After Lydia Charles Moyo quit her job in 2019 to work full-time on Her Initiative — which goes by the same name — it was hard. “We wanted to close down and go home for the first few years. There was no money. I had sold my car. I had used all my savings,” she recalls. 

But today, Moyo’s knack for marrying tech and gender equality has seen her two initiatives flourish.

Her Initiative, a young women-led non-profit committed to breaking the cycle of poverty by fostering financial resilience, has helped over 15,000 women and girls in Tanzania with various initiatives while Panda Digital, the first Swahili hybrid e-learning platform for women in Tanzania, has provided access to skills, resources, and social justice through a website platform and AI-powered SMS technology.

So what changed? 

“My mentor and ‘sister’ in the movement asked me to write a letter to development partners to say: put your money where your words are,” Moyo remembers. “The letter was about what it’s like starting a non-profit. Despite a global agenda to promote gender equality, there was no transparency about where the money was going. It was all just empty words.” 

The letter got a lot of traction — and the grants started to come in. “It took someone to write a very angry letter for funders to pay attention,” she says. 

Since then, her work has been recognized and awarded by a plethora of local and international organizations and platforms. She is an awardee of the +1 Global Fund, the Roddenberry Foundation, UNDP Funguo Programme, the Government of Tanzania, and the Mkuki Coalition Award for championing anti-GBV interventions. 

As well as the stream of accolades, Moyo’s organizations have had a real impact for women and girls in Tanzania. 

“I’m very proud of me and my team. Our biggest success has been to make it possible for girls and young women to dream about something and then see those dreams come to life. It’s the most beautiful thing to actually live your dream. Especially for girls. To see that we are touching the lives of people and creating jobs and employment opportunities is incredible,” she says. 

In Tanzania, gender inequality is still rife. A World Bank gender assessment of the country highlighted that female wage workers earn about 88 cents for each dollar earned by men; female farmers have less access to productive agricultural fertilizers and labor than men do; and in mainland Tanzania, girls are significantly less likely to enroll in upper-secondary school. 

The country hit an important milestone in July 2020: graduating from low-income to middle-income country status. However, 14 million people are still trapped below the poverty line, with rural communities and women in particular being left behind.

Moyo knows about this from firsthand experience. “I was raised by my mom who worked in a very low position in the government,” she says. “It was difficult to afford food and gain access to basic needs. We worked with what was available. We walked 45 minutes to an hour to get to school every day. A lot of dropouts happened due to poverty in general, teen pregnancies, child marriage, and an inability to eat or to afford the basics. Only nine out of 200 of us made it to high school. Of those nine, just three of us were girls.”

It was at this point that Moyo understood that the reason those children didn’t make it wasn’t because they weren’t smart enough. “It’s because there wasn’t an environment conducive to prosper,” she asserts. 

It was at this point that Moyo started running campaigns in school to talk to her peers about girls’ rights, confidence and agency. They brought women role models including businesswomen, musicians, and writers in to share about how they’d succeeded despite the circumstances and create a culture of entrepreneurship among girls. 

This is how Panda Digital was born. “Panda is a Swahili word,” she explains. “It means planting. Our events had this theme of planting a seed of financial independence for girls and young women.”

One girl that took part in one of Moyo’s events was Asha Hemed. “Asha was part of one of the campaigns I did in high school. We went to her school,” says Moyo. “Her mum’s business was a shop that was dying. Then she used Panda Digital SMS to digitize and promote her business. Through the digital income she was able to earn, she started a new shop and now she’s running two shops. This girl didn’t make it beyond secondary school so it was almost impossible for her to get a job and now she’s able to meet her own needs. A story like that is different. It shows girls can take action.

Lydia Charles Moyo and Asha Hemed standing outside one of Hemed’s shops.

Hemed’s story is not unique. 

“Some of the girls in our program we’ve worked with, we’ve transformed their mindset and provided them with skills for goods and services and expanding their sales. We don’t just want them to be financially free, we want women to have prospects to scale what they are doing. Maybe they start in the beauty industry doing people’s nails. In a few years, they’ll be producing beauty products or will have opened their own salon.”

Women’s economic empowerment and their financial resilience is at the core of Moyo’s vision. “I define financial resilience as an ability to bounce back financially. We use this term instead of financial freedom. We are looking at the consistency of being financially free long-term. By that we mean, you’re able to continuously generate your own income, you’re able to invest financially to ensure your income is replicated. Having resilience gives you room to work on your dreams and in the long term see your dreams become true,” she says.

The twin side of Moyo’s work is her mission to end gender-based violence (GBV), which remains a serious concern in Tanzania. As of 2022, 40% of all women between the ages of 15 to 49 years in Tanzania have experienced physical violence. 

“Tanzania had a national plan of action to end GBV that ended last year,” Moyo says. “But unfortunately the numbers are still increasing and there’s more work to be done.”

One of the issues that Moyo has encountered working with young women entrepreneurs who have started businesses is the challenge of sexual corruption — where sex becomes currency. 

When such incidents take place, there aren’t a lot of options for young women in Tanzania. “There are agencies where you can go and report this but most of the women feel embarrassed and are worried. Then when they do report it, usually there’s victim-blaming and the tables are turned.”

Panda Digital has a different approach: a digital platform where young women can report cases and ask for the type of aid they need whether that’s legal, social, or emotional. Because if they don’t get support, Moyo clarifies, that could reduce their productivity and their ability to be financially free — which would once again trap them in poverty. 

Moyo sees Panda Digital as cutting across issues of privacy, victim-blaming, wealth (it’s free), and language (the platform is in Swahili, the official language of Tanzania spoken by over 90% of the population and in East and Central Africa). 

“We ensure that we are catering to their needs from all angles,” she says. “Women and girls are not homogenous, they are heterogenous. Girls in universities are different to girls living with HIV are different to girls in secondary schools are different to girls living in rural areas. So how do we also cater for that as well?

In the beginning, Panda Digital was just a website. But that, Moyo says, was discriminatory because it left rural girls without internet access behind. Their innovative solution? Using AI-powered SMS so that everything on the platform could be accessed on a feature phone without any internet connection.

So where does Moyo want to go from here?

“I am a dreamer and now I have a new dream,” she reveals, “I want to be a funder. I’m not from a rich family but I don’t think girls should be limited in their dreams. Everything starts from a dream. The bigger the dream, the bigger the chance.”

“I want to change top down approaches,” she continues. “Funding should reflect the needs of the communities we serve and not the funder’s priorities. Maybe you have funding for mental health but that’s all well and good if the community is being affected by climate change or GBV. A lot of money is held up in the middle and it should be reaching the people at the bottom.”

Moyo has seen first-hand the impact of grassroots projects. “There are women in rural communities saving other women from GBV. They know how to keep people safe. These women are making change happen, but they don’t know how to write a proposal and they don’t have 5 years due diligence. Now change is fabricated into documents and drawings rather than going into communities and seeing what their needs are. If I was a funder, I would put my money into young people. We miss a lot of opportunities when we don't invest in their innovative ideas. We have to wait until they’re older. I want to catch that young energy of doing things differently which is risky for most funders. They prefer people who already have things all in place when they’re older. I believe those risky ideas are the ones that could be really transformative.

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