Nenneya Shields, a recent MIIS graduate and young mother of a 3-year old, recently launched her career in the social impact space after completing the Frontier Market Scouts (FMS) program. Nenneya is the Director of Impact and Learning at Jibu and she is based in Kampala, Uganda. She spoke with CSIL’s Outreach Associate, Clare Margason, about her unique experience of managing a fast-paced leadership role supporting a social franchise and the daily demands of parenting a toddler.
What does Jibu do, how does it relate to social impact, and where does it operate?
Jibu is everything social impact – from the business model itself, to how we treat our customers, and to the products that we offer. I’ll walk you through the various aspects of our business and impact.
Jibu provides access to clean, safe and radically affordable drinking water in urban locations in East Africa. We operate using a franchise model. Local entrepreneurs invest in their own franchise using the branding and recognition of Jibu to launch their neighborhood store. Each store has its own filtration machine that filters previously unsafe water in multiple steps and packages the water in reusable bottles that can be brought back by the customer for a refill. A customer places a deposit on the bottle and then brings the empty bottle back when the water is finished, taking a new bottle but only paying for the water at a fraction of the cost. Relative to other bottled water companies in the area, Jibu has a strong price advantage because the refill model and localized production of water keeps costs low, whereas customers pay the full price of a new bottle each time when buying from competitors. Jibu focuses on ensuring quality and convenience by training filtration machine operators regularly and performing strict quality checks on each franchise with the ultimate goal of always providing safe and clean water to customers. With prices so much lower than other bottled water companies in the area, Jibu is able to reach customers that previously couldn’t afford safe water and who regularly boiled water for drinking, unable to decontaminate the water completely and resulting in the regular occurrence of water borne illness and disease.
Jibu’s main competition is boiling water. It is a very common practice in East Africa and a difficult behavior to change. Educating individuals about the health implications when boiling water helps bring awareness to the issue. It is true that boiling water can kill some bacteria with heat, but certainly does not get rid of other contaminants such as rust or metals found in piping throughout the city. Furthermore, once boiled and cooled for drinking later, water is often stored in such a way that many contaminants and bacteria reenter the water. For these reasons and more, people continue to fall sick with water borne illnesses that can be avoided by drinking purified water.
In addition to the health focus and convenience of neighborhood locations where customers can simply walk a short distance to refill their water, Jibu is passionately committed to creating entrepreneurship and employment opportunities. In East Africa, jobs are hard to find, even for the highly educated. Not only do we provide these opportunities to potential franchise owners and their employees but expand those opportunities by implementing a microfranchise model. Microfranchises are small boutiques that buy from the larger franchises and resell the water to areas that are outside of the franchise’s convenient reach. This brings water even closer to households. These microfranchisees also operate their businesses and provide even more job opportunities when they hire employees.
Jibu entrepreneurs and franchise owners pay a licensing fee for the rights to our brand, business support, training and technical assistance, but they are in charge of operating, and managing their business. We encourage them to look for the best way to reach their neighborhood and customers based on their business needs, recognizing that each franchise location has different opportunities and challenges. We currently have just under 30 franchisees, with some owning multiple stores and 100+ microfranchisees in Uganda, Rwanda and Kenya. Today the Jibu network provides over 420 jobs in those countries alone and looks to expand to new regions and countries in the coming years. The franchise and microfranchise model allows us to reach more and more customers who were previously boiling water and households drinking Jibu water report a significant decrease in water borne illnesses now that they can afford purified water within walking distance of their home.
Can you describe your current role and responsibilities?
I currently work as the Director of Impact and Learning for East Africa. I’m based in Kampala, Uganda, but I work with our businesses in Rwanda and Kenya as well. On the “impact” side of things, my work is to track the aforementioned data and help us understand metrics such as how many customers we are serving, how many jobs we are creating and in what ways we are improving community health. We recently ran two city wide surveys of our current customers to gain better insight into their needs and preferences with regards to the products we offer, our price point and the quality of our water. On the “learning” side of things, my focus is on providing training modules to support our franchisees, microfranchisees and employees. We train each entrepreneur in business literacy skills and offer any operational support they may need. I deliver the training modules themselves and help facilitate trainings as well in order to provide the entrepreneurs with whatever business acumen they need to be successful and reach more customers. Since I am also impact focused, I make sure to bake Jibu’s mission into all of the modules and encourage trainings on mission alignment itself, since social entrepreneurship is a newer model in East Africa and many of our entrepreneurs are learning how to balance profit and impact for the first time. Examples of modules include training franchisees on how to fill and submit monthly P&Ls, how to submit local purchase orders to fill their inventory needs or training employees on customer service skills. In addition to the impact and learning work, I serve as Jibu’s Kiva Coordinator and help manage the process of posting and repaying loans for our franchisees who are now able to source funding through Kiva, helping them to pay for inventory costs and increasing their initial working capital.
Can you tell us about your daily routine?
Generally, I wake up around 5:30 A.M. to get some quiet time and prepare for the day. My son, Aiden Zikora, will wake up around 6 A.M. to have breakfast and I pack his bags and snackbox for the day. He is just under three years old and full of energy, so we usually run and kick the football around the grass in our compound before his school shuttle arrives by 7 A.M. Nowadays I jump on a boda (motorcycle taxi) to travel the short distance to work and once there, the Jibu team holds our morning huddle. This is a great start to our day and brings everyone together, passing a ball around offering our responses to that day’s topic. The topic may be to tell the group something positive about yourself, a favorite place in the world or specifically what you plan to concentrate on at work that day. This always gets us energized and it is awesome to start the day seeing everyone’s smiling faces before we break into our individual tasks.
From there, if it is a Tuesday, we have a weekly team meeting to catch each other up on what we are doing and find ways to support each other in our work. There are a number of action items that come from those meetings, so I’ll generally update my task list and spend some time responding to emails or sending updated documents and working on my excel documents. There is always an excel document, after all. Usually franchisees will either call me during the day, or I’ll need to discuss/schedule something with them and we will chat briefly. They often come in for trainings or meetings and it is always great to hear about how they are doing and the successes (or challenges) they are facing. These conversations generally finish with more action items as we think of ways that I can better support them. At Jibu, franchisees are our main priority and we always stop whatever we are doing in office to make time for them first if they pop in.
If it is a training day, we start with our pre questionnaire to assess their current understanding of the topic that will be presented and we eat a snack together before diving into the training. As the training is conducted, franchisees may ask questions or give comments that help me understand how I can adjust a training module for future sessions. We conclude the training and pass out a post questionnaire or assessment to gather more data about how the training can be improved and how comfortable they are with the topic now that they have completed the session.
I typically finish my day by checking in briefly with the CEO, Country Director and colleagues to see if there are any pressing needs for the next day. From there, I run out to pick up my son on time and we usually go right to our backyard hammock for reading and swinging. We eat dinner and play with trains or trucks or, well, anything with a motor and then sing him to sleep. Lately, we have been making puppet shadows using our headlamp while we cuddle under the mosquito net. I love watching him grow and seeing him use his imagination in creative ways, and once he is asleep, I always thank God that we made it through another day together and safe.
What are some of your passions and unique skills and what was the process of discovering them?
My passion for travel, language, culture and entrepreneurship have been steady constants in my life. I am extremely passionate about the African continent, and am particularly passionate about entrepreneurship there. I recognize the need for job creation and supporting job skills on the continent and around the world, including in the U.S. Local entrepreneurs understand the challenges that their areas face better than anyone and when they are creative and blessed with an entrepreneurial spirit, the solutions to those challenges can be offered through a unique business model or product design. I have always been inspired to support such projects and business ventures. In that way, the position at Jibu was great for me – I’m now working for a company that shares my same values, goals, and motivations.
In Africa we rely a lot on the government to provide jobs – they are often seen as the more secure jobs, but they are few and far between. And of course, when people do get those jobs, they tend to stay in them and there isn’t much turnover or opportunity for the younger generation. Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world with regards to citizen age and you have a lot of youth who are acquiring great skills and attending higher education institutions, but there just aren’t jobs available. I’ve heard this time and time again. I’ve met many people that are eager, wiling, and ready to work, but they can’t find jobs in their country. If you can help encourage the spark that they already have for entrepreneurship and for wanting to make a difference in their community, and you add the business skills and the financing, then their ventures have a greater potential for success. In this way you can create jobs, while at the same time, people are serving the higher purpose of contributing to their own country, which every African wants to do. Additionally, the entrepreneurs will provide jobs for their peers, or others in their communities who also have the skillsets, want to learn, and are in need of work.
Has there ever been a point where you realized you had to learn a new knowledge or skill in order to move forward? What did you do?
Before coming to MIIS, I had experiences living and working or traveling to developing countries and separately some experience with business consulting and start ups, but I didn’t have any traditional experience in those areas and wanted to concretize the hard skills required to truly make an impact in those career paths. I enrolled in the dual degree MBA/International Policy Studies degree in order to focus on both international development work and international business. Today, passions for development and entrepreneurship merge well in the field of social impact, so I was particularly drawn to that subset of business and the opportunity to join the Frontier Market Scouts was a big draw when applying to this school. As I became more and more involved in CSIL projects and working with CSIL, I realized how perfect the opportunity was to launch myself into the field I wanted to focus on: entrepreneurship in emerging markets in Africa. FMS would allow me to learn more about the general landscape or ecosystem of social entrepreneurship around the world. Moreover, I knew it would introduce me to a network of like-minded passionate individuals who were connected to the social impact space and committed to creating social change at an international level. The two weeks of FMS training taught me more than I expected about social enterprise management and impact investing, while introducing me to a network that I am still in touch with today and with whom I still discuss and dream big about new opportunities to create positive social impact around the world.
What were some of your biggest obstacles during the experience – professional or personal?
My son was 9 months old when we moved to Monterey to start graduate school. It was a scary decision. As a single mother, you are fully responsible for the life and future of he/she who you love most in the world, and it is incredibly overwhelming at times. Small decisions always feel like big ones, and big decisions require much thought and planning. To move from Virginia to California was taking a giant leap of faith, especially at that time and in our circumstances. I had to remind myself every morning (or, every few hours in the night as my son was waking up) that we could make it through and that this was for both of us, but also that if we found we couldn’t do it now, it was okay to take a step back. If it didn’t work out, that was actually just okay. While every day was full of challenges, and a lot of loneliness, I learned how powerful love is and love pulled us through. Many of my peers didn’t have to wake up early to take their teething son to daycare before an 8 AM exam and leave right away to pick him up again and be on time for his morning doctor’s appointment. It was sometimes difficult to exist within my reality when my peers’ realities were so different, but I had to accept that my challenges were my challenges and my joys were my joys, and it was incredible to still find friends who were so supportive and who were there for us through it all. When you are the sole, sleepless, provider of a toddler going through terrible twos -and therefore the main recipient of fistfuls of tossed oatmeal, tantrum kicks and hair pulling- it is quite difficult to motivate yourself to spend any free time writing your capstone report and applying to job after job in your last year of grad school. But my supportive friends and community helped me keep the fire alive and reminded us that we came to graduate school for a better future, and that we could make it through.
Despite all of the pressure, my son kept me going as I was able to watch him grow and laugh and learn to walk and dance and run and kiss and hug and…compost food scraps. And upon graduating, I proved to myself and him that we can achieve our dreams. When things change a little or a lot, you learn to adapt. You can stay within your intended trajectory or deviate from the plan, you can leap out on faith and on love, and you can be where you want to be if you work for it. He was always my motivation to do better and be better. I hope he always knows how much he is loved, and how grateful I am for him, because he is my greatest blessing.
Talk about the process of getting your position – where there any non-negotiables that had to be considered in your dual role as a mom?
Yes, definitely. It was my last semester of grad school, and I was applying to jobs all over, as everyone is at that time. I had no idea what was going to happen. I had just taken FMS and was really excited about my placement options, but I knew I had more constraints given my son’s age and needs. In the past traveling as a single adult, I was concerned with living conditions such as housing or healthcare, but to a much lesser extent. I could quickly crash at a hostel if I found myself in an unsafe situation, for example. With Aiden Zikora coming along this time, I wanted to ensure that certain safe housing, transportation and healthcare was set up and confirmed well before arriving. These had to be upfront conversations with potential employers and it required more support from them before even arriving in country. I came to a point where I became discouraged and realized that maybe I needed to focus on jobs in the States related to social impact until he was a bit older. This was a hard realization for me because my heart was still abroad, and had been since well before Zikora was born. I had committed to staying stateside throughout graduate school, but had always kept the hope that we wouldn’t have to wait much longer before venturing abroad together. So, I started applying to jobs in California but asked FMS management to keep my profile open to interested partners, in the event that something worked out.
Fortunately, Jibu read my profile, and recognized the fit since I was clearly passionate about entrepreneurship in Africa. I had my first conversation with Jibu and saw that they were looking for someone to concentrate on precisely what I wanted to do and be part of – impact measurement within a company and entrepreneurship and business skills training. As I talked more about what I wanted to achieve in my career, my interviewers recognized that their needs aligned with that skillset and passion.
We negotiated a short term contract to start because it was a way for the company to get to know me and also for me to understand the country and context before committing to a long term position, given that we had never lived in Uganda together before. My son and I had already moved across country once and had to build a new community, but moving continents and culture and healthcare systems was an entirely different decision. I told myself that three months would give us an understanding of how we would adapt long term. My two deal-breakers were around health and education, because those are critical for my son’s development and wellbeing, so I also felt that we would have a better idea of those things if we started with just a three month contract. Further negotiations were around whether or not Jibu could help fund our transition costs, and whether or not they were willing to support daycare, housing and transportation in the short term. We also needed a safe neighborhood and quick access to good healthcare. Additionally, we had to discuss my schedule because I want to be fully and completely present in Zikora’s life – especially after grad school, I was craving work life balance and really needed to be able to come home after work and have time for my son.
The team at Jibu is extremely supportive and without that support, I don’t believe I could have accepted the job, given all of the challenges that come with moving overseas- alone with a toddler. I would say that something I will always look for in any company is the way they support their immediate team. It’s of utmost importance to make sure that employees are healthy so that they can do their work, but also –we’re human and we need to take care of each other. This is so important to me, and I felt how important that was to Jibu as well, further confirming that our values aligned. Their support eased my transition and enhanced my commitment to the company. I’m very proud to work for a company with these values and practices.
What advice would you give to other young moms trying to move forward in their careers?
Take those leaps of faith because it doesn’t have to work out. It can work out, which is exciting, buy it doesn’t have to. We worry so much about making sure we have everything in place for our children and families. Yet, we have to remember that mothers also deserve exist in a happy place, and to do that we need to take leaps of faith to achieve our dreams. My advice is to go after those dreams! You are going to have to do it differently than everyone else – but if you prepare for that and you tell yourself, “my life is my own, and this is all for our family,” then you will find a way. And, if it doesn’t work out this year, it might work out next year. Throughout this process, come home and look at your children each night and remember why you are doing what you are doing. It’s true what we always say: we can never know if we don’t try.
Are there any burning questions that you have related to work, life, or social impact etc…?
Lately I have been thinking a lot about equality in social impact. How can we provide equal access to opportunities that create social impact around the world? No matter where you are, you see that it’s heavily skewed – meaning the majority of the impact that is trying to be created/funded/supported is from Western countries and Western talent. How can we create opportunities for individuals who don’t know about impact in an academic sense, but who want to create it and are creating it, so that they can be involved in not only the impact, but the conversations and the curriculum building and so on? We talk about this issue, and we say that everyone is involved and that their voices are there, but it is clearly not enough because the West still holds the cards. How do we create a larger global conversation, where those voices are not only there, but are actually leading the conversation? How does “impact” even become important to someone who is focused on feeding their children, and making enough money to pay for school fees? Meanwhile, these are the individuals we hope to “impact” so how can we continue to bring them into the conversation, and to their benefit? I feel like these conversations are happening at the micro-level, but those individuals aren’t involved in the greater action. How do we remove the barriers, whether financial barriers or what have you, so that there can be a collective conversation around the world?
Another burning question is, “how do you reconcile the motivation and the passion for international work and travel, with the benefits of stability?” There will always be so much benefit to “stability” or being in one place, especially for families. But, there is also so much to be learned and experienced by children traveling and moving around. How do we reconcile that? How do individuals like me, or those who are thinking about starting families, reconcile this? It feels like they pull at different ends of a rope, but do they have to be so opposing? Plenty of people tell me that they feel they have to choose one or the other, giving up on one dream to be semi fulfilled by the other and never knowing which they should have chosen. I understand more than many what the challenges are around family and international work, and what leads us to believe we have to choose one or the other, but I also encourage us to keep being creative. Possibilities abound, it just may not be easy.
Who has been particularly inspiring to you?
It’s difficult to give specific names because there are so many are individuals that have made a huge impact in a brief period of time. Often it’s people I don’t know well. For example, there’s a woman that I met who owns a shoe store in Shanghai when I lived there, and her daily work ethic was incredibly inspiring. Like her, there are several individuals that I’ve met in my journeys who have become constant reminders of how privileged I am, and also how capable we are as humans if we are intentional in society. If we are cognizant of the realities of those around us, and we are empathetic and proactive, then there’s no limit on the impact that can be achieved.
I used to teach English in my travels and here in the States, so naturally my students have inspired me as well. The change that you see after a semester of training students and the stories that you hear are part of this. Also, the stories or updates from people I’ve met through my travels. This has all taught me how different and similar we are around the world, and I have found it very motivating and inspiring. I hope that my son learns these things in his life. I think of my job raising him as helping him become a positive being in the world; someone that shines light and encourages others to be themselves in his presence. In order to do that, he needs to learn about the world first. Empathy is huge; the ability to empathize with others, and also to understand that he does not know everything is really important. First understanding that the things that make us human and that connect us to one another – are more than the things the things that make us different. If we work together, and if we focus on society, people, and how we connect to others, life will be so much richer than if we were to only focus on material or physical things. Many of us know this intellectually, but continue with old habits. I’m also guilty of this. I just hope he doesn’t have to reach the age of 70, or even 40, before understanding this and living his life accordingly.
Tell us something that no one knows about you.
Most people don’t know that I am of Nigerian, Scottish, and Kenyan origin.
Another thing is my love of rock climbing! I’m going back to Uganda with climbing holds in order to build a bouldering cave in my compound. I want to encourage the climbing culture in Kampala. It already exists as an outdoor activity to some extent, but I want there to be more accessibility within Kampala itself. I find climbing to be incredibly therapeutic and I want to bring that with me wherever I go.