Tsitsi and Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa discuss how systems thinking with a gender lens can transform philanthropy in Africa.
"We need many more women with power, authority and influence — presidents, prime ministers, CEOs — they will be the key driver of success in bringing Africa from fragility and low income to having middle-, upper-middle income economies,” says Tsitsi Masiyiwa. “And the gender lens is not just for Africa, it should be global. The world would be a lot more peaceful if half the politicians were women, half the army generals, half the police.”
In March, Tsitsi Masiyiwa partnered with Melinda French Gates and Co-Impact to launch the new US$1 billion Gender Fund, which aims to advance women by investing philanthropic dollars mostly in female-led, locally-rooted organizations across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. As well as giving their own money, the Zimbabwean Masiyiwas — who, with the Dangote family in Nigeria and Motsepe family in South Africa are among the continent’s best-known philanthropists — have pledged to raise at least US$50 million in donations for the fund from their fellow Africans. This is but one part of their ambitious agenda for growing high-impact philanthropy and thereby accelerating systems change on the continent.
Tsitsi Masiyiwa’s daughter, Elizabeth Tanya, joined her four years ago at the helm of the family’s Higherlife Foundation and Delta Philanthropies. The origins of both organizations go back to 1996 when Tsitsi and her husband — Strive Masiyiwa, Zimbabwean telecom mogul and founder of African mobile telecoms group, Econet — started giving scholarships to children orphaned by the HIV/AIDS crisis, which killed family members and employees who worked at the Masiyiwa family businesses.
“The gender lens is critical for Africa to turn the corner,” Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa says.
According to the mother-and-daughter duo, the patriarch’s role in their philanthropic work nowadays is limited to financial support and informal advice from across the dinner table. “Early on, we agreed we would each stick to our own lane,” Tsitsi Masiyiwa explains.
Strive Masiyiwa focuses mostly on the family business conglomerate (where Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa also works part-time, leading its educational technology arm), as well as his personal philanthropic activities, which tend to be more internationally oriented. During the COVID-19 pandemic, as one of six special envoys appointed by the African Union, he worked to secure imports of essential medical equipment such as personal protective equipment and vaccines. In January, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation chose him to be one of three new independent trustees brought in to upgrade the governance of the world’s biggest and arguably most influential philanthropies.
Why does somebody have to fly from New York to come and give advice to a government in Kenya? Why not just hire a Kenyan to work in your organization, based in Nairobi?
Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa says she never expected to work in the family foundations. She was employed at UNICEF, focused on early childhood development issues, when her mother persuaded her to bring her youthful perspective and experience of social entrepreneurship to the family’s philanthropy, which had already evolved significantly over its first quarter century. What had started as an emotional humanitarian response is now driven by a desire to bring about systemic change through well-targeted interventions, especially those that can improve government policy and its implementation.
That is no easy task, especially in their home country, Zimbabwe, with its often toxic leadership.
“A lot of their policies I don’t support, but there are some things that they do for the common good, where we can find a common platform and work together,” says Tsitsi Masiyiwa. She says that finding ways to harness government support can be the best way to scale philanthropic impact, especially for foundations, like theirs, with “relatively limited financial resources.” The foundation also works on systems change in countries such as Burundi and Lesotho, engaging actively with the governments to break through stasis.
Both women credit their drive to change the world in part to inspirational mothers. Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa grew up, the eldest of five girls and a boy, seeing her mother engaged in ways that landed her on lists of Africa’s top female leaders before she turned 30. Tsitsi Masiyiwa, one of five sisters, earlier benefited from remittances sent home by a mother willing to move to London to work for years as a nurse, earning far more than her father made as a head teacher in Zimbabwe. Her sacrifices paid for Tsitsi Masiyiwa’s private education.
As in many families, a generational shift in leadership has not been without challenges. Tsitsi Masiyiwa recalls “many difficult conversations” with her children following a next generation event hosted by the Giving Pledge (a group of billionaires worldwide, including the Masiyiwas, who have promised to donate at least half their wealth by the end of their lives). “It’s important for parents to have conversations with their children about their expectations,” she says.
“This conversation is too often one way,” adds Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa. “In our family, when the conversation became two-way, it created opportunities for us to get engaged in many different things.”
So far, Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa is the only child to have a formal job in the family philanthropies. But many of the other children engage on a project-by-project basis, especially a younger daughter who leads the family hospitality business, which partners on conservation work and sustainable tourism in its resorts.
Almost from the start, the Masiyiwas have been moving to an approach where giving is rooted in changing the broader ecosystem of the challenges they take on. They were fast learners. Education scholarships, they quickly realized, would not be enough without a series of other interventions to address health care and poverty issues facing their scholars. As a result of taking this broader approach, Tsitsi Masiyiwa says proudly, their scholarship alumni include government ministers and business leaders as well as thousands more people who otherwise “might not have made it.”
The systemic challenges they take on have been increasingly complex. By extension, when addressed properly, the outcome also has a higher impact. As an example, they point to two recent cholera outbreaks in Zimbabwe. During the first, in 2008, their giving was mostly humanitarian, providing emergency medical supplies to help alleviate the symptoms. Yet it was soon clear that this kind of reactive giving did not increase the chances of surviving another outbreak. Armed with this practical knowledge, they convened stakeholders from the government, business, and civil society to prepare to handle the next outbreak better.
“We collaborated on creating a national road map, including plans for fixing sewers, creating a network of emergency operating centers, etc., and focused on building what it would take for Zimbabwe to become cholera-free,” says Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa. The system was put to test a decade later in the next outbreak, and far fewer people perished. Crucially, “because of these changes, there were synergies between dealing with cholera and dealing with COVID-19,” she said, clearly building on the lessons learned to continually adapt.
In recent years, the Masiyiwas have sought increasingly to partner with other foundations.
During COVID-19, they teamed up with the ELMA Foundation, founded by South African record producer Clive Calder, on two initiatives. In the first, they trained around 4,000 people involved in delivering maternal and infant health services and provided lifesaving equipment to maternity wards in the 16 hospitals that account for 70% of complicated birth cases in Zimbabwe to keep working safely during COVID-19.
The second initiative was an effort to help improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers through the use of climate-smart agriculture practices and technologies, including better seed use, minimum soil disturbance, and organic mulching. Using a pilot that involved training 1,000 farmers, they fine-tuned processes before scaling up for a broader outreach that eventually trained 10,000 smallholder farmers and lifted their average incomes to US$563 a year “from essentially nothing,” Tsitsi Masiyiwa said. “I’m confident we can easily scale to 2 million farmers and increase their incomes to US$1,000.”
The Masiyiwas are especially upbeat about the potential for more collaborations between African and Western philanthropy, as two recent trends accelerate. The first is that COVID-19 seems to have stimulated more local giving by Africans. In Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, philanthropists set up fundraisers to respond to the crisis on their doorstep. That encouraged the Masiyiwas to pledge to raise the US$50 million locally for the Co-Impact Gender Fund.
“So many local philanthropists emerged during COVID-19 — they built hospitals, they provided PPE, they imported drugs, they set up call centers, and did all sorts of things in order to deal with the pandemic,” says Tsitsi Masiyiwa. “So if they already did that, it means that the muscle is there to do even more.”
In May, recognizing that a lack of good information is a barrier to giving, the African Philanthropy Forum, chaired by Tsitsi Masiyiwa, launched StartPoint, a database of local organizations and projects designed to make it easy for local philanthropies to find something effective to support.
A second, more seminal trend is that a long overdue sea change may be taking place among Western philanthropies in their attitudes to working with and giving via local African organizations. “I see a massive change,” says Tsitsi Masiyiwa. Notwithstanding the giving industry’s long-running debate about “decolonizing philanthropy,” the catalyst was the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the summer of 2020.
“The death of George Floyd allowed people to have intense conversations,” Tsitsi Masiyiwa recalls. “No-go areas suddenly became issues we could talk about. I began to see people listen to one another, be more empathetic towards our differences. I saw people shedding tears about some of the things they had said and done, (previously) swept under the carpet.” She recalls trips to Africa with Western donors, when humiliating photos were taken of new mothers (“move your breast this way, that way”) that forced Tsitsi Masiyiwa to reflect on Africans not being drivers of initiatives designed to help them. Until 2020, there were more humdrum but pernicious norms: “Why does somebody have to fly from New York to come and give advice to a government in Kenya? Why not just hire a Kenyan to work in your organization, based in Nairobi?” Tsitsi Masiyiwa said.
She believes these reflective conversations have already led to some of the best philanthropic and nongovernmental organization leaders reforming their practices, and restructuring their boards — changes that “were very quick, but also well thought out.” She now thinks the philanthropic sector will lead business and government in “creating platforms where difficult conversations can be had without people giving up on each other or walking away.” She marvels that she is now “very encouraged just to be able to talk about race and not make my colleague across the table feel like I’m accusing him or her of being a racist.”
Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa may be more skeptical, saying, “Far more progress needs to be made.” But she acknowledges there is growing “diversity at the table when decisions are being made,” not least because of an increased awareness that tapping into local expertise and networks can make giving far more effective.
“Sometimes we’re able to stretch the dollar a lot further because we understand the people we work with,” Elizabeth Tanya Masiyiwa explains. “When we go into communities that look just like us, there’s a relatability element which allows us to have a whole lot more impact. I can’t imagine how people had been doing their philanthropy for years, without listening to the voice of the community.”