Profile of an African Female Entrepreneur


Professor Lettice Kinunda Rutashobya of The University of Dar es Salaam Business School (R).

Professor Lettice Kinunda Rutashobya of The University of Dar es Salaam Business School (R).

By Freddy Okum and Jaston Binala.

 DREAMS have a place in human achievement–when coupled with commitment. This has proved especially true in the twin history of the University of  Dar es Salaam Business School (UDBS),  and that of  Professor  Lettice Kinunda Rutashobya.  

We celebrate, in this article, the entrepreneurial spirit in the daughter of a carpenter here in Tanzania,  Professor  Lettice Kinunda Rutashobya of the University of Dar es Salaam. Through her story, we also show the University of Dar es Salaam practices what it preaches on entrepreneurship.

Through this two-sided story,  we discover that the grandeur of the University of  Dar es Salaam Business School is actually the outcome of  a commitment to a dream.  A good entrepreneur—whether an individual, or an institution—is committed to a dream and the plan of action. A dream was envisioned in the past to build a reputable Business School in Tanzania at the University of Dar es Salaam. This dream to build a world class Business School in Tanzania was conceived by many at the University, Professor Rutashobya told us, but the mantle to see this dream come true was given to her in 1994. Visionaries included the Business School’s founding dean, Professor Joshua Mkhululi, a Jamaican national.

Professor Mkhululi handed over the University of Dar es Salaam Business School which carried a different name at the time,  to the right manager in Prof. Rutashobya, interviews show. The word ‘right’ has been used deliberately here, to represent Professor Rutashobya’s propensity to innovation and creativity during her tenure in the 1990s as dean of the  Faculty of Commerce and Management (FCM),  which gave birth to UDBS.

UDBS is currently an ultra-modern business school. Huge lecture halls are filled with cushioned chairs, imported shining tables, spacious air conditioned  offices and hallways, giant glass windows covered by white curtains as flower gardens decorate multistory buildings on the outside.

Perched  on a hillside  next to a little forest west of  University Hill here in Dar es Salaam, UDBS looks magnificent. Two giant high-rise buildings,  plus a new one on the verge of completion,  make up UDBS. The School employs  67 lecturers, and 20 tutorial assistants to criss-cross the corridors everyday of the week.

“Everyday of the week is a school day here,” the Director of UDBS’s Entrepreneurship Centre (UDEC), Dr. Miriam Nchimbi said at one time. “If we have a program for you on Friday, or Saturday, or Sunday, you have to come. If you have other priorities on those days, then do not enroll.”

This commitment to academic excellence has seen the number of students enrolled at the University increase steadily, from 14 students in 1961 to 21,440 undergraduate degree students during the 2012/2013 academic year, according to published documents.  In the past fifteen years the postgraduate students’ population has also increased from about 100 in 1993/1994 to about 2,607 with postgraduate programmes increasing from 48 to over 74.

“The University of  Dar es Salaam Business School was not what you see now,” Professor  Rutashobya said during an interview.  “I took over the school deanship when it was least known and therefore invisible. There were too many challenges to address. It needed a visionary, committed and unselfish leader to manage the challenges. I believe I was.”

UDBS lecture hall

UDBS lecture hall

On the day of the interview, we learned the management success story that UDBS is today  had  an architect who constructed the plan on paper then oversaw its implementation. In project  formulation and management, how entrepreneurial the plan is, and how entrepreneurial the overseer is makes or breaks the project.

Many people have contributed toward ‘building’ UDBS, but Prof. Rutashobya’s contribution is noteworthy in that she combined all the necessary qualities as UDBS dean at inception and growth stage. A dream was handed over to her, she oversaw its successful initial implementation.

The University of  Dar es Salaam celebrated her contribution and achievements during the 2012 UDSM 50th Anniversary. Why was that?  Officials noted that her achievements are really the achievements of the University.  She was given  a Golden Award for her contribution in starting entrepreneurship programmes at UDBS, and for pioneering the mobilization of resources to build UDBS structures.

Well, there may be another reason why the University of Dar es Salaam is so proud of this Full Professor. Professor Rutashobya was made right here–from her first degree all the way to her Doctorate of  Philosophy, with only occasional stints at Universities outside the country in Italy, Germany, Sweden and elsewhere. The University of Dar es Salaam puts out good brains, but they decided this one had to be kept.

On the day of the interview, we arrived at her office before she did.  When she finally came at the office on the  third floor of the old UDBS building,  she was accompanied by an assistant.   The professor  smiled  and gave us a warm greeting  while on her heels. She then swiftly entered her office. Soon, her clear voice rang as she called us over to get in.  As we settled in her office, she quickly sidelined formalities, substituting them with charming pleasantry.

She told us she had not taken the elevator to the office. “ I like to climb the stairs as a way of doing exercises,” she said as she started the air conditioning machine to cool her spacious office on the third floor.

Professor Rutashobya is brown, about 5’6”.  Her searching eyes sparkle with life. For a woman who got  her Bachelors Degree  in Business   Administration  at the University of Dar Es Salaam in 1976,  she is keeping herself quite fit. “I am fit for my age,” she said freely,  letting a broad, elastic smile fan across her radiant, calm face. She then walked on to her seat.

A master of simplicity, she did not sit behind the  magnificent Full Professor’s table.  Instead, she walked  on to a modest,  straight-backed office chair close to the low table reserved for visitors,  where the two of us sat. She relaxed in her chair. The mood in the room signaled it was time for the interview.

Prof. Rutashobya graduated from the University of Dar es Salaam with a Bachelor of Arts  in Business Administration and Management  in 1976 and finished her Masters in Management and Administration in 1978. She is one of the founding members of  the Faculty of Commerce and Management  (FCM) when it was launched at  the University  in 1979. Before turning into a Faculty, FCM was formerly the Department of Management and Administration. FCM is what later turned into the University  of  Dar es Salaam Business School.

She recalls obtaining her Doctorate  of  Philosophy (PhD)  degree at an extra-ordinarily fast pace. She registered for the PhD in 1988 and was conferred in 1992  despite taking care of four children in addition to her routine faculty workload. She  told us she actually finished  her doctorate degree in 1991 and  subsequently picked Dean of the Faculty of Commerce and Management in 1994. She held that position until  2006.   Much of what has become UDBS was incepted during this period.

“At first I called my bosses to decline the appointment but  was asked to continue. I prayed to God to give me strength and courage to manage the challenges. There was no research capacity (only 3 members of staff including myself had a PhD degree at the time; one was an expatriate,“  she recalled when talking about her management role as dean. Now 37 UDBS lecturers are PhD holders assisted by 30 Assistant Lecturers and 20 Tutorial Assistants holding Masters degrees in their fields of specialization.  UDBS is made up of the departments of Finance, Accounting, General Management,  Marketing and the Entrepreneurship Centre (UDEC).

“We had no building of our own so office space was a serious problem. We were squatters. I would beg for office space from my fellow deans. So my staff were scattered all over the university,” Professor Rutashobya recalls.

“We had very few equipments/ facilities (we had no computers although the Faculty was teaching a computer course, No external linkages and had dwindling resources from Government budget.

“As a strong believer in human resource capacity,  one of my first challenges  and dream was to build research and teaching capacity through PhD training. The University was then transforming,  so the environment was conducive to management of change,” she said

The Full Professor teaches and writes about entrepreneurship. What she did as dean of the Faculty of Commerce and Management and later UDBS proves she practices what she preaches.  Entrepreneurs are never deterred by challenges. “I believe problems/challenges bring opportunities,” she said. “Since not much in terms of resources was coming from Government I started looking for donor support through design of projects.

“I started writing project proposals,  thanks to an ILO course I had attended earlier before I became Dean, at the ILO Training Centre in Turin,  Italy,  which was sponsored by UNDP. The course was on management of development which included modules on project formulation, monitoring and evaluation.

“My vision to build research and teaching capacity enabled me to design several donor funded projects focusing on entrepreneurship and small and medium enterprise Development.

UDBS Entrepreneurship Students, Class of 2010

UDBS entrepreneurship students, class of 2012 in group picture with UDBS Entrepreneurship Centre (UDEC) Director, Dr. Miriam Nchimbi (centre in black skirt) and UDSM Director of Postgraduate Studies, Dr. M.D. Baisi (centre in black trousers).

“I believed the School had to be relevant to the business Community while at the same time addressing the issue of its visibility. I must admit it is our focus on Entrepreneurship and SME that has helped raise the visibility of the School. The SME policy was then being developed.

“I initiated the following capacity building programmes focusing on Entrepreneurship and SME development:

  • Research capacity building through PhD training-I designed one of the most successful Sida/SAREC funded research capacity programme to train staff to PhD level jointly with University of Umea School of Business and economics, Sweden. The programme has so far graduated 17 PhDs, which is more than a half of all PhD holders in the School. The collaboration and the programme has been sustained todate
  • Collaborative programme on entrepreneurship with University of Twente funded by NUFFIC, Netherlands (FAME project)-graduated 3 masters and 2 PhDs.
  • I founded the University of Dar es Salaam Entrepreneurship centre initially with support from NUFFIC,  Netherlands.
  • Through NORAD support, we managed to train 1 PhD
  • I founded the School’s annual International Conference on African Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development (ICAESB).”

To address the long standing problem of  office space for  those  in the business school,  Professor Rutashobya recalls kneeling down to pray  for God’s intervention.

“Honestly,  I knelt down on my knees in the dean’s office and asked God to give us a building of our own,” she told us. “I am so glad God has answered my prayer.

“I designed a successful project for NORAD funding on infrastructural development for the school. Through NORAD funding phase one of the School Building was built. This has also been one of my biggest contributions to the school.

We learned the University of  Dar es Salaam  as well as others recognize the value of her contribution. In October 2012 the University of Dar es Salaam awarded her  a Golden award during the closing ceremony of the 50th anniversary celebrations for initiating entrepreneurship programmes and for pioneering infrastructural development for the University.

In October 2004, the University Of  Umea in Sweden, awarded her an Honorary doctorate (doctor honoris causa) in applied economics for her contribution to Business education in Africa.   “I became the first female ( second African) recipient of such an honor at the University of Umea.  In 2011,  I won a University of  Umea Vice Chancellor’s award as Guest Professor at the University’s  School of Business and Economics,“ she said.

Professor Rutashobya also prides herself in the result of her plan to create evening classes for the Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree at the University of Dar es Salaam Business school. This plan has worked very well, she says. Other institutions  are imitating this program across the country.  The best side of the program, however, is that it is a money spiner for UDBS. The University is making a lot of money through this program. The funds are helping finance construction of new UDBS buildings as well as paying off  a huge CRDB Bank loan incured during construction of  the second UDBS building.

A famous adage says behind every successful man, there is always a woman. Others have found the opposite to also be true: behind every successful woman, there just might be a man!

Prof. Rutashobya speaks highly of her father, whom she admits inspired her to be aggressive as a student at primary school level all the way to University.  Mr. Kinunda, a carpenter in Mbinga, loved school very much but was forced to drop out of  school because of  prohibitive school fees charged  before Tanzania got independence.

Prof  Rutashobya says her father attended Peramiho upper primary school in Mbinga and was “very intelligent.” Unfortunately, his father (Lettice’s grandfather) was too poor and could not afford to pay school fees.

After dropping out of school,  he got married and gave his life to carpentry to earn money for his family and his children’s financial support in school.  Lettice Kinunda  was born among other children and became a star—leading her classes everywhere from Primary school in Mbinga, to High school at Tabora girls, all the way to the University of  Dar es Salaam.

Fathers play a critical role in molding daughters for a successful life, Prof. Rutashobya concedes. And that is done by inculcating a sense of confidence in your daughter– something you do by loving her, and encouraging her to be achievement oriented.

“One time I did not do very well in class during primary school,” Prof. Rutashobya said. “I  held the second position in class and my father was very angry. And that became the last time I held the second position anywhere”

Prof.  Rutashobya has written  numerous research reports for government departments, local and international organizations, symposium presentations and  a number of  books. She is the author or co-author of various books, chapters in books and over 50 scientific articles, and technical papers published locally and internationally.

She is  Co-author of a chapter in a recently published book on Aid for Trade: From Policies to Practice, The cases of Mozambique, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia together with the University of Helsinki (published in Finland. This work was sponsored by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

She is the  author of the book on African Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development,  and the book  on Female Entrepreneurship in Tanzania.  She is also Guest Editor of a special issue of the Journal of African Business on Gender and Entrepreneurship.

She has written numerous articles, including papers published in the International Journal of Social Economics, Management Decision, Journal of African Business, the Business Management Review, mainly in the area of internationalization, international trade, Foreign Direct Investment, enterprise development, informal sector, gender and entrepreneurship, public finance, public procurement. She has also written numerous technical reports for the World Bank, ILO, UNDP, DFID, IFAD, NORAD, and the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Finland.

“The role of a professor is to generate knowledge,” she said. “The good thing about publishing globally is that you become known by many people.” But the transcontinental exposure in her case has caused so many people to seek her for consultancy that she can’t meet the demand. Her main engine for generating knowledge has been that indispensable tool for all prolific academics and writers- – research.  “ I am very passionate about research,” she said during the interview.

“That carpentry is what really helped to bring us up in the family,” Professor Rutashobya said, adding  that her father attended her PhD graduation.

Prof Rutashobya says she is “very disciplined” in her life which she believed could be the result of  her upbringing at home under her father who was also very pious and disciplined. But this could also be the result of  attending  religious secondary schools. “The secondary schools I attended were very religious, almost like convents,” she said.  “ I am very passionate with what I do.  I always make sure that I achieve my dreams, ” she said.

Dreams! dreams are the power sources that visionaries and discoverers and innovators rely on. The French dramatist, novelist and poet, Victor Hugo, moved and perhaps even mesmerize by the power of dreaming, once said: “ There is nothing like a dream to create the future. Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow.”

This article is about the daughter of a Tanzanian man who dreamed  there  should one day be  a University of Dar es Salam Business School in sky-rise buildings,  churning out entrepreneurial  First Degree Holders, Masters and PhD holders for Tanzania. This is happening now!

“I am always dreaming, dreaming!” Professor Rutashobya said, her face beaming, super-charged with the combined magic of inner satisfaction and her robust visionary power. “ I never cease to dream and I always have a lot of dreams which I want to see come true.”

Her prayer now is to see entrepreneurship courses at UDBS taking Tanzania to a point in the future where graduates will be able to walk out of the university campus ripe for self employment. “That is the type of situation we should be targeting to create, because jobs are not there always. And that was basically my dream when I started the entrepreneurship programme — to train graduates who can join the business community as entrepreneurs. There are so many opportunities in this country which should be utilized,” she said.

Now she may not be dean of  anything at the moment, but her ‘plate’ is full.  She still lectures at the university but also holds a number of board membership positions in government organizations. She is for instance Board Chairperson of the Tanzania Postal Bank.  She passed an interview to become Southern African Development Community (SADC) Deputy Secretary General a couple of years back but she lost the opportunity for lack of  political backing from the current government.

(The first version of this story first appeared in the University of Dar es Salaam Business School (UDBS) Alumni Magazine, The Manager. It has been modified and re-used with permission)