Staying the Course with Lizz Mhangami of Vanavevhu, Zimbabwe

Akash Ghai

Elizabeth Mhangami (Lizz) is actively making a difference in the lives of youth who have been deeply affected by personal tragedy. She fosters and nurtures the entrepreneurial and survival instincts of young people in Africa who have assumed the role of head of household upon the death, or otherwise sudden departure of parents or guardians.

Originally from Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, Lizz was educated in the United States. She studied Political Science at Loyola University and Women and Gender Studies at DePaul University, both in Chicago, IL. Post-academia, she spent four years working in social service programs for youth and women in Chicago’s low-income communities. Her experiences in Chicago made her think about how she could make a difference in her homeland. In 2007 she established her organization Vanavevhu, which means ‘children of the soil.’ 

“I came to learn of child-headed households – families in Zimbabwe that were dependent on the economic activities of adolescents and young adults. These young were people were finding innovative ways of surviving by creating income opportunities for themselves within the informal sector of their urban neighborhoods.”

Vanavevhu is a 501(c)(3) registered US nonprofit organization that runs a three-year program in Zimbabwe supporting young people and their families by offering security and stability, technical and vocational training; and the practical experience of running a business. Vanavevhu has created V{Vee-Squared} a social enterprise that manufactures candles, beeswax lip balms, seasonal honey and grows a variety of organic vegetables and preserves. This model embodies the organization both in name and action. The social enterprise is largely run by the youth who receive guidance from Vanavevhu staff.

Vanavevhu fundraiser at Latham and Watkins on Thursday, June 18, 2015 [Photo by Karen Kring]
Vanavevhu fundraiser at Latham and Watkins [Photo by Karen Kring]

“I found this to be an exciting opportunity to use the youth’s natural affinity for business to teach them life skills that encourage responsible leadership while further developing their entrepreneurship skills.”

Reflecting on the initial challenges of setting up Vanavevhu, Lizz cites location as a significant difficulty. Back in 2007 while studying at DePaul and working fulltime, she realized she had not returned to Zimbabwe since first leaving the country in 1999. In order to not lose sight of Vanavevhu she employed someone to start the process of establishing the organization in the country. Quickly, she realized that it was not feasible to manage the establishment process remotely. So in 2009 –

“…I packed up my life in the US and returned to Zimbabwe, to begin building Vanavevhu. My vision for what Vanavevhu would be, was a concept so abstract it required that I be in Zimbabwe to find the right people and the resources to get things going…“

Despite returning to Zimbabwe after a decade away, Lizz knew ahead of time that building trust and getting buy-in from the community would be another challenge. It was no surprise to her that, she was met with suspicion by tight-knit communities.

“The kind of youth program I was describing sounded so far-fetched and even laughable to some.”

Yet, after connecting with and earning the trust of the communities, she sought to learn and understand more about where the youth lived. Having established dialogue with local government officials, community leaders and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) that operate in the area, Lizz and her team found that building these relationships and partnerships from the onset made it much easier in the beginning, where they now enjoy a strong and trusting relationship with the community.

Vanavevhu fundraiser at Latham and Watkins on Thursday, June 18, 2015 [Photo by Karen Kring]
Vanavevhu fundraiser at Latham and Watkins [Photo by Karen Kring]

Although Vanavevhu was officially founded in 2007, the seed was planted in 2003. Lizz named the organization before she knew what the mission and goals would be. As a result she sought and received guidance and advice from many sources.

“I have been very lucky to have had access to and support from so many talented and compassionate people.”

The best advice she received so far, comes from Jacob Lief, the Co-Founder of the Ubuntu Education Fund:

“Don’t be afraid of failure, some things will work and some won’t. You’re building things from scratch and you are bound to make mistakes. We (Ubuntu) started off with computer lessons before we understood that we had to provide better healthcare and education first, to make the computer lessons valuable to that student. We owe all our success to the experiences we have had and our ability to learn from these experiences.”

Adaptability has been key to Vanavevhu’s survival. It’s been almost 10 years since Lizz founded the organization. What has Lizz learned about herself as leader of the organization?

“I have discovered that I have really good instincts and when I am not afraid to follow them, we create magic. I am always surprised by my natural ability to raise funds. I always say that I hate asking people for money and each time we receive a donation I attribute it to luck.”

As self-effacing as Lizz is, her embodiment of Vanavevhu to the point at which people can only associate her with the organization, something she has honest fears about. What happens if she decides she doesn’t want to run the organization any more?

“I am scared by the extent to which I am driven by subjectivity and the extent to which my identity is deeply-rooted in Vanavevhu. Everything about the organization is so deeply personal and the trials and tribulations have taken a bit of a toll on me and I worry at times about what will happen to me when I have to let go?”

This critical point of reflection is something all founders of public benefit organizations should consider. Making a difference matters, yet investing your whole life into a public benefit organization means you can often be perceived as the organization and nothing more. In acknowledging such a fear, Lizz is opening a door that founders of public benefit organizations keep firmly locked. This is a testament to her consideration of her youth beneficiaries, donors and other stakeholders in order to push Vanavevhu forward.

Vanavevhu
The youth participants using their Vanavevhu-learned skills

Looking ahead, the vision of Vanavevhu is to evolve into a youth-led social enterprise, sustained by the very grassroots businesses that train and develop the youth. All income generated through this operation will be reinvested into Vanavevhu and contribute to the sustainability and viability of the program. Additionally, every aspect V2 will be an opportunity for the youth to learn a skill that can be used to strengthen their households, seek employment or start their own businesses. Through this social enterprise venture, Lizz seeks to create an environment in which the staff and the youth work in unison to conquer the cycle of poverty plaguing their neighborhoods.

3 LESSONS FROM LIZZ:

  1. EXECUTE ON YOUR IDEA AND BE PREPARED FOR MANY FALSE STARTS: Forgive yourself quickly and try again. Don’t expect conventional thanks or acknowledgement for the personal sacrifices you’ll make to establish your organization.
  2. GRASSROOTS SUSTAINABILITY WINS: Be intentional about creating an environment that harnesses local people. Lizz was cautious about how she approached the local community when she returned to Zimbabwe after a decade in the US. Re-learning how to make things happen in Zimbabwe was crucial. This helped her to create trusting relationships over the long-term as she knew this would be key to the organization’s ability to impact.
  3. THERE ARE LIMITATIONS TO EMBODYING YOUR PUBLIC BENEFIT ORGANIZATION: Living, eating, breathing your organization is important. Founders are tasked with selling their vision to everyone and anyone. People connect with the founders but interpret them as the actual organizations. This can be limiting in that over time founders can only be associated with their organizations and nothing more. This means personal growth opportunities for founders are sparse and building a succession plan is vital.

Vanavevhu fundraiser at Latham and Watkins on Thursday, June 18, 2015 [Photo by Karen Kring]
Vanavevhu fundraiser at Latham and Watkins [Photo by Karen Kring]
Visit Vanavavhu.org Connect with Lizz on LinkedIn

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Akash Written by:

Akash has worked with small and mid-sized NGOs and social enterprises from around the world and specializes in assessing operations and management alongside creating growth opportunities for such organizations. He established Development Three (D3) a firm that delivers on this premise. Based on his experiences with NGO/NPO founders, he conceptualized and established the Founding Stories project.

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