Securico, the company that Zimbabwe’s Divine Ndhlukula started in her cottage in the late 1990s with four employees and very little capital, has become one of her country’s largest security firms.
According to her, perhaps the biggest barrier she had to face when she set it up was her gender.
“Obviously, as a woman, people would not believe that I could run a security company – particularly with no security background,” she told the BBC’s series African Dream.
However, she held firmly to her purpose and Securico now employs more than 3,500 people, including nearly 900 women.
“We provide cutting-edge services. We move cash and valuables for companies and banks; we also provide electronic security systems – that’s the CCTVs, the access control systems, the alarms, the rapid responses, remote site monitoring and so on,” she said.
“Our business has grown to be well capitalised in terms of assets; in terms of balance sheet, our balance sheet is close to $8m (£5.1m). This year we expect to turn over just over $16m,” she added.
If things keep on going according to her plans, she hopes that within five years Securico will have branches in neighbouring countries and reach an annual turnover of more than $50m.
The company has not only grown physically. It has also been recognised as one of the continent’s leaders in business excellence and in 2011 it beat 3,300 other firms and won the coveted $100,000 Grand Prize at the Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship in Nairobi, Kenya.
The organisers said that Securico “exemplifies the vital role played by entrepreneurs in creating economic growth, prosperity, and realising opportunity in Africa” and pointed out that it is the largest employer of women in the private sector in Zimbabwe.
Subsequently, Ms Ndhlukula was chosen as one of Africa’s most successful women by US business magazine Forbes.
Ms Ndhlukula says that even as a student she dreamed of being an entrepreneur.
“When I was in school I used to tell my friends that I was not going to work for more than two years but obviously I had to work for more than two years,” she told the BBC’s Steve Vickers in Harare.
She trained as an accountant and worked in the 1980s for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), the Old Mutual investment group and Intermarket Insurance (now ZB Insurance).
“During the time that I was working for these employers I was obviously involved in various enterprising initiatives. Typically, I’d buy clothes from factories here in Harare and sell them to my colleagues at work, and also give [them] to my colleagues in other places, to sell on my behalf on commission,” Ms Ndhlukula explained.
With the money she saved she bought a truck which she hired out to a construction company. Later she had to sell it to prevent her late father’s farm from being auctioned.
As she saved the farm, its title was changed into her name and she ventured into the farming business.
She then took out a loan against her house in order to grow maize but things did not go as well as she had expected due to a severe drought and she almost lost her house. So in 1995 she had to go back into employment.
“I did a marketing diploma and I switched my career to marketing because that gave me time to be able to run around into other things as I knew that I definitively wanted to break out on my own at some stage.”
Her dream finally came true in 1998 when she realised that there was a gap in the security services sector, an area that was dominated by male entrepreneurs.
According to her, she noticed that the quality of the services many of the existing companies provided was not up to the standards of the big corporations and multinationals operating in Zimbabwe. That is how Securicor was born.
Ms Ndhlukula remembers that she started with three security operatives and two managers, including herself.
“Of course, I just had to insure that I had enough money to be able to run and be able to pay people on time because that is very critical in our type of business. So, I did not really need a lot of capital,” she said.
“This is, I think, the biggest folly of people who aspire to be in business. They think that you have to have lots and lots and lots of money to be able to start a business. No, it’s not that. It’s really the passion.”
So she started approaching people who she knew and trusted – former schoolmates, ex-colleagues, friends and relatives – and asking them to support her new project.
“Slowly people began to gain confidence as they saw how serious I was, they saw how ambitious and how passionate and determined I was. I was so involved in the business.
“They began to notice that ‘look, this business seems to be serious and their service seems to be even much better than those established companies’, so they started referring us,” she said.
She believes that, once a gap in the market has been identified, persistence is the key to success.
“I always tell people: ‘If you’ve got a product or a service that is required by the market, you can sell it’. It’s not about the sciences. It’s about the passion for the idea”.
Probably because of her experience of nearly losing her home when she ventured into farming, Ms Ndhlukula is not keen to borrow money.
“We are very careful when we get money from banks. We get it when it’s really necessary, when we know we are going to swear to the assets that we’ve gotten with the loans so that we can easily repay without having to stifle the business.”
Also, in a country where many business people complain about the levels of bureaucracy and corruption, she is against the idea of paying bribes.
“Unfortunately, we’ve not been getting any work from government but I’m glad that the kind of customers that we targeted in the first place – the high-end, the multinationals, the blue-chip companies – they also do their procurement by the book.
“We never give a bribe because the moment you start giving somebody a bribe today, they expect you to give them a bribe every other time. And, you know, you cannot do business that way.”
So what advice does she have for budding entrepreneurs around Africa?
“I always say there is no easy road to anywhere worth going. One’s got to apply themselves. One’s got to put in that extra effort. One’s got to have the discipline to be able to say: Look, I’ve made a bit of money, invest back the money into the business so that it grows,” Ms Ndhlukula said.
“I think that is the folly of many of our people. You make a bit of money and you think you’ve arrived. You start spending the money and the business does not grow”.
She also pointed out that when one is starting a business, one should not delegate too much.
“You delegate but you obviously have got to have that hands-on approach for a while, and then you develop people that will eventually take over from you.
“I literally used to work about 16 hours a day. I still do it occasionally, though we’ve got about 22 managers – we’ve got MBAs and so on – but they still require your input. I’m still the MD [managing director], I still give that strategic direction. If you’re there, you’re visible, you’re exemplary, you show that you’re also working – then people will buy into your vision.”
African Dream is broadcast on the BBC Network Africa programme every Monday morning, and on BBC World News throughout the day on Fridays
Every week, one successful business man or woman will explain how they started off and what others could learn from them.