Elizabeth Maloba is one of the co-founders of Nahari – a collective of changemakers applying creative approaches to provide safe spaces for joint decision making, communal knowledge exchange, and collaborative learning. She is a speaker, moderator and entrepreneur with over 20 years’ experience in addressing complex challenges – her passion is fostering the development of lasting, mutually beneficial relationships that contribute to global sustainable development. She works in cross-sectoral, trans-professional, multistakeholder settings. She has a strong experience in International Cooperation, Development Cooperation, and Private Sector Development and has worked with over 20 organizations, in over 30 states, on four continents.
How would you describe yourself?
I always say I am a career loving mum. I have always worked. My work is important to me. As a mum I find that work has gained even more significance for me – through it I can set an example for my child on chasing dreams, working towards goals, building earning capacity and managing money.
You are an architect and have been passionate about development issues, how did you pick your career path?
I didn’t pick my career path, it picked me. I left high school with one goal – to be self-employed. According to the wisdom of my career teacher that meant being an architect, and so a year later I was at University pursuing an architecture degree. And working, as a leadership trainer in outdoor leadership training programmes. The combination of skills I built at that stage in life – leadership development, team development, and creative thinking, enabled me to pursue the path that led me to where I am right now.
You are “fearless” in your current position. Help us walk in your shoes and understand where you get the strength from.
Fearless is a strong word – I like to think of courage as the ability to go ahead and do things even though I am tremendously afraid. I am privileged – I was born into a home where it was expected that I had a voice and an opinion. I was taught early that this voice mattered, that keeping silent was not good for the community in which I belonged. I was sent to the best school the money at hand could afford. The minimum education level expected was a University degree. To date, I have family members who take issue with the fact that I do not have a PhD, and that I am not pursuing it. There were role models, three generations of groundbreaking, powerful women before me. When your great grandmother had defied her husband to take her son to school, and your grandmother bought herself a bicycle, or owned her tea plantation, you don’t have any excuses.
As a mum I find that work has gained even more significance for me – through it I can set an example for my child on chasing dreams, working towards goals, building earning capacity and managing money.
What excites you when you wake up every morning?
Cooperation, collaboration, the possibility that innovative solutions will emerge from an unlikely source as a result of engagement across traditional barriers. Staying open, staying curious, engaging even when it is uncomfortable, and listening to positions that are so different from my own that I need to grow to be able to hear them. Knowing that breakthroughs for humanity have come not from isolated, focused, work in silos; but from collaborative efforts that took much time and effort to build and coordinate.
Share some examples where you have made a difference in your country and community.
One of the things I am most proud of is the work I have done with young entrepreneurs and female entrepreneurs over the last 12 years. Many of the people I have worked with as a trainer or a mentor have been from disadvantaged backgrounds, have had limited capital to start their businesses with, and have needed to ensure the success of these ventures as they were their only source of livelihood. It is great to meet many of them years later and hear how their businesses have grown, how they have grown as individuals, and what difference my investment in them made to their overall trajectory.
I also loved working with a couple of multi-national companies to address the challenge of delivering agricultural extension services to small holder farmers via technology leveraged platforms. Bringing together a diverse set of professionals, conducting research to develop field protocols that enabled an increase in productivity, and developing innovative solutions for the dissemination of this knowledge and provision of practical support was a real joy.
The third example I would share is the work related to developing a stronger pharmaceutical manufacturing sector in East Africa. Working with stakeholders from the private sector, development cooperation, governments and regional economic bodies to address the challenge of a weak pharmaceutical manufacturing sector in the region was both educational as well as rewarding for me. The policy developments, as well as the growth of the industry as a result of all the efforts of the team involved, are definitely something to be proud of.
What are some of the challenges you face? How do you overcome them?
As a freelancer – worker in the gig economy – it is a fine art balancing the number of clients and assignments one takes one against the need to ensure a steady income and sustainable livelihood. Over time I have built a combination of skills such as the ability to say no, the ability to negotiate more effectively around deliverables versus pay, and the ability to manage stress better. I still fall flat on my face every so often, so I have also developed the skill of getting up and dusting myself off, and getting on with it.
I am also what I like to call ‘a recovering teller’- and so over time I keep working on the capacity to step back, to give space for people to be creative and do things without being directed, to support rather than drive processes. And yes, I find myself going into default drill sergeant mode every so often, and having to pull back, walk back positions, and apologise.
How do you manage self-care? Do you believe in work-life balance or integration? What are some of the strategies you adopt?
I am an integration, rather than balance, kind of person. To put it differently, I don’t understand the work-life divide: are we saying that while we work we are not alive? So I take the approach that I am alive, and being a living being I can do a variety of things within the time I have at my disposal, and one of those things is work.
Eventually, everything in life works out just as it is supposed to work out. Stay curious, stay interested, stay mindful. Be brave. Be kind.
I have a cross-trainer at my house – on days when my brain needs to download stress I use it to push my body to its performance limits. I take walks whenever I can. There is something about an unknown path and fresh air that calms my mind. I read – almost every genre; I talk – talking helps me organise the thoughts in my brain, and I spend time with my family – nothing like the people who know you, to bring you to reality real quick!
Do you consider yourself a “Global Girl”? Why?
Yes. I travel for work and for fun. I have a personal network that stretches across the world. I have a curiosity about other cultures and practices, and a love for exotic food, and an ability with languages that helps.
What is the advice you would give your 16-year-old self?
Eventually, everything in life works out just as it is supposed to work out. Stay curious, stay interested, stay mindful. Be brave. Be kind. You will go further than you can dream of now, it will not be in a direction that you can imagine.
What are three values you think are most important for a global leader?
I would share three interlinked values:
- Be Mindful – Be aware of who you are being and what context you exist in, bring your attention to the experiences of the present moment without judgment, be open to what emerges for you.
- Be Intentional – Focus your energy and actions, be purposeful and deliberate. Do not fall into a routine by going through the motions of leadership. It will not always work out as you saw it in your mind, but being intentional will enable you to take ownership of the process and the results, it will encourage growth in yourself and others, and it will provide you with truly authentic relationships.
- Be responsive – Recognise the ever fluctuating nature of our context and be prepared to adapt in response to new challenges and circumstances, be proactive, be pragmatic, seek help whenever you don’t have the tolls or skills to handle a situation, however uncomfortable that may be.
What’s next for Elizabeth?
If 2020 has taught the world anything, it is how interlinked we are, how a small occurrence in one part of the world can have a big impact in another (the butterfly effect is a reality), and how flexible and adaptable we all need be, in the face of emerging realities. I am looking at emerging technology – how can it be leveraged to enhance collaboration and inclusion, how can it enable the world to address emerging challenges, what new challenges does it create that we need to respond to; I am looking at the nexus between research, culture and governance – how can research and culture be integrated in the governance processes and institutions, how can we bridge the divide between the people and the government, or between the people and the research; I am looking at entrepreneurship – how can it be more responsive to the challenges of our times, how can it be more inclusive, how can the relationship between capital and other factors of production be recalibrated. I have no way of knowing how all this will turn out, or where it will lead to, I would have to go back to the age old euphemism ‘the best laid plans of men and mice often go awry’.