Nawaal Nolwazi Mdluli In The Spotlight
Updated: Sep 15, 2020
This month’s special cover star is our very own Nawaal Nolwazi Mdluli, publisher of Essays of Africa and CEO of the Kwenta Group. The inspirational businesswoman fills us in on the challenges and triumphs of her trailblazing path.
Following a high-powered career in tourism, where Nawaal served as the first black woman appointed to the international offices of South African Tourism, heading up their UK and Ireland office as she challenged stereotypes and grew the SAT market share, she returned to South Africa to focus on building her business enterprise. Together with her sisters, Nawaal has grown Kwenta to encompass diverse interests in mining, media, agriculture, construction and the food and fuel retail sector. Driven by a desire for excellence and a dedication to innovation, she leads with passion and dynamism.
The public health crisis of Covid-19 has had detrimental effects for the global economy, shattering local industries in its wake. This has brought acute losses to the media landscape, with the unfortunate demise of top media houses. Kwenta Media has not been spared the blow, yet Nawaal is firm in her optimism for the future.
To mark the significance of the last issue of Essays of Africa for 2020, we speak to Nawaal about her journey with Kwenta as she shares her lessons on leadership, her commitment to empowering women and the vision that propels her success.
Q. What an incredible journey you’ve had with the magazines of Kwenta Media. Why did you feel it was important to launch these publications?
When I returned from London in 2005, I knew that I wanted to get involved in the media industry and pursue an entrepreneurial path. I was a young mom with a ‘cappuccino’ child, who inherited my Swazi roots and her father’s Indian heritage. I felt that there were no magazines or publications that spoke to my journey as an African mother raising my beautiful daughter. The lack of meaningful and engaging content on parenting in a South African context led me to launch Mamas and Papas. It became my first love. We’ve been able to create a platform for moms and dads from all walks of life through the magazine, navigating the challenges and joys of parenting.
We launched Essays of Africa in 2014, with a similar desire to generate content that was lacking in the magazine world, reflecting the stories of African women in an abundance of spheres – from activists and artists to entrepreneurs and businesswomen. I wanted it to celebrate the journey of womanhood, sparking conversations and connections between black women. Too often, we operate in silos, with the different facets of our lives remaining disconnected. Essays has sought to recognise the multitude of experiences we have through the roles we play as daughters, sisters, friends, partners, lovers and mothers. More than anything, the vision behind Essays has been one of cultivating self-love and inspiration amongst black women.
Q. It is an extremely difficult time in the media and publishing space, particularly with the ramifications of Covid-19. Was it a hard decision to pause the production of magazines under Kwenta Media?
Very hard. It’s been a tough few months and this was not an easy decision to make. It’s especially difficult as we were ahead of the curve in migrating to the digital space. We saw that print media wasn’t sustainable and were proactive before Covid-19 hit. In spite of our forward-thinking, it’s just not possible to keep the publications going in the current climate. It feels like the end of a relationship, or even the loss of a child. We’ve built and run these magazines with integrity and passion. So much energy has been invested into them. I’m hopeful that it’s not the end, just a pause for the moment.
Q. Kwenta Media has been at the forefront of producing innovative and proudly African content, including over a decade of Mamas and Papas. What are some of your proudest achievements with the media and marketing house?
Whenever a mother or father has written to us, letting us know what a difference Mamas and Papas has made to them as parents, that’s made me very proud – especially the dads who’ve said it’s helped them to be more involved in their kids’ lives. It’s also humbling to have assisted couples struggling to conceive, providing them with information and encouragement. It feels as though all the children born during Mamas and Papas are my children too.
With our African Travel Market magazine, I’m filled with gratitude at how we’ve been able to create proudly African pieces, showcasing the beauty of the continent with its unique offerings and connecting people throughout the diaspora. I get so many comments from people blown away by some of the places we’ve featured. And with Essays, I’m proud that we’ve been able to touch so many lives. We’ve shattered stereotypes and uplifted readers through some truly extraordinary writing, which has made us stand out.
Q. As someone who believes strongly in the empowerment of women, what are some of the ways in which you’ve nurtured the growth of women at Kwenta?
Kwenta is mainly made up of women, and we’ve built a supportive environment that encourages every one of them to excel. I generally call it doing things with love. There is no job that cannot be done by a woman. We have the capacity to create and carry life, taking something as tiny as a grain and turning it into something extraordinary. We are phenomenal beings, yet we have to triple our efforts if we want to thrive in a world where we’re often doubted. I think it’s crucial to equip women with the four C’s: confidence, compassion, curiosity and creativity. This has enabled me to be where I am, knowing there is no hurdle I can’t overcome. I try to instil the same confidence and self-belief in the women who surround me, since it’s not easy to be a woman.
Q. Why do you feel this is so critical?
When more women work, economies grow. A woman bringing income into her home – no matter how small – has a way of stretching it further. This is why providing women with education and training is vital. Women keep families together. They are natural builders and carers. Women are key drivers of the economy as business leaders, consumers, entrepreneurs and employers. I believe that investing in women stimulates economic growth. It becomes an intricate chain of support and growth, as women empower other women. I always find it fascinating that we end up having to compete with men who try to dominate, even though they were birthed and raised by us.
Q. Although women in this country have come a long way, there is still so much holding us back, particularly the alarming rates of domestic abuse and sexual violence. What do you think it will take for the situation to change?
The situation will change with us. As women, we need to know that we matter. When women are afforded opportunities, we become mentally liberated, economically liberated. If not, we stay trapped in situations that are unbearable. It’s important to stop turning a blind eye to abuse. We need to allow ourselves to constantly rise and to rise again. I try to have conversations with my staff, asking about their home situations. It’s not always easy, but you could be saving a life. Even when it comes to conversations about health, this is essential. During Breast Cancer Awareness month, I try to remind friends and colleagues to go for their annual check-ups.
It’s up to each of us to take responsibility for ourselves and the women around us. We need to be in control of our hearts and our heads, to think for ourselves. Be strong in making decisions for your safety and your economic independence as a woman.
Q. As a black woman operating in male-dominated industries, how have you been able to not only survive in these spaces, but to thrive?
My passion for learning lies at the root of my success. I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty and I see every day as an opportunity to learn new things. I watch and learn from successful people. Unsurprisingly, it’s often men – remember that they’ve been in the game for a long time before us. I’m not scared to ask questions and to take risks, even if this means making mistakes along the way. If you can’t learn from failure, how else do you grow? I constantly strive for excellence, and this pushes the people around me to shine as well. This requires the right attitude and frame of mind. I approach every challenge and task with zeal. It’s tough and you have to be brave, even on days when you’re tested to the limits. No matter how hard it gets, you can’t let the hardness crush you.
Q. Do you have moments of self-doubt?
I’m somebody who lives with a lot of optimism, enthusiasm and passion. I’m an avid reader and that constantly elevates me. I’m also a forward-thinker. I’m constantly planning two or three steps ahead, visualising the future. If you want to see your vision come to fruition, you need to learn every technical aspect of the operation you’re executing. When we made the decision to enter the food and fuel retail space, it took three years of intensive research and learning. I get bored quite easily, but this helps me stay on top of things as I like a challenging and thought-provoking environment. I’ve been able to learn from models of business diversification. It’s too risky to put all your eggs in one basket in this unstable global economy.
Q. What inspires you most?
When I touch and change someone’s life, when I make a difference to them. Knowing that I’ve been able to provide opportunities for 40 young people on learnership programmes at Kwenta, or jobs that enable families to be fed and children to go to school, this inspires me. In particular, there is nothing more wonderful than being able to hire a young woman desperate for work.
Recently I was able to provide an opportunity to a woman who was working as a petrol attendant at our service station. I was struck by how poised she was when I first came across her in the forecourt serving a customer. When I spoke with her two months later, I found out that she had a BCom but had struggled to get a job. She came from a destitute background and had sacrificed so much to go to university, yet she had to hide her degree in order to get hired, otherwise she would be considered overqualified. Her story touched me. I realised that God must have sent her to me. I could see how talented and disciplined she was; all she needed was someone to believe in her. She wanted an opportunity, and she will join the accounts team soon.
Q. As a dedicated mother to a teenage daughter, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned from being a mom?
To go with the flow; she calms me all the time. Recently, she did a school presentation about her heritage for Youth Month. She spoke with pride about being a cappuccino child, growing up with a blend of Indian Muslim and African Christian traditions. I shed tears as I watched it. When I look at her, I see a leader in her. I engage her in a number of things that I do, even affording her opportunities to present her views and opinions on PowerPoint. She is a natural leader with a beautiful heart, a deep thinker and an incredibly caring daughter. She loves her parents.
Q. What qualities and beliefs do you hope to instil in her, as she grows into a young woman?
Humbleness and respect. No matter how successful she becomes, to stay humble. She’s with me most of the time and it’s tough being a single mom and parenting apart. I work hard on building our relationship, providing comfort and support and coaching. I want us to always be the best of friends and for her to know that she can come to me for anything. I try to teach her to be kind to herself and to others. Self-love is crucial, especially when you come from a mixed background as she does. I want her to do things not for her mom and dad, but for herself. She needs to be proud of herself. Lastly, to be a God-fearing child.
Q. As the eldest of seven siblings, you were imbued with a huge amount of responsibility from a young age. Do you see this as being a critical part of shaping the woman you are today?
In many ways, being the eldest robbed me a bit of a childhood. My siblings tease me, saying that first-borns are deputy parents. There are so many expectations and responsibilities placed on you. I had to become a role model and disciplinarian to my siblings from a young age. If any of them were struggling, I had to help. But this also equipped me with compassion, confidence and the ability to become an effective leader. It pushed me to apply my mind in all that I do, even starting a business at the age of 5!
Q. Being part of a close-knit family, you’ve been in business with two of your sisters for over a decade. Has this been a rewarding experience?
There is nothing as powerful as a family business. If you look at other countries, family-run businesses are the most sustainable and efficient. When you share blood, you share in the legacy you’re creating. It’s an economic empire built on care and love. It’s meant that I’ve always had an extra eye and ear, an opinion I can trust. Respect and communication play a vital role in this. When you’re older, you tend to dominate. But I try to listen to my sisters’ perspectives since I’m not in competition with them. They are very bright and economically independent. It’s been exciting to see them grow into the beautiful and brainy beings they are today. I deeply care for my siblings and parents.
Q. Hopefully you’re still managing to have some fun amidst the stress of Covid-19 and life under lockdown. What do you do to unwind and relax?
I’m a Sagittarius, so I’m all about having adventures and trying new things. I love traveling and I was lucky to go on a long weekend trip to Cape Town and Knysna with my daughter before lockdown. As an avid reader, I find comfort in books – there are books in the car, bathroom, kitchen, everywhere in my home! Cooking also relaxes me. I love making delicious salads and vegetables, and plenty of curries. I enjoy walking and hiking, learning about animals and nature, and just spending quality time with my daughter.
Q. Finally, what message do you have for the loyal readers of Essays of Africa, who have journeyed with us over the years and hopefully found inspiration along the way?
I pray that we can use this time as an opportunity to pause and reflect. It’s a difficult period for all of us, but tough as it is, we shouldn’t lose hope. We shall stay connected and allow the conversations to continue on different platforms. It’s been an incredible journey and I am filled with gratitude. I trust that we shall persevere; I am not giving up on the vision of Essays just yet. We have been able to bring together an engaged, passionate, curious community of readers, and I know that the thirst for information and knowledge will not dissipate. The only thing that could change is how it gets packaged and distributed, such as through podcasts or video streaming.
God bless you all and thank you to our phenomenal advertising partners, the writers, advisory board, contributors and the loyal and dedicated team under the leadership of Tumi Mdluli. Most of all, thank you to our incredible readers for your love and support.
WORDS BY: CARYN THANDI PETERSEN
IMAGES: GARETH JACOBS