Cynthia Makunganya: Head of Malawi Operations, Yellow
Hitting the ground running at a startup, building culture across large field teams, and finding ways to pursue social initiatives within your business model
About our Guest
This episode’s conversation is with Cynthia Makunganya. Cynthia is the Head of Malawi Operations for a startup called Yellow, which is paving its way to success in the renewable energy space in Africa. Having recently celebrated their 100,000th SHS connection, Yellow is a digital retailer that distributes solar and other life changing products to people in rural areas, currently in Malawi and Uganda. Cynthia’s purpose is to inspire, support and motivate all team players in all country operations to achieve positive outcomes from set targets using digital tools and resources and the influence of culture. She currently manages a team of 54 in-country staff and roughly 800 sales agents. Her ability to work with a diverse group of people, passion for ending energy poverty and continuous learning among other things is what led her to pursue a career in the clean / renewable energy space. She has accumulated over 7 years’ worth of work and entrepreneurial experience in diverse sectors including the renewable energy, banking and the NGO sectors with growing experience in farming and packaging industries.
Everyday Leadership in Action
Here are a few highlights from the conversation with Cynthia:
Maintain a growth mindset when transitioning from college leadership roles to entry-level positions: Many of us experience the ups and downs of perceived status throughout our academic and professional careers - going from being the top in one place to returning to the bottom shortly after. There are ways to maintain momentum while navigating these naturally humbling experiences. For Cynthia, while she had privilege of studying abroad for university in South Africa, she returned to Malawi to take an entry-level internship role. Yet she made sure she took initiative to seek out the mentorship of the organization’s country director, and was flexible early on to learn as much as possible in the workplace and not mentally put herself “above” any task or project. This mindset eventually landed her a job with a rapidly scaling startup.
View new projects and challenges as adventures in order to overcome feelings of stress and uncertainty: Cynthia was only 26 years old when she travelled to Uganda to launch Yellow’s operations there. She only had a one-month timeline to get everything up and running before returning to Malawi to continue scaling up her team there. By looking at this opportunity with a sense of adventure, she was able to have confidence to “say yes” to taking it on, and also prepared adequately by ensuring her existing team could function smoothly while she was away.
Adjust your recruiting strategy based on your target applicants: In order to hit the ground running at an early-stage startup and rapidly rise within the company, you must be ready and willing to spend considerable time and effort building structures, policies and culture that align with your company’s mission and target market. One example of this for Cynthia was building out a custom applicant screening, tracking and onboarding process involving engaging candidates over an 8-step process that including discussions over WhatsApp groups. They have since used this system in their new Uganda operations as well.
Find ways to take on important social initiatives that are embedded within your business model: Having studied Economics, Cynthia read many studies that showed that women are the primary users of energy in rural areas, including in Malawi. However, in setting up her field team and network of sales agents, she found that it was taboo in many communities to have women serving as energy distributors and door-to-door solar product sales agents. She has gone about exploring and implementing ways to overcome this to ensure that more women can secure income opportunities and community roles that empower them. One way she has done this is by supporting and highlighting top female agents in her network that serve as ambassadors during recruitment campaigns. As a result, Yellow already employs around 200 female sales agents.
The Everyday Leader is a podcast featuring conversations with leaders from across Africa’s companies, organizations, and governments about their experience managing teams and projects throughout their careers.
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