From NYC to Jozi then Lagos & back to Harare

Debbie Peters is a consultant with extensive experience private equity funds, investments, infrastructure, real estate and healthcare with a focus on Africa. She has set up various off-shore funds in Mauritius, a real estate fund in Nigeria and is currently consulting to banks, multinationals and insurance companies in Zimbabwe as well as advising star-ups and entrepreneurs. Here is her homecomer story.

We Africans value education and I am no different in that respect. Although I had qualified as a pharmacist and followed my family’s entrepreneurial streak by opening my own pharmacies in Harare, in 1998 I decided that I needed a business degree so I went to Pepperdine University in the US  to get an MBA in international business.

Ironically, I ended up on Wall Street working in finance and investments for 8 years until 2008. I loved New York City and I was very active in the Diaspora African community. I was a committee member of the AngelAfrica Network which promoted investment in Africa and I organized many events for African professionals in the New York area. Apart from that I had a weekly column in ‘The African Sun Times’, a newspaper which covered Diaspora African news and I also started blogging. I never set out to spend 10 years in the US but after I finished my studies in 2000, my home country Zimbabwe’s economy was on a downward spiral so I was advised by friends and family to remain in the US.

My heart really belonged in Africa so I decided to look for job opportunities in other African countries, especially South Africa so that I could be close to Zimbabwe and visit more often. From 2004 I went to South Africa every year for interviews and to explore job opportunities but somehow the right offer didn’t come along for 4 years. In 2008, I was offered a job at Eskom.

After spending 10 happy years in the US, the thought of moving to the unknown to Africa was pretty scary. I took 2 months to think it over and Eskom gave me time to make my decision and at the end of June I had signed my acceptance letter and prepared for my move to South Africa.

I arrived in Johannesburg on 12 July 2008 and by Monday 14 July 2008, I was at work. I had been to South Africa several times before but moving there was a bigger culture shock that I expected. Luckily there were at least 100 other expatriates who were hired by Eskom on their international recruiting drive and I knew some South Africans who had returned home after living in New York as well as a few Zimbabwean friends who were working in Johannesburg. The company gave us a car to use for two months and furnished housing for 6 months so we had time to get ourselves settled. I bought a car and a house within a couple of months. I missed New York more than I expected and spent a lot of time on the phone with the people I left there but the benefit was that I was near home and I could even go to Harare for the weekend as well as have family visit on a regular basis.

Things were looking pretty bleak in Zimbabwe around 2008-9 so I made sure I got a three bedroom house so that my family could escape to Johannesburg as often as they liked. I loved my colleagues at Eskom and I fitted in very nicely. It was nice to be back in Africa and have house-help again because except for a briefly period when I had a Dominican lady come in and clean for me once a week, I used to spend my Saturdays in New York doing laundry and cleaning my apartment! One of the highlights of my time in South Africa was enjoying the 2010 World Cup. I left Eskom around that time so I managed to attend 6 memorable matches at Soccer City and I also tried my hand at entrepreneurship again by opening a hair-salon in the South of Johannesburg but it turned out to be a highly-competitive industry so I ended up renting out the premises. I had started travelling to Nigeria and Ghana on vacation and caught the African fashion bug so I also hired a designer who was making clothes with the fabrics I brought back from West Africa but it’s also tough to make money in fashion.

Zimbabwe had switched to using US dollars in early 2009 so the era of hyper-inflations was over and the economy improved drastically so I decided to take the leap and dip my toes into consulting in Zimbabwe in late 2010. Well, it turned out to be too soon to move back to Zimbabwe and in 2011 I was recruited by AMSCO, a UNDP/IFC project which builds capacity in SMEs in Africa, to set up a private equity fund for AiQ Capital, a financial firm based in Lagos Nigeria.

Once again when we began the discussions and even though I had enjoyed visiting Nigeria a couple of times on holiday, I never thought in a million years I would end up working there but after several rounds of telephonic interviews, I was offered the job. This was largely because I knew a number of Nigerian professionals in the finance industry from my days in New York who gave me glowing references. The world is a village and you should never burn your bridges no matter where you are in the world. In one of my first meetings at Eskom, I walked into the boardroom to meet the team at RMB and saw an old friend of mine that I had met years ago when she was doing her Master’s at NYU. Anyway, by December 2011 I moved to Lagos and had all sorts of adventures working in the West African culture. Work was delayed in January 2012 when there was the 10 day fuel subsidy strike. I set up a hospitality and real estate fund in Nigeria and I spent a lot of time on roadshows looking for investors and partners. Even though it was frustrating at times, I loved working in West Africa and started my Africa Gist Blog, www.africagist.com.

Sadly I ended my contract in September 2013 because I was really determined to make a go of things in Zimbabwe this time. I spent some time at our Johannesburg home and in January 2014 I officially moved to Zimbabwe where I have been consulting, managing real estate and I am currently setting up a hospitality business. For some reason, even though I have lived in many different countries, coming home was the toughest move yet. Although I had always visited home, it is hard to reintegrate yourself socially after being way for 15 years and business practices have changed. Zimbabwe used to be quite colonial and British but it is now more African in every sense of the word. Doing business is more challenging and most of our best talent has left which I why I am so determined to make a difference here. I am pretty marketable so I can always work anywhere but being successful in your own country is more meaningful. It’s early days yet but I am enjoying the challenge. Although things function more efficiently abroad, I’ll never regret coming back to Africa because our quality of life is better and we have bigger homes here than in most cities abroad!

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