A Profile in Persistence | MeetingsNet6 min read
Meet Mulemwa Moongwa. She’s an entrepreneur, an educator, a Certified Meeting Manager, and a passionate advocate for meetings in Africa.
She’s also collaborating with Meeting Professionals International on the seeds of an Africa chapter. It’s part of her mission to bring more professionalism to meeting planning in her home country of Zambia and across the region, a change she knows can deliver new economic opportunities. She knows that because she’s lived it.
From Parties to Strategic Planning
Moongwa got her first taste of events working part-time for a party planner while attending college in Nebraska. Though her plan was to become a lawyer, she recognized a huge opportunity in social-event planning when she returned to her home in the city of Lusaka. “It was the gift of the gap,” she says. “Nobody was doing it.”
Her startup was indeed successful, and she spent the next five years planning holiday parties, weddings, and other social events. But over time she wanted more. “Event planning felt more like a hobby than a career,” she said. “The template was typically reusable. I wanted something more challenging.”
In 2008, she started Infinite Learning Consultants, leveraging her event-planning skills to move into more strategic roles. “The e-learning movement was taking shape on the African continent,” she noted. She worked closely with the Ministry of Education to coordinate meetings and conferences for stakeholders in Zambia and throughout the region. It wasn’t until 2013 that she faced a challenge to moving forward as a professional conference organizer: certification.
Moongwa and another planner had teamed up to bid on planning some United Nations World Trade Organization meetings co-hosted by Zambia and Zimbabwe. In the end, the WTO hired a South African planner for the job. When Moongwa dug into the reasons they were overlooked in favor of a planner from another country, it came down to credentials. Nobody in Zambia or Zimbabwe had any kind of meeting-planning certification, and that was more important to the decision-makers than hiring local talent.
Quest for Credentials
Determined not to let that happen again, Moongwa started researching. She decided to apply for the Event Industry Council’s Certified Meeting Professional designation. But with no CMP testing sites in Zambia, she traveled to South Africa in 2014 to take the online exam. Unfortunately, once she was there, she realized that the textbook she’d studied wasn’t enough. She hadn’t read the CMP glossary. So, Moongwa opted out of the test that day and hasn’t been back. The associated costs became prohibitive, and she realized that the ongoing recertification requirements would be problematic.
It took a few years, but after having a baby, Moongwa again looked for a way to professionalize her craft and align with global standards. She landed on MPI’s Certificate in Meeting Management course, which involved four days of in-person course work at Indiana University in Indianapolis, 12 weeks of online education, and an independent project. She was awarded her CMM in February 2020, one of only two recipients in Africa.
Newly certified and ready to take Infinite Learning Consultants to the next level, Moongwa traveled to Johannesburg to attend Meetings Africa, the premier showcase for the continent’s business tourism industry. “I left armed with a decent number of prospective clients; I was ready for the big leagues,” she says. Barely two weeks after that trip, though, Zambia declared a Covid lockdown.
A Pandemic Epiphany
Like other meeting professionals across the globe, her work came to an abrupt halt. “If I’m honest, for the first time in my life, I felt lost and limited. Fortunately, I was receiving industry updates through MPI’s daily newsletter. It was comforting to know that others were struggling like I was.”
But while business was at a standstill, Moongwa’s brainstorming was not. “I’ve been an entrepreneur all my life,” she says. “So, I’m always looking for solutions to problems around me.” While spending time exploring MPI’s online educational opportunities during the early days of the pandemic, she came across information on mentorship sessions available across the MPI network. She signed up and was paired with MPI Finland’s Paula Blomster, congress manager at Messukeskus Helsinki Expo and Convention Centre. “The conversations were extremely useful and thought provoking,” Moongwa says. “I realized that being part of MPI was helping me upskill and expand my knowledge while other planners from my region were wallowing in self-pity. I found myself thinking about the need for planner education in Zambia. While I had exposure to the profession in the U.S. and a personal drive to search out certification options, did it have to be that hard?”
Like seven years earlier, Moongwa saw a gap and realized she was in a position to fill it. By October 2020, she had incorporated her Lusaka-based MICE Academy Zambia. “I set up the academy to provide first-level training,” she says, noting that she has a three-day basics bootcamp as well as a program for more experienced planners, which covers topics such as stakeholder management and protocol. “I specialize in government-to-government and government-to-business events.”
The Big Picture
But beyond training, the meetings industry in Africa requires advocacy, Moongwa says. “The lack of research on the impact of the business tourism and events industry on most African countries presents an enormous challenge when engaging policymakers and other decision-makers in our quest to help our industry recover from the pandemic.”
Moongwa has made it her mission to be the voice of the industry. She believes that defining learning and career paths is a critical step for Africa’s emerging meeting community. She’d also like to see meeting associations that have furthered the profession in other parts of the world get a stronger foothold on the continent. To that end, she’s volunteering her time to develop MPI in Africa. “It has been an interesting 18 months. I have pivoted into championing a cause that has been a continuous personal battle of validation. A major highlight of these efforts has been the introduction of Africa-specific pricing for MPI membership.”
MPI currently has an Africa Club with 15 members. The Dallas-based association intends “to further expand access to our resources internationally,” says Drew Holmgreen, CED, MPI’s vice president of brand engagement. “Africa is an excellent example of that, and we fully intend to grow our continental community throughout, eventually expanding with country-based chapters.” And Moongwa, he says, is the kind of advocate that’s critical. “By educating herself, volunteering her time to champion the benefits offered by MPI, and providing leadership to her colleagues as well as MPI, Mulemwa has been instrumental in spearheading the growth of the African meeting professional,” he says.
Moongwa has also partnered with Kezy Mukiri (at right, in photo above), founder and CEO of Zuri Events in Nairobi, Kenya, on the Africa MICE Summit, aimed at building dialogue among meeting and incentive stakeholders across the continent. The event has brought together executives from the African Union, the African Tourism Association, the Southern Africa Association for Conference Industry, the Council of Events Professional Africa, the African Association of Exhibition Organisers, and the Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE Africa). Africa MICE Summit, Meetings Mean Business Coalition, and MPI also got involved in celebrating the first African Global Meetings Industry Day in April 2021, which was anchored in Zambia by Moongwa and officiated by Ambassador Albert Muchanga, African Union Commissioner, Economic Development, Trade, Industry and Mining (photo below).
Looking long-term, Moongwa sees that building an inter-African convention cycle is critical to economic development. If groups of educators, marketers, engineers, doctors, and other professionals make a conscious effort to move their meetings from country to county within the continent rather than taking their events outside Africa, that could be a game changer, she says. “Africa is a continent of 1.2 billion people; targeting just 10 percent of our population to gather and have conversations would translate into 120 million business travelers.”
Of course, that kind of change requires experienced meeting professionals to plan, market, and execute those events. If Moongwa has her way, they’ll be ready for the business when the world is safe to meet again.