Nasreen Ali: Champion of women entrepreneurs’ growth

Nasreen Ali

Nasreen Ali, chief executive officer, Cherehani Africa and Afrikapu.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • I am passionate about inclusion of low-income households, especially financial inclusion for women and adolescent girls.
  • My goal is to be able to work with other global leaders who are pursuing poverty eradication.

Tell us more about your organisations

I get moved by things that empower women in social-entrepreneurship, linking them to business strategies, technology and the Sustainable Development Goals.

In 2014, I co-founded Cherehani Africa, a social enterprise that provides financial education and gives credit to women and adolescent girls who own micro-enterprises in rural and under-served markets in Kenya. I have been passionate about ensuring that resources are deliberately allocated to products and services with the most positive impact on women and children.

In 2019, I founded another organisation, Afrikapu, as an extension of Cherehani Africa, to support the women micro-entrepreneurs we serve to find markets for their products and save for a life goal such as children’s education, purchase of property or business expansion.

I have seen Cherehani and Afrikapu growing through partnerships, with both focused on facilitating the sustainable growth of vulnerable women micro-entrepreneurs in East Africa. We have managed to progressively move from transforming the life of one woman in 2014, to now serving collectively more than 25,000 women micro-entrepreneurs in rural and remote areas of Kenya and South Sudan.

Why did you choose the philanthropic career path?

As a woman growing up in Mombasa, I adequately fathom the struggles other women go through in their pursuit of excellence. I am passionate about inclusion of low-income households, especially financial inclusion for women and adolescent girls. My mission is to give disadvantaged women and youth a voice through business growth and help them become ambassadors of advocacy issues affecting their communities.

And living through several consequences of family economic insufficiency gave me the desire to fight for a better life for women who are excluded from formal financial systems. And now more than ever, as a new mother of twin girls, I feel it’s my responsibility to ensure that my daughters grow into an equal workforce and are more prepared for future shocks.

What were you doing before you started the two organisations and what prompted you?

Before starting my entrepreneurial journey in 2014, I worked at several multinational organisations, though I lacked the fulfilment that I was looking for, the desire to transform the lives of underprivileged people. I often found myself volunteering at children's homes and non-profit organisations.

This is a culture that my mother instilled in me since childhood; a strong sense of responsibility, hence my commitment to changing the lives of vulnerable women to date. At some point I considered starting a charity foundation but when I learnt about Social Businesses, I thought, Aha!

This is exactly how I will commit my time 100 per cent and at the same time earn a living. I have learnt that if you want to succeed, you must have unshakeable optimism, but still, hold onto your values, and that's exactly how I am committed to living every day. 

Who are your mentors?

I continue to draw inspiration from my mother, my sister, my colleagues, and the women we serve. There's something to learn from everyone you meet. It really helps to have a beginner's yet a winner's mindset.

Nasreen Ali

Nasreen Ali, chief executive officer, Cherehani Africa and Afrikapu.

Photo credit: Pool

Do you get funding for the two organisations?

Both Afrikapu and Cherehani are for-profit social businesses. Meaning, we are registered as a Limited Liability Company but one that must be addressing a social need. We, therefore, do generate income from our services that keeps us self-sustainable. But we have raised funding in form of grants and competition awards from reputable global organisations.

What motivates you the most?

My mother was a micro-entrepreneur whom we largely depended on for upkeep and education. I saw how difficult it was for her to keep her business sustainable. She borrowed from loan sharks whose high interest rates stagnated her business. This motivated me to give the women the best.

Tell us about your awards

My work has been recognised globally, earning me multiple awards including #100Answers French-Africa Young Leader Laureate, AWIEF Empowerment Award, DIAR Youth in Leadership Winner, 100 Meaningful Business Leader, alongside leaders from reputable organisations like Google, Microsoft, Duolingo and Salesforce. I am a 2018 Mandela Washington Fellow (Dartmouth College), UK Go-Global.

What advice do you have for young people?

You’ll come up with new ideas every day. Don’t try to boil the entire ocean! Look deeper and find your WHY. Why do you want to do what you want to do? Why is it so important; and then pick your top strengths and start from there.

Grow your professional network. Don’t be afraid to reach out to people who you admire and ask for help, but be direct – they’ll probably give you less than a minute to catch their attention. Make the most of those seconds – ALWAYS have an Elevator Pitch!

Where do you see yourself in the coming years?

We aim to expand our suite of service offerings beyond lending to support growth of our customers’ micro-enterprises. We also aim to shield customers from uncertainties and open the learning platform to reach people outside our lending pipeline.

My goal is to be able to work with other global leaders who are pursuing poverty eradication – with a focus on women empowerment.

With your busy schedule, do you find time for your family?

I am a new mum to twin girls (seven months old), an entrepreneur of two organisations, a master’s student and a wife. It’s an adventure! That’s the least I can say. But absolutely worth every bit of it.

I don’t think I’ve figured out this whole time management thing, but somehow, every day I make it through and I am grateful.

What’s your parting shot?

The world is full of opportunities. You just need to be ready for them when they knock on your door. Never be discouraged by the common saying “That market is already saturated” when you are looking to venture into something new. There’s honestly a piece of cake for everyone. Go for it!

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