By Christopher Mahove
Making a costly mistake that puts one's job a risk is the last thing any employee would want in their lifetime, but for award-winning businesswoman, Peace Muregi-Pundu, the one mistake that almost cost her job became her business breakthrough.
"It was when I was at the ZCTU [Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions] that I became an entrepreneur. I started off with catering, which I had done briefly at college when I was 19 years old. I was asked to do a book for a paralegal meeting at George Hotel in Avondale, but it was not confirmed," Muregi-Pundu told The Standard Style.
"I could not go back to my boss to tell him the alternative venue I got had accommodation and other facilities but did not have catering services. So, to save my job, I arranged with a friend and bought foodstuffs and ensured that more than 80 people got food and it went smoothly. Because of the conflict of interest, I did not disclose that I had done the catering but some workmates knew."
From that day, the 37-year-old Budiriro-bred businesswoman did not look back, as she went on to establish a fully-fledged catering company, Airofin Caterers.
Through recommendations from clients and other people she had worked with, Muregi-Pundu started getting bigger deals, clinching contracts with companies such as Zesa Enterprises, Treggers, Mono Pumps, Larfarge Cement and the University of Zimbabwe, among others.
"My business grew at the peak of the country's economic crisis in 2008. Despite the shortages of basic commodities, I managed to feed thousands of people and most of my clients were paying me in United States dollars. At the peak of the business, I was doing about 1 700 meals a day but still I was not able to satisfy the needs of the customers and I remember at the UZ, the dining hall had closed and the students would chase me up for the meals," she said.
Muregi-Pundu said she had never used any unorthodox means to get contracts as she went to tender and won even against some of the country's renowned caterers, saying she always put God first in everything she did.
"I would compete with the big companies and win the tenders, not because I knew someone there but because I knew God," she said.
She, however, would terminate her contracts along the way, citing late payments for services rendered and also because of the need to venture into more challenging territory.
She then dabbled into legal aid, taking over the running of her husband's legal aid company, Golden Knot Legal Aid.
"One day when we were brainstorming with my husband, we realised that there was a gap in legal aid because he was operating at a small-scale, targeting small corporates. We had borrowed this concept from South African legal aid societies such as the Scorpions, Legal Wise and others and felt the concept would also work here. So I asked if I could take charge of the legal aid business. In October 2011, I started running Golden Knot Legal Aid Services on the sidelines of my catering business as I wound up my contracts," she said.
In 2012, she recruited a vibrant sales team with only one branch in Harare, but now boasts of 13 branches nationwide in areas such as Bulawayo, Zvishavane, Chiredzi, Masvingo, Chipinge, Mutare and Marondera.
"We have seen this brand growing. In the first years, we were working on building awareness. People were no longer trusting insurance and it was difficult to convince them. The only way we managed to convince them was by rendering quality service and ensuring everyone who needed legal representation would get it," she said.
Muregi-Pundu said they outsourced some of their services and also utilised law firms owned by their trustees to service their membership.
She said the company was registered with the Insurance and Pensions Commission through a third party and were underwritten by Cell Insurance.
Their biggest clientele base, she said, were civil servants, especially those in the Ministry of Education, the Zimbabwe National Army and the Zimbabwe Republic Police.
For premiums, as little as $6 per month, clients got representation for all cases from criminal to civil and labour.
"The premiums are affordable because we bulk everything together into a pool. We have a dedicated pool of lawyers with whom we are working harmoniously. The guarantee is not to win the case, but we are saying you will get justice. Sometimes we can only mitigate and get a lesser sentence," she said.
She said after getting enqueries from their legal aid customers, they had also launched a funeral insurance and services subsidiary, Golden Knot Funeral Services, which currently targets their existing customers in the legal aid scheme.
"We launched it last year in Harare and Chiredzi and we will be launching more branches in phases, but we are already offering services after entering into agreements with other service providers who do removal and other preliminary arrangements," she said.
Muregi-Pundu has also ventured into the education sector, opening a private school in Rydle Ridge Park, Harare. The school -- Ocean Waves Junior School -- with an enrolment of 300 pupils, offers unique extras such as practical entrepreneurial development courses at every grade using Montessori training methods. Plans are afoot to open a secondary school in January 2018.
The versatile businesswoman also does execution of deceased estates and debt collection and now owns three buildings in the Belvedere area which house some of the companies she runs.
She employs 174 people across her subsidiaries.
For her enterprise, Muregi-Pundu has won herself three awards from the Zimbabwe Business Awards Council, namely the Zimbabwe Top Female Business Leader of the Year, Zimbabwe Top Leadership Excellence Company award and the Zimbabwe Top Leadership Board Chairperson Award.
She said she was inspired by her former bosses at ZCTU -- Wellington Chibebe, a former secretary-general of the labour body now based in Brussels, Johnlife Mawire, as well as her former boss at RAE Holdings, Lovemore Kurotwi, but most importantly, her mother, Ntombizodwa Dube, who she said taught her to live an upright life.
"My mother taught me the values of life and that in life you have to work hard to succeed. She had so much faith in me that at some point she sacrificed the title deeds to her house in Budiriro as collateral so I could get a loan for my business,' she said of her mother, a former trade unionist in her own right," she said.
Muregi-Pundu has also been awarded an honorary Ph.D for her philanthropic work which has touched the lives of many in poor communities.
The Human Letters Doctorate was issued by the Institute of Philanthropy and other recipients of that honour in Zimbabwe, include business mogul Strive Masiiwa, Devine Ngukula, Eve Gahadzikwa and Isabel Chihuri -- the wife of police Commissioner General, Augustine Chihuri.
Muregi-Pundu is married to lawyer, Douglas Pundu and they have three children. She is the first born in a family of five.