Nyasha Gwatidzo’s long walk into social entrepreneurship

Nyasha Gwatidzo is a serial social entrepreneur from Zimbabwe based in the UK, where she moved with her family at the age of 12. She is currently the Founding Director of Banya and Vana Trust, both related to children care.

Nyasha’s journey into entrepreneurship started when she was 19 with the Zimbabwean Women Coop that aimed to promote the economic independence of a group of Zimbabwean women by selling their articrafts in London. The Women Coop does no longer exist because a severe economic crisis that hit Zimbabwe more than ten years ago forced almost all the women they were working with to move to South Africa. But that was the springboard to a long series of successes.

Nyasha, who holds a degree in Chemistry from Imperial College in London and is a qualified psychotherapist and child therapist, built her career in London. She set up the Hoxton Health Collective, proposing a model of collective work in the National Health Service centres to promote collaboration among General Practitioners, nurses, administrators and patients. Her focus gradually moved toward children care and started up Imba, which provides support for children with emotional and behavioural difficulties in 33 London boroughs.

Nyasha is currently heading Banya, an independent fostering provider based in London started in 1997, and Vana Trust, a charity for the relief of poverty, promotion of health and education for children and young people in Zimbabwe and UK active since 2003.

Banya came up after years I had been running a small children home with six children and two members of staff. Children’s behaviour often gets better through fostering mainly because they have a family as point of reference they can always go back to. But only few people accept to be a foster family with certain children. Someone says they are too old, some that they are not emotionally attached enough and so on. I thought that if the family is properly supported they would be more willing to look after these kids. Because it’s not fair for them to live in institutions for the rest of their lives.

Nyasha found herself wondering how to broaden the scope of what she was doing at the children home and having direct experience as foster parent, she decided to try that avenue. That’s how Banya came into existence.

The first people I asked to be foster parents were my two members of staff. When I asked them they immediately replied ‘Of course we would! We know them!’” From that first success many followed and now that Banya is almost 20 it can count hundreds of children and foster families they have worked with.

As for Vana,

It has to do with my mum. A lot of my cousins died in Zimbabwe due to HIV because it wasn’t properly diagnosed at the time. A lot of children were affected both by the disease itself or because they remained orphans. So my mum asked me to do something. We started by providing clothes, toys, books etc. but now we’ve set up a proper supporting system at the St. David School of Nyandoro Village. We support children through sponsoring tuition fees, providing studying material, bringing water to the school, and caring for the renovation of the building.

Vana has worked with approximatively 1000 children in Nyandoro so far and it has branched out to the UK where it has opened an organic farm in Oxfordshire, which provides activities to people with learning disabilities, autism and mental health problems.

Nyasha reminds of Lavoisier’s Law of Conservation of Mass which states that “energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms.” There is apparently no clear cut end to each experience she undertakes, but a continuous flow of learning that urges her to the next venture. She is a very positive woman but nothing in her way of communicate suggests strong emotions, just an almost tangible determination.

When I first tried to open a business bank account no bank would allow me. And when they did they didn’t give me an overdraft availability. I’ve had a business bank account for over 25 years now and still don’t have an overdraft facility. Not even a pound. I think the problem with banks was that they didn’t understand social enterprises, they didn’t understand my business model they just thought it was weird. Or maybe that’s also because I’m a woman and I’m black, I don’t know.

About a year and a half ago Nyasha decided to walk the length of the River Thames to fundraise for Vana Trust.

The point is that I have this hand problem. I was really not feeling well for about 2 years and then one day I woke up and said today I’m going to do something to make me feel better. A friend of mine had suggested me to repeat every day to myself ‘I’m better’ just as a mantra. I did it and although I felt I sounded quite funny at times, it worked! So I thought let me do something to prove that I am actually better. Something challenging…like walking along the Thames! If I’m not well there’s no way I can walk 206 miles so I announced it to the charity at a meeting. When I told my team I wanted to walk the length of the River Thames they all almost died! (She laugh loudly) They said ‘but you’re not well’ I said no I’m better now I’m gonna walk and I’m gonna raise money for the farm.

And that was it. With some training and some basic organisation Nyasha completed her challenge and managed to raise £10’900 for Vana Trust. About a year later she published a book titled Walk With Me on entrepreneurial and life tips inspired from her walk, which is also going to be the topic of a series of workshops in London in 2016. The proceedings of all these initiatives are going to support Vana Trust.

The greatest learning I got from my walk is also the first tip in my book and it’s about taking the first step. Generally the greatest effort when you really want to do something is actually starting it. I urge everybody to do it! Even if it’s a mistake you have to make it. If you don’t take action nothing is ever going to happen.

Nyasha also has a thought for every step she took after the first one,

A very nice thing about the walk that kept me motivated every day was that every step I’d take, or whatever..mile i did it was unique. It was so nice to know that I would not repeat it again tomorrow or never again. I was only going forward.

When asked about what she would suggest to other migrant entrepreneurs, Nyasha says,

You can do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a foreigner, and what your situation is. You just need to believe in yourself and have confidence that this your actions are going to take you somewhere. Your reactions to what you do should be your best feedback. That’s enough and you don’t need anyone else to tell you you can or cannot do it. If you’re providing a service you need to strongly believe in why you’re doing it; if you offer a product you should be sure of its quality. You gotta believe in yourself rather than other people believing in you.

And in case you are interested in walking and/or charity work Nyasha is going to walk the length of Zimbabwe this summer with a charity called The Long Well Walk which aims to tackle water and sanitation poverty.

To learn more about Banya click here; for Vana, here.

Here, you’ll find Nyasha’s personal website.