Last month we sat down with Moliehi Shale to learn about her career as an academic and entrepreneur. ‘M’e Shale holds a PhD in environmental justice from the prestigious University of Cape Town and is a serial entrepreneur in the alternative energy sector. Dr. Shale is an astute thinker whose resume is as broad as it is impressive: from working in a spice shop to being an independent consultant and now owning her own business, Nala PayGo.
She chats about what forces have shaped her career trajectory, and why she remains determined to be seen for herself, not her accolades (of which there are plenty). ‘M’e Shale’s narration of her life is brimming with wisdom and lighthearted humour and this piece does not do her storytelling justice. We hope you love reading it as much as we loved making it.
Early childhood – growing up on a university campus
I grew up on the National University of Lesotho (NUL) university campus in Roma where my mother was a lecturer. My fondest childhood memories were on that campus. To this day, I remain friends with the bulk of my childhood friends because it was such a small, tight-knit community. I would say I had quite a sheltered yet interesting and dynamic childhood because, as you can imagine, the university campus was a mixed bag of people from different parts of the world. And for a really long time I didn’t really see the difference, particularly along nationality and racial lines.
For a lot of us growing up on the campus it was important that you go as far as you can with school. The bare minimum was a first degree because it was at our doorstep, everyone was doing it so it was really expected of us that we would do it as well. I have my own opinions about it now as a mother myself ﹘ it had its good and bad.
So I think it’s always been in my mind that I would be “well-educated” [chuckles] and that education would be the key to my life and that, in an almost tragic way, that if I didn’t reach that I wouldn’t have a good life.
Undergraduate years at NUL
My math and science high school grades were not good but I had done really well in history and geography subjects so I went into the social sciences at NUL. After all, my mother was in the faculty of social science so it seemed intuitive that I would too. . And so I was a Town and Regional Planning student and as required in the final year of the degree – I did a research project.
For her PhD study, my mother had done research in the medical sociology field and conducted her fieldwork while I was in high school; she looked at the gendered experience of medical practice — particularly women’s experience of traditional and modern access to health care in Lesotho. I regularly accompanied her and her research team to the field in those days.
At the time it seemed to me that I was simply spending time with my mother but I think I learnt enough that I became curious about women and the differences between their lived experiences and those of men. So I did my final year research project on gender and land, investigating how Basotho women negotiate access to land in Lesotho and how they sort of ‘cheat the system’ through the men in their lives.
My relationship with my undergraduate supervisor, ‘M’e Matšeliso Mphale was a good one and she remains one of the most influential women in my life. She was very pushy about my research and I would only later come to appreciate her pushes because I became more curious, and more hardworking as a result. I don’t think I was inherently hardworking but because of ‘m’e Tšili, I got better at making an effort at things, not just doing them to get them done.
From optometry clinic to spice shop to a Master’s degree
So when I finished my undergraduate degree I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Most of my friends had a post-graduation plan: get a job, make money and move out of their parents’ house. It was a bit different for me because I wasn’t uncomfortable living in my mother’s house and I also knew I didn’t want a government job. By then, I already knew a lot about graduate studies options from my NUL lecturers, my mother and conversations with my friends so I was looking at further education as an option.
While waiting for university results I did some work for Dr. Thulo Mokete, an optometrist in Maseru. He had recently returned to Lesotho after studying abroad. Ntate Mokete had a roaring passion for Lesotho and amazing ideas about what he, a young Mosotho could do for the country. I was initially skeptical of his passion because he returned when everyone else seemed to be leaving. But then I spent time with him and really started to appreciate the importance of exposure. He showed me that it is important to leave your comfort zone, to go somewhere else and immerse yourself in that culture. To learn enough and see what you can do with it for your own self growth as an individual, first of all, but also for your community, for your country, for your family.
I carried those lessons with me and felt a lot more comfortable with the idea of leaving home and studying abroad. So I applied to South African universities and was admitted to both Witwatersrand University and the University of Cape Town (UCT). I chose UCT over Wits because they offered me a program that I really wanted to study, even though I would spend an additional year of Honors degree before moving into a Masters programme.
Before leaving for UCT, I had also worked for ntate Kenny Soares of Spice King (now known as Spice World). I did everything in the business from serving customers; mopping the floors every morning and afternoon; managing inventory; and handling huge amounts of money. It was the most challenging job I have ever had! You know why? Because I really had to make an effort with all kinds of people who walked into the shop. Ntate Kenny was very big on service and expected his team to be friendly, and attentive and serve every customer with a smile. I think had I not done that job I would struggle with the types of work that I do and enjoy doing now so really, I learnt some of these skills in places that one would never think.
The experience gave me a good sense of the whole business cycle and was a good landing in entrepreneurship. My own father was an entrepreneur and ran several businesses and I worked with his furniture contracting business where he sold high-end furniture to government departments. But I think that at the time, perhaps because he was my own father or because I was young, I’m not sure I was attentive to those principles until I ended up working at the spice shop.
Journeying graduate school and everything in-between
UCT was my first real experience of truly being on my own because ha ke le Roma I went home almost every opportunity I could, which I’m still kind of upset at myself for [chuckles]. So I did my Honors and Masters degrees in human geography, doing work around transboundary conservation and resource sharing, again with a gendered perspective. So asking what’s the differentiated experience of a male and female person and what are some of the societal and economic constraints or benefits to being a woman?
Upon completion of my masters, I found myself again having to decide what I would do next. I could go back to Lesotho and try to find a job, and I think I would have eventually found one that would satisfy me, but I also knew it was going to take a while, even though I already had good networks by that time.
Then one day, Dr. Jane Battersby, one of my lecturers, suggested that I speak to Dr. Gina Ziervogel, one of the lecturers at Climate System Analysis Group (CSAG) for some research work while I try to figure my next steps. This is just one of many points where women have played such a huge part in my life, especially at those pivotal moments.
From there everything just happened so quickly. I went from a very informal conversation with Gina to getting a contract to working as a junior researcher at UCT to working for the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) and going to Oxford for a few months and having the time of my life. For the first time I went to international conferences and got to work with some of the experts in the climate adaptation, mitigation and resilience fields whose names I had only seen on journal publications and books. It was just amazing! I couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
I did that work for about 2 or 3 years and when the project that I had been working on came to an end, I found myself at another pivotal stage in my career/life. At the time, I was reluctant because I thought I wanted to do an MBA instead, but funny enough I really was not doing anything about that. Gina introduced me to a professor in the Law Faculty who was looking for PhD students and urged me to just go meet with him while I made a decision on the MBA.
Given that I had been procrastinating as I do — I’m a huge procrastinator — I met with the professor, Clifford Shearing and he was just an amazing human being. I thought if “I’m going to do a PhD, I really want to do it with a nice person’’. Clifford and I just got on immediately on a very human level. So I registered at the university again to do a PhD under his supervision but now I moved away from the Environmental Science faculty to Public Law. I did my PhD on environmental justice with an interest in how people — particularly lower income groups — manage environmental risk associated with climate change.
So I looked at flooding in Cape Town’s informal settlement areas as a case of a climate-induced risk. I also looked at burial and savings groups as social capital and in the end theorised around how social networks, a form of social capital, fulfill an equivalent to what a middle-income people might do through insurance. I had always had a curiosity about burial societies because my mom was a member of a few and she would complain about them all the time. And I was like “why are you doing it only to come back and complain about it. What is it’s value to you?” It is really what my mother and her friends were doing with that burial society and it’s also what a lot of women and men do in savings societies as well – they build social safety nets!
With the thesis what I was trying to show that in the climate sciences, we often look at the physical impact (like change in temperature or increased flooding) but how human beings are adapting those physical changes outside of social protection (that side of government or state-led responses) is in some ways even more impactful than what we are doing through the state or what we are doing through this capitalist economy we live in.
I grew enormously from my PhD experience. I always say for me it was not the degree that I earned, it was a self knowledge that I do not know I would have found otherwise. It was such an enriching time to reflect on who I am, what I am doing, what my purpose on this planet is and the things that really matter to me. But it was also really hard emotionally. Getting through a PhD is just difficult. You know how people will tell you being in a marriage or being a parent is difficult — it’s one of those things. It’s inexplicable until you’re in it yourself but similar to parenthood or being coupled in a committed relationship, it so so rewarding.
After the PhD: Making a life in Zambia and starting a business in Lesotho
So then I became Dr. Shale in 2015! And by then I had gotten married and had my first son. My husband and I decided to move to Zambia because he was looking to start a business here. So we were a young couple in a foreign country. Well, not so foreign for him because he had lived here for short spurts at a time but for me it was a completely new experience. So we had to quickly adjust, especially mentally, when he did not find employment and we very quickly worked on getting that business off the ground: today it is called VITALITE and it’s an alternative energy servicing company. It was really hard at the beginning and it remains really hard, but I think after a while you just become numb to the hardship and just get on with it.
At the time, he was also having to take on consulting work to bring in some money because the business was actually milking us of our savings. When I completed the PhD I started taking up some consulting assignments and then we kind of eased into that rhythm of life. I was not quite where I wanted to be as an individual. I did not want to only be my husband’s support. I wanted to be my own person, doing work in line with my own interests, but I also understood that I couldn’t pick and choose at the time. No one knew me in Zambia, no one knew me in these consulting circles, I just had to do what it took to get to the next step.
So that’s how I started to dive into the business side. I had one leg in consulting and another in the business. And it kind of feels like I’ve never stopped doing that because till today that’s what I do with my own business. VITALITE was an important experience for me because I saw it grow from the ground up and in fact, that’s how I ended up taking up the challenge to start up Nala PayGo. I wanted to replicate the VITALITE business model in a different market. And I thought “what better a market that I feel a bit comfortable with and that would benefit my own people than to take it home?” And that’s how Nala PayGo came into being.
And similar to those early days of VITALITE, Nala PayGo is milking me of money. I have no savings because of that business [chuckles]. So I have to do quite a lot of consulting on the side to put bread on the table. But again, it’s so gratifying. There’s a lot of risk on the table but I’m fulfilled in my choice.
Where two worlds collide: experiences in both academic and business.
You only know what you know. But in my experience, I can’t be good at one without the other. I feel that the rigor that was required of me in academia, the depth, the curiosity really helps with the business side of things. I see this a lot with young people that come to work with us at Nala PayGo. There’s a reason that formal education is beneficial in the workplace. It’s not so that you know content. It’s so that you understand the value of rigor and the importance of process, and also just learning to be adaptive. So I did work in my early career selling spices but ended up being a business owner, taking on huge contracts with large development organizations — it helps to be adaptive.
Another thing that I found helpful and transferable across the two is understanding the value of being human. At the end of the day, I need people. Whether they’re sales people in my company or agents for my product, or they’re in academia and producing knowledge. I need them. There’s this thing that I think sometimes as we graduate in maturity and growth, particularly where one is enjoying financial success, you lose sight of your need for humanity. I think it is really important and academia really taught to bring it down a notch. A professor is only a professor on paper. At the end of the day they’re human. Their needs are the same as those of a young school leaver who comes to work at Nala PayGo as a sales associate. Everyone wants to be appreciated. Everyone wants to be understood. Everyone wants attention. We all want the same thing.
So it really makes me uncomfortable when people refer to me as Dr. In fact, the bulk of people that know me well, call me Dr. Shale teasingly because they know I’m a bit uncomfortable with that title. I feel like sometimes the title overshadows the human in me. I’m way more than a degree that I earned for myself. I did it for myself, I didn’t do it for anybody else. It was for me. It was for my benefit, for my fulfillment, for my achievement. It wasn’t for anyone to put me on a pedestal.
On remaining grounded
One thing that I say to myself is that I have been so lucky in life. I’ve been so blessed, often in ways that I didn’t ask for or anticipate. So when I’ve said my prayers to God, I’ve often gotten totally different things than what I asked for. I’ve also learned much later in life that an enjoyable life is often a non-linear one. And again, one has to learn to be adaptable. It’s not easy because we all think we want what we think we want, until we’re presented with something different and we let it take flow in our lives and then we’re like, “why did I want that other thing, this is awesome!”
Another thing that keeps me grounded is that I don’t know what’s going to happen but I know there’s a higher power out there. I’m not incredibly religious but I am quite spiritual. I do believe in God and I do believe that my path has been written a long time ago and I’m just trying to let God guide and I will follow. Of late, especially since being a mother, I am a lot more cognizant of my spirituality and that helps me also.
Remember when I said that I grew up on a small university campus and that the bulk of the people I grew up with remain my friends today? I have amazing friends, they keep me so grounded. I think there is something to be said for your family first because they’re always going to be there for you and the people that knew you when you were just Moliehi and can still stand you when you’re “Dr. Shale”. Those are the people you really want on your side. And again I’m lucky because they’ve decided to stick around, even when I’m annoying and neglecting friendships because I’m not present physically.. I learn a lot from the life experiences of my immediate family members, particularly my mother because she walked a similar path to mine, going from being a single mom to becoming a PhD at time the university had very few female PhDs.
Here is where you can find more information about Dr. Shale’s work! We’re rooting for her, and we can’t wait to see where the next adventure takes her.
Below are some of her publications, a more exhaustive list of list of her work is available on Google Scholar
Gendered Access to Land and Housing in Lesotho