CMG   16 June 2020

Kenyan entrepreneur Njeri Muhia portrait short

Njeri Muhia is a business and investment leader and a co-founder of ZAO Invest, an early-stage fintech start-up in London. Born and raised in Kenya, she’s dedicated to bridging the gap between diaspora businesses and Africa’s small and medium enterprises (SME).

Her company, ZAOinvest, is an impact-investing platform that unlocks secure and profitable investments in Small and Medium Enterprises in Africa.

The King’s College alumni has lived in many countries around the world. But it was in Kenya where she first became interested in setting up a business that will help with the challenges faced by many African entrepreneurs.

Widely respected and celebrated in the business sector, Njeri took time out to explain to us what ZAO is all about and the story behind its success.

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Hi Njeri, what was your greatest source of inspiration?

My mother! She always said, ‘Be careful where you source your inspiration from and be inspired by things other than material achievement and possessions.

This got me to think about creating something bigger, something that serves others and not only me. Even if it was to serve only one more person. And that’s why we created ZAO.

How did you step into entrepreneurship?

I have been keen on entrepreneurship for a long time. When I was about 9 years old, my mum had a computer and a printer and this was a privilege not many households had. I was just finishing high school when, together with some friends, I decided to build an e-commerce platform for African clothing in Kenya.

Tell us more about your beginnings as an entrepreneur.

Unfortunately, there was not much information available to us at the time. We were fresh high school graduates, and so we didn’t know much about inventory, CRM and such alike.

It was a learning curve and we lasted for a year. Eventually, we decided it was not yet our time to shine. Plus the ecosystem was not ready for that sort of platform.

When getting my college degree, I was always wondering how I could use everything I’m learning and apply it in the world. I aspired to learn about different products and markets and give access to a new community of people where that product or service is not usually found. And that’s how the ZAO was born - on the idea of the inclusion of others.

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What’s ZAO about and how does it help small businesses in Africa?

ZAO is a crowdlending platform for impact investments in the African region. We are trying to solve two problems at the same time. Firstly, the diaspora people do not have access to profitable transformative projects in the region and home countries. We are addressing this issue.

The second challenge is access to capital. Sadly, capital doesn’t come in easy, as African SMEs are often considered risky for outside investment. We want to bring African SMEs and investors to a point where they can find a common ground.

How do you work with the diaspora communities?

I’m always on the lookout for opportunities for the African continent. Me and my team are very diligent in understanding different markets and networks. We’ve started structuring private investment opportunities and are calling out to early adopters who might be interested in the existing portfolio of projects in the East-African region.

The portfolio includes projects in agriculture, energy or healthcare. We understand that the success factor for African investment is trust and transparency -  which is something we’re working hard on.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with your business?

I’d start with the trust issues. So many people in the diaspora have experienced financial loss due to risky investors pulling out their offer at the last minute. They are often very suspicious of opportunities that come their way. Being completely transparent is our way of addressing this concern. The more transparent we are able to be, the more trust we can build between investors and SMEs.

We are educating people that SME’s might not have traditional means to guarantee a return on investment. ZAO is helping to establish repayments that are dependable and profitable for both parties.

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What was your greatest lesson in business?

My greatest lesson in business is learning the power of open and straightforward communication with the key players. As a business of our kind, we really need to know the ins and outs of the market and have a solid network of connections in the area.

A lot of ZAO’S success has come from networking with people you might generally consider as competitors but have instead become collaborators.

Do you have any advice for fellow businesswomen who are looking to succeed?

I haven’t been raised in a banking and finance environment. When I entered the industry, I quickly realised how competitive it really is. I found it difficult to voice my opinions in front of seasoned professionals, or to be heard by them! When I learned how to be more confident, it was a real changing point for me. I have realised that I don’t need to fit into anyone’s shoes or behave in a particular way to succeed. It doesn’t matter than I’m younger than whom I’m speaking to, that I’m a female or where I was born. So, my advice would be to own that you’re talented and that you’re bringing something valuable to the table!

I am watching Africa raising an inspirational generation of leaders and businesses. If the right motives and due diligence are observed, it will only emphasise the need for a collaborative ecosystem.

If you’re in Africa, find a company that aligns with your values. Find the right team to support you - especially if you want to work on projects remotely. I believe that expertise is one thing, but motivation is the key differentiator on who to partner and build a business with.

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