Chantal Heutink, Co-Founder, Afri-Can: Entrepreneurship Will Make Africa Strong

Afri-Can Founder Chantal HeutinkThe NextWomen Africa Theme.

Chantal Heutink is the Co-founder of the Afri-Can Foundation, which she created on the belief that entrepreneurship will make Africa strong.

A wonderful example of Afri-Can's work is the I-Care project, which produces washable, reusable sanitary towels. This not only provides employment for local women, but means that girls don't miss school due to lack of sanitary products.

Chantal knows that making a difference in Kenya (where the Foundation targets its efforts), and in Africa as a whole, means starting at the grass roots, in the villages and with the people themselves. It means supporting women and children in gaining access to economic processes so that, using their own strength, they can develop independent lives.

The Foundation's mission is to break the circle of poverty and hopelessness by creating opportunities in less developed areas. To create chances by investing in potential, entrepreneurship, financial systems, training and trade schools so that people take action themselves rather than remaining dependent on outside help.

Before co-founding Afri-Can, Chantal had a successful corporate career in HR. Despite her success, she felt empty and unfilfilled until she went to Kenya to volunteer for four months in 2006. When she returned home, she established Afri-Can Foundation. Nowadays she is frequent motivational speaker on the subject of “On High Heels in Africa”.

Chantal is also successful entrepreneur. She founded her company, 4xD, which mostly undertakes recruitment and coaching projects, in 2005.

We spoke to Chantal about the Afri-Can mission; how entrepreneurs in first world countries can help their counterparts in countries such as Kenya; and what she would say to women who are thinking of leaving corporate life to follow a dream.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for the Afri-Can Foundation and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

CH: Afri-Can Foundation came about after I followed my dream and went to live and work as a volunteer in Kenya for four months. There I met so many strong and dignified women. In those months I visited a number of communities and schools.

What surprised me was that there were so few girls in the higher classes of the primary schools. When I asked about that, I was told that menstruation was the reason that girls didn’t go to school.

Passing out disposable pads to the girls was a ‘no go’ situation for us. It costs too much, makes the girls dependent and does not provide a sustainable solution.

The area where we work, around Kisumu, is originally a cotton-growing area. From that point, the idea came about: ‘What if we could start with the production of washable sanitary towels?’ We took the idea to KIRDI, the Kenyan Industrial Research and Development Institute. The men in the board room weren’t too keen on the mzungu’s (white person’s) concept and actually found it to be an embarrassing idea. But they did listen, albeit with red faces. It took some convincing but they finally went for the project. The rest is history but now these men are extremely proud of I-Care and the role they played in the development. 

TNW: Tell us about the Afri-Can mission and how you are working towards achieving it.

CH: Entrepreneurship is what is making Africa strong. That’s why, together with the communities, we’re creating opportunities for local businesses - on the spot, in the villages. Because every human being has potential and everybody can.

In the local communities, we sit down under a tree with the Afri-Can team and the community members – mostly women – to talk about what they want and where their potential lies.

A good example of this is the peanut butter factory in Nyakach. A few years ago, a group of women had to grind the peanuts by hand. Then Afri-Can invested in a machine so they could produce a lot more peanut butter and, in doing so, earn a lot more money. Now there are plans to build a business centre, including a production hall for processing peanut butter, in order to turn this into a real business. There is a long way to go, a step at a time, but it’s amazing to see the strength these women have and the drive to - in their own way – make it a success.

Besides entrepreneurship, Afri-Can is also setting up practical training courses, the foundation for future business people. We have set up the Afri-Can Technical Training Centre in Kisumu (West Kenya). This centre was set up to bridge the enormous gap between poorly educated people and those coming from the universities. Follow-up courses are often unaffordable for the lower classes. This means that many young people end up hanging about on the streets, are unemployed and eventually become involved in criminal activities. Afri-Can has stepped in here because we believe that: everybody can and we want to stimulate the talents these young people have.

The first practical training courses we’ve set up are focused on training street kids to become car mechanics.

Theory lessons take place on the first floor in the centre and we have our own garage on the ground floor. The students get their practical training there and besides that, the garage – by repairing customers’ cars – makes it possible to build up a sustainable organization. Besides technical subjects, we also pay attention to social skills, English, business skills and sports as a form of team building. Whether the students want to become mechanics or set up another kind of business for themselves, the lessons in entrepreneurship provide them with basic skills and a good foundation. One of the students has already been hired as an assistant mechanic and another boy has found a job in the centre. The changes in their lives are visible – from street kids to self-confident young men. We hope to start with the first training courses for girls soon.

We have high hopes for the future and big ambitions for the centre.

One of these ambitions is setting up a Fashion & Design course. Much of the Kenyan culture and folklore is being lost because the Kenyan people, especially the youth, wear western clothing.

With a Fashion & Design course we want to offer girls a practical type of training and, by means of sales of their designs, generate income. At the same time, we want to design trendy clothes that blend the Kenyan culture with western style clothing. A fantastic dream! It’s one that I, a woman who loves clothes, can relate to!

TNW: Is there one Afri-Can success story which makes you most proud?

Chantal in the field with girls who have just received their I-Care Pads CH: I-Care Pads: washable sanitary towels. This project shows how you can make an enormous impact with a simple idea. Girls in Kenya and other developing countries miss an average of 3 to 5 days of school each month while they are menstruating. During their periods they use rags, pieces of old matrasses and even dried feces as a substitute for sanitary towels. All of these solutions are unhygienic and leak through. Embarrassment keeps the girls from going to school. As a woman, I feel strongly about this because the inconvenience of menstruation can’t be changed. Growing up with a feeling of shame is putting these girls at a real disadvantage.

In the western world we talk a lot about empowering women but that empowerment needs to start at a young age – at the moment that girls start menstruating. This is a crucial age for empowerment.

We wanted to find a sustainable solution to the problem. That was the beginning of I-Care. These washable sanitary towels are made by women who are trained for the job. They generate their own income and become financially independent. Girls can go to school uninterrupted. It’s a sustainable product because it can be used for as long as one year.

First we want to lay a strong foundation for the project in Kisumu and then expand into other parts of Kenya. My ultimate dream is to take I-Care to other African countries so that as many girls as possible can go to school without being hindered by their menstrual periods. It will also create jobs for the women producing the sanitary towels. Our idea is to set up a franchise system.

TNW: We have published several articles stating that fostering entrepreneurship (especially amongst women) in developing countries is the key to turning around the current global economic crisis. Do you agree with this? What can entrepreneurs in first world countries do to help their counterparts in countries such as Kenya?

CH: Yes, I totally agree. There is a need for sharing; sharing dreams, challenges, practical solutions, knowledge and so on. These women are motivated but often don’t know how or where to start.

Female entrepreneurs from Europe and the United States can play crucial roles. Not incidentally but longer term - as coaches in a buddy system, following the process and acting as a sounding board.

We women, and I see that in myself, have the tendency to try to do things all on our own. We’re ready to help others but unwilling to ask for help for ourselves. So many women have gone before us, the exchange of knowledge and learning from their experiences would be an enormous step forward for everyone involved. Why re-invent the wheel? The solutions in Kenya are often very elementary. For westerners a back-to-basics approach can sometimes be a real eye-opener and it gives the women involved a huge boost. 

TNW: What led you to make the decision to leave corporate life? What would you say to women who are thinking of leaving corporate life to follow a dream?

CH: I worked in the corporate world for many years. I earned my stripes in recruitment and as a project manager where I set up and ran a large training and culture programme and trained employees. But I found myself searching: Who am I? What is my mission in life? What makes me tick? What do I want to see when I’m 75 years old and look back on my life? I had the feeling that I was working hard to ‘be someone and be noticed’ but it made me feel empty inside. I wasn’t doing any of this for myself; it was all for my public image. 

In 2005, I started up my own company: 4xD Ltd.: Enterprising is all about Dreaming, Deliberating, Daring and Doing – especially the ‘doing’. So many people have desires, so few people have the courage to actually ‘do’. In 4xD I trained and coached people to ‘do’. This also meant I had to look long and hard at myself. Then I felt and knew that it was time to follow MY dream: to go as a ‘Florence Nightingale’ to sub-Saharan Africa.

I would say to other women: ‘If you wait for the perfect conditions, you will never get anything done. Just do it!’

We are often trapped by what  people around us think, or by our own fears and insecurities.

Dare to step out of your comfort zone. It’s not always an easy road to follow but it does reap rewards. By going I discovered my real passion and new talents and that was the start of the Afri-can Foundation.

Working with your strengths and passions and encouraging others to do the same is really ‘my thing’. These things are connected in Afri-Can, my personal driving force, and in 4xD in my role as a speaker. As a speaker with the theme, ‘On High Heels in Africa’, I tell about my personal and intense journey from Dreaming to Doing. Through this inspiring and authentic story, I try to stimulate people to get moving, to throw poor excuses overboard and to take action.

Chantal talking to Kenyan girls about I-CareTNW: What lessons have you learned from corporate life and applied to the founding and running of Afri-Can?

CH: I’ve learned to approach things in a business-like way; taking part as a consultant and not as a ‘helper’. Help makes people dependent. Besides that, we are taking a professional approach in who we are, how we present ourselves and how we project our organization. In this line of work there are so many different parties: the communities, co-operating partners, local government, sponsors, businesses. And with my background, I’m able to move in all these circles and on many different levels.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

CH: Working with the wrong partner. Fraud, stealing, threats, black mail – I’ve seen it all. It was a terrible period and I often asked myself if I should continue and whether it was even worth it. There were moments of doubt but in my heart I knew the answer: YES! I/we will carry on.

So many people can’t become the victims of one man. We want to stand as an example for our surroundings. How else can you stop this kind of criminal? By walking away? 

This has taught me to build in better control systems no matter how good the co-operation seems to be. You need to stay on top of requests for certificates and such; stay involved so that you can understand the dynamics of Kenya and make sure that everything is done legally. Besides that, we now have a good business relationship with a reliable advocate, who advices us and stands by where necessary. I’d advise people who want to set up something abroad to make sure that your contact person is trustworthy and counter check information with other people and organizations. Don’t rely too much on one partner. Take the lead. 

TNW: Do you lie awake at night sometimes thinking about the company? What aspects of it specifically keep you awake?

CH: What does worry me is our financial position. We now have 17 people on the payroll in Kenya and one in the Netherlands and I feel very responsible for them. How do I keep myself and these people in jobs? How do I finance growth? How do I position our organization; as a foundation or a ‘social’ business?

Sometimes I’m also uncertain about my leadership style. Working in a Kenyan environment is so very different from what I’m used to.

I view it sometimes with amazement and other times with abashment. How can I find balance in my background, working style and being a westerner in a Kenyan context?! We’ve built up what we now have from nothing. Setting up an organization is new to me and it involves a lot. I’m the one who has to make tough decisions at crucial moments under the watchful eyes of the personnel… 

TNW: What have you learned the hard way through the fund raising process that you wish someone had told you at the beginning?

CH: Not to be too modest; to budget well; not to be afraid to ask questions. Starting from a small project we went on to build our own centre. That meant that we had to deal with budgets on a totally different scale. By starting too small we ran into trouble. Take exploitation costs and maintenance into account for the first few years. You need a buffer to tide you over in the first few years.

TNW: How has your leadership style changed over the years, and why?

CH: I’m fiery, passionate, result-oriented, energetic and a perfectionist. That has worked well and brought me to where I am now. However, there is another side to the coin. Because of my enormous drive, people around me had a hard time keeping up with me; the work was never good enough or finished quickly enough. At a certain point I realized that this was counter-productive. Getting results is great but if your personnel and volunteers aren’t behind you, it doesn’t count for much. It was short-term thinking on my part.

More and more – but it’s still a question of one step forward, two steps back - I’m learning the art of ‘serving leadership’.  

This works on the principle of letting people work for the organization and not  ‘flying in above the business like a seagull, making a lot of noise, dumping on everyone and flying out when things go wrong’.

When you know what makes people happy and where their talents lie, the gears start turning. This is much more focused on the long term. I’ve started putting more time into this and it works for me. It’s not always easy but when you see the results, it can be really motivating.

Main image of Chantal courtesy of Julia Homayoun-Nejad. 

Chantal has been shortlisted from hundreds of women for the Inspirator 2013 award organized by “Women & Passion”. You can vote for Chantal here http://vrouwenpassie.nl/powerdag/inspirator-2013 by scrolling to the bottom of the page, selecting Chantal, then clicking on ‘STEM’. If Chantal wins, Afri-Can Foundation will receive much needed funds and visibility.

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