“When I started, it was difficult to find mentors, especially Black women in conservation. I’ve come full circle to where I wanted to be.” – Dr Moreangels Mbizah, zoologist and founder, Wildlife Conservation Action
A childhood dominated by patriarchal thinking and, if I’m honest, men in khaki telling me what to do, ignited a flame that continues to spark, burning barriers that exist against women in this industry. And while that thick glass ceiling often feels impenetrable, the roster of visionary speakers at our annual Women’s Empowerment Retreat reminds me that when pushed hard enough, glass shatters. “If African women rise, wildlife will thrive” is our mission statement. And today, on International Women’s Day, that guiding credo feels especially apt.
“Being a Black African woman in the sciences, people are always curious to know if I always wanted to be a conservationist. They don’t often meet conservationists who look like me.”
Conservationist, zoologist, founder, and executive director of Wildlife Conservation Action, Dr Moreangels Mbizah saw her first wild animal at 25 years old – despite growing up just a few miles from the lions and wild dogs who would later become the subject of her master’s degree. The discovery of her own disconnection from the wild was the genesis of her community-led conservation philosophy. For Dr Mbizah, the lack of exposure to and education on wildlife so integral to Zimbabwean heritage adds fuel to the escalating fire of human-wildlife conflict. “Community members only have negative associations with wildlife. They have never seen a relaxed elephant in a National Park.”
This community-first belief was reinforced by the 2015 loss of Cecil, a lion Dr Mbizah had studied for three years, to a trophy hunter. Following Cecil’s untimely death – a senseless tragedy that sparked an international outcry – Dr Mbizah wondered, “What if the community that lived next to Cecil was involved in protecting him? What if I had met Cecil at 10 years old instead of 29?” Her initiative, Wildlife Conservation Action, introduces children to national parks and finds ways to reduce the cost (primarily the loss of livestock and crops) that communities face living with wildlife. Successes include introducing predator-proof mobile bomas, conservation clubs for kids, ensuring tourism profits actually reach locals, and doubling down on indigenous knowledge. For Dr Mbizah, conservation and developmental issues are not distinct but intertwined. Without creating positive associations with wildlife and educating on the benefits of wildlife tourism in the wider community, long-term conservation will never take root. “If local communities don’t protect their wildlife, no amount of external intervention will help,” she says.
When asked about barriers to success she’s experienced as a female in this space, Dr Mbizah says, “It’s been very challenging. Your contribution isn’t valued. People feel you have nothing to add as a woman, that you're weak.” But Moreangels Mbizah herself, through perseverance and visibility, is changing the face of conservation in Africa. Her work on lions was featured in the 2018 National Geographic short film, One Woman’s Remarkable Journey to Protect Lions. And in 2019, she was awarded a TED Fellowship and gave a TED talk on “How community-led conservation can save wildlife”.
“I absolutely love what I do. I love seeing other people improving their livelihoods from the small loan we give them.”
After a 28-year-strong career in commercial banking, Virginia Sibanda wanted to do something else with her life. In the financial arena, she noticed that “there was something missing that wasn’t speaking to women”. Mrs Sibanda decided to use her vast experience to understand the pain points of rural communities and design financial products that address those pain points, focusing on women, small farmers, and youth. Thus, VIRL Financial Services, a microfinance provider, was born. VIRL (which stands for viability, integrity, reliability, long-lasting relationships) operates off the premise that those with the easiest access to money need it the least. For Mrs Sibanda, economically empowered women hold the key to building resilient communities. Alongside providing life-changing loans, VIRL empowers women through its social foundation, teaching business and technical skills, financial literacy, and market and financial linkages. And to date, VIRL loans have reached 11,700 women, totalling an $11.7 million investment in agriculture and solar power, bringing light, heat, equipment, and other essential services to rural villages.
“Challenges are always there; they are part of our lives. I look for solutions every day of my life.” Interestingly, Mrs Sibanda’s own problems in accessing the capital needed to found VIRL became part of the solution. She opted to look beyond traditional lenders, as no commercial bank would lend her the money needed, and collaborate with NGOs already operating in rural communities. This collaboration continues today.
Virginia Sibanda holds a Master of Business Administration degree from Bangor University in Wales in association with Manchester Business School. She is an alumnus of the International Visitor Leadership Program sponsored by USAID, which focuses on building capacity for women entrepreneurs. She is also an alumnus of the African Women Entrepreneurship Cooperative (AWEC), and past board chairperson of the Zimbabwe Association of Microfinance Institutions (ZAMFI).
“I had to pull my weight and put in my blood, sweat, and tears to realize the success that I have achieved.”
After three decades of scaling the leadership ladder in the aviation sector – working for Swissair, South African Airways, and Air Zimbabwe – Winnie Muchanyuka was named chief executive of the Zimbabwe Tourism Authority in 2022. This landmark achievement came after two years of “the biggest challenge of my career”, steering the decimated Zimbabwean tourism industry back from destruction during the height of the pandemic, as then vice president of the Tourism Business Council of Zimbabwe. Mrs Muchanyuka’s determination, vast experience, good humor, and resilience make her an unstoppable force to be reckoned with. Her unique ability to thoughtfully share the wonders of Zimbabwe with the wider world, strategizing critical growth, and cementing Zimbabwe’s future as a leader in conservation, is extraordinary.
But Winnie Muchanyuka’s trajectory as a trailblazer in tourism began decades earlier at university in Harare, and later abroad pursuing her MBA at the University of Gloucestershire. Working in a male-dominated industry – “especially at the management level” according to Mrs Muchanyuka – hasn’t been easy. A passion for sustainable tourism development in her homeland inspires every step of Mrs Muchanyuka’s career, from high-stress experiences in the aviation industry, chairing the Board of Airline Representatives, to her current PhD candidacy in Tourism Management from the University of Pretoria.
It is the people that make up the fabric of any . And of course, sharing “my people” is so much of what makes our mission at ROAR AFRICA so rewarding. To have the opportunity to introduce these fellow Zimbabwean women at our fourth Women’s Empowerment Retreat in April is an extremely personal privilege. I know that their stories, recounted with a skill unique to the people of my homeland – the best storytellers in the world – will inform, uplift, and inspire.