Melissa Messe Mwale spoke to Blockleaders’ Fernando Sanchez about the challenges of entrepreneurship in her birthland of Zimbabwe, her passion to empower Africa through blockchain technology, and how her online marketplace benefits local and international communities.
In Greek, the name ‘Melissa’ means ‘bee’, or ‘honey bee’. Ancient mythology tells the tale of a mountain nymph who provided care for the infant Zeus. One version of the tale explains that Melissa was forced to hide Zeus from his own father, Cronus, who intended to devour him. On learning about Melissa’s doings, he turned her into a worm. But Zeus, grateful for her role in saving his life, transformed the nymph into a beautiful honey bee.
Melissa Messe Mwale is more grounded in reality, but her kind and caring attitude mirrors closely that of her namesake’s legend. Zimbabwe-born Melissa is dedicating her professional life to entrepreneurship, creating digital solutions for the benefit of the African community. She runs an online store from and is the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of CryptoGem, a cryptocurrency exchange.
On education and growing up in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe is home to about 16 million people. Its recent history has been somewhat darkened by issues of large-scale land seizures, rampant inflation, and political turmoil.
Melissa is a well-educated woman who grew up in this tumultuous landscape, and I was curious to hear more about her education years in a country beset by such fundamental issues. 98% of the Zimbabwean population are listed as ‘unemployed’, for instance, though this figure depends on the definition of the term ‘unemployed.’
“Basic education is the same for males and females, actually, I think the system favors females. When it comes to educational funding and entry-level education, it is much better for females. Traditionally, many women would have chosen to go into art or commercial subjects, so there was a gap there. The current system is more geared towards drawing more women into technological subjects.
“The early years were ok, but now it is more challenging, from a financial point of view. With such a high unemployment rate, younger people are now looking at becoming entrepreneurs, though the market here is very limited, and there are very limited resources. Because of these limitations, a lot of young people are leaving the country.”
This is an interesting aspect of Zimbabwean society, one that would not be that well known beyond the country’s national borders.
“I studied Risk Management at university and I got a job pretty much right after graduating. I was employed as an intern, working for a local power company. I soon realized that I wasn’t happy in that particular role, so I started thinking about starting my own business. I had never thought about it before, nor did I have any experience, but I wanted to try at least. So I just went ahead and did it. The result of this drive was The Hive, my online store.”
But more on this story later.
On how blockchain and technology influence lives
The availability and reach of blockchain technology grow wider every day. In a developing country such as Zimbabwe, blockchain is starting to make an impact on businesses and in the country’s very way of life. I was intrigued to find out how Melissa first came into contact with blockchain, and how the tech has influenced her outlook on business.
“I have always been fascinated about the concept of technology transforming people’s lives, how it brings about prosperity, and how technology makes life easier for people in Africa, who may have limited access to a lot of things. So in relation to my own business, for instance, if you have access to technology, you have a global presence. You’re no longer limited to selling locally. The internet opens the door to millions of people and a lot of potential new customers. For me anyway, I believe that technology can transform the lives of many people.
“Blockchain, in particular, can bring about shared prosperity. That has always been my drive, how to bring about equal opportunities in society. When you look at blockchain, I think it’s a great thing, especially for Africa. My passion really is Africa.”
The western world tends to hear the negative aspects of Zimbabwe, its political corruption and hyperinflation, for example, so I thought it would be interesting to find out how Melissa intends to use blockchain to fight social inequality.
“I believe that blockchain can fight social injustice. For example, if you look at the payments industry. If I want to send, say $500, I’d be charged 10%. So it would cost me $50. Bank charges in Zimbabwe, and in Africa in general, are very, very high. The cost is always pushed onto the end user. With blockchain, sending money would cost a tiny fraction of that, or nothing at all. Technologies like blockchain make everything cheaper, which means more people can benefit from it.”
“Blockchain can also be used for land distribution. Zimbabwe has a lot of land, but it’s not equally distributed. I’ll give you another example. I recently had a chance to have a one-to-one session with our newly-appointed Finance Minister, who said he’s opening the door to entrepreneurs with blockchain projects and ideas to solve some of the country’s problems. For example, the Minister is supportive of plans to address the issue of personal documentation, such as identity cards, passports, etc. I’ve heard of projects about importing cars, real estate, insurance, and many more.”
Blockchain enterprises depend on lively and active communities to survive. Melissa has worked to foster a community, not only around her own project, but also around blockchain in general.
“We do have a community of blockchain people in the country. I’d say around 10,000 people who are interested in the technology, and on learning how to implement this technology into their existing business. For my own project, CryptoGem, my main objective is to serve the local community. So we asked ourselves the question: how do we best do that? What are the needs of the community? And, you know, we quickly realized that one of the main needs was education on the crypto space, so we hold a lot of educational seminars, inviting the international community to teach the community.”
“Blockchain is not only about cryptocurrency, so we teach people about how to use blockchain for transparency in their business, record keeping, etc. We have a lot of programmes scheduled for the near future, to teach our community about all these things.”
On The Hive
Melissa – Honey bee – chose a rather apt name for her online business, partly because of her own name, but also to convey the idea of a busy place, a one-stop-shop with lots of activity where people can get what they want. The Hive sells fashion and lifestyle items. Melissa leads a team of four people who help her with running the site and designing items to sell.
“The Hive is the business I started after I quit my job a the power company. It hasn’t been very easy, for two reasons: the market here is very limited, and the market is not quite ready when it comes to technology. People are used to shopping in the ‘traditional’ way. Besides, there are other limitations. You cannot use a Visa or Mastercard card in Zimbabwe, for instance, so that creates problems about how people will pay for goods. Another challenge I found was reaching out to other markets, but I love my business. And I fell in love with blockchain technology along the way.
“Still, The Hive is quite successful, by Zimbabwean standards. We support a lot of local artisans and suppliers, for instance, although we also have international suppliers. So people can buy both local and international, so to speak.”
Zimbabwean law dictates that local banks and other financial institutions are banned from trading or processing payments linked to cryptocurrencies.
Crucially, however, the law implicitly allows for cryptocurrency exchanges to function, and Melissa took full advantage of this when creating CryptoGem, a peer-to-peer cryptocurrency platform. CryptoGem does not have links with any banks, it is strictly limited to peer-to-peer transactions.
“What we want to achieve with this project is to enable people to trade their cryptocurrencies easily, and safely. The idea came about because people from certain African countries like Zimbabwe, Malawi, and others, would not be allowed to register on many of the existing exchanges, so we wanted to bridge that gap because there is a community here and elsewhere in Africa that wants to be part of the blockchain space.”
Creating digital solutions for the greater good of the country
The welfare of Zimbabwean society is largely driven by people who are finding initiatives that highlight what Zimbabwe has to offer. Melissa has always worked towards creating solutions that benefit the people of her country, a society that it is often sidelined by official policies.
“My main driver has always been to put Zimbabwe, and Africa in general, on the global market, to reach a global scale. So for instance, if someone is making a really nice handbag here, I’d like that person to be able to sell it anywhere. I recently visited Paris to attend a tech conference and realized that the African Queen dresses we make are sold here for about $20, whereas in Europe, they would sell for 100e. So there’s a lot of potential for financial gain there. The problem is, nobody knows about local designers from Zimbabwe, that’s why I think technology can bridge that gap.”
On empowering Africa
Throughout our conversation, it became clear to me that Melissa’s passion lies within the African continent. She fights to empower African communities to ensure that her birthland obtains a global presence.
“I don’t want Africa to be left behind. If I’m able to create solutions that can help both the African community and the international community to be on the same page, that’s what I focus on. So it’s all about empowering Africa, because sometimes countries elsewhere attempt to impose solutions based on their own standards, without realizing that society here is different, and those solutions will not work.
“I’m creating solutions by Africans, that will work for Africa.”