Makanaka Tuwe is the quintessential polymath; multi-talented, passionate and driven to help the people of the world connect better. Her ultimate goal is to shine her love and light through her many endeavours and to create spaces for the advancement of people of colour. She opens up about life as a social entrepreneur and dream chaser in our interview below:
Interviewer: Kudzanai Thondhlana
Makanaka, you are a woman of many talents, being a business owner, activist and author. Your bio describes you as a tree hugger, tea drinker, explorer, social entrepreneur, woman’s rights activist, reggae trap soul swayer, serial snap chatter, self-care champion, community and social development dreamer, book reading, free spirited dynamite. That’s quite a full plate! Tell us more about your various endeavours and how you are able to balance it all.
I am a person of many passions and I love to pursue them! We all have many facets to us and as a creative person, I like to creatively indulge in as many of those elements of who I am as I can. At my current job with a local grassroots NGO, I work 23 hours a week which allows me ample time to focus on my other projects. I also like to collaborate with other creatives on the many projects I work on which allows me more flexibility and capacity to produce great work.
Let us delve deeper into your activities for Afrika on My Sleeve. You founded it in 2013 as a platform to give an authentic voice for people of African descent in New Zealand and across the diaspora through art, fashion and music infused into new media formats. What motivated the establishment of this platform? Do you feel like your work through the various activities under the Afrika on My Sleeve banner have helped change the perception of people of African descent in New Zealand and beyond?
When I started Afrika on My Sleeve, it was about fighting for our space as people of African origin and other third culture kids. I wanted to provide a platform where we can showcase ourselves and who we are in order to change the mostly negative way we are perceived. As the platform developed and progressed, the focus changed from trying to alter external perceptions to more of introspection and trying to change how we perceived ourselves. I realised that we as third culture kids have internalised those negative opinions of us and they have affected how we look at ourselves, so Afrika on My Sleeve has become a platform for us to enhance our self-knowledge and self-expression.
In that regard, I feel like it has helped tremendously in providing a space to facilitate that internal healing of us. For me, it is those small results that matter and when I see so many third culture kids come through and collaborate with us whenever we have an event or campaign, it validates that we really are having an impact. For example, when I started hashtagging #blackgirlmagic, I had so many messages and comments asking about what it was from other women of colour in Auckland, now I see them hashtagging it too and it gives me goosebumps. It is those little milestones that show we are making progress and adding value.
Image By: Gathum (IG: @gathum)
It is a reality of our modern world, with its increased migratory trends, that a lot of people will grow up or establish residence in the diaspora. There has been a lot of focus on how the host countries receive and accommodate immigrants, and the many issues that arise from that. Less so, the other side of the coin of the relationship between diasporans and the people from their countries of origin. In your personal experience, how has that relationship manifested itself in your life? Do you feel that there is enough support for African diasporans and their businesses in their countries of origin?
I grew up in Zimbabwe until I was 10, when we then moved to New Zealand. Even though I have spent most of my life here, I identify myself more as a Zimbabwean. My parents are Zimbabwean, so are my ancestors, and I consider myself a Zimbabwean woman. A lot of us who have grown up in such an environment feel like we are beings that belong to themselves as they are in between two societies and cultures. I consider Zimbabwe my home as I feel that home is an energy and the essence of Zimbabwe is within me, even though the physicality is not. Whenever I go home, I do everything I can to blend in and connect, so in that regard I do feel a part of the fabric.
With regard to support for diaspora businesses in their home countries, I will say that people back home have been very supportive of my endeavours. I have connected with so many locally-based Zimbabweans who are doing amazing things in their fields and have inspired me to do the work I do. When I have done things, there has been support from other Zimbabwean women and Instagram has led to connecting and supporting each other with people such as Lochnation never short of the ‘yaaaases’ and much encouragement and support through direct messages and interviewing me for their blogs. So I do feel like there is great support for diasporans and their endeavours, that Zim is a viable market for our products. The issue is not so much a lack of support, but that we are failed by the system. My cousin could not buy my book because she does not have PayPal ora credit card. Likewise, when I wanted to support a local business by buying their rompers from New Zealand, I could not do so because the shipping costs far exceeded the cost of the rompers! So the system hinders us from empowering and better supporting each other.
Image by: Gathum (IG: @gathum)
Besides Afrika on My Sleeve, you are also the founder of The Content Queen New Zealand, a content creation and social media strategy boutique agency. Talk to us about the journey in establishing your business in the market. How long did it take you to start making a salary from it?
When I graduated from college, I worked in the tertiary sector for 2 years then I left to work in an agency for a few months and realised I loathed the work environment. I then decided to establish my own agency, offering content creation and social media strategy services. The reality of the entrepreneurial journey is that it is really tough. I feel like a sanitised, polished portrayal of starting your own thing is propagated and people do not see the real toil behind it all. When I started, I had no clients and had to work two jobs to barely make ends meet. I would drive my car into the city, take the free citylink bus to my first job where I was writing copy for an architecture firm, get back to my car to eat my packed lunch because I could not afford lunch, then walk to my second job. I had to do what I could to make ends meet.
Late last year, I secured a contract with a local NGO that does grassroots work with local communities and that has helped create some breathing room where I can now fund my other activities. I augment that with a number of writing jobs to add to the income streams. It has not been easy but it definitely has been a worthwhile journey.
As the polymath that you are, you have recently authored your first book, Questionable Intimacy, which you also self-published. What has been the biggest challenge in not only writing but publishing your own title?
To be honest, when I started writing the collection of thoughts and poems that make up the book, they were never meant to see the light of day and were more for my own internal purposes. It was quite an interesting process when I did decide to put everything together as some poems were on my phone while others were on a variety of notebooks scribbled all over the place in every which way. Due to it being such a personal project, it has been a rewarding journey every step of the way as the project is a commitment to myself. All my other projects are community related but this book has pushed me to show up for myself and set aside all the other things I hide behind.
The book is like my baby so I could not imagine anyone else publishing it; I did not even approach a single publisher. I cannot identify any challenges because the whole journey has been really good and has been all about personal growth. Up until a few days ago, I could not even articulate how I felt about releasing the book. I never thought someone would buy it, so having people purchase the book and enjoy it has been such a beautiful experience.
What are some of the pitfalls you would warn an aspiring young entrepreneur looking to follow in your footsteps and pursue a number of business endeavours simultaneously?
Firstly, dream big but realise that Rome was not built in a day. After my first Afrika on My Sleeve event, I was basking in my own glory and thought I could raise $100K from sponsors. I created these crazy sponsorship packages with offers like $30K for being mentioned on the back of our flyers. I then went and booked a very fancy venue for our second event, had designers from all over the world send in the collections, and only sold 11 tickets. It was a complete disaster and I was so embarrassed. I felt like a failure and went away for a week where I drowned myself in wine, ate too much cheese and cried constantly. I needed this experience to help me realise that it takes time to build up something from the ground up and you have to be prepared to put in the work to make your dream a reality. You have to try and try and try again to make it happen.
Tied in to that point is that you have to be prepared for failure as it is part of the journey. I could have quit when my event failed but I took it on the chin and kept going. Like Big Sean said, “I took an L but I bounced back!” You have to be ready to take some L’s. You also have to get used to everyone around you thinking you are crazy. People will not understand what you are trying to do, especially in the first days, so you have to get comfortable with that. Be prepared to have days where you do not know what you are doing and you are losing your mind. Sleep becomes a myth. Making money is also a myth; you will be putting in long hours just to keep you head barely above water. Finally, believe in yourself and know that in spite of the toil, we shine. One of the things I wrote in my ‘lessons from 23’ post on my Instagram on my 24th birthday was that it is OK to follow your dreams even when you have $5 in your account and are walking everywhere because you need to get that work. Allow things to be what they are and learn from them. You are on your own journey so focus on you.
What is the lasting imprint Makanaka strives to leave on the world? What legacy do you aspire for?
I just want to BE! I want to be known for being a person who is full of life, energy, light; those things that money and delusional power or status cannot buy. I also aspire to create a space where people of colour can collaborate and thrive. I want to create a platform where everyone has a part in it and it is no longer synonymous with me. I want whatever work I touch to give people a sense of belonging. I am currently reading The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and he says, “We are so much more connected than we realise we are,” and I subscribe to that. We all have the same experiences and I just want to play my part in helping us connect to each other.
The biggest sacrifice I’ve ever made is working a few hours a week in order to pursue creative and academic pursuits.
The greatest marketing/self-branding tool is your authenticity and who you are as an individual, do not be afraid to let yourself and your true essence shine.
Best investment? My Macbook laptop, I take it everywhere with me and my whole life is on it.
Worst money mistake? Securing a venue that was thousands out of budget with a deposit that never got refunded.
Advice in 3 words? You are enough.
Interview by: Kudzanai Thondhlana
Director – Creative Natives Africa
FB: Creative Natives Africa
Image by: Holly Sarah Burgess (IG:hsburg)