately saw an opportunity to sell food. After class, I would go home and bake muffins. I am a self-taught baker, by the way, and a food lover. I also learnt how to make pies. So I would sell either muffins and burgers or pies. The demand for my products rose, and it was a challenge to meet it whilst balancing school.
I came to know about Super Pies, a company that was new to the market and had very meaty pies. I approached them for a partnership to supply me with pies at a discount. I later on entered into an agreement with my club, Enactus, to run a confectionery shop at the WUA main campus in Mt. Pleasant. I also signed an agreement with Baker’s Inn, and they gave me a warmer and would deliver confectionery items to me.
I developed an interest in bespoke/designer cakes and started baking cakes for extra income. Whenever I had extra income, I would find another opportunity to invest in. I invested in pig farming and had a mobile butchery. The big picture was to get into cattle ranching. I managed to buy two cattle, which a relative who was supposed to help me went on to sell, and that betrayal put me off that project.
My parents never bought me clothes or phones throughout university, [yet] I was very comfortable.
Because of my passion for food, I thought that is what I would venture into. I saw myself as the next great Lobels. Nonetheless, when I graduated I expanded and set up another shop at Msasa. I tried to keep the university shop running, but somehow it died a slow death. The Msasa shop was a wrong move. It took a lot of my savings until I was broke. I remembered the words of Tawanda Nyambirai of TN Holdings: ‘If something is not working, it’s not an embarrassment to say it’s not working and leave.’
I closed both shops and got into depression. I never expected that my passion would fail. My depression was made worse when my relationship with a long-time boyfriend also ended at that same time.
Fast forward, I was called by Women’s University in Africa to join their team as a graduate trainee in the business development, marketing and public relations department. When I was a student, I had demonstrated my skills to foster relationships and organize events.
My stint at WUA was somewhat short as I got an opportunity to work full time at Reformed Church University (RCU) in Masvingo as their business development officer. Sometimes, a little detour is very necessary. I had the opportunity to work with very high and important delegates. I learnt about administrative structures and systems. Most importantly, I learnt the importance of building good relationships to achieve success. If you want to go far, collaborate. Even though I was gainfully employed, deep down I felt I was not cut out for reporting at 8 a.m. and clocking out at 5 p.m.
In 2018, I learnt about a lady named Sikhu who was selling a book on how to ship from China. I purchased the book and started my e-commerce business. Because I was in Masvingo, I was not able to collect and deliver to my clients, who were predominantly in Harare, and my sister would assist with payments and deliveries.
However, in 2018 I got pregnant and did not want to do anything literally. I dropped off the social and business scene. When I came back in 2019, a lot of changes had happened in the China to Zimbabwe logistics space. I started group buying, or rather runner services. I was still in Masvingo, and my sister in Harare continued on the logistics end.
Sikhu then approached me and a number of other people to teach people on WhatsApp how to buy online and ship from China. We were getting some commission from that. I had already gotten access to many groups with Zimbabweans, and my stay in Malawi gave me access to that group too. My husband had gotten a new job in another town, leaving our newborn and myself in Masvingo.
Early 2019, the economy took a turn around when the 1:1 came into effect. Our salaries were no longer coming on time and could barely meet my rental. My husband had found a new job and relocated to another city. You can imagine the financial and social stress with a 3-month-old baby.
My sister had a huge influence in my resignation from RCU. She cited the need for my husband and I as newly weds with a toddler to be together. I have always believed that I am never out of options. There is always another move. I thought, ‘Well I could reawaken my passion for food.’ Besides, I had that commission I was getting from teaching about online shopping plus the runner services. I took a major leap of faith and resigned in May 2019.
In July 2019, my parents wanted a solar system from China. We bought and shipped through a certain company. The service we received was disappointing to say the least. We were not supposed to ask for updates or complain. To make matters worse, part of the consignment was seized after making all payments, and we were left to recover the goods on our own. As if that was not enough, the online teaching program came to an end in August.
At that time though, our kilograms from group buying had increased considerably. We could meet the minimum weight requirement for air shipping. I then asked my sister what was stopping us from getting into that space. We had identified the gaps and weaknesses with that niche. Our first China consignment was in March 2020, weighing around 130 kg. That is how we started Beyond Borders Logistics with my sister.
What drove you to write an e-book on how to shop and ship from Dubai?
One of the things that creates social differences between the haves and the have-nots is information. A few years ago, you had to travel to China or India or South Africa to buy what you wanted. China was ‘reserved’ for those with more capital until Sikhu wrote a guide that has helped a lot of people. The Dubai e-guide is available to bridge that information gap.
In a tech-driven world we are living [in], now almost anything is now possible. That is why it is also important to have different sources where you either export to or import from. The information in the e-guide in the right hands is worth thousands of dollars. The e-guide is levelling the playing field for those who can’t purchase it if it was being sold. I know the saying that goes what you don’t pay for you don’t value, but we receive gifts from loved ones that we cherish till death. This is my gift to every man or woman entrepreneur who wants to make a difference in their lives.
You mentioned that you experienced colourism as a child. What was your experience and what encouragement can you offer young women going through the same?
My understanding of [skin shaming] is when people make you feel less worthy of a person because of your body or tone of skin. When you feel you are not worthy of being loved because you are not just light-skinned enough. Or you will not amount to anything because your body is not attractive enough to get a yes on a deal.
Unfortunately, African society has driven an ideology that success looks a certain way. I was skin-shamed as a child because I was darker than most people. The name-calling really killed my self-image. I was always conscious of the next girl. I could have been the brightest mentally but felt that people couldn’t get past my skin tone, so I would shut down.
It took me 14 years of my life to step out of my comfort zone and begin to move in the direction of success. That moment when I raised my hand and volunteered to be the class representative for my class changed my life.
There will always be someone more attractive, beautiful and successful than you, but there will always be one you. What is it that you want out of your life? You need to make a conscious decision to move past what has been said about or to you. Your dream is way [more] important than your body or skin. Living your life’s purpose is what is going to break generational curses. You are too precious to live a mediocre life. Constantly give yourself positive affirmations, and begin to live a purposeful and happy life that God designed for you because no one is coming to do that for you.
What is the most important factor a woman should consider when starting a business?
Emotional intelligence! It’s going to be very uncomfortable for you as a female leader, unfortunately. You need to be assertive, firm and fair.
What keeps you going on challenging days?
That it will get better. That we have had good days too, so challenging days are there to balance out the equation. The logistics industry is volatile. There are so many factors that you have no control over which makes it harder to explain to clients who expect you to deliver as per order and on time. Our business model is built on honesty. Despite the complexity of the business, our honesty is our saving grace.
Find Thelma on:
Facebook: Thelma Chimbganda
LinkedIn: Thelma Chimbganda
Beyond Borders Logistics
LinkedIn: Beyond Borders Logistics
LinkedIn: TSOKA™️ International