Women's Entrepreneurial Journeys: Feature

How ‘millennipreneurs’ are developing the southern Africa of the future

A millennial women entrepreneur looks at how her peers can access help for their businesses

Phakamile Hlazo
16 August 2021, 8.00am
Barra Beach, Inhambane, Mozambique
Zulu Nomad. All rights reserved
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It was in my second year in Shanghai that I fell in love with the idea of living in different parts of the world. I had started an Instagram account to document my travels in Asia and beyond. Then a month-long, mostly solo, trip to Europe in 2015 triggered much engagement about how I go about planning a trip, how I can afford to ‘travel so much’, and which experiences had appealed to me in the various countries I had travelled to.

I remembered an 11-day road trip with a group of friends in 2009 from Johannesburg through Zimbabwe and Mozambique to Malawi and back. That is how the idea of Zulu Nomad was born: to create unique experiences allowing young South Africans to explore the African continent by road.

I realised that young, upwardly mobile South Africans had a great appetite for travel and exploring. My own travels felt like lifetime experiences that I wanted for every young South African. To this end, in 2016 Zulu Nomad was formally registered as a tour operator offering curated travel experiences in southern Africa to young people, mostly women between the ages of 21 and 42. Its journey since then shows the broader generational challenges facing younger women entrepreneurs in the region.


Millennial entrepreneurs or ‘millennipreneurs’ who are women have an approach to business that differs from that of their elders in ambitions, results and leadership style. For millennial women entrepreneurs it is not always about being a woman. It is about being as ambitious about profits and overall business success as any other successful business – although this does not necessarily mean that older women entrepreneurs do not care about profits.

African tourism is no longer predominantly structured and designed solely for visitors from other continents

Does this mean young women entrepreneurs in southern Africa are well placed to realise their aspirations? In southern Africa there is a growing trend that provides a clue to answering this question. This trend is a growing appetite for travel among millennials.

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council , travel and tourism contributed 8.5% or $194.2bn of the continent’s gross domestic product in 2018. The bulk of this travel takes place within Africa, with almost four out of ten international tourists to Africa having originated from another African country. This trend, in which African tourism is no longer predominantly structured and designed solely for visitors from other continents, is creating opportunities for new types of businesses to emerge. That said, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not just about opportunities – it is more about survival and recovery.

Zulu Nomad: the start-up hurdle

I thought I was financially well prepared to start the business. However, the initial investment quickly ran out. I did not have the cash flow to hire full-time staff. The cost of hiring vehicles was eating into profits. We built strong relationships with trusted tour guides whom we could rely on for our tours. But we had to secure our own vehicles and be able to pay the drivers to keep our costs low.

We had positioned ourselves in the market as a tour operator for the adventurous young South African who wanted to explore their continent. It was an instant hit with our clients. By the end of 2016 we were hosting two group tours per month, mostly within South Africa. By 2018 we had expanded our offering by adding travel experiences in Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Malawi. These were road trips lasting several days, with experiences ranging from scuba diving to cultural and music festivals.

We applied for loans but were never approved. The bank with whom we had our business accounts, and with whom I had banked for years, enjoying black card status when employed, offered only credit cards as a reprieve to our financial woes. We were unsuccessful in raising finance from a few tourism associations purporting to represent small businesses. Some of them, including those that target women entrepreneurs, had high joining fees that we could not afford.

In 2018 our fundraising journey led us to enter the Booking.com Booster Accelerator Programme, whose application process was geared toward sustainability and impact. Though we did not succeed, we realised that tourism is a lifeline with much potential for employment and growth in the communities we travel through, especially for women and young people. We knew that had to scale digitally in order to maximise this impact. This catapulted Zulu Nomad into the world of travel technologies and innovation in tourism.

The challenges in business that I have faced as owner-manager of Zulu Nomad are not necessarily the result of my being a woman. Every millennial entrepreneur, woman or man, faces challenges with funding and cash flow. However, women in African countries must make a lot more sacrifices and overcome more challenges than men to be successful entrepreneurs. Gender-based violence is a huge challenge for women and affects self-confidence and the ability to focus on and grow your business. Even for those of us with extremely supportive partners and families, the role of being a mother or wife with responsibilities towards your family places a burden on business operations.

My experiences in eight African countries provide an intimate understanding of the challenges of small business owners and young travellers. Just like me, a new generation of entrepreneurs in tourism and technology-driven start-ups is emerging, solving local challenges, large and small, and creating jobs.

Overcoming generational challenges

Empowering millennial women entrepreneurs involves creating platforms which enable them to share experiences with their peers, while providing access to capital, markets, products and services. These platforms are not the same as those involving people who grew up at different times.

An approach which has helped us navigate some of these challenges is to collaborate with other millennial women entrepreneurs. Zulu Nomad recently established an online training platform in partnership with My Future Work, a women-owned start-up focused on helping entrepreneurs and big business alike develop skills for the future. For young women who have childcare duties, this online course gives them flexibility to learn at the time that suits them.

In 2019, Zulu Nomad launched the inaugural Africa Travel Hackathon, a concentrated session with developers, designers and data scientists to work together to create solutions and present them to tourism stakeholders and investors for further development. Most entrants were men. However, more young women are expressing interest in coding and asking to join future hackathons.

We followed this up in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic with two online training programmes targeted at entrepreneurs in the hospitality and tourism sector, who typically do not meet the requirements for any government relief or financial support during this time: Digital Skills and 4IR Masterclass for Tourism and Hospitality Entrepreneurs, and the free Standard Protocols for Covid-19 Operations: For Accommodation Business Owners. Since the soft launch of the latter course on 7 July 2020, over 80 business owners have completed it. Both courses have been a hit with women entrepreneurs.

Organisations such as Lionesses of Africa and Future Females are also driving the trend of millennial women entrepreneurs through business skills and networking events that target young and ambitious women entrepreneurs.

Future Females describes itself as “a movement to inspire more female entrepreneurs, and better support their success”. It has 12,000 chapters and 22,000 members around the world, including chapters in South Africa, Ghana, Uganda, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Globally, it runs a virtual accelerator, which enables members to undertake online marketing to grow their client base, learn from others how to take control of their income and have certainty over their financials.

Lionesses of Africa is a community passionate about women’s entrepreneurship in Africa and supports their start-up dreams through social networking. The organisation partners with industry to provide financing: for example, together with Volkswagen South Africa it recently announced three winners of the VW Lionesses Den competition. Women-owned businesses all over South Africa were supported to create a two-minute pitch and written proposal and compete to win a total of R175,000 ($12,700) for their businesses.

Ntokozo Mbuli, founder of Sugar Bean Pictures, won first prize ($6,000) for her television production company. Sarah Morrow, owner of Little Leaders Pre-School, won second prize ($3,000) for creating a home-like environment for children to grow and learn. Bathabile Mpofu, founder of Nkazimulo Applied Sciences, won third prize ($1,500) by producing portable science kits for use by learners at home and school. It is not just the prize money that the women entrepreneurs receive, however. They also benefit from non-financial support in the form of mentorship and visibility for their business.

Millennial women entrepreneurs can challenge the convention of a male-dominated businesses in Africa. We need more organisations to support their success by providing opportunities to learn from networks of their peers who have walked the path, faced challenges and succeeded.

You cannot help but feel like you’re flying with clipped wings as a young woman in business in South Africa, but fly we must.

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