Zambian-born serial entrepreneur and Newtownabbey resident Chikumo Fiseko has just launched a marketing consultancy, and it all began with a batch of muffins she baked and sold at school
It started with a batch of muffins, created to pay for a teenage cinema trip, but serial entrepreneur Chikumo Fiseko has packed more into her 27 years than most people do in a lifetime.
She launched her first business at the age of 15, built a strong background in food development, has won multiple awards, been a brand ambassador for Henderson, tackled mental health and racial issues on her blog and has now launched a marketing consultancy.
The Zambian-born businesswoman’s dream was to travel the world with her west Belfast boyfriend Sean while running her businesses from her laptop, but the pandemic upended those plans, leaving Chikumo stuck at home in Newtownabbey while Sean works in Morocco.
When Covid arrived, she had just become a brand ambassador with Henderson, but she was furloughed and found herself stranded at home, unable to visit her parents and far from her boyfriend.
Chikumo admits she found herself struggling with mental health issues due to lockdown.
"My boyfriend was in university in Liverpool. I was living alone and I couldn’t go and see my mum and dad," she says.
"Looking at the same four walls every day is extremely hard. You can even see it through my blog entries — that exhaustion — not just because of work, but life in general, Black Lives Matter (BLM), the way women in business are treated differently and how black women in business are treated very differently."
But two things helped: her content creation and businesses.
"My businesses saved my life in lockdown," Chikumo says.
After years of delivering marketing for other companies, including B&M, Green Angel Skincare, The Body Shop and The Laser Clinic NI, she decided to launch her own marketing consultancy, CF Marketing Solutions, which she runs alongside her blog, baking business Mostly Muffins and new baking kit business Nyina. She also discovered TikTok, creating a treasure trove of videos about food and life.
Originally born in the town of Luanshya in Zambia, Chikumo was raised in Sheffield from the age of seven. While her mum and dad now live in Northern Ireland, her brother, aunties and cousins still live in England.
"Sheffield is one of those places that, until I moved to Northern Ireland, I had no idea how multicultural it was," she says.
"I love where I live here, but in Sheffield I loved the differences in cultures. You could learn so much from each other.
"You’d go into different areas and there were different restaurants. It was like you were travelling even though you were in the city centre.
"It’s like a massive family — you’re surrounded by people that very much want to help you.
"As I grew up, there was a running joke that I was the little man of the house. I did all the DIY stuff with my dad.
"At school, I enjoyed product design and was going toward engineering. I wanted to be a biomedical engineer."
Meanwhile, her baking business had taken off.
"When I was 15, I remember my mum teaching me how to make muffins," Chikumo says.
"I imagined it would go really wrong, but they tasted really nice and I took them to school for my friends to try. They loved them.
"I remember wanting to go to the cinema, but we were only allowed to do certain things, so I told my dad, ‘Mum says I can go to the cinema if you say it’s okay’. He said, ‘That’s okay, but you have to get the money off your mum’. I went to my mum and said, ‘Dad says it’s okay if you say it’s okay’. She said I could go as long as I raised my own money."
Faced with having to come up with a way to raise money for the cinema, Chikumo took her friends’ advice and baked up a batch of muffins to sell at school.
"They were all wrapped up in silver foil and it was like a secret club. It taught me that if you have your own money, you can make a lot of decisions yourself without going to other people," she says.
Chikumo started out with a vanilla muffin recipe written by her mum, baking between 30 and 60 muffins a week.
"I was always interested in how things are made. I realised that if you have a base recipe to work from, you can try new flavours and ideas. If they don’t work, you just go back to the base recipe," she says.
"I tried raspberry and white chocolate, lemon drizzle... you name it, I’ve probably tried it.
"I make almost carrot coffee cake. I like carrot cake, but I don’t like nuts and I’d never found a good version of coffee cake, so I combined the two. It’s one of the most popular flavours."
By the time Chikumo moved to sixth form college, she was up to 100 or 200 muffins a week, even supplying the college itself.
There was a slight hiccup in her education when she started falling ill and failed maths. It turned out that she had become anaemic as a result of being a sickle cell anaemia carrier.
"My mum has it and my brother has a blood type disorder related to it. We started to realise it affected our health in different ways. I was always slightly anaemic. Now I have to manage how many hours of sleep I need to function," Chikumo explains.
"When I worked nine to five, I used to feel tired all the time, but now that I work for myself, I have to be careful not to become anaemic or it knocks me out.
"If I don’t keep on top of it, it wipes me out altogether and I’ll be tired all the time. I’ll struggle to eat and struggle to sleep."
Chikumo studied business and enterprise management at Sheffield Hallam University. After winning a competition, she was asked by Emma from the Delicious Alchemy to help with making gluten-free treats. This moved into product development and pitching to supermarkets.
During this time, her dad was being treated for prostate cancer but went onto take a one-year contract in Northern Ireland with BOC.
"After that year, he loved it and decided he wasn’t coming back. I said to myself I would never forgive myself if anything happened and I hadn’t spent as much time as I could with him, so I came here to do a master’s degree," she says.
"I spent time with him, put my business to one side and did the exact same thing as him — after a year, I decided I wasn’t moving back and bought a house.
"I love it so much here. I’m 15 minutes from the town or sea. I love nature and I’ve always been really into food, so I focused more on the blog when I moved.
"I got to travel to so many places and visited so many independent restaurants. Every weekend there was something to do."
After her master’s degree at Queen’s, Chikumo worked in marketing for Metartec. She met Sean on Tinder just before moving to Northern Ireland. When he came to see her in Sheffield, it sealed their relationship.
He is currently living and working in Morocco, which means they haven’t been able to see each other in months.
Pre-pandemic, they had planned to go travelling. Chikumo had won funding that allowed her to team up with a chef at Belfast Met to come up with a series of baking mixes that could form the basis of a food business she could run from anywhere. She also won funding that allowed her to study at Loughry College and develop her idea.
"I wanted to be able to work from anywhere in the world while travelling, so when the opportunity came for Sean, it was exciting. We thought he could go to Morocco and see what it was like and I would be able to visit back and forth. He’s been there for six months and we haven’t seen each other," she says.
They did get to spend lots of time together after Sean finished his teaching qualification and before he went to Morocco.
"A lot of people expected that, not having seen each other 24/7, we would struggle, but we didn’t. I loved that time together because we got on so well," Chikumo explains.
"During lockdown, I started working on recipes and some desserts that I would be able to post... things like my cake in a jar and the baking mixes.
"It meant that people could buy the mix or buy the cake directly from me. If they lived around Belfast, I could deliver straight to their homes.
"I was baking, cooking and trying lots of different things every single day. It didn’t feel like I was working from home."
Since then, she has been her own marketing manager and has been running her own brands.
"It’s been great because not only can I manage my own time, but I can also choose the types of clients I work with. It means I can also get to be honest in my blog and write about what really matters to me," Chikumo says.
Some of her blog entries focus on the differences between African and western families — "Some of my friends don’t understand that you never say no to African parents" — or advice on relationships and mental health. She does explore some of her experiences as a black woman in the UK, including microaggressions from shop assistants who refuse to acknowledge her and people who make assumptions about her relationship with Sean.
But she feels the BLM protests have brought people’s attitudes to light — and that includes the positive ones.
"Since BLM, I’ve realised that a lot of the things I was seeing as normalised weren’t actually normalised," she says.
Chikumo’s friends joined her when she took part in the first BLM march in Northern Ireland after strictly quarantining beforehand and making sure to socially distance at the event.
"I get that there is a pandemic, but I am fighting for my life to be seen as a person. I felt that if I didn’t show up when I had the platform I have, it would make no sense not to be speaking out," she says.
"It was amazing to see the amount of people that came together to tackle injustice.
"When the marches were happening, it started a conversation. It felt like it was okay to be talking about some of the things that have happened. People were willing to hear about some of your experiences."
n To find out more about Chikumo’s businesses, visit www.chikumofiseko.com.