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Neema Lugangira’s epic story...How a physical ‘curse’ turned into a blessing

NEVER did it ever cross the mind of 36-year-old Neema Lugangira that a condition with alarming symptoms could mark a turning point into realising her dreams. What looked like a normal day for her while running errands turned out to be a catapult into her fortune.

On a Friday morning, in November 2008, Neema woke up and set out from  home for Kariakoo market to purchase building materials for her house renovations.

As the day progressed,  she started feeling exhausted, with a reverberating pain around one ear which caused a persistent ringing noise. Eventually, energy was drained to such an extent that even the simplest of tasks such as talking was a tedious process. The young lady exerted herself and completed her errand and sought medical advice for her symptoms.

The doctor conducted several tests on her with no definitive  diagnosis. That evening Neema met her mother who nudged her to look in the mirror, pointing out  that there was something wrong with her face.

“I didn’t think much of it because I thought it was her typical motherly concern over even minor things,” Neema recalls.

She had dismissed earlier morning symptoms while brushing her teeth, which made it extremely difficult for her to rinse her mouth because it couldn’t hold any water. “I couldn’t gargle at all,” she recalls.

It was only later that evening, after more prodding that Neema looked at herself in the mirror. Horrified, at her reflection, her  face sagged on one side, causing an unusual disproportionate look on the right side of her face. This triggered extreme panic.

“Imagine looking at yourself in the mirror and you see one side of your face deformed while the other side is normal;  one eye not shutting while the other eye is operating just fine, basically feeling nothing on one side of the face and feeling everything on the other side of the face,” Neema recalls still evidently perplexed by the experience.

Neema sought after a specialist doctor and was initially referred to a cardiologist who immediately diagnosed her with a mild facial paralysis known as Bell’s Palsy. This is a temporary weakness in facial muscles and emotional nerve senses among other things caused by emotional trauma that affects facial nerves.

The doctor recommended further treatment with a neurologist. Neema was then placed on medication that required her to take one pill for every 5kg of weight. “At the time I weighed 60 kilogrammes and had to take 12 pills three times a day for 7 days whilst we were looking for a neurologist,”

Neema eventually gained 25 kilogrammes as a result of this medication. She eventually found a neurologist who prescribed further medication, physiotherapy and counselling for 12 months.

This was the beginning of a new journey. The neurologist stated that it would take Neema several years to get back to her ideal weight following the treatment.

He encouraged her to focus on staying healthy and avoid a relapse of the condition and not worry about her weight.

The counselling process was  difficult, she explains. “It was the strangest experience at first because I never thought I needed it.” But as she got comfortable in her counselling sessions she started to appreciate the emotional transformation she experienced.

“I became emotionally stronger and started my transformation journey into being Neema”. A year later, Neema began the process of weaning herself off of the medication and placing special focus on proper nutrition and fitness.

This would be the beginning of Neema’s journey towards building a business around her new found passion, Healthy Maisha.

Healthy Maisha is a Tanzania award-winning nutrition-sensitive business bridging the diet gap through its flagship healthy juices, nutrition awareness raising workshops (schools and hospitals), promoting adolescent nutrition and workplace nutrition.

In October 2018, her start-up, Healthy Maisha, was among the 21 African Small and Medium-sized Enterprises in the first edition of Scaling up Nutrition Pitch competition at the Continental nutrition exhibition in Nairobi, organised by the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN).

Healthy Maisha emerged the Innovation Award winner of the pitching competition and received technical support and mentoring worth 3,500 Euros with BOP Innovation.

“The award came with technical support that commenced in November 2018, to improve our idea and see how we can scale up, restructure as an internationally competitive business and have a proper marketing and distribution channel,” Neema notes.

Healthy Maisha has been in operation for five months and is showing great promise; it has received interest from 12 organisations to provide technical support.

Neema envisions that in the next five years Healthy Maisha will become the leading health juices producer and supplier in Africa.

But it wasn’t just the ailment that inspired Neema to establish Healthy Maisha, her  mother played an integral role.

“I grew up in an environment where you will be told to eat this and avoid that, why you should do that. We originate from Bukoba where there have been certain traditional herbs for centuries.” Neema  states.

Neema recalls her mother administering herbs such as ‘mshana’ to prevent/treat malaria and another one for tonsillitis as a child. It drew Neema’s attention to health and nutrition and most importantly learn more about using food as medicine.

Before the 2018 launch of Healthy Maisha, Neema took a two-year online course to become more proficient on her knowledge of nutrition and health. In July 2017, she completed the course and received certification as an Integrative Health Coach and Juice Therapist and in August, Healthy Maisha was officially registered.

Neema is currently pursuing a Certification in Culinary Nutrition, that will enable her to be an Expert Nutrition Chef. This was a complete deviation from the work she had been pursuing years before.

Neema has an Advanced Diploma in Business studies from Boston College in the United Kingdom and a Masters in Business Administration (Purchasing and Supply Chain) from the European Institute of Purchasing Management in France.

Neema championed the Local Content agenda for Mining, Oil and Gas sectors in Tanzania, which included writing a Local Content  book in 2014. With these remarkable achievements, Neema’s heart has never drifted far from her love for nutrition. In addition to running Healthy Maisha, she also runs AgriThamania non-profit which champions nutrition in Kagera Region.

It promotes nutrition through educating existing and potential farmers and communities on the nutritional value of locally available crops and how best to maximise the food for their healthy diet. “I came to find out more than half of the children in Kagera are chronically malnourished. It is the third region with the worst malnutrition statistics. 

41.7 per cent of children are malnourished, 57.2 per cent of women of reproductive age are anaemic,” she explains.

Neema credits her success to teamwork. Starting from her education, as an only child, her mother strived to give her the best education possible. But it was through the support of relatives that Neema was able to achieve her education.

“From a young age I had to make sure I do very well in studies that led to two relatives supporting me along the way, with my late uncle being one of them,” she elaborates.

Neema is quick to point out that true success isn’t simply routed to one’s financial capacity to attain.

“I had relatives, friends and neighbours who were way well off but they didn’t go to schools that I went to. It’s not about money but it’s about how a parent decides to raise kids and the type of inheritance you intend to leave your children.” She emphasizes.

She also celebrates the teamwork that has seen Healthy Maisha and AgriThamani grow into a strong and supportive family. 

“As a vision bearer, you need to be willing to take a risk and go for people with passion in what you do, empower and delegate certain roles. I spend a lot of time building my team,” she said.

Neema’s advises aspiring entrepreneurs and young professionals/fresh graduates to not be afraid to dare but stresses the importance of self-positioning through hard work and tangible deliverables.

“I remember at 33, I received a letter to serve a high-level responsibility in the government to establish the new Local Content Department at the National Economic Empowerment Council (NEEC), which is under the Prime Minister’s Office.” she recalls. This stunned many people because this position would normally be held by someone who had worked in government for more than 10 years’.

“But I was prepared for that when I went back to school for my MBA,” Neema points out. It was her determination to work despite the intimidation of the position and make a difference and set the local content agenda.

For five years, Neema has championed Local Content in Tanzania which started from initiating the Local Content Agenda in the country to strategically influencing and participating in the Local Content Policy and Legal Framework Development process in the country.

Neema was appointed to be a member of the Global Steering Committee tasked with developing Global Reporting Standard for Local Procurement in the Extractive Sector.

In addition to her contribution to several global initiatives within the Local Content sphere. Neema is also the author of the book Local Content in Supplier Development-April 2014.

A divorced mother of two; a 15-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son she says: “My children are my pillar and strength, she says and believe it or not, they are my greatest advisors and constantly put mummy in check.” she says with her face lighting up full of pure love and joy as she talks about her kids.

The role she is most proud of is being a mother to these two, she admitted without hesitation.

“I kid you not many times as long as it is possible and safe, I would take same day return work trips to be it by road or air just so that I don’t spend the night away from them. At times they tell me, mummy, you know we are teenagers right and I say that is exactly why I need to spend more time around you two”, she says whilst laughing and we both end up laughing.

Believe it or not the above is just a glimpse of who Neema is about because among other things she still champions policy advocacy and policy reforms through her day job and politics.

Holding a high position in both categories whilst being very active in sports and fitness. How does she do it all and do it so well, we still wonder?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Author: HILDA MHAGAMA

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