Up Close with Jean Chawapiwa, JA Africa’s Board Chair

JA: Why did you join the board of JA Africa and why do you think JA is important?

JC: I was working for Rio Tinto as Vice President, Communications and External Affairs Africa based in Johannesburg when JA Worldwide (JAWW) contacted Rio Tinto HQ in London and asked if they could have a representative on the Africa Board. I was asked if I would be interested in taking up the opportunity. I didn’t know about JA at the time, but I attended the first meeting at Citi Offices in Sandton and I was thrilled at the work JA was doing as well as the composition of the board.  That is how I joined the board now 7 years ago.

JA is very important globally but more so in Africa.  I strongly believe entrepreneurship is part of the solution to a large number of Africa’s challenges. JA’s work is particularly important because we are educating youth on entrepreneurship rather than waiting until people are looking for jobs. I think entrepreneurial education should be part of school curriculum in all countries on this continent. Not everyone can be an entrepreneur, but let’s get them thinking about it early in their lives and allow them a safe environment to experiment. That is why the work JA is doing is so crucial, we need to start with younger youth so it becomes a viable option for many of them in the future.


JA is a global program, operating in 122 countries so we learn from each other. It’s amazing to hear the challenges and learnings from so many of our global colleagues, the JAWW Board meetings are fascinating in teaching us what we have in common as well as sharing sustainability strategies and ideas. The Africa team also shares a lot and contributes significantly to the growth and strengthening of the organization.


JA: What has been your most memorable JA experience?

It would have to be the Company of the Year competitions. It is difficult to say which year was the best. I have attended one in Nairobi, one in Swaziland, one in Gabon and last year’s one in Zimbabwe. I really enjoy the Company of the Year Competitions, I am amazed at the talent and confidence of our youth; the innovative projects presented, and the fact that for a large number of the attendees it’s their first time out of their own country, first time staying at a hotel and the competition allows them the opportunity of meeting youth of their own age from over 10 to 14 African countries. The businesses presented are often new ideas to solving the problems they experience in their lives or an innovative application and coupling of indigenous knowledge and local resources.


JA: You come from a long career in the mining industry. How did you as a female enter and succeed in the mining industry?

JC:  I had been working for the CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) for over 6 years in various management roles and I was ready for a new challenge.  A friend pointed out an advert for a Director of Communications role in the mining industry. I followed up, had several interviews and got the job. I had worked in the CSIR’s division of Mining technology (Miningtek). Being in the leadership team I had great insight into the key stakeholders, challenges and opportunities of the industry.  I had also been involved in several CSIR projects with the Minister and Deputy Ministers of Mining in South Africa.  I joined Placer Dome, an amazing Canadian company which was family-oriented but also supportive and development oriented; I learned a lot there and got to spend a lot of time in Tanzania. The success really came from a lot of team work, strategic focus and a strong vision, the whole team did very well. From there the company was taken over by Barrick Gold, that was an interesting time and I learnt a lot about hostile takeovers.  A year later I moved to Rio Tinto and spent 6 years with an amazing Africa portfolio that included Guinea, Mozambique, Namibia, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Cameroon, South Africa and exploration in many more. Women should not feel intimidated by the industry, instead they should know they can make a huge difference by adding diversity and their skills.  I learnt a lot, met many amazing people, got to do a lot of travelling within the African continent and the world.


JA: So why did you return to Africa to start your own business? What was the driving force for starting your own business? 

JC: I was born in Zimbabwe and grew up in the UK, Greenwich in London to be precise, I studied Marketing and Communication, my first professional job was with BT in the UK where I spent many years in varied marketing & communications portfolios.  I married a South African and had my first son in the UK, then we decided to return to live in Africa and raise our family here, that was the main reason. After being raised in the UK we just wanted a life in the sunshine and the chance to grow into the opportunities around Africa, we could see that Southern Africa had a lot of potential especially for us as young, black professionals. So I didn’t come to start my own business, the business came later when I realized I wanted more and wanted to make more of an impact.

I could see some gaps in the market and wanted to have the opportunity to actually see what solutions we could come up with, be innovative and have the opportunity to work with the people I want to work with. JA was one of those opportunities that came up and I have over the years as a Board member grown and I am now the Chair of the Africa Board, this has placed me on the JA World-wide Board and introduced me to a wide array of people.


JA: Why are you passionate about entrepreneurship?

I really believe entrepreneurship is a big part of the solution for Africa’s challenges. Job creation is one of our biggest challenges, we have a lot of youth and adults unemployed. We need to be an innovative continent to be able to keep up with the rest of the world, but also lead on some things on our own terms. We have huge opportunities and huge resources that we can use differently to really improve our own futures. I believe that the biggest part of the growth on the continent will come from the effort of its people themselves saying ‘this is what we want to do and this is where we can go.’ I really believe we are an entrepreneurial, innovative and hardworking continent. There is a lot of visible entrepreneurism in every African country, too many start small and stay at survival stage, we need solutions that help with up scaling the small, medium and large businesses.  We can and must create a lot of multinationals from the continent.


JA: JA conducts leadership camps for girls across Africa, so what advice do you have for young girls as they think of their future careers?

I think we must all learn to understand and embrace our strengths, recognize our weaknesses but not allow them to be barriers.  The world is changing, there are new careers and opportunities everywhere, my advice is get to know yourself, be adventurous, have fun, don’t be afraid of new challenges, work extremely hard and always strive to excel.  Open yourself up to see the opportunities around you, learn to collaborate and don’t be afraid of what the human race calls failure, see it as part of a path to learning.



JA: What was the process for you in understanding your strengths? 

JC: There are several stories I can tell you about how I came to realize my own strengths. My father was very strict, we were living in Greenwich, my younger sister and I weren’t the only black kids at our junior school but we were the only Africans, so we were teased a lot. As such we spent a lot of time in the local library, we read like crazy, I am one of those who would read books under the cover when my mum thinks I am asleep. In my first temping job after graduating, I ended up working in British Telecom (BT) doing secretarial work.  I was part of a group of young secretaries doing work for several managers all on the same floor. They would put work in the trays, we would type the work, they would collect and bring back their edits. After a few weeks, I realized several of the managers kept putting their work in my tray.  I couldn’t understand why; I was the only black person/ women. I thought this must be some kind of racism. The other girls are full time and I was part time. One day I asked one of the managers, and he told me it was because my grammar was good, that I was correcting their work therefore needing fewer changes. That for me was one of the first realizations that I was good with the written word.  The skill and love of working with the written word has carried my career in so many ways, through different industries and responsibilities.  I also like to be challenged so big projects or complex projects bring out the hard worker and problem solver in me.


JA: What do you think are the most important levers to reverse the trend of youth unemployment in Africa?

JC: I think one of them is entrepreneurship education, opening the minds of youth to being more creative and more entrepreneurial.

Part of that is changing the mind-set of parents to allow that change to happen. That lever can only happen if government, financial institutions, education institutions, the private sector and any other sectors work together. Entrepreneurship education and support is crucial; a lot is already happening and hopefully all the different players in this will connect and partner more.

We also need new institutions that can step into the space of funding support and short term loans, this is often a huge barrier to success, and growth.


JA: What is your advice on entrepreneurship for Africa’s youth?

JC: Don’t be afraid. The word entrepreneur sometimes conjures up images that make people afraid, it’s a big unknown. We need to find different ways to frame the word and the idea. A lot of us come from entrepreneurial families but we just never called them entrepreneurs. The advice is don’t be afraid of starting or failing, we know from the material we read that many of the best entrepreneurs failed over and over but learnt from their mistakes and continued.


There are a lot opportunities that the youth can take advantage of and they should do exactly that. The opportunities of leaving school or leaving university and getting a job is fast fading away for many reasons including mechanization, cost cutting, older people working for longer, technology etc.  What we need is a lot more young people who say  “I am going to leave university and I will create that company that will recruit from my university”, those opportunities are there.

Careers are changing rapidly, people shouldn’t be so hung up on the word career instead focus on their strengths and opportunities. There are new jobs and money making opportunities coming up all the time, that will continue to happen.


JA: If you could advice your younger self about her career choices what would it be?

JC: It goes back first to understanding your strength. It took me a while to really see what my strengths were even though they were kind of out there in front of me and I was doing well, very well, very quickly. So, I’d say it’s really about understanding your strengths, follow what you love and don’t be afraid. That is what I would say to my younger self too and have more fun in work too.


About Jean Chawapiwa

Ms. Jean Chawapiwa is one of the few women who have reached the top in the South African mining industry. After serving at senior levels in the external affairs, government relations and communication portfolios of three global mining companies, Rio Tinto, Barrick Gold and Placer Dome, Jean recently set up her own consultancy practice utilizing her extensive knowledge gained from 9 years in the mining sector. During this time her portfolio supported businesses in South Africa, Namibia, Guinea, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Cameroon, and Tanzania.

She has extensive experience in external affairs, communication, change management and media across Africa, which included work on several divestments and acquisition. She also represented the Mining companies on the Executive Council of the Chamber of Mines (South Africa); BLSA (Business Leadership South Africa); WEF Africa (World Economic Forum); NBF (NEPAD Business forum); African Union; Mining Indaba & various other conferences; she also arranged and took part in wide ranging national and international government meetings and engagements.

Jean continues to sit on the Board of Junior Achievement Africa, she was the first woman to sit on the South African Chamber of Mines Executive Council where she sat for over 6 years ending December 2012. She chaired the Chamber of Mines Communications Committee; sat on the Board of Rio Tinto Management Services; and American Chamber of Commerce in South Africa (AmCham).

Jean is the Founder and MD or Win Win Solutions 4 Africa Consultancy, she is also the Country Director for WEConnect International in South Africa and the Board Chair for JA-Africa with a seat on JA World-wide Board.



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