HOW TO GET A SEAT AT THE RIGHT TABLE AND MAKE A DIFFERENCE: AN INTERVIEW WITH EDNAH NGOMA, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR PRS 365.
By Marian Mtonga-Kamanga – ZAWARD National Coordinator
The Zambian Women in Agricultural Research and Development (ZAWARD), through its National Coordinator recently had the opportunity to interview one of its members, Ednah Ngoma, the Executive Director for PRS 365 Limited (“PRS”), to learn more about the company.
PRS 365 Limited is an organization that has generated increased attention over the past few years. The firm’s outreach has expanded, and it is growing in its reputation as a go-to consulting firm for local and international companies seeking innovative solutions to challenging business and development problems. Another peculiar aspect about the firm is its founding team, which consists of three highly talented and young Zambian women. The founder trio is made up of Natasha Chilundika, Ednah Ngoma and Esther Zulu. In our interview with Ednah Ngoma, we were keen to learn more about how PRS was started and what factors have propelled its growth trajectory. Find highlights of our interview below:
What is PRS 365?
Ednah: PRS is a consulting company that works to provide innovative solutions to Africa’s business and development challenges. We do this by providing 3 services - Research, Project Management and Capacity Building. Each of our services approach problems differently, but all our services work together to deliver relevant and impactful solutions to real-world problems. Our work primarily focuses on 3 sectors, that is, Finance, Agriculture and the Social Sectors. Over the past two years alone, we have worked on over 40 large scale projects on behalf of local and international client organizations such as Atlas Mara, UNICEF, Mercy Corps, Women’s World Banking, Kivu International, BRAC USA, Izwe Zambia, FSD Zambia, Musika and so many others.
In all these projects, we supported our clients to move from problem, to action-oriented solutions, to success. This ranged from helping NGOs to improve how they deliver interventions to the most vulnerable people in our society, to supporting financial institutions and other business firms develop viable strategies and products targeted at hard-to-serve consumer segments. We believe the work our clients do matters. And we are invested in seeing them and the people they serve succeed!
To learn more about PRS 365, visit www.prs.org.zm
What skills and experiences do you think have been crucial in shaping what you are doing today?
Ednah: I am a firm believer that the sum total of our personal and professional experiences shape a big part of who we become. So I will speak to both aspects. Professionally, I have strong competencies or skills in strategy development, research and project management. I have over 10 years’ experience working in both the development and commercial sectors, with specific expertise in financial services, agriculture, business and gender. As part of my work at PRS, I have consulted for a wide range of local and international organizations including commercial banks, microfinance institutions, food processors, UN agencies as well as other NGOs such as Mercy Corps, Musika, Kivu International, FSD Zambia and others. Prior to joining PRS, I worked for a financial services company as Customer Experience Manager, and an agricultural market development NGO as Research Manager. With regard to my academic qualifications, I have a Master’s degree in Agribusiness from Kansas State University and a Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics from The University of Zambia. The combination of these experiences has enabled me to acquire a unique diversity of skills, which have proven to be very useful in my work with PRS.
As for my upbringing, I was raised by a single mother. A feisty one I must add [laughs]. She raised 4 children by herself on an income earned running various small businesses. I remember growing up watching how greatly agile she was in adjusting her business plans when she faced setbacks. One instance, she started a trading business where she would source household goods at a low cost from our neighbouring Zimbabwe, and resell them here in Zambia. When Zimbabwe’s economic crisis began in the late 1990s, it killed her business completely. She went through a period of grief for a few days and was right back in the game a few weeks later. She decided to begin sourcing her stock from South Africa, and never looked back. I witnessed her overcome setbacks like these many times through-out my childhood. I believe I have taken on a lot of her grit and resilience even into my own approach to work and personal life.
The lesson I have learned looking back at all my experiences is:Don’t devalue any of your experiences. Pick the lessons from them, and use them to build the future you wish to see.
How was PRS 365 founded and how did you personally position yourself to take up the huge responsibility of setting up an organization?
Ednah: Back in 2017, I remember feeling a general sense of discontentment with my work. Initially, it didn’t make sense to me. I had a really great job by many standards and my work performance was good. So my initial reaction was to brush it off. However, the discontentment continued to grow with time. Finally, I decided to do an honest internal evaluation in order to discover why I was feeling this way. The answers came very clearly to me after much reflection and prayer:
One: I was not engaging the full measure of my talents and gifts in my work
Two: I was frustrated at not being able to do more to help solve problems in my society, country and Africa as a whole. I believed I had the gifts and talents to help do my part, but I just wasn’t living out that responsibility fully within the confines of my job.
You see, during this time, I worked as a researcher for a development organization. I had led the organization to undertake some of the most complex research assignments and gained a strong reputation for my analytical capacity, management skills and ability to transform complex information into meaningful insights and strategies. I got comfortable in this reputation, even though deep inside, I knew some of my talents and gifts lacked expression. For example, I knew that apart from being a ‘numbers’ person, I was also great at creating and managing partnerships, designing solutions to problems, and selling ‘a case’. But I couldn’t focus on this as much as I would have liked.
Therefore, I desired to get more involved in what I call ‘front-line’ work, where I would be able to use the full breadth of my abilities to create institutional relationships, design solutions using research as an underpinning tool, and provide those solutions to a wide range of organizations seeking to solve real-world challenges at a much larger scale. Be it business challenges or development challenges. In addition, I knew I wanted to do all this in a way that would be highly innovative and deeply authentic.
I also realized that in order for me to achieve these aspirations, I didn’t just need a seat at the table, but a seat at the right table. I knew I couldn’t easily access this table of opportunity at the time. So I decided to make my own table through building a consulting business that would be dedicated to developing innovative solutions to African problems. Furthermore, since am a strong believer of working through partnerships, I knew early on that I would want to build the consulting business in partnership with like-minded people. As luck would have it, within a few weeks of making this decision, my friend Natasha called me up one day and said, “…so Esther and I have been working on a number of consulting projects together, and we are now planning to formally set up a consulting firm. We have been thinking of asking you to be part of it, would you be interested?”
I couldn’t believe the timing. It was perfect. As a person of faith, this is the part I believe I did my part to decide to pursue my vision, and God did his part to help lead my partners and I to each other in His perfect time. I knew immediately that if there were people I would ever need to choose to do business with, it would be these two ladies. They are exceptionally talented, have an aggressive drive to achieve excellence and are equally passionate about making a difference in our society. So in 2017 we formally created PRS 365, which would have the sole purpose of creating innovative solutions to Africa’s business and development challenges.
I think it’s useful for me to mention here that before I went on to join PRS on full time basis, I knew I needed to acquire more skills in my tool box. As Mizinga Melu likes to say, “know what tools you need in your tool box”. I knew that if our company was going to become great at solving not only development problems but business problems too, we needed to acquire first-hand experience working in the commercial sector, and learn the complexities of how to create and sustain customer value. With this in mind, I left my job at the development agency and found another job working for a financial services provider. I soaked up all the knowledge I could get on business strategy development and execution, product development, sales and many others. Because I was so passionate about the commercial world at that point, I managed to learn the trade in a very short period of time. When I felt I had acquired the experience I needed to finally begin my work with PRS, I left my job with the financial services company and joined PRS on full-time basis.
I have learnt so many lessons from these experiences that I would like highlight:
One: That the gifts and talents placed in you are yearning to be expressed. Therefore, have confidence in your abilities and follow your instincts on how best to use them.
Two: Don’t just aim to get a seat at the table, rather, aim to also get one at the right table. And if none exists, build one for yourself.
Three: Know what tools you need to execute your vision and do what it takes to acquire them.
Four: Do your part diligently, and then trust God to help you with the rest
What advice would you give to other women who are looking to start a company through partnering with other women?
Ednah: Find partners that will not have the same skills and abilities as you, but will have the same vision and values as you. If you plan to constitute a team of partners that will also be part of the management of the business, I recommend you find people that will have different skills that complement each other, but at the same time, will have similar values and vision for the organization. One of the greatest strengths Natasha, Esther and I have as a founding team is that we all bring different expertise and leadership styles to the table, which when put together, produces exceptional results. Natasha brings on board extensive grants management, capacity building and research experience, with a strong ability to manage projects that require multiple institutional collaborations in various fields such as public health, nutrition and public policy. She is a double masters, Oxford University trained Rhodes scholar. She has a Master’s degree in Global Health Science and Public Policy. She is also a strong communicator and is currently running a radio show which aims to educate people on Zambia’s economic issues. Esther on the other hand is a seasoned economist with high level quantitative capabilities, with a strong ability to design rigorous and innovative research concepts that are able to effectively investigate real-world problems. She has pioneered analytical methods and quality control protocols for research projects. We call her our analytical models guru. She also has extensive experience working on projects in the social sector such as education and social welfare. She has a Master’s in Economics from Eastern Michigan University and Bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Zambia. Yes, you will notice that we share in having strong research expertise, and that is because PRS believes in using research as a tool to inform the development of any solution for our clients, whether it’s a product, training solution, a development intervention, a business innovation or project evaluation. Using these combined diverse academic backgrounds and industry experiences, we have been able to perform at a high level both in how the company is managed or how we deliver for our clients. On the other hand, we are also very much alike in our values and share the same vision for the organization. This has helped ensure we maintain the focus on the organization’s mission and long-term goals.
Expect to have conflict and problems even with the most fitting partners, and make a commitment to work through them. One of the biggest limitations our partnership faces is that we (all three of us) are very strong-willed, highly opinionated people. So our brainstorming sessions can sometimes get very passionate with disagreement. As partners, this doesn’t bother us too much because at the end of those disagreements, when the decision is finally made, we have learnt to carry out that final decision as a team. Even with this however, we have still had to learn to manage our strong willed personalities for the sake of the other employees we added to our team. As leaders of our organization, our opinions carry a lot of weight and so we have had to learn to be slow to speak and quick to listen, and sometimes even put our own convictions aside, in order to avoid drowning out the perspectives of other employees.
Embrace accountability and don’t take things personally. My partners and I are not just business partners; we are also close personal friends. Whereas this has helped us build a strong cohesive team, it also makes holding each other accountable challenging. To navigate this, we have made deliberate effort to create a safe space for honest communication, and to be open to the process of accountability. Any organization that has leaders that are uncomfortable with being held accountable is headed for trouble. We all have blind spots, and accountability systems help to keep us in check. My partners and I don’t shy away from having uncomfortable and confronting conversations with each other when necessary, but we always make sure to do so with a great degree of respect and without placing judgement on each other at a personal level. If any partnership is to thrive and last for a long time, you must develop the ability to do this.
What have been some of the greatest challenges you have faced during your time with PRS?
Ednah: We had to fight very aggressively to create space for ourselves in the market. We faced an array of barriers. One of the most difficult challenges was how to gain market share in an industry that was dominated by larger firms that had been in the industry for many years, and were in some cases funded by donors, and could therefore outcompete our efforts to maintain our talent pool. To compete in such an environment, we needed to be intentional about how we differentiate ourselves and fully understand how to communicate those differentiation factors within our target market.
Another challenge, which was probably the most shocking for me, was how in some instances, our capability as an organization was put into question simply because we are a fully Zambian company. We were judged not by the value we were able to offer, but by the failures of other local consulting companies to deliver effectively. In addition, this negative perception would worsen in some cases, when it would be revealed that PRS was founded by 3 relatively young ladies. I remember a few occasions where people expressed more confidence in our organization and its capabilities, when they wrongly thought Natasha, Esther and I were only employees of the firm, not founding members. Also, because the quality of our work was exceptionally high, some assumed we must be a branch or franchise of a much bigger international firm.
“In some instances, our capability as an organization was put into question simply because we are a fully Zambian company. We were judged not by the value we were able to offer, but by the failures of other local consulting companies to deliver effectively.”
This, sadly, highlights how some sections of our society lacks confidence in and deeply distrusts its own local talent. And our hope is to help change the narrative for other locally owned organizations.
Despite all this, we never gave up. We’ve always had strong confidence in the value we could bring. We pursued our work with great excellence and authenticity and soon enough, our work began selling itself. We are very grateful to all the companies that trusted us with their work and bet on us. They continue to be our biggest champions when it comes to spreading the message on the exceptional work we are able to do.
What have been some of the biggest lessons you have learnt on your journey?
Ednah: Wow. So many. Firstly, one of the most critical ingredients you need to run an organization is resilience. You need to learn to process setbacks very quickly. There is no room for long pity parties. Leadership expert John Maxwell once said, “there are no two good days in leadership”. This has been true in many ways. My partners and I have faced many challenges, and we’ve had to learn to navigate and solve crisis situations at a fast rate.
Secondly, be authentic. Don’t try to be someone you are not. Lead with what you have and know your strengths and limitations. If you are not sure, solicit feedback from others about your strengths and limitations. However, be careful not to allow this feedback to put you in a box. Let me give you an example. Early in my career, I developed a strong reputation for being very analytical and detail oriented. As I rose to middle management, I developed a strong ability for vision casting or strategy development as well as project management. Usually, people are typically considered to be either detail-oriented, or strategy oriented (big picture). Rarely are people considered to have both. So I had one set of colleagues advising me to pursue a ‘back-end’ analytics career, while others encouraged me to pursue a ‘front-end’ business or program management career. It took me some time to realize I didn’t need to pick a side. I had both capabilities. And I could utilize both strengths to be a very effective leader and technical expert. One who is able to pick trends, cast vision or strategy, and also able to understand and manage the details needed to execute that strategy.
On the other hand, I also understand my key weaknesses. For instance, I have a tendency to set standards that are too high. Whereas this is great for achieving high level results, it can place high pressure on myself and my team particularly when we are working with close deadlines. To help mitigate this, I like to enlist the help of our team in ideation or planning sessions, they tend to do a great job of bringing me back to a balanced reality [laughs].
Finally, celebrate your wins. As PRS, we have great ambitions about where we see ourselves in the future. We are not yet where we want to be, but we are certainly not where we started and we have made some phenomenal strides. I always try my best to remind myself to celebrate our wins.
As we wrap up Marian, I would just like to say that I hope to see many more business partnerships created among women and young people in general. Africa needs more people to take responsibility for its growth, people that are brave enough to question the status quo and dare to create solutions that address its challenges in new and innovative ways.
To learn more about PRS, visit www.prs.org.zm
Also learn more about ZAWARD, which is a non-profit organization and the Zambian chapter of the African Women in Agricultural Research and Development (AWARD). Its mission is to strengthen women’s leadership skills in agricultural research and development in Zambia.