As part of the series that APN is hosting with key African Youth across the continent, we had the pleasure of connecting with Jessica Mshama. Jessica is the Founder of the Assumpta Digital School and also serves as an ambassador of the East Africa Community (EAC). The conversation focused on the work she does in driving impact and change within her space and across the continent.

APN: Tell us a little bit more about yourself and your work.

Jessica Mshama: First and foremost, it’s through my drive and personal mission that I have been able to drive the impact I have driven. I believe each and every person is called for something great, and it all depends on how you program yourself. At a tender age of 13 years old, I realized my drive and passion for entrepreneurship, growing up in a community that was always resilient and dedicated, it helped me position my focus and align my goals.

While I was in University doing my studies, I did not relent and rely completely on making a life and championing my relevance from my academic qualification, I committed myself to champion something by the side even as I pursued my studies in business administration, finance and later on economic diplomacy. I believe if we do not push ourselves to have creative minds, we become complacent as a people, and in the process fail to realize our fullest potential. I grew up listening to testimonies of women that had so much going on but when they reached a certain age they were forced into marriage, and completely gave up on their ambition. It is such testimonies that gave me a sense of relevance and determination, to place myself in a position to change the narrative.

It is through such lessons that I opened an NGO called Nakuwa na Taifa (I grow with my Nation) mainly to empower the youth economically, as well as to be aware of the potential they carry so they realize that their talent and your potential could be the solution to another person’s challenges. How many of the people that we live with in our community understand that their talents, their potentials are a solution to another person? I envision a community where its people realize its fullest potential and relevance, and I hope to be at the center of driving this agenda.

APN: How has your influence and position of leadership impacted you, and what do you enjoy out of it?

Jessica Mshama: Having the ability to reach the unreached is what I enjoy the most. Getting a platform to be heard, sharing some comments but also creating new networks that together can create possibilities and new initiatives that empower those involved. So for me to be in a place where I can express my values and principles on how I envision development and change is the greatest sense of fulfillment. To champion an agenda that supports the development of our communities gives me a sense of worth and belonging.

APN: In your quest to drive change, what do you think are the more impactful practices?

Jessica Mshama: I have an NGO, it is a non-profit organization in which we have a vision and we have goals that we have to reach. However, we notice that the community- because you should analyze the environment you are in- we notice that we are in an environment where people need support but also need to be taught how they can stand on their own. This is where the profitable practices come in. But we make sure to do it in a manner where we don’t condemn a person’s ability. For instance, I run a school, called Assumpta Digital School, and we provide quality education, it’s the number one digital school in Tanzania. But, this quality education does not come at the expense of undermining the possibility of the average citizen to acquire that education. You look at International schools you could argue that there are better schools, in that they have the means to ensure that all the kids are getting a good education, but they do this by way of making high profit gains. At the end of the day, only a certain group of people are getting the salary to afford these schools. The school fees at Assumpta Digital School is only One Million TZS that is equivalent to USD 450- this is because we know the capability of people around us; they can’t afford schools with very high fees. But they still need and deserve the best quality education for their kids, so we introduced different mechanisms for people that will enable them to pay school fees in installments. As much as we need profit gains at the end, we should consider how we help our communities. So, if we use a hybrid of non-profit and profit mechanisms, because at the end of the day people need to eat and drink and it is not for free, we could successfully improve our communities.

APN: I am wondering, what is your opinion then, do you see African practices evolving in the continent? And in Tanzania as well? If the answer is yes, how so? If the answer is no, why do you think we don’t see change as much as we would wish?

Jessica Mshama: Let me start with the most crucial thing, I believe the issue is in the leadership style that we have and I am not condemning any particular leadership or any member that represents a certain community. What we often see in the community is that when leaders want to take over, they come up with different initiatives that they sweet talk people with and give hope that once they are in power they will deliver. And I am not only talking about a high level of leadership, this happens even at the community-based level with the local government and so on. But they don’t really end up doing what is mostly required by their communities. And unfortunately once a leader of a community doesn’t adhere to what should be done in a way that is acceptable and beneficial for everybody, what about the people you are leading? They will never think about the community agendas, they will never think about someone else. People will only be thinking of their own stomach and feeding their own families.

We need to create more organizations and more initiatives that are really aimed to help people make ends meet. You know in developing countries in Africa, there is still a very high gap between the haves and haves not. There is a need for us as a region to start thinking of long-term solutions and not short-term strategies to development. The rest of the world is doing quite well, you know the developed countries have an agenda that a leader can not intimidate or go against it because it is a strong framework that is made for the country and for the people and not for a leader’s short vision of five years or ten years. So generally, what I can say is there is still work to be done and that’s why I do what I do, so I can raise a generation that thinks of the next generation.

APN: How do you address power structures that perpetuate inequalities and exclusion, because those are the groups you are dealing with. So how do you manage that? How do you navigate that? 

Jessica Mshama: I was recently invited to an event that was organized by the Ministry of Gender and Development in my capacity as young female founder, to speak on issues around women’s voices. When I got the invite I enquired on the possibility of having a representation of youth voices, the organizers then established that on a particular day during the event, there shall be a segment dedicated to youth and inquired if I can support in recommending youth voices that can play a role. This is how we help curb the power dynamics and structure that hinder the inclusion of marginalized groups. We need to be deliberate in our approach if we envision a more inclusive society. Every time an opportunity is presented to me I do not only think of occupying that space myself, but ensure that I champion for the inclusion of key voices that do not have a seat at the table. It is by being deliberate and determined that we can address the power dynamics that are perpetuated in our systems.

APN: How best can we encourage such innovation and participation of youth, women, children and people with disability?  

Jessica Mshama: I would say it in three ways:

Mindset-Change: The first thing is mindset change, ensuring that we help marginalized groups have different perceptions on key issues that are affecting them helps them realize their place in society. Innovation and creativity can only be realized when we create programs that help marginalized groups realize their potential, and in the process help raise their voices and action in driving transformation.

Education: It is a very sensitive issue and the question to ask is whether the education that is provided in our communities is relevant to what we are trying to advance as a continent? You know we should always remember that what we feed a person from an early age is what the person will grow up to become. So, I would advise if we could allocate more unique ways of sensitizing on quality education for all.

Digital transformation – so we need digital transformation in all spheres of life and activities that we foresee to be done. So, in those three areas, I think we stand a chance to create a better community.

APN: What sustainability strategies practices are you exploring to ensure that your vision is sustained and that your business and other non-for-profit initiatives are resilient from shocks and the perceptions that you are not rooted, you are not bringing any impact. 

Jessica Mshama: It is really challenging to be honest, most of my businesses have not been generating profit as they should and I have actually closed one of the businesses. In order to establish and sustain a business, there are times where you accrue a loan at an interest rate of 21%, and before you know it, you are literally working for the bank. Unlike other countries where the environment to do business is conducive, it proves to be a challenge in many countries on the African continent to sustain and grow a business with the laws, and policies that have been put in place. But what is important is to keep being innovative and ensuring that we sustain our vision. The other strategy that I use to sustain my not-for-profit organization is using my connections and networking. The people I come in contact with through seminars, conferences and events, I ensure that I build a strong network of colleagues that help me in championing my agenda. Sustainability is a serious aspect to safeguarding the vision of any entity.

APN: Can you leave us with an inspirational quote? 

Jessica Mshama: “Success has no age, has no limit, has no race, you can be who you want to be as long as you are determined to be”

Transcribed from the webinar which can be found here: https://m.facebook.com/AfricaPhilanthropyNetwork/