By By Dorcas Mhungu
December2010/January 2011
Women in Business
SHE grew up with her grandmother in the rural Amuntele village, and did not have outstanding academic intellect, but she has proven that it takes not only the academic intellect but something extra to make it in life.

Hilma Namupa Shikongo has added her name to the list of successful business women in Namibia, through the dexterity of her nimble fingers.

As one listens to Shikongo narrating her life, the difficulties she went through, and the hurdles she surmounted to climb to the top of the success ladder in business, it fills one with pity and awe.

Hers is a typical rag to riches story that should give fellow Namibians food for thought. She narrates how at 25, she became one of the first black women in Windhoek to open a hair salon in 2000.

As she unfolded the trail of events that has made her the successful business person she is today, one cannot miss the courage and determination her character exudes.

Well known as Namupa, her enterprising personality started when she was in Grade 9 and had to fend for her siblings following a mishap in the family.

“I used to buy shirts from the first Chinese shop that was in Windhoek and sell them in informal resettlements for us to have food,” Namupa recounts.

After failing Grade 10 she confronted Prime Minister Nahas Angula, then Minister of Education, demanding that he find her something to do after his ministry had introduced a new rule forbidding repeating.

The popular field those days was studying computers but Angula asked her if she wanted to do a course in hair dressing and she agreed.

The offer was a perfect one because when she came to Windhoek from the rural areas for the first time, at the age of 18, the only thing she knew how to do very well was plaiting hair.

“With Minister Angula’s help, I went to Total Hair Control Centre and did a month’s course. The college was run under Soft and Free by Martha Namunjembo Tilahun, one of Namibia’s most prominent and successful business women today. With her natural talent to do hair, this did not go unnoticed, and at the end of the training course, Namupa was offered a job at Total Hair Control Centre.

“I loved my job. Working in a salon enables you to meet and mingle with people from different walks of life including celebrities. I learnt how to control my temper, how to understand foreigners, how to attend to clients’ queries and above all not to judge other people.”

While working, Namupa became popular with clients so much that she saw a window to go solo opening and start up her own salon. She was given a grant by the Ministry of Regional and Local Government, and Housing and Rural Development, to buy equipment.

She was no doubt changing from the dusty narrow roads of an emotionally depressing upbringing, to the wider tarmac highways of prosperity. She started operating Namupa Hair Salon in a single room opposite Tre Supermarket downtown Windhoek and because of her popularity, the room soon became too small for the swelling clientele base and when clients started sitting outside, it was time to look for bigger premises.

By the end of the first year in business, she managed to buy herself a car, from hairdressing money.

But she needed bigger premises and the hunt carried a bitter experience. “Being a young black woman, it was not easy to get bigger premises in the central business district,” she says bitterly.

Later she found premises but after paying and getting a contract, the owner, who was a white man, asked her to go for an interview before moving in.

And the interviewer, she later leant was a friend of her prospective landlord.

“His first question was why Sam Nujoma, not Namibia, had gotten involved in the DRC war and what good the commitment was bringing to the country. I didn’t have an answer because that was not what I expected to be asked at the interview. It was an emotionally provocative interview.

“I couldn’t conceal my shock and I trembled with anger and walked out. Because the interview took place somewhere else, I went to the new premises only to be met with the gentleman I had signed a contract with, breaking the devastating news that he had changed his mind. That’s how our businesses are hard to be accepted in community. I cannot say it was a racial or a gender issue but all I know is that nobody takes our business serious.”

After recollecting herself from that emotional bruising, she continued her search for new premises with the help of her husband Ben Nangombe, and without expending so much effort; she found another place where the salon has been operating from, for the past decade.

“The talent has taken me places. I have been to USA, German, Vietnam, France, Hong Kong, and mainland China and England,” she now says beaming with enthusiasm and pride.

From the foreign trips, she brought high quality hair products that were a hit with her Windhoek customers.

Her innovative business acumen does not only give her a livelihood, it has become a career of repute.

She has trained many young women for free, most of them are now working in salons scattered around the city, while others have ventured into running their own salons, at most, with her financial assistance.

“I have to help my local people because it is from the people that I got customers in the first place. If Nahas Angula, who is not related to me in any way, just decided to help me be what I am, who am I not to help others, that are also strangers to me?”

However, after the September 11 bombing of the World Trade Centre in the United States in 2001, it became difficult to bring in merchandise following the imposition of stricter cargo rules by the airlines.

This limited her from moving products; hence she diversified her innovativeness by moving to satisfying the politics of the stomach.

She started a catering business at the end of 2006. Initially, she worked from home but when the business flourished again, she needed a bigger kitchen to cater for the big orders she was getting. She progressed from supplying finger foods to catering for big functions mostly Government functions.

Currently, Namupa has purchased premises within Heritage Square opposite the old State House for the catering services.

The energetic late thirties businesswoman and mother of three, feels the catering business was the ideal alternative because it drains the energy that she is so full of.

A fifth generation of King Nehale Lya Mpingana, a great grandchild of Shiliva Sha Nehale, the founder of Omuntele Gwashiliva, Namupa advises young Namibian women to be innovative in starting their own businesses

“One needs to set up goals and be willing to go an extra mile. It is true, finding the capital is never easy, but money is lying everywhere.” PF