Sindy Zemura:‘Though progress is slow, gender equality is achievable’
Dr. Sindy Zemura is a humanitarian, social entrepreneur and philanthropist with focus on empowering marginalised women, girls and youths. She holds degrees in Business Studies, Social Work, Public Governance and Administration. She also holds Master’s degrees in International Relations and Public Administration. In 2021, she was nominated for an honorary post- doctorate degree in Public Policy at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at UCT. Zemura, a seasoned leader with over 12 years in international development programmes as well as 15 years in the finance sector, is a consultant on gender equality, education, youth empowerment, ending gender-based violence, women peace and security, HIV awareness, poverty alleviation and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Given her passion for these causes, Zemura is the Founding Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Southern Africa Embrace (SAE) Foundation, an international development charitable organisation based In Toronto, Canada. The Foundation supports the wellbeing of vulnerable women, children and youths in seven countries in Africa, focusing on gender equality, youth empowerment, education, HIV awareness and rural development. In addition to her work with the SAE Foundation, she also served at the Inaugural African Union Office of the Youth Envoy as Special Advisor and Team Lead – Intergenerational Dialogues between 2019 and 2021. Her voluntary work expanded, serving on the boards and networks of UN Women / AU (African Women Leaders Network); STOP TB Partnership; UNMGCY (United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth); Canadian Partnership for Women and Children’s Health (CanWach); Canadian Foundation for AIDS and Research (CANFAR); IAS (International ADIS Society) and Global AIDS Alliance, among others. Zemura’s passion for the security and empowerment of vulnerable persons has fetched her opportunities to moderate events as well as speak amongst and before diplomats, celebrities, politicians and other dignitaries globally. Amongst many of her recognitions, she has been named among Most Influential People of African Descent (MIPAD’s) 100 under 40 Influencers for 2017; Canada’s TOP 40 Immigrants 2018; Top 100 Canadian Black Women Leaders 2018 and Women of Influence Finalist 2018. She received recognition from the Duke of Sussex in 2018 for advancing HIV Awareness and youth empowerment in Africa; North America 2019 Global Business Award by the African Powerful Partnership Awards at CSW-UN and was named one of the 2019 ‘The Young Independents Top 100’ – Africans influencing policy, brands and people. In this interview, she shares her passion for empowering and supporting women and children in marginalised African communities.
How did you get your idea for Southern Africa Embrace (SAE) Foundation?
I always knew that I wanted to work with marginalised people. I was blessed to be born into a family that was well up. My father was a businessman and politician in the 70s, 80s and early 90s before he passed on. He had a big heart and one of service. He was a giver; he ran multiple charities and donated a lot to people nationwide and regionally within Southern Africa. In doing so, he ensured that as his children, he got us involved in volunteering in the charity work and took us with him to some of the rural and marginalised communities to give to the poor. I didn’t like it then as a child as I didn’t understand the depth of giving and what it does to those benefiting, but after his passing in 1993, I knew that I wanted to carry his legacy and what he had taught us to do and become. He instilled in us the spirit of Ubuntu (Togetherness), love and empathy for everyone. I used to dream that one day I would support millions of people around the world, help children to go to school and help to eradicate hunger and diseases. When I migrated from South Africa 23 years ago, I carried this dream and I kept hoping that the right time would come to launch it. I wanted to someday lead an international organisation that will have impact on the continent by empowering less fortunate people. After I lived in Ireland, United Kingdom, the USA and then moved to Canada in 2005, I was introduced into a volunteer society that re-birthed the desire to establish my own organisation with focus on eradicating poverty, gender-based violence and promoting education, HIV awareness and women empowerment through social and economic programmes. SAE Foundation is a Toronto-based, Canada-registered international charitable organisation with a United Nations ECOSOC – Special Consultative Status Accreditation. The organisation was founded and incorporated in 2010 and is currently represented in seven countries across Southern Africa.
What was your mission at the outset?
SAE Foundation is committed to advocating, supporting, and promoting education, ending gender-based violence and promoting socio-economic empowerment of marginalised youths and women.
What is the main goal of SAE?
The Foundation envisions a strong alliance of African communities that are educated, sustainable, self-reliant, prospering and empowered with open access to life potential opportunities. We envision to impact one million lives by 2030.
What are some of your success stories?
It depends on how we define success. The very fact that after 11 years, the organisation is still growing in its impact and reach across Africa is a success. It is not about the numbers for us, it is about each life we serve and the gratitude that comes from that realisation. We, of course, have to celebrate that we have continued serving to this day, supported over 2000 children by sponsoring their education and life necessities as well as engaging with several communities to do so. We have been able to launch a social enterprise starting with just 20 women in rural Kwazulu Natal in South Africa and we have worked with over 700 women in four countries who are artisans and their livelihoods have improved over the years due to the economic programmes introduced by SAE Foundation. Today, we support the farming endeavours of over 900 women in Malawi who are growing and trading rice, again bringing them closer to financial sustainability and beyond. Above all, the footprint of our work is spreading across Africa and Diaspora as we continue to learn and grow. Much more to celebrate is the recent accreditation received from the United Nations to hold the ECOSOC – Special Consultative Status which is the highest recognition non-governmental organisations receive from the UN after going through vigorous application, checking on the validity of the work we do and getting voted for the approval committee. Many organisations have applied several times for this status and haven’t been successful, which also usually takes years to attain because it’s a very competitive application and the process is rigid. This status grants the organisation more leverage, influence and participation in the work of the United Nations. We celebrate every step regardless of whether it is small or great.
On personal success stories, it is often those times when someone sends a gratitude message to just appreciate how we have served them. That is success to me. I have been blessed to get opportunities I never dreamt I would get. As an African girl having this imaginary world of living overseas, my fairy-tale world has become a reality though I have not attained it all. I get to spend my time and serve around the world alongside notable global leaders from all spheres of life. I have sat in rooms with those making decisions for our world, spoke and moderated over 100 events in places of decision-making and power. I also had the honour to perform a lead consultant role at the first ever Inaugural African Union Office of the Youth Envoy as Special Advisor and Team Lead – Intergenerational Dialogues Plan. In that capacity, I developed training, brochures, reports, policy documents and a toolkit that has been adopted by the African Union as a guide to use for intergenerational mentorship and co-leadership for the empowerment of youths across Africa. I celebrate this success because, along with my team, we were able to impact and reach over 80 million youths from Africa and Diaspora. Today, the AU Youth Envoy Office has a portfolio on intergenerational dialogues that was birthed from the work we did. Not counting many other achievements over the years, be it professional or academic, I have been honoured beyond my imagination with recognitions and awards. That’s measurable success, but to me, it is truly hearing the next person saying ‘thank you, you have inspired me or because of you I am changed.’ That’s success!
To what do you attribute all the successes?
Truly, I attribute them to knowing whom you are, why you were born into this world. They say the most important days of our lives are the day we were born and the day we discovered why we were born (passion, calling). I am very passionate about my calling and my success lays on that. I do not quit easily, I am a dreamer, a risk taker, resilient, and I believe in humanity.
How do you decide what initiative to support?
The decision on the initiatives is based on the foundational pillars of the organisation. We also understand that we live in a world where things change and some not in our control. And so, at times, we could decide to work on a project that is outside of our initial pillars but is considered a need. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, we had to switch our programmes to go into supporting scholars with PPEs in addition to their school bursaries. This was something outside of our scope, but we had to step up because it became a need.
What do you see SAE Foundation accomplishing in Nigeria?
Nigeria, for us, is a big market for open possibilities to serve from the grassroots level. We hope to continue the mission to support the education of children because Nigeria holds the highest number of children who are out of school, especially the girl child. The education of the girl child is of great importance. We have a vision to serve Nigerian women who also have much to give to Africa by empowering those affected by gender-based violence and launching some economic programmes to help women out of poverty.
Gender inequality is still an issue. More women still need to break through glass ceilings. Is this achievable?
Yes. Gender equality is most definitely achievable. We may be seeing slow progress, but it is in progress. We can look at the global advocacy and activism work that has focused on it. Among them are the Beijing Women’s Conference of 1995, the annual Commissions Status of Women (United Nations) and, most recently, the launch of the Generation Equality that is pushing ahead for gender equality. We are seeing more women taking up or being elected to positions of leadership across the globe, more so in the West and unfortunately less in Africa. But it is progress. We are experiencing a surge of intergenerational mentorship and co-leadership of women leaders passing on the baton to younger women who are unapologetically going into spaces of leadership to serve alongside male leaders. Today, compared to one or two or three decades ago, we celebrate all these ‘baby steps’.
What was growing up in South Africa like?
I was blessed to be born into a blended family that hails from and lives between two countries (South Africa and Zimbabwe). I had the best secondary education in Zimbabwe at a boarding school where my mother put me (though I honestly hated the idea of being away from home, but later appreciated going to study there as Zimbabwe had the best education system then). I then finished part of my teenage years working in South Africa after school and by God’s grace left for Dublin, Ireland to work (I was so terrified, but I have always been a risk taker and wanted to move overseas because I had always dreamt of what life could be like out there). Relatively speaking, I had a steady and great upbringing, surrounded by a big family of 12 siblings, my father passed away when I was just entering my teenage years in 1993. I was also welcomed into an amazing family of the Gumbis and to this day, I am forever indebted to them.
Have you ever considered modeling because you could pass for a model?
Thank you for that lovely comment. YES, I once convinced myself I was going to be the next Naomi Campbell. When I was a teenager, I used to print out every picture of her in the magazine, imitated her accent and loved fashion. I modeled in high school during events and when I moved to the United States during my mid-20s, I attempted it but the industry was just too big and brutal for a young person with not much footprint in the US. When I moved to Canada, I signed up for modeling school and worked with a modeling agency in Toronto for a while. I guess that’s not where I was meant to be because as much as I wanted to dive into it, it often felt empty. It was too harsh and I didn’t like the uncertainty of a long-term career, so I went back to corporate work as an accountant and then to my first love – NGO to work to support marginalised people and I have not looked back since.
What influences your fashion choices?
I don’t always go with what is trending based on Hollywood, I just love to look good. I could be wearing something two or three seasons old but I ensure that it looks great! There is something about a good-looking woman, her confidence, power and intelligence show in the way she dresses and carries herself. I am being inspired in this regard by women like Michelle Obama. I am a conservative dresser, I like style and looking polished. I am not crazy about wearing brands (I purchase brands when I can, but I’m not religious about them either). I also adore African print, my soul becomes alive in African print. I feel connected to my roots. I do a lot of moderating and speaking engagements globally; I intentionally wear African print or African-made clothing to showcase the pride of who we are.
What’s your beauty routine?
I’m horrible at that, trust me, but I must say I am improving. There is something about turning 40 that makes a woman wants to love herself and take care of herself more. I became so in tune with my skin and have since been using only organic skin products and I love them. I am not an everyday makeup girl unless necessary. So, sometimes when I am home and not on travels, you can, just twice a day and night, find me with facial moisturiser on, night oil serum and simply Vaseline on my lips. When I am in travels and or have to go out, I go with toners, moisturisers, make up and so on.
How do you relax?
Travel – I feel at my best when I am out seeing the world, connecting with people from various backgrounds. Though I am very sociable, I am also very private and a bit of an introvert. My best relaxation is when I am with my two kids (girls) at home in Toronto as well as with my grandmother and mom back home in Southern Africa. I enjoy my quiet space, though I work a lot with people. Most times, I crave my own time – silence, tucked indoors and watching documentaries, movies and listening to Old Rnb (80S, 90s), worship songs and South African music (House, Kwaito, Amapiano, Worship, Oldskool and others). I love to dance (though I am not the best, I often do it without an audience watching). I also love reading a lot of inspirational books (less fiction). I do this a lot during the end of year holidays when I swap outdoor clothes for pyjamas, stay indoors and read away.
What is your impression of Nigeria and Nigerians?
I always respected Nigerians for being smart and intelligent, quick thinkers and all that. But, unfortunately, there are those Nigerians who are outlaws and they made most of the world believe that all Nigerians are bad people. I have since been around and became great friends with some amazing people from Nigeria over the past 15 years. My impressions are so much different. Most Nigerians are very giving, supportive, make great friends, hard workers, very intelligent, respectful and, my goodness, energetic. Nigerians are movers and shakers. I always say if you need something done, connect with a Nigerian who is committed to whatever you are doing and you won’t regret it. I absolutely admire their work ethics of excelling and sometimes doing things with over exaggeration because they know and love perfection of service and delivery. Nigerians are achievers and truly, whenever I am around those I am blessed to know and work with, I am always inspired to be better each time. I have become an honorary Nigerian and even gotten named ‘Uwakmfonabisi Mfoniso’ by my now Nigerian village.
Do you have any plans to open a Nigerian branch of SAE Foundation?
Yes, most certainly. If God has called me to it, so shall it be. The vision is there, I am a firm believer that where there is a vision God will bring the provision. I am currently talking with potential partners and my strategists on expanding into Nigeria to support children’s education and the socio-economic empowerment of women through various programmes. My desire is to launch by mid-year – 2022, and do so for long-term purposes.
Does this mean we’re going to be seeing a lot of you in Nigeria?
Yes, so much of me, God willing. And if I could take up residence in Nigeria for a bit, I would have fallen in love with West Africa. Nigeria is one country where I am personally hoping to strengthen my connection and presence. As a Foundation, we are looking into Nigerian partnerships that we can build on a long-term basis as well. Personally, I am hoping to connect, learn and share with people of the same interests in Nigeria, especially women, as I grow my brand.
What are your thoughts on Nigerian jollof rice?
Okay. Now you want to get me in trouble with my Ghanaian friends and acquaintances. I better not say much before I lose out on being accepted into Nigeria. Let’s just say I enjoyed it and would like to come back for more of it.