UK entrepreneur Emma Sinclair meets budding business owners in Zambia


To mark Global Entrepreneurship Week, serial entrepreneur Emma Sinclair talks about the experience of her recent trip to Zambia to see the Barclays and UNICEF Building Young Futures programme in action.

“Entrepreneurship has been a consistent theme for me from a young age. and I can often be heard telling aspirational young entrepreneurs that from small acorns grow mighty oaks. For that reason, I’m so proud to have been asked to join Barclays and UNICEF’s Building Young Futures programme as its first mentor and to see the ‘planting of acorns’ in action in Zambia.

The Building Young Futures programme recognises that in countries and communities facing huge unemployment and poverty, teaching business, financial and employability skills really can change the fortunes not only of individuals but of whole communities, even countries.

I did wonder whether my first world experience would be of any relevance to the people I met. Many of my experiences such as floating a company on the Stock Exchange were unlikely to be on many people’s agenda. What if I was unable to connect to people whose lives are so vastly different to mine?

And yet I’ve done every job imaginable in all my businesses from tea towel washer to CEO – because that’s what you do when you start a company from scratch. I started with nothing, survived on very little and borrowed heavily at times, in order to make it all a success. And I discovered that we all speak a potted version of one international language: Business.

What I found surprised, educated, excited and humbled me. I don’t know how it’s possible to have only spent five days in a country and miss it – but I do. This is no doubt in part due to me falling in love with the people and stories I heard, the landscape I saw, the communities I visited and the friends and families I travelled with. They didn’t just share their personal stories and aspirations with me, they took me into their homes and into their lives.

But I think an equally significant reason for a piece of my heart being left in Zambia is that I experienced the true universality of entrepreneurship.

Zambia is a huge country yet with only 12 million people. Despite the remoteness of where I sometimes found myself, the questions, challenges, thirst for learning and drive were as evident as at any incubator, venture day or mentoring session I might have attended closer to home. When I talked to Mercy about her wedding business  or Isobel about her dressmaking shop , we were on common ground.

Mercy lives in a small town in eastern Zambia but her approach and hunger for growth are as fierce as any other businesswoman I know. Certainly there are infinitely more challenges based on infrastructure, finance and economic realities but Mercy was focused on the opportunities – and finding ways to embrace them. And she thinks big.

Mercy received an initial start-up loan from Building Young Futures and was recently one of the first to secure a subsequent Youth Empowerment Fund loan from the government. Thanks to this foundation, Mercy told me her ‘business is booming’ ensuring she is more than able to fulfill her loan obligations and still have money to spare.

When I asked Kenneth  his goals, he articulated beautifully his desire to provide for his family, be in a position to offer employment to others and educate his two year old son in a way that will provide him with choices. This response – like so many – was a very pure form of entrepreneurship. Building a business to fill a need: to feed his family, create employment and allow him to educate his child. This is what my parents did for me and what their parents tried to do for them.

People like Mercy and Kenneth can and will change a country.

Programmes like Building Young Futures don’t just teach skills: they offer people confidence, experience, a place to ask questions and a place to dream. Workshops provide a hub for local communities and a place for people to network. The programme is connecting people in a supercharged way with the support of an international bank, a major INGO, local partners, the Zambian Government and, in some small way, me. That’s incredible.

Oliver and Ernest, owners of a small barber shop with a phone charging station and chicken rearing business respectively, met on the programme and are now enrolled in a three year programme to study mechanics. They believe that in a few years’ time their individual businesses will be self-sustaining and profitable and they can leave friends and family to operate them. They are planning to build their own car workshop to employ ‘fellow youths’.

That’s networking.

That’s business.

And in a place where, if I am honest, I would find it difficult to thrive without the tools and digital access that so many of us have become accustomed to.

Whilst this entrepreneurship may appear tied to a type of survival many of my peers may not relate to, I find I can. When you don’t have the safety net of family or a salary, pension and healthcare, the outcome of your business directly affects your ability to eat. I’m so proud of what the people I met have achieved and I intend to share in and support their journeys further.

Being a part of Building Young Futures adds a layer of drive to everything I do. And I think I helped. And I definitely want to help more.”

Emma is a UNICEF UK business mentor. She is the youngest person to have floated her company on the London Stock Exchange at 29, and most recently has co-founded enterprise software company,  EnterpriseJungle.

Read more stories about Building Young Futures

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