Starting a Social Enterprise: Circus Zambia
Co-founders of the inspiring youth-focused social enterprise, Circus Zambia, Gift Chansa and Charlotte Groen, share with us their leadership journey, challenges and advice for other young leaders on how to get started.
What is Circus Zambia and how do you help young people?
“Our mission was to set up an organisation that could help young people to become change makers in their society, and unleash their full potential using circus, thereby changing the image of our ghetto Chibolya in Zambia.“
Circus Zambia is a social enterprise that equips young people with circus, life skills, social skills and provides them with educational support and job opportunities. We do this with the aim of unleashing the potential of young people for them to become change makers in their community.
We use a holistic approach and have three main areas, which are the body, mind and soul. In the body we focus on circus, through the Circus programme, and we do this via outreach in different ghettos. Through the Circus programme, they learn to keep their body physically fit, while practicing trust, communication and working together. Focusing on Mind, we support young people with extra tuition and school fees. Right now, Circus Zambia is supporting 20 young people with this programme. We also organise school camps when school closes to keep young people off the streets. In the Soul programme, we deal with issues that affect young people in the community, from HIV/AIDS prevention to sanitation, social inclusions, teen pregnancy and others. We teach young people about these things through circus and they become peer educators in their community by doing performances and workshops with others. Circus Zambia annually reaches over 4000 people with interventions and performances.
Our Circus Zambia Hub is a safe space where young people can come together to discuss issues, train circus, create productions, borrow books from the library or browse the internet.
Through our Circus company, we are hired to do corporate events and social events. This is a core area that supports our core costs for the organisation.
Our mission was to set up an organisation that could help young people to become change makers in their society, and unleash their full potential using circus, thereby changing the image of our ghetto Chibolya in Zambia.
How did you get started with Circus Zambia?
Charlotte: I was born and raised in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. I have always had an interest in traveling, cultures and people. During my studies (a bachelor’s in interdisciplinary social sciences with a minor in anthropology and pedagogics, and a master’s in urban sociology), I travelled a lot around the world. I developed an interest in how arts and creativity can be used as a tool to work with young people in urban areas and did research and work on the subject in South America and Africa. I never dreamt that I would end up starting a circus in Zambia but when I came to Zambia, I ended up working with Barefeet Theatre and met Gift and the other co-founders there. We developed the idea of Circus Zambia in a kind of tongue-in-cheek manner, with many ‘what ifs’, but as time moved on, the ideas and talks became more serious and we jumped in the deep end.
Gift: I grew up and went to school in Lusaka, Zambia. I started acrobatics on the street, performed until I reached a professional level, and travelled around the world; from the UK and Japan to China and the US. I trained in The Netherlands, and from there, decided to set up a ‘social circus’. Before setting up Circus Zambia, I was working with Barefeet, engaging with young people. I started there as a kid, aged around 14, as one of the beneficiaries. I then trained as a creative facilitator with them, but was also starting to realise more and more that I wanted to bring my dream of a circus in Zambia to life.
A crucial moment was when I said this out loud to Heeton from Hivos – People Unlimited and he offered his support. After a week, he sent me a lot of questions that I went to research in my compound. I asked Charlotte to help me, because she is such a good writer, has good insights and is a good friend. That’s how we began.
We started meeting, discussing and writing things down. But then I got a scholarship to go and study circus in China. Heeten notified us that there was a grant opportunity that we should apply for with our circus idea. Even though I was in China and Charlotte in Zambia, we worked on the proposal, which was a concept development plan. Going through the different stages from concept note to full proposal, forced us to put our broad idea in specific activities and objectives.
In the end, we never got the grant, but having worked out the idea so much more, we figured we might as well start implementing. So, when me and the other co-founders Amos and Benard returned from China in 2015, we started meeting every week, started training with young people and started developing our organisation. Our first steps included registering the company, putting on shows to raise money for training and completing our first grant proposal for MTV Staying Alive Foundation – which was successful!
What has been your greatest challenge and how did you overcome it?
Gift: The beginning is difficult because you have nothing to show for your work. People don’t believe it when you say you are serious about starting a circus. It’s hard to get support and to find the right team. Also, we didn’t have all the schooling, this was the first obstacle every time I spoke to anyone. Now, I have enrolled part-time in school to study project management. Now, I feel confident when I am speaking or facing people.
Charlotte: I think it’s also a challenge to ensure that the founding team keeps growing and developing as well. The company cannot grow if the leadership doesn’t grow and develop. A challenge is to keep in mind that personal development is also important. As we are growing, the demands are getting bigger and we are more than just a bunch of friends doing something. As an organisation we need to keep up with this and ensure we train our staff and improve our systems.
Another big challenge is the responsibility you feel. Once you start paying salaries and people depend on you for your livelihood it adds pressure. Also, we have so many young people that are engaged in Circus Zambia. Thus, we need to perform and keep ourselves going even in stressful times. It’s important to take time for yourself and ensure you still spend time with your friends and do the things that are important to you. That way, you can recharge your batteries and stay on top of all you are doing. And enjoy it!
What have you learnt along the way that you wish you’d known before?
Gift: I wish we learnt how to run a professional organisation, we thought it was going to be fun business every day, but sometimes it’s challenging and frustrating. It’s hard because we are friends as well, but we have learned that it’s not all fun and games. You have to power through challenging times in order to drive the best results.
Charlotte: I wish I had understood more that managing an organisation is all about people and relationships. So, it’s important to work on things such as team building to ensure everyone feels heard.
What are your top tips for people with big dreams and ideas but who don’t know how to get started?
You can’t do everything alone, and you need people that are different from you. (Gift) In my story, Charlotte is the best writer in the world, but maybe with you it might be different strengths you are looking for. I have learnt that people are happy to help you grow. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Share your plans with people, because you never know what doors they can open for you. But don’t just share your plans, start implementing as well, so they can see you are serious. Find people that inspire you, even people you have never talked to before and reach out. Listen to them and their advice. Learn from them and make lasting connections.
Break things down into small steps. Starting something seems daunting and big but if you break it up into small steps, it’s just a matter of going through the steps.
If you want to do something, don’t wait, go do it. Don’t say ‘I want to have this first before I can start’. Just start. You will be surprised how things can be unleashed for you. Even people from Mars will hear you and support you. The best advisors are found in the most unlikely of places.
Where do you want to go from here?
Gift: The most important thing for me, is to start doing things now, every small thing I want to do, I don’t want to wait because life is happening now. I want to work with young people and communities to talk about complex issues and share them with other people. I don’t think it should be harder for people to find opportunities and resources because they live in a difficult neighbourhood.
My dream is to work with young people in different parts of the world through arts, whether it be film, festivals, circus festivals or creative ventures. One day I want to get involved with politics in Zambia. Right now, I just want to do everything before time runs out.
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