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Personality of the Week: Divine Ndhluka Changed the Narrative to Win at a “Man’s” Game. Now She’s Taking on Gender Bias

Entrepreneur Divine Ndhlukula poses for a photo at her home in Harare, Zimbabwe. Photo : Tafadzwa Ufumeli

By Tafadzwa Ufumeli, bird story agency

“I… appeal to the world; the storytellers, advertisers, and marketers to stop reinforcing, damaging gender stereotypes through their communications and start working with girls and young women to share diverse stories of girls’ power,” Divine Ndhluka says, in a statement that addresses her fast-growing network.

It’s a powerful statement on how narratives matter, coming from a woman known globally for her business success in the male-dominated security industry.

“I’m calling on men, I’m calling on women and enterprises out there to ensure the girls get equal support,” she adds.

“Together, we can take action so that 100 million girls can learn, lead, decide and thrive.”

Ndhlukula wants to see businesses run by women—most of which are designed to put food on the table—scale, from subsistence to commercial enterprises. And she believes that for that to happen, the narrative can and must, change.

She should know.

In 1998, she launched Securico, a private security firm that disrupted what was then widely regarded as a male domain, from her backyard. To succeed she had to change the narrative, both in terms of what women could do and also in terms of how the security sector was talked about and viewed.

“My experience in travelling made me realise that the security services sector was a very professional industry that could operate at a much higher level. Back then in Zimbabwe, I thought the market was not getting the value that it was supposed to get and realised that this was a gap I couldn’t explore,” Ndhlukula explained.

She only had four employees and capital of 1200 US dollars, but with a passion to drive change in her society and a business plan to match, the market responded.

“Quality was lacking because people who worked in the sector had low self-esteem; they did not believe in what they were doing. They thought working as a security guard was the last resort for work,” she said. That was a narrative she realised she could change.

Changing the industry’s narrative helped ensure that her own employees built pride in their chosen profession. It also meant they could improve their overall service levels and in the process help create a more valued and trusted service. It wasn’t easy and often, it felt like she was reinventing the wheel, she said.

“The challenges were many; I didn’t know the security sector. For you to run a security company, you were expected to have worked in the services sector like the army, the police, or the prisons.”

Just over two decades later, Ndhlukula, 61, has built a multi-million dollar empire. Her security firm is one of the biggest in Zimbabwe and is the first Zimbabwean security outfit to achieve ISO (International Organization for Standardisation) certification.

Forbes reported that by 2012, Securico had a revenue base of 13 million US dollars. Today, it employs more than 4000 people, 1000 of whom are women. According to the International Women’s Entrepreneurial Challenge, the company is valued at over 800 million US dollars. Its CEO, one of Africa’s most renowned female business leaders, is lending her voice to uplift women on the continent and beyond.

“I appeal to corporate decision-makers to create space and opportunities that allow girls and young women to have further power to make crucial decisions affecting their own lives,” Ndhlukula said in a message posted by the Girls Get Equal campaign, a program of Plan International that she supports.

Security is not the only sector that Ndhlukula is seeking to transform. The Midlands State University MBA graduate has agriculture in her sights, too. Her personal foray into farming came about when her brother struggled to keep afloat a farm he had inherited.

The bank wanted to sell the farm to recoup the loan extended to her brother against the farm’s title deeds. So she cleared off the debts and ended up owning the farm.

“For me, farming is something that has become close to my heart and I’m very passionate about it. We are focused on livestock production,” she said.

She is currently working with thousands of smallholder farmers to transform and commercialise the goat industry to become one of the biggest lines of livestock production.

“A lot of people are now interested in goat farming because its commercial value has grown significantly; there’s a huge market for it. We are transforming the smallholder farmers to commercialise. We are offering them training, genetic improvement, technical support and so on,” she said.

Ndhlakula has not had entrepreneurial success at everything she has tried. Before starting the security enterprise, she tried the trucking business as well as catering. But it was in security services that she recognised the biggest potential for growth—and wider societal impact.

In 2011, Securico won the Legatum Africa Award for Entrepreneurship while in 2014 the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) selected Divine Ndlukula as one of the Top 3 Global Women in Business. She won the Forbes Africa Businesswoman of the Year in 2019.

“I don’t think it’s about the sciences but about the passion for an idea. What matters is, if you have got an idea, do you believe in the idea, do you love what you do? For me I said to myself, there’s a gap that I’m going to fulfil and that gap was a services-oriented company, quality kind of orientation that I saw was lacking in the sector,” she explained. She is now putting that same passion into changing the way people see gender.

“I believe every girl has power over her own life and can shape the world around her. The future belongs to girls and women. I will not stop until every girl is equally seen, heard, and valued,” she said in the statement posted on Girls Get Equal.

It’s an issue she has lived with for years, learning early in life that convincing her society—including corporate heads—that her gender had nothing to do with her capabilities was going to be hard. Miffed by deeply-ingrained systemic biases that stymied the progress of women in Zimbabwe, she says she decided to be the change she wished to see in her community, country, and the world.

Launching her own business was the first step in deciding that destiny.

“I was very clear that I was never going to work for anybody for too long, I knew that I was going to start my things and I also knew that it was going to be a significant entity,” she told bird.

Now she wants every girl on the planet to have the choice to do the same. With the success she’s had in changing the narrative in business, it’s likely that her voice is going to be heard loud and clear on this issue, too.

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