Building a Resilient Business Amidst a Pandemic: How a Young Female Entrepreneur from Africa is Keeping a Business Afloat During the COVID-19 Pandemic

KaziTu_Co-founders: From left to right: Mastercard Foundation Scholars Sarah Lebu (Kenyan), Kwinoja Kapiteni (Tanzanian), and Chidi Uwaeme (Nigerian) during a graduation ceremony at the University of California Berkeley in 2019.
16 March 2021
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Mastercard Foundation (Africa)

Urban economies in growing cities, such as Nairobi, rely partly on the contribution of tradespeople like plumbers, electricians, and painters. Many live in informal, low-income settlements, far from the rest of the city's economy, giving rise to an opportunity mismatch for customers interested in hiring these talented artisans. Sarah Lebu, and two other Mastercard Foundation Scholars Kwinoja Kapiteni (Tanzania) and Chidi Uwaeme (Nigeria) formed KaziTu to fill this gap. By creating an online job-matching platform, they are helping hiring companies to find reliable talent, fast and easily.

"Each of us had had an experience living and/or working in urban slums and understood firsthand what it means to live in a city but be excluded from the benefits that come with urban living, said Sarah, KaziTu co-founder and CEO.  "For us, people are the most important part of the business. Our vision is to build connected communities where job opportunities are easily accessible."

The Nairobi-based startup creates value for job-seekers by connecting them directly to hiring employers and contract jobs, saving them money and time. With support from the Mastercard Foundation's Scholars Entrepreneurship Fund, they are revolutionizing a workforce that commonly struggles to find quality contract work. In two years, KaziTu has connected job-seekers to over 80 hiring companies and facilitated over 500 job-matches.

[WATCH: Mastercard Foundation Scholar Sarah Lebu talks about her startup, KaziTu]

But their support doesn't end there. Sometimes, starting a job is as simple as presenting oneself at the work site, but in the informal settlements in Nairobi where many of these workers live, the barriers transcend the typical work commute. Some jobs require workers to have their own tools and protective equipment, and others do not offer health insurance. KaziTu provides all this. They also meet the tradesperson at the site with all the required documentation ensuring a smooth start.

Pivoting and Adapting for the Pandemic

When COVID-19 hit, KaziTu took a hit. Work orders plummeted and they had to let employees stay at home on only half the pay. But the most significant fallout was with the artisans they had listed. The demand to be matched with jobs was higher than ever because workers needed to sustain their families through the difficult times. However, there were two challenges facing workers: first, the Kenyan government had shut down non-essential businesses and the majority of companies that KaziTu partnered with were in this category; second, they could no longer guarantee the safety of their workers.

KaziTu_delivery: Moses Ayiga, poses after completing a delivery of hygiene and care packages to residents of Kangemi, Nairobi.

This was all very stressful for Sarah, who recently graduated with a double Masters of Public Health and City Planning from the University of California, Berkeley. Keeping the business afloat, while supporting the mental health and well-being of her staff and the larger workforce relying on her company to make a living was challenging to say the least, especially from California, where she was stuck due to travel restrictions.

As a young business owner, navigating an unprecedented global pandemic, she and her team had to find new ways to adapt. During weekly team meetings via WhatsApp they brainstormed.

"Our workers needed money too," explains Sarah. When a team member suggested they pivot the business to 'doing something to contribute to the COVID-19 fight' they quickly reorganized and started purchasing and distributing hygiene and care packages for households.

It was a scary time—fear of getting infected and a limiting government curfew kept most people indoors. Nevertheless, they trained workers electricians, painters, on how to adhere to the public health measures and protect themselves against COVID-19. KaziTu provided masks and gloves, and contracted them to deliver hygiene packages consisting of soap, cleaning detergent, sanitizer, masks, bleach, toilet paper, stress relief balls and painting material for children to households. It was a win-win: families received items they could use to keep safe and workers made money running deliveries.

Eventually, her team reached out to government agencies and local aid partners who were looking to distribute similar hygiene packages and partnered with them. They adapted their online platform to provide an e-commerce interface that enabled households to purchase affordable hygiene packages. Once a request was made for a delivery, the platform automatically matched a KaziTu worker who lived in the area to complete the delivery.

Since the pandemic struck, the business has made over 1,200 trips to households around Nairobi and supplied them with hygiene products to keep them safe. They have maintained an active portfolio of workers, with 50 percent of the roster engaged throughout the lockdown period. Workers make up to $200 a month from delivering hygiene packages, ensuring that more families are able to put food on their table and afford basic needs until their source of livelihood becomes more stable. They also maintain their subscription to the National Health Insurance Fund, creating a safety net.

KaziTu adapted their online platform to provide an e-commerce interface that enabled households to purchase affordable hygiene packages. Once a request was made for a delivery, the platform automatically matched a KaziTu worker who lived in the area to complete the delivery.

Even at the technical level, KaziTu's job-matching platform is people-centric. Once an order is placed by a company, the matching algorithm takes several variables into account—skill level, proximity to work and ratings from previous jobs. "We are really excited that we can factor in gender and other social factors that often perpetrate inequities in matching people with jobs," explained Sarah.

All this is being made possible by a team of six, half of whom are women.

Sarah finds that she must constantly find ways to be responsive to everyday challenges. The situation with the pandemic is fluid, but she has strong support from her team. They have had to ramp up ways to communicate, across time zones. To keep the team motivated, they celebrate small wins. Businesses are now reopening in Nairobi, and their office is now back in operation.

The pain and uncertainty of the pandemic still lingers. Informal workers are now working overtime to try and recuperate lost productivity. Companies are freezing new hires to limit their expenses. A lot of families are recovering from the grief of having lost loved ones. Constant reminders that they are participating in the recovery of their community is one small way to keep team morale high.

The team is also finding more ways of becoming more resilient. They are closely monitoring the pandemic situation for signs that they may need to pivot. It has become important to check their mental health and support each other to thrive. Sarah is passionate about transformative leadership. She is practicing self-awareness, empathy, and integrity, constantly reminding her team of their vision. The most important ingredient, according to Sarah, is to focus on what is best for the people you are working for and the people who work for you. Therein lies the most rewarding solutions.

The Scholars Entrepreneurship Fund was  launched in 2018 by the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program to help incubate Scholar and alumni-led social enterprises. The program was also intended to support post-graduation transitions to work, provide a platform for giving back to communities, and offer an experiential learning opportunity for applying transformative leadership skills and mindsets. The program was implemented by Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program partners, primarily universities, and each program had its own unique features.

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