“We were so broke. We couldn’t even afford to give our visitors tea,” Tsitsi Masiyiwa said in retrospect in an interview with Forbes. “We were practically living from hand to mouth.”
Tsitsi Masiyiwa recounted that things were not always that bad. Before that, her husband had established Retrofit Engineering, an electrical contracting firm that handled lucrative construction contracts for the government and had built a considerable fortune, according to Forbes.
However, he saw his fortunes take a downturn in 1993 when he founded Zimbabwe’s first independent mobile telecoms network to rival the state-run telecommunication company, Zimbabwean Post & Telecommunications Corporation (PTC).
He was challenged and denied a license. When he took the matter to court, the government hit back, halting its business dealings with Retrofit Engineering. At the time, the Zimbabwean government was his biggest client. Soon, Retrofit saw its finances declining and Strive Masiyiwa could not afford to pay his workers. Eventually, he had to sell off the company’s assets and use the money to fund his court case with the government.
“So we were broke. In trying to understand what was going on around me, I began to do an intensive soul searching. Then I prayed to God and made a deal with him. I told God that if he granted us the license to operate the mobile phone company in Zimbabwe- and he made us successful, then I will help support as many poor people as possible for as long as I lived,” Tsitsi Masiyiwa recalled.
Amid the chaos, Tsitsi Masiyiwa found solace in divine intervention. She turned to God and took a step of faith with her husband. They registered Capernaum Trust, a charity that will give scholarships to needy children.
“It was an unpractical thing to do at the time, especially considering the fact that we had nothing. But as a Christian, you do unreasonable things,” she said.
While going through this trial phase, they mounted a strong defense in court for a license to operate a telecommunication network. In 1997, God answered their prayers and they were given a license to set up a mobile telecoms company in Zimbabwe.
In no time, Econet rivaled the state-controlled telecommunication firm to become the leading mobile telecoms company in the country. The company also expanded to Botswana, Burundi, and Lesotho. Strive Masiyiwa soon became Zimbabwe’s richest man, as reported by Forbes.
Amid profitability, Tsitsi Masiyiwa kept her promise to God. She became a philanthropist and regularly held parties for orphans. Using the Capernaum Trust, she helped orphans and vulnerable children by paying their school fees and providing funds for school uniforms and stationery.
A decade ago, Capernaum Trust supported 40,000 students across the Primary, High school, and Tertiary levels. She helped found three other charities — the Christian Community Partnership Trust (CCPF), the National Healthcare Trust Of Zimbabwe, and the Joshua Nkomo Scholarship Fund – named after the late Zimbabwean nationalist. All four foundations became part of the Higher Life Foundation, an umbrella organization for all the charity work of Tsitsi Masiyiwa and her husband.
In recent times, she has been a champion for education and healthcare initiatives in Africa. In 2022, she was named “Philanthropist of the Year” at the annual All Africa Business Leaders Awards. She also became the lead organizer of the African Gender Initiative, a network launched last year to unite African philanthropists “behind the common goal of advancing gender equality across the continent.” The initiative seeks to raise $50 million in ten years.
Tsitsi Masiyiwa is also the Executive Chair and Co-Founder of Delta Philanthropies and Higherlife Foundation, which seeks to invest in human capital development to build thriving individuals, communities, and sustainable livelihoods.
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