We recently spoke with Maureen Amakabane, ygap Kenya program alumni and founder of Nyayo Moms Sokos. Maureen talks about her journey to become an entrepreneur, the importance of locally-led business, and why women’s empowerment is such a deeply-held passion for her.
Tell us a little bit about yourself:
I am born and bred in Kenya, schooled in Kenya, I really love my country and I think it was this love that drew me to trying to address some of the challenges we face as a country. I am a mother to a lovely daughter, she is 8 going on 9 — sometimes 8 going on 15 — and I love spending time with this amazing little human.
What are you most passionate about?
Working with women and girls to ensure we are at the forefront of our rights, our dignity, and most importantly, having conversations around how we can improve our social economic status. This is something that needs to happen right from the family level through to the business sector, and then of course to the national spaces.
One of the things I know strongly is that the Kenyan women, and I think the African woman, is very resilient and it’s manifested in different ways — when we look at the hardship (which is a critical part of the story as women) but also we are resilient in terms of survival, trying to run businesses. I think women are necessity entrepreneurs, but our story is always left untold. I’ll start a business to sell vegetables so I can have that extra shilling to feed my family, ensure my kids are going to school, and these little successes go undocumented and as a result we are left out of policies and decision making. We want to measure a woman’s credit based on her bank account, which most of the time they don’t have, but nobody sits to reconcile that this small business sent kids to school for 20 years, that this little income that comes by every day gets children food on the table, clothing, a roof over their heads, and when need arises, that medical bills are paid.
I want to spend my adult life advocating for women’s rights and ensuring the next generation has a better place to run businesses and have better and fairer business terms and conditions that will help them scale their businesses to the next level.
What journey led you to becoming an entrepreneur?
My background is in international business administration, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the marketing and sales space — in the private sector especially. However, I think I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart.
I come from an average family background, so the first time I had my own money was the pocket money my mother gave me to live on during term. I was really excited to own this income, but life at university was fun and fast, and what we estimated was not quite what I ended up spending. Needing to find a quick solution, I went to our largest open-air market and bought thrift bags to sell at school. I had a good eye for which bags would sell, so this little business sustained my lifestyle and earned me a pretty decent income.
After school I went into formal employment. I initially worked in a range of larger businesses in the tourism and hospitality space, but something about them didn’t feel right. Eventually I moved into the sanitation space as part of a 100% locally owned start-up. The experience of working with a Kenyan entrepreneur with a big vision that he had brought to life shifted an important dynamic in my space. It was amazing to connect with someone who was creating job opportunities for Kenyans and solving big problems like sanitation at the same time. My experience here really made me see the bigger picture of how local companies can create for real change.
After this I went into the food space, but I soon had the same discomfort I felt from being in hospitality and tourism. These big businesses weren’t doing anything to empower local talent, and it felt like there were always some positions that were reserved for expatriates. At this time I made a decision to exit formal employment and take a risk selling my business skills to emerging start up organisations.
It’s a combination of personal experience, meeting lots of founders, and working for private Kenyan-led businesses that really inspired me to shift my mindset and go into the entrepreneurial space. I wanted to be an advocate for local solutions, local talent, and local employment opportunities.
Where did you get the inspiration for your business?
When I was transitioning from formal employment, I moved to Embakasi in Nyayo Estate, the largest gated community in Kenya. We’re looking at around 4,800 houses thereabout.
As I was working on my Chartered Institute of Marketing certificate, I did a project setting up a virtual team. I remember speaking to my boss and saying there’s a possibility the sales team can work from wherever they want. That remained with me even though at the time this was a crazy concept. This was 2012 when digital was only just really emerging, especially in marketing spaces.
Around this time I discovered I was pregnant, so I joined a local Facebook Group called Nayao Estate Embakasi Moms. It was a space where women would talk about the businesses they were running and the struggles they were facing. I found myself chiming into these conversations and then offering my skills consulting to help other women with their business.
The woman who had started the group moved out of the estate and so I became part of the administration. I had a very difficult pregnancy and was put on bed rest for the first four months, so my job at the time was to engage the group members. If someone needed my services, they could come to my house, so I was able to work through this time.
After a while, we started doing physical markets where women would come out and sell their wares. I signed myself up to online courses and started learning on the job about digital marketing. At one point I was trained as a trainer in digital skills by Google, so I was able to pass that knowledge onto a lot of women and help their businesses to grow too.
After years of growing the group I decided to register it as a business, and continue providing a formal marketplace for women to trade. That’s how Nyayo Mom’s Sokos came to be.
What is Nyayo Moms Sokos?
Soko is Swahili for ‘market’. The business initially started off as a digital marketplace connecting Micro, Small or Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) that are run by women. I have other startups I also work on, but what’s different about Nyayo Moms Sokos is that it uses digital technology to disseminate information and ensure women have market access as part of this collective that they wouldn’t be able to have alone.
When I first registered Nyayo Moms Sokos as a business I moved it from a Facebook group to a Whatsapp group, because it was an easier platform to use for our purposes. This removed the barrier of needing to be ‘friends’ in order to trade. We also set some rules in place for how the system works. The Soko opens at 4am and we close it at 9pm. In a day, a person can post 3 times with a maximum of three photos per post.
To make the venture sustainable, we’ve started charging an annual subscription where members become part of a business catalogue that we share across the community. We also now run a 24 week digital business training for women. Right now, Nyayo Moms Sokos has 5570 users across all our platforms, with around 1200–1800 active users each day.
What is your dream for this business in the next five years?
We are embarking on an ambitious journey to be the preferred marketplace for women led micro and small businesses, and I see Nyayo Moms Sokos being the largest marketplace for women SMEs in Kenya. I want to make the consultancies and training that I run digital. We are already developing digital learning content that women can access on the go to help establish their business — aka, how do you set up a whatsapp group for business, how do you set up a facebook company. Women should be able to get information and knowledge on the go, and for a very reasonable price.
What has been your biggest challenge and your proudest moment?
My biggest challenge has been not thinking forward about how big or how scaleable the business could be, or understanding the real problem I was solving. During COVID, in lockdown, we had women starting businesses out of necessity who never thought they would. Nyayo Moms Sokos grew faster than I anticipated, going from 100 users to 500 users in a very short amount of time. My proudest moment is that I was able to take this challenge and convert it to an opportunity. I took the risk to turn it from an informal group into a business, and now I’m navigating what is possible with that.
‘I think women are necessity entrepreneurs, but our story is always left untold. I’ll start a business to sell vegetables so I can have that extra shilling to feed my family, ensure my kids are going to school, but these little successes go undocumented. We want to measure a woman’s credit based on her bank account, which most of the time they don’t have, but nobody sits to reconcile that this small business sent kids to school for 20 years.’
What has ygap contributed to your business journey?
I had not thought my business would grow this much so quickly, and I didn’t know what to do with it. The ygap Kenya program helped to dig deeper and answer the question of sustainability. I had not yet figured out where this business was going.
When I sat in that bootcamp, I was able to identify the fact that my journey and the struggles I’ve faced as a woman entrepreneur are not unique — many other women in Kenya are facing the challenge of access to markets, access to information, the ability to move the business from point a to point b. For women’s businesses to scale, they need access to markets, information, and opportunities, and I was able to effectively identify how I contribute to that during the bootcamp.
What advice would you give to other aspiring entrepreneurs?
All journeys are unique, so I wouldn’t call it advice — nothing is ever cast in stone. But I would encourage aspiring entrepreneurs to trust their gut, then start looking for learning opportunities.
The reason I have been able to persistently stay in the entrepreneurial space is the knowledge I continue to acquire. There are many things I know about business now that the school of business I went to never taught me.
For me, it’s consistently investing in yourself, looking for online courses, checking for trends, and understanding how the digital space is going to transform your business and take it to the next level. Constantly upskill yourself and really take advantage of the digital tools available to you.
Especially to Kenyan and African entrepreneurs — Africa is our business and we really must step up. These pressing challenges of unemployment and poverty and lack of food — we have the solutions through entrepreneurship. If we grow, so many people down the line are also growing with us.