22 October 2021Share
Author: Christina Sexton
During an internship in regional Australia, Young Alumni of the Year award winner Malaika Mfula developed a program to empower local women in the hope of gaining a bit of experience as a new graduate. What she did not foresee was her pitch would lead to government funding three times over for her idea, which now offers vital support and training for thousands of people from the bush.
Malaika began a degree in international development at ACU before switching to a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Global Studies after topping the class in a macro economics unit in her first year.
“My lecturer gently tapped me on the shoulder and said I’d be better suited to majoring in economics in arts and global studies. It wasn’t like I had studied this in high school, but I fell in love with it at uni and felt like it answered all of the questions I’d had since I was a kid and used to pester my mum about.
“My new degree gave me a macro perspective on the micro problems I was interested in and helped me understand the economic forces within the world, and I loved that my classes were all grounded in a strong ethical and moral code. But the highlight was doing an international exchange as part of my course and working for a United Nations agency at The Hague in the Netherlands.
“Also, my paternal grandparents were diplomats, I’m half Australian, half Zambian, and I spent a lot of my childhood travelling around the world. So studying economics and global studies was a natural fit for me. Not that this all came easily. I spent a lot of nights in the Strathfield library! But I was always so hungry for information.”
After Malaika graduated from her course, she began an internship in Dubbo in regional New South Wales.
“Moving there wasn’t easy as it was right in the middle of a drought. It came as a rude shock; it was dust storm after dust storm, just rolling in every day.
“I was interning for social impact organisation, The Exchange, an innovation hub which helps regional people start businesses. When I first arrived, they’d only just opened their doors and weren’t quite sure what people were going to make of it as it was the first of its kind in regional Australia. But we were immediately inundated with women seeking help. They needed to diversify their income and didn’t know where to start.
“For these women, all of their household income was centred around agriculture and farming, but the drought had been going on for so long that they needed new ways to put food on the table and send their kids to school.
“My project became designing a workshop-based program focused on upskilling women in small micro businesses within a regional context. I pitched it to the government for funding – and then I got on a plane to Zambia.”
Malaika left Dubbo behind to live in Zambia for six months, interning for NGO, African Impact.
“Similar to what I was doing in Dubbo, I focused on supporting regional women scale their businesses, trying to help them move into new markets.
“Investing in women’s economic empowerment is my passion. I feel it’s a direct path towards gender equality, poverty eradication and inclusive, sustainable economic growth.
“So, I helped upskill the local women about income generation and financial literacy. I would teach lessons breaking down basic economic and business concepts, putting them into a local Zambian context.
“The program was quite successful. We saw a 300 per cent sales increase over the first two quarters for some of the women, it was fantastic. The eventual aim of the program was to get them to the point where they’re able to invest in themselves and feel confident starting and running their own businesses.
“However, as I grew to understand the social nuances, sometimes it was one step forward, three steps back. Occasionally a woman would have a business doing really well and then one day she’d stop showing up. For some, the issue was they were now out earning their husbands who weren’t happy about it and they’d pull the pin on their business.
“What I came to learn is it didn’t matter if I was in Dubbo or Zambia – women were the backbone of these communities, especially in times of crisis like the drought that both places were experiencing. The women were making enormous contributions to the economy in both paid and unpaid work.”
After leaving Zambia and returning home to Sydney, Malaika got an unexpected call from her old boss in Dubbo.
“She rang me and said, ‘Remember that program you pitched to the government before you left for Africa? Well, it’s been funded by the government and the Minister for Women wants you to roll it out across regional New South Wales.’ I’d been home for just two weeks! I went straight back to Dubbo.”
Since returning, Malaika has been working for The Exchange full-time getting The Change Program off the ground.
“It’s since become our flagship program. I get experts and facilitators in from different fields to host workshops on topics like finance, accounting, media, marketing and everything that comes with running a regional business.
“I was on the road a lot, travelling through all the small towns when COVID hit and we had to flip it all online. Suddenly we had hundreds of women registering for events from all across Australia because we were no longer limited geographically. I had women Zooming in from remote farms in Western Australia to towns at the top of Queensland. It definitely opened my eyes that it isn’t just women in New South Wales who are hungry for this information, it’s Australia wide, especially if it’s delivered to them within a regional context.
“The program has now been refunded three times. I host in-person workshops inside small community halls around NSW and our facilitators do lots of online workshops, so everyone can access the same information. Geographic location shouldn’t be a barrier to accessing resources to scale your business.
“A lot of women I have worked with either grew up in a city or relocated to one for uni, and then moved to regional and remote Australia for love. But suddenly, these farms aren’t making the money they used to for a range of reasons, like the drought, the mouse plague or the Chinese tariffs on barley, and they’re left thinking, ‘What do I do now?’
“This is why they’re starting businesses from their properties, with many centred around university degrees they haven’t used for over 10 years. A great example of a thriving business is Buy from the Bush. The founder is someone I worked with closely and it’s all about supporting small businesses run by women living on the land. Other women have started graphic design companies, or work as artists, accountants or web developers.”
“I think women in metropolitan cities underestimate the sheer labour of women in the bush. They don’t have 9 to 5 jobs and head home. So many of the women are driving hours to go home to properties and they have to fit in a grocery shop, but that’s another two-hour drive. This takes a toll. And often if they’re on a property, they’ll be helping out with the cattle or they become ‘harvest widows’ – I plan my program around the seasons, so harvest time or sowing time. This is when women abandon town and are stuck on properties as their husbands are busy sowing grain for weeks at a time. They become single parents as their partners are on the back of a tractor for up to 18 hours a day.”
Malaika is as surprised as anyone that a program pitched during her first internship after uni has become so successful.
“When I designed the program, I had no idea it would come to fruition. My boss just thought it would be a great experience to learn from. During my internship I did stakeholder mapping and ecosystem interviews, and I was in regular conversation with women walking through our door every day almost in tears asking, ‘What am I going to do? I need to start a business.’
“But I never anticipated that it would be funded initially, let alone three times over. And it’s become the poster child for women in regional NSW. We’ve now had several ministers come to our workshops and help with the program launch every year.
“The future plan is to refine the program a little more and potentially we’ll look for some philanthropic investors to help shore up the program for a bit longer.”
Malaika’s advice for anyone wanting a career like hers is get a good understanding of the foundations upon which we find ourselves within the world.
“Doing my economics degree and having the politics and history behind it gave me a solid starting point to build on.
“But just know, if you’re entering into a new community, the solutions to questions and pain points can be found within the community. Rarely do you find solutions come from outside or the top down.
“You need to get very good at asking the right questions, and if you go in knowing the solutions are already there within a community, you’ll find that maybe they just need help pulling it altogether. You can’t design programs for people you don’t understand, or create policies for communities without their consultation or an appreciation of the nuances and perspectives. But it’s ok, this comes with experience.”
Malaika is the winner of the Young Alumni of the Year Award in ACU’s Alumni Awards 2021.
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