LeadHers: Life Lessons from African Women
Foreword by Nunu Ntshingila
Elizabeth Akua Ohene
8 – 11
12 – 15
16 – 19
20 – 23
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim
24 – 27
Dr Judy Dlamini
28 – 31
Hawa Sally Samai
32 – 35
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu
36 – 39
40 – 43
44 – 47
Vanessa Hau Mdee
48 – 51
52 – 55
Saran Kaba Jones
56 – 59
60 – 63
64 – 67
68 – 71
Noëlla Coursaris Musunka
72 – 75
Samantha ‘MisRed’ Musa
76 – 79
Regional Director, Facebook Africa
Journalist and Politician
Lawyer and Human Rights Activist
Athlete and Educator
Entrepreneur and CEO
Entrepreneur, Author and Philanthropist
Founder, CEO and Campaigner
Founder and CEO
Entrepreneur, Investor and Educator
Founder and CEO
Former TV Personality, Musician and Podcaster
Lawyer, Entrepreneur and CEO
Founder and CEO
Showrunner and Screenwriter
Journalist and News Anchor
Entrepreneur and CEO
Model and Philanthropist
TV and Radio Personality, Social Influencer and Philanthropist
Doctor and Entrepreneur 1
FOREWORD I’ve always been passionate about the role of women in society - we see so many examples around us of strong, formidable women leaders, changemakers and innovators, whether in the home or workplace. Having grown up with strong role models, like my grandmother who owned a small business in Soweto, South Africa and my mother a fashion store, I take continuous inspiration and pride in the women around us who are pioneering change in their communities. This International Women’s Month, it seems only apt to release ‘LeadHers: Life Lessons from African Women’. #ChooseToChallenge, this year’s theme, coincides with an exciting period in Africa’s development narrative, with our women, now more than ever before, playing a leading role in shaping the future of this promising continent. Cultural and socio-economic biases and challenges that have for centuries held women back, are gradually being eroded, leading to improved gender-equality - however, we know there is still much to do to ensure full gender parity. In line with this theme, Facebook is proud to celebrate a group of exceptional African women who in their own right are trail-blazers, shining a light that is motivating and inspiring people - whether young, or old. I’m personally excited and encouraged about their individual stories, the challenges they’ve endured, the sacrifices, the moments of triumph and how they’ve been able to turn all these into important life lessons to help inspire others to tread an easier path in their own pursuits. To these women, and all other women who are doing the same, we salute you! ‘LeadHers: Life Lessons from African Women’, follows on from the successful 2020 launch in South Africa of ‘Inspiring #Changemakers: Lessons from Life and Business’. This book features 19 women from diverse backgrounds and countries, providing snippets of their life stories and how they’ve continually pushed the boundaries to succeed, no matter their life circumstances. Providing practical advice and tips for women and future leaders everywhere, these women are making their voices heard, and helping to drive change - whether in politics, music, fashion, business, retail, technology or the NGO sector. All the women featured live by a certain code, and within these stories you’ll find women who are defining their personal mantra, which governs their everyday decisions. The underlying message in all these beautiful stories is that we are all products of community and to community we owe a debt - we all have a role to play in creating a better society, one that is equal for all. Lastly, I want to thank those behind the scenes who have helped to bring this beautifully illustrated book to life, as well as the incredibly talented African women artists from across the continent - Massira Keita from Côte d’Ivoire, Lulu Kitololo from Kenya, Karabo Poppy from South Africa, and Awele Emili from Nigeria. Nunu Ntshingila Regional Director, Facebook Africa 3
Journalist and Politician
Elizabeth Akua Ohene GHANA
Lesson: “Know your value and be true to yourself.” When Elizabeth Akua Ohene became a journalist in 1967, there were no other female reporters at her paper. After twelve years as a reporter, she was appointed as editor, becoming the first woman to edit a major national daily newspaper in Africa. When she became critical of Jerry Rawlings’ then-government, she was forced to take her eight-year-old son and flee the country. She lived in exile for 19 years, working as a reporter for the BBC in the UK, including being part of the award-winning BBC Focus on Africa team. She later returned to Ghana in 2000 where she campaigned for John Kufuor as President. When he was elected the following year, Elizabeth joined the new administration as Minister of State in the Ministry of Education, Science and Sports.
My maternal grandmother, whom I was sent to live with from the age of five to nine, was an early powerful female role model for me. She was widowed before the age of 40 and had been left with six children to bring up but refused to remarry as was the custom. She had a fearsome reputation in her small village in Ghana, and therefore nobody was allowed to mess with me. Looking back, I think she taught me the importance of knowing what you want out of life and making sure you don’t get pushed into things. My own parents were both teachers, so questioning everything was part of my upbringing. I always knew I’d do something with words when I grew up and I wrote for the school magazine, but wasn’t so sure that I had my sights set on being a journalist. When I finished university in 1967 someone told me the Daily Graphic, our national newspaper, was recruiting. I applied, did an interview and was successful. The first thing that hit me was a cloud of smoke when I walked into the office, because everyone smoked. The atmosphere there was extremely male. The only women there were the two typists – journalists handwrote their articles and then handed them to be typed up – there was a woman also in the library. As I was led around the office by the editor, I was told that there had been “girls like you here before and they don’t last long”. I then had a horrendous experience with the features editor, who when I said hello and held out my hand, grabbed my wrist and said deliberately crude, sexually suggestive things to me. I remember the tears springing to my eyes, but I suddenly thought, “I am not going to let you see me cry over this.” I looked him 6
straight in the eye and said, “Are you quite finished?”.
It didn’t take long until they realised that my copy was good and that I got the story: I let my work speak for itself. I think that is the best way to help with confidence. It was a very tumultuous period in Ghana in 1979; there had been a military uprising and people were being publicly executed. I wrote an article saying the killings should stop; people said it was brave, but I just knew I had to write it. Because it was a state-owned newspaper, every time there was a change in government, a new editor was appointed. The military government selected me to be editor. I was 34 and the first woman to hold that role; I accepted on the condition that the incoming constitutionally elected government would stick to the new procedures being proposed around stateowned media. Two years later we had another coup. I was extremely angry; I didn’t particularly support the government at the time, but my view was that they had been elected and the people should remove them at the next election, rather than being forced out by the military. I wrote this, and as I was going home from work one day, I heard on my car radio that I should report to military barracks. I decided not
to do that, but to leave the country with my eight-year-old son. I thought we would be gone for six months; we spent 19 years in exile in London. I started working as a journalist for the BBC, then in 2000, I took a six-month sabbatical from my job to come back to Ghana to campaign for John Kufuor in the Presidential elections. When he won, he offered me a position in his government, so I called the BBC and quit. I loved my
job, but I needed to go home. It wasn’t a huge shift to get into politics: when you’re a journalist you’re already involved in politics. I had been hugely angry about having to flee my country and live in exile: the thought that anyone should have to leave their home just because they don’t agree with the government was disgusting to me. I got into politics because I wanted to make sure that never happened to anyone else in my country.
Early bird or night owl? A bit of both: I can be wide awake at 5am and ready to work. But also, if I have a piece of work to do, I’d rather stay up until it is done, even if that means going to bed at 3am. Favourite Ghanaian dish? Groundnut soup, which is a soup made from peanut butter. It’s delicious. Favourite city in the world? Cape Town for its dramatic backdrop. How do you relax? Do I relax? I’m very much involved in my family life now and it’s non-stop. Book you’re currently reading? I’m re-reading an old book, Personal History by Katharine Graham who was the publisher of The Washington Post. Best piece of advice Pick your fights; sometimes I try to take on too many at once.
Lawyer and Human Rights Activist
Alice Nkom CAMEROON
Lesson: “When you commit yourself to a cause, you must be prepared to go all the way.” Aged 24, Alice became the first female lawyer called to the bar in Cameroon. In the early 2000s, she turned her attention to representing LGBT+ people who faced imprisonment and began taking on major cases in the country to challenge anti-gay laws. In 2003 she founded the Association for the Defense of Homosexuality, the first organisation in the country for the protection of the LGBT+ community. Her most notorious case was in 2005 when she defended a group of men who were arrested, then imprisoned, after a raid at a gay bar in Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon. The following year, the UN criticised Cameroon for arresting the men and labelled the country’s antisexuality offenses as a violation of the International Human Rights Laws. Despite death threats and the risk of arrest, Alice has kept fighting for the cause and has been recognised internationally, including with the Central Africa Shield Award 2015 and a Human Rights award by Amnesty International.
There is a saying, “he who chooses to walk in the rain is not afraid of getting wet”, and the lesson it teaches is that when you commit yourself to a noble cause, you must accept to pay the price and give yourself the means to go all the way. It’s something I passionately believe in and live by. I have received death threats for the work that I do – but I believe in the cause and I am absolutely devoted to it. This spirit was instilled in me from a young age. I grew up in a household of eleven children in Nkongmondo, a district of Douala, and we were fiercely competitive with each other. My mother had never been to school, but she wanted us to do well. Our parents encouraged a cult of excellence and we loved competing. At the time, under the presidency of the late Amadou Ahidjo, the best students in the country received awards for being the best at certain things and my brothers and sisters and I were obsessed with winning these trophies – our parents were very proud to have so many children 10
taking home these awards. That early experience gave me an appreciation for aiming for excellence in whatever I do. The late President Ahidjo also fostered a sense of pride in Cameroon and did everything he could to associate our country with excellence. I went off to study law in Toulouse, France, and after I graduated, I came back to Cameroon and applied to a local university because I also wanted to have a Diploma from my own country. I picked law on my husband’s advice, he was a pharmacist and told me that with my loquacity and power of persuasion, I would make an amazing lawyer. I started my career in 1968. I was barely twenty years old when I knocked at the door of the largest law firm in Cameroon to try to get an internship that would allow me to validate my law degree. But I was refused; they told me I was too young. The irony is that a few decades later, I bought this firm. I wasn’t deterred. I chose a career in criminal law because to me, it felt like hand-to-hand combat; it is a battle. What I love about law is how connected it is to humanity and the difference you can make to someone who is denied the rule of law. I have literally saved lives. When I plead for a person who would have likely received the death penalty, then they are acquitted, that feeling is priceless. Plus, there is an important aspect of helping to advance other women in society. By literally going to court and arguing cases, I prove that a woman can command respect. More than twenty years ago a friend from abroad came to visit me in Cameroon with another friend. I could tell that they were
more than friends – they were partners and I had to alert them of the risks they were incurring under the Cameroonian law: they could be sent to prison for having a same sex relationship. When they left the room, I could read the fear and anxiety on their faces. That’s when I told myself that I had to do something. So in 2003 I created the Association
for the Defense of Homosexuality and started to defend people who were facing brutality and injustice. I was persecuted, I received death threats and sometimes I could only go to court surrounded by bodyguards, such was the threat to my life. But I never gave up and I will never do.
Which three guests would you invite to your dream dinner party? Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama and the late President of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo. What’s your hidden talent? I used to act in plays when I was in high school. What would you do if you were President for a day? I would put culture in the spotlight, because culture keeps people together and alive. My mantra? Love is my mantra. I like the idea that love is limitless. What did you want to be when you were little? A teacher. Transmitting knowledge and educating has always fascinated me. That’s what I do today, passing on values to the younger generation.
Athlete and Educator
Tecla Chemabwai KENYA
Lesson: “There is nothing in this world that a woman is not able to do.” When she competed, aged 13, in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, Tecla Chemabwai was the first Kenyan woman to represent her country in the Olympics and the youngest member of the team. She went on to compete in the 1972 Olympics held in Munich, as well as representing her country and winning medals at the Commonwealth Games and the All-Africa Games. She later trained female athletes, including Tegla Loroupe, who among other records, became the first African woman to win the New York City Marathon.
I grew up in Uasin Gishu County in the Rift Valley, which is where 90% of Kenyan athletes come from. I came from a very poor family, but I clearly had a talent in sport that was evident from a young age. I loved lots of different sports, from soccer to volleyball, but running was my real passion. Unfortunately, we did not have sportswear, like special running shoes or even sports tracks – I ran barefooted. I didn’t even know there was such a thing called spikes, but at the time, that didn’t bother me. I was only 13 when I was selected to represent my country at the 1968 Olympics; I was so tiny! In fact, at the time you had to be 18 to get a passport, so they put my age as 18! It was all very overwhelming. I’d never been on a plane before, I’d never seen a white person, I’d never even held a spoon before - we didn’t use them at home. But here I was, about to meet the President, a man I’d only seen on television. When we walked out into the stadium, our flag was raised, and our national anthem played; it made me feel so proud. I ran in the first heat and progressed to the second round. I was so proud to be the first Kenyan woman to do that. Being at an international event opened my eyes in lots of ways, but mainly to the joy of meeting other competitors. Sport is a way to meet new people and form friendships; we were all very intrigued about where the other had come from and what our home countries and cultures were like. It was an amazing adventure for me to be so far from home, in a situation and country I could not have dreamed of. In 1973, I represented my country again at the African Games, where I won a gold medal. Then the following year I was in 14
New Zealand for the Commonwealth Games when I met a very special lady who offered me a scholarship to study in America and receive proper athletics training. It was a life-changing offer and made me into a much-improved athlete. In those days, there wasn’t any mental preparation or counselling. That has all changed greatly now; when I’ve coached female athletes, I know how to help them mentally as well as with their physical training. The other thing that is slowly changing now is the prize money; in my day men would get bigger prizes than women. That is still going on in all areas of sport, but it is being talked about more now and slowly changing. After my education I came back home, where I had to utilise what I had learnt outside of Kenya. I won a silver medal in the 1978 Commonwealth Games and in 1986, married my husband, Julius Sang, who was also a Kenyan runner. I was lucky to marry someone who knew how much running meant to me, and we had children later than I might otherwise have had. In the end we had five children. He passed away 15 years ago, and I was left as a single mother. But I’m very proud to say that I was able to raise my children on my own and send them all to university.
I truly believe that education is vital to a woman’s success and progression, and I advise anyone to prioritise that.
That belief and passion about education has led me to set up a local primary school to help the children in my area. It has been a struggle trying to get funding for everything from the teachers’ salaries to the children’s books, meals and uniforms. But I’m really proud because we’ve been able to help about 900 children who otherwise wouldn’t get an education.
Athletics changed my life; it took me places and enabled me to make my country proud of me. Along with my own success, I’m really proud of the generation of women athletes who have come behind me. I know that I paved the way for them and that I am a role model.
Early bird or night owl I have a strict daily routine: I am in bed by 9pm so that I can get up by 5am and do my morning run. Favourite local saying? “A monkey cannot forget to jump from tree to tree.” Even though I’m in my sixties, I’ve not forgotten my morning run. Favourite local dish Ugali, which is cornmeal. Hero? My late brother, who passed away in 2020.
Entrepreneur and CEO
Baratang Miya SOUTH AFRICA
Lesson: “Just do it, even if it scares you.” Having grown up without ever using a computer at school and seeing the gender divide in the tech community in Africa, Baratang Miya realised there was a strong need to teach girls about IT (Information Technology). In 2003 she founded Girlhype, with the aim of empowering women and girls from underserved communities by helping them create bespoke tech products for their communities and enabling them to have careers in the industry. The initiative has now taught more than 500,000 girls directly and reached even more via spin-off tech clubs such as the Mozilla Clubs for Women and Girls and a partnership with the United Nations. Meanwhile Baratang has won multiple awards and international recognition for her work, including being named in the “50 People Who Made the Internet a Better Place” 2016 award by Mozilla, whilst receiving a TechWomen award by the U.S. Department of State that saw her spend six weeks in Silicon Valley.
There have been lots of times in my life when I’ve been afraid of doing something. It could be little things like speaking up in a meeting and suggesting an idea, or starting a new business project. But what I’ve learnt over the years is that the things that I’ve been most afraid of doing, are the things in the end that I’ve been most proud of. I still feel that fear now, but I’ve become better at silencing that voice that tells me I can’t do it, or that now is not the right time, or that there’s someone who is better qualified than me. I’ve realised that you’ve got to just do it. I was very young when I first realised this. When I was six, my grandmother decided not to register me to start school. But when all the other kids my age went to school that first term, I wondered why everyone was going except for me - I think I internalised it as a failure. One morning, I woke up early and got dressed and followed my older brother to school. The Principal asked me why I was there, and I told her that I was old enough, that I could read and write and do my numbers. She was obviously impressed: she told my brother to bring me back the next day.
It was my first memory of standing up for something I wanted. My school was an “underserved” school in Jouberton, in the North West Province in South Africa. As is common in many schools in poorer communities, we didn’t have a computer. So, by the time I went to University of Cape Town, I had a lot to learn and catch up on, basic things like 18
learning how to use Word and Excel. I knew these things were essential not only to my studies but to my career, and I was (and still am) very eager to learn anything new. The first time I saw code on a computer screen was the most spectacular and beautiful thing I’d ever seen. When I went to university, I needed to earn money for my studies: I had two children to support. I would do anything from handing out flyers at traffic lights to research projects. One day I saw an advert for a project that offered to pay 30 Rand an hour to play video games. I brought my threeyear-old son and I saw that as he played the games, sections of code appeared on the researchers’ screens and they were able to change an algorithm and that then affected the game. I didn’t know at the time what code was exactly, but I’ve always been fascinated by how things worked – if you gave me a doll as a child, I wouldn’t just play with it, I would take its legs off to find out what made it move. That first memory of seeing code in action never left me – I wanted to find out how it worked. However, I also saw that the people in the tech departments were mostly white and male, I wanted to change that, too. By the time I left university, I’d taken so many extra courses outside of my main degree that I was very good at using computers. I thought, “If that had been taught at my school, I would have had a better start.” So, in 2003 I started teaching schoolgirls how to use PowerPoint, Word and Excel. Everyday I would go to a little internet shop to print off my leaflets and course material, one day the guy running the shop said, “why don’t you build a website, then you wouldn’t have to do this?” I didn’t know how, so he offered
to show me a basic version in his lunch break. It was totally fascinating, and the feeling I got when I pressed ‘publish’ was amazing. I truly felt the magic of technology and I realised that this was what I needed to teach the girls. That was how Girlhype started and I was really excited about the idea. I remember my friend coming to my house and seeing me working from the living room floor. She told me that I needed to get better connected and suggested I join the Cape Chamber of Commerce, which has been instrumental in winning important tenders. Another friend helped me network. I’m naturally an introverted person, but she would literally take me
by the hand at networking events and say, “This is Baratang, she does amazing things teaching girls to code”. From there, other people started recommending me to businesses and organisations, I saw first-hand how networking really is everything. Through this I secured a really big contract; I said yes, then realised that I didn’t really know how to do it technically. My husband spoke to people in his company’s IT department and every week they came to my house and taught me what I needed to know. The project was a huge success and led on to more work. It was one of the many times I’ve benefited from saying yes, and just doing it, even when I’ve had doubts.
What do you think makes a good leader? A willingness to learn and the ability to listen and be compassionate. Braai or fine dining? Braai. What’s your hidden talent? I’m a creative person – I’ve been both a professional ballroom and Latin dancer as well as a professional cake decorator. Night in or night out? Night out. Favourite South African destination? Either Cape Town or Tsitsikamma.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim CHAD
Lesson: “You have to bring different parties together to create solutions.” For the last 20 years, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim has dedicated her life to involving indigenous people and their knowledge and traditions in the global discussion around climate change. Through work with her Chadbased non-profit Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT) she has developed projects that demonstrate the value of indigenous traditional knowledge, particularly focusing on women and girls, as a solution for climate adaptation and mitigation. Hindou has won numerous awards and recognitions for her work, including the Pritzker Prize for Emerging Environmental Engineering, being named an advocate for the sustainable development goals of the United Nations and being listed by Time Magazine as one of 15 women championing action on climate change. Her 2019 TED talk has had more than 1.1m views.
When you are approaching a problem, it’s very important to get people with diverse knowledge to work together, because each of us brings his or her own area of expertise.
Diversity of thought makes for a richer experience and ultimately that will serve us better. My experience of this is through getting very different parties to talk to each other about climate change. My community, the Mbororo people, are a nomadic society who for centuries have herded cattle to fresh grazing ground in the Sahel region every year following the rhythm of the seasons. But now, thanks to climate change, our way of life is being threatened by the intense droughts, heatwaves, and sudden floods. We are the least responsible for causing climate change, and yet we are being hit hard. But we don’t want to be seen as just victims – we have solutions that have been passed down through generations that the scientific community can learn from, just as we can learn from them. The scientists studying climate change might have PhDs, but in a way, so do indigenous people too. While the scientists study the world from air-conditioned offices, we study it from the ground, looking at the insects, observing the clouds, trees and animals: nature is our classroom. I grew up with mothers and 22
grandmothers who could do amazing things. By reading the clouds, listening to the wind and watching the insects, they could tell you that in several hours it’s going to rain or predict the arrival of the dry season by observing the birds. To the people in my community I said, “You have important knowledge, but wouldn’t it be useful to have additional information about the dry seasons and when the rains are forecast to come?” They said “Yes, but how can we access it? We don’t have televisions or radios and even if we did, we don’t speak French or Arabic that the information is broadcast in.” So how you bring together parties who are so vastly different is the challenge. You can’t just tell them that they must work together, you have to find other solutions. In my culture we have a phrase, “Eyes by eyes can build more confidence than any other talk”; it means that you need to meet face-to-face with people to develop a relationship. I invited members of the scientific community to meet the indigenous people and learn from each other. It wasn’t like organising a workshop and having an agenda; it was an invitation to stay, make friends, talk, laugh, drink milk, enjoy the weather and build relationships. On the first day, the scientists saw the community start packing up. They asked if they were moving on already, but they said, “No, the rain is coming, and we need to pack up our things.” The scientists looked up at the skies and didn’t see any clouds. Two hours later, rain suddenly came, and the scientists ran around trying to protect their bags and equipment. It made the community laugh to see these
well-dressed people from the city running around in a panic in the rain. It was a real ice breaker. It was the start of discussions which led onto projects that we have developed, supported by experts from around the world, where traditional knowledge and science complement each other. I’m also passionate about bringing women’s voices into the conversation because for me, women’s rights and protecting the environment are linked. In our community, we depend on the rain to live; without it the men have to leave and find other work and the women are left
to do everything. It can be hard growing up as a girl in a traditional culture, or getting your voice heard as a woman. Everything should be equal, but it isn’t and that can be very tiring to always fight. I wanted to show other women, by involving them in my work, that there isn’t anything a woman can’t do. I see that in action in my community – the women there are amazing. Nothing is impossible. We have to commit to what we’re doing, share our experiences, inspire others and give hope. If we do this, I think we will all make the world a better place.
Who are your heroes? The women in my community because they can build solutions out of nothing. It’s the women who are the ones making sure that the children eat and are safe, who take care of the land, who know where to get water and food. They laugh even though they are so tired – then they make things happen. Favourite saying? “When a grandfather or grandmother passes away, a whole library disappears.” Favourite food? I love my community food; we eat a lot of cattle products like milk and butter. I can eat anywhere and be reminded of home. What makes you laugh? When you see the children in my community who are playing with just what nature gave them; they don’t have expensive toys, and they don’t need them. What’s your favourite childhood memory? I remember being about seven years old and staying with my grandma. It was market day, and we woke up at 4am, had a meal and, along with my cousins, I walked 10km to the market with the milk to sell in a vessel on my head. We sold the milk, bought some things we needed and walked home, we made a stop in the forest to cut fruit to take home. I was so proud handing over that money to my grandma. 23
Entrepreneur, Author and Philanthropist
Dr Judy Dlamini SOUTH AFRICA
Lesson: “Get out of your comfort zone, learn new things – and never give up.” After working as a medical doctor, Dr Judy Dlamini retrained and switched career paths into the business world, completing an MBA as well as obtaining a Doctorate in Business Leadership from UNISA in 2014 and a Stanford Innovation & Entrepreneurship Certificate in 2018. Now, Judy is one of South Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs, as well as a philanthropist; her family public benefit organisation, Mkhiwa Trust, has a focus on rural development and education. In 2018 she was appointed the first female Chancellor for Wits University and has recently started a fund to develop a pipeline of female academic leaders. Amongst several awards, she has been the recipient of the African Economy Builder Lifetime Achiever Award as well as the AWCA 2018 Woman of Substance.
I grew up in Westville near Durban and my parents were an incredible driving force in helping me become the person I am today. My mother was a primary school teacher who also ran free night schools for domestic workers to help empower them, and my father was an entrepreneur at a time when apartheid had erased that spirit in so many African people.
For example, I didn’t ever have aspirations to be a writer, but my first book came about as a result of the women I spoke to for my doctoral thesis, which looked at how race, gender and social class each played their parts in their career progression. I wanted to share the wisdom of these successful women, and so I wrote the book.
All my life I wanted to break the stereotype about people who look like me – just like they did. I had dreamt of being a doctor since I was four years old. In high school I was considered to be one of the bright students and I earned a place at medical school. So, imagine my disappointment when I failed for the first time at med school! I had to come to terms with failure and I had to prove to myself that I was up to the challenge and keep going. But it was an important lesson, that when you fail, you just have to lick your wounds, give yourself a pep talk, rise up and try again. It builds resilience.
I believe that gender inequality is perpetuated deliberately in order to maintain the false stereotype that there is a superior gender. I see it as one of my purposes to deliberately and consistently debunk this myth or stereotype through the empowerment of women wherever I can. It’s essential to the future. How can we marginalize more than half of society and hope to thrive?
I did of course make it through med school and became a doctor, which I loved. But there came a point when it stopped stimulating me. I could have carried on in an unfulfilling job, but I didn’t. I looked for something that would excite me, and I realised that would be a career in business, which meant I had to study further. Switching careers was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Studying is easy for me, but changing careers is something else. Getting people to see you as anything else but a medical doctor, was hard! I’ve learnt a lot from trying new things, meeting new people and furthering my studies. I’ve found that if you keep following your passion, it helps you to find your life’s purpose and growth. 26
Wherever I go, I look for underdogs and I strive to bring the best out of them. I’ve done this in different ways through my career. For example, when I started one of my companies, I only employed women, I wanted to show that we can do anything. In our family trust, we ensure that women receive a good representation of our scholarships. Then at Sifiso Publishers, a company my husband and I started, I sponsored a book on femicide, which was a true account of a family losing two daughters at the hands of their husbands. The aim is that through raising awareness and empowering those whose stories we tell, femicide and gender-based violence will be eradicated.
Lots of young women feel a lack of confidence which is something I relate to. To combat that, I prepare everything, I do more than your average person. I then go on to coach myself when my
fake confidence disappears; I remind myself that I am up to the task, I remind myself that if I fail, that won’t define me. It’s really important to be your own best cheerleader. Above all, I never give up.
Three dream dinner party guests? My late paternal grandmother, whom I never met but am named after, my late dad and my late son: the two never met each other and yet they were quite similar. Favourite uniquely South African dish? iDombolo, umleqo, tripe. Is networking important to career success? Yes, networks are about relationships and people need people to succeed. What is your home language? Zulu, but I can also speak Xhosa. What would you love to still do? I would like to produce and direct a movie. I love storytelling. What’s the one thing you wish you had more time for? My beautiful grandkids.
Founder, CEO and Campaigner
Hawa Sally Samai SIERRA LEONE
Lesson: “If you can identify a need, then you will guarantee demand.” Hawa Sally Samai is the founder and CEO of Advocacy Movement Network (AMNet), an NGO in Sierra Leone that promotes children’s and women’s rights. The network focuses on Human Rights and Peace Building which includes banning child female genital mutilation (FGM), which Hawa herself was subjected to when she was 15 years old. Thanks to her leadership and campaign work, AMNet has achieved success on a wide range of projects affecting women and children, including funding education for street children, supporting their parents with entrepreneurial projects, and securing community support to end the practice of Child FGM. Hawa is also an international elections observer for the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). She was the only female on the ECOWAS elections’ fact-finding team in The Gambia. Hawa has been recognised with several awards, including the 50 Most Influential Sierra Leonean Women 2019.
I was working in my office where I worked as a Marketing Manager, looking out onto the street outside. I used to see lots of street kids selling things, some as young as five. I would call them in and ask them why they were out selling and not in school. They said it was an income their family relied on. I started having meetings with their parents, offering to pay school fees for the children to keep them off the streets, where they had no protection. I also started helping the parents with basic business plans for start-up ideas to help replace those wages with a sustainable income. I had more than 100 kids that I was paying school fees for - almost all my salary went on these kids! That was how I started my philanthropy, but I couldn’t help all the children in Sierra Leone like this. It felt like even though the fighting had stopped, we were still living with the effects of war. I started a street kid fundraising campaign to help more children whilst simultaneously helping their parents become entrepreneurs. A few months ago, a smart young woman who worked for a charity came up to me and said, “do you remember me?” She had been one of the beneficiaries of the programme and said it had changed her life. Very often, the needs of people on the ground are overlooked, whether that’s in activism or business. My first degree was in Business Studies and we were taught that once you identify a need, there will always be demand. That often gets forgotten, but I’ve found that identifying a need has become my driving force. I went on to study Development Studies with a focus on human rights to develop myself. It meant that I could contribute in a more systemic, organised manner that could effect real change. I learnt 30
how to work with different government bodies and international organisations researching what was happening in terms of legislation around children’s and women’s rights and protections. I found there were very few rights or protections for children or women. I set up the organisation Advocacy Movement Network (AMNet) to work on what I saw as the primary need in my country – women’s and children’s rights. One of our biggest campaigns is around child Female Genital Mutilation. When we started, about 98% of women and girls in our country had gone through the initiation, including me when I was 15. It’s so deeply ingrained in our country. I am not the first person to try to tackle it, but I asked why the others, including organisations like the UN, had failed to make a difference. It was because they targeted the actual people who did the cutting, but that failed to get to the root of the problem. Instead, we started talking to the chiefs and the districts directly. We still don’t have any legislation on this – although we’re working on that – but we have signed agreements with up to eleven districts to ban the practice on children. The rate is now at about 76%, which is still too high, but it’s progress.
It’s really important not to make enemies with those who disagree with you. I had a scary moment when I went on national radio to talk about my experience of FGM. There is a belief that if you talk about what happened to you, your
stomach will swell up and you will die; it’s a way of silencing the victims. I wanted to prove that this was nonsense. After the interview was broadcast, I received death threats – people were out looking for me. But in the end, I managed to win some of those hardliners around. We’ve become allies.
be even more successful in the long run. For example, the government is proud of the progress we have made on our campaign on banning Child FGM and are now willing to take the next step. I don’t care who gets the credit, as long as we win the battle of protecting more women and children.
Part of the key to success is sharing that success. You can’t let it eat you up; if you allow others to take credit too, then you’ll
Who do you consider a hero? Hillary Clinton and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, two strong women who went through so much themselves, as well as achieving so much. Guilty pleasure? Overdoing work and neglecting my family. Introvert or Extrovert? I’m in between – I switch. Who would play you in the film of your life? Tyler Perry. Favourite local dish? Okra soup.
Founder and CEO
Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu ETHIOPIA
Lesson: “Create opportunities not only for yourself but also your community.” Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu is a serial entrepreneur, founding brands which all celebrate her Ethiopian heritage, produce and artisans. Her companies include soleRebels, an innovative footwear and apparel company that makes products from recycled tyres, inner tubes and organic cottons. Garden of Coffee, the finest hand-roasted coffees in personal batches at their origin, and a snack company Tefftastic, created from Ethiopiangrown teff, all of which have created jobs in her local community. Bethlehem was chosen by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader and has been included on the Forbes “100 Most Powerful” as a woman to watch.
I was born and raised in the Zenebework suburb of the capital Addis Ababa. My mom was a cook and my dad an electrician and they taught me the value of respect for one’s family and larger community. In Ethiopia the idea of community is still very strong. We are brought up with the idea that you are responsible for more than yourself and your own gains – you have to look out for the welfare of others around you. If you translate this into the business realm, it means creating a strong communitycentric business that looks at the total welfare created from that business, such as local employment, and not simply the bottom line. While I was in college, I worked with various companies in the leather and apparel sector in a variety of capacities, including marketing and sales, design, and production. After a while I had a strong desire to focus my business skills in my local community, which is one of the most impoverished areas in Addis. I knew that there were so many talented people there who could do great things if only given a chance. But, owing to extreme poverty, stigma, marginalisation and a whole load of other factors, many of them could not even get simple jobs. This was deeply upsetting for me — they were my neighbours, my family members; I knew they deserved more. I also saw the devastating effect that charity aid had on the wider community, in terms of making people in the community complacent and dependent. So I knew that anything that I did for the community had to be truly business-oriented. I wanted to give my community the pride that comes with financing ourselves and not waiting for handouts. I kept hearing over and over the phrase ‘poverty alleviation’. 34
However, as I started working to support myself and my brothers, it became clear to me that poverty alleviation is a myth. Instead, I thought prosperity creation is the answer.
I wanted to build a successful African and specifically Ethiopian company and show that it is possible to be globally successful; to show that it is possible to deploy local resources while creating a market leading global brand, and to do it all from scratch. Which is exactly what we have done. When I founded soleRebels, there wasn’t a light bulb moment in the classic sense; it was more like an evolution. I saw the traditional Ethiopian shoe called a seleate or barabasso, made from old tyres, every day; they have been widely worn here for years and are wonderful examples of the recycling ethos that we have in our country. That tradition is at the heart of our brand. I also wanted to share Ethiopian cultures and crafts with the world. I love the fact that Ethiopia is so rich in so many heritages that are living and breathing wells of inspiration, resources and talent that we can see, feel and touch every day – that is very unique and special. I grew up watching members of my family spin cotton with an inzert – the traditional wooden hand drop spindle used here for
centuries to spin cotton. The shemmanies (weavers) - handloom the threads that we hand spun into magical gorgeous fabrics to make netalla and gabbis traditional scarves, shawls and blankets on their simple wooden looms. I knew and respected the artisans and craftsmanship that they produced. We use both of these techniques in soleRebels; it was important to find an exciting way to keep these cultures vibrant and fully relevant. Similarly, the Garden of Coffee began in my mom’s house a few years back when we were sitting enjoying a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony. Sipping our coffee, with the aroma all around us, we wondered how we could share this ceremony and these amazing Ethiopian
beans and growers with the world. We decided to offer personalised roasting for every order of artisan-picked beans, which we would then package and ship anywhere in the world. Lots of business leaders talk about the importance of failure. I didn’t have that luxury. I was born and raised in the community where I founded and run my businesses. I had to make these companies work not just for myself, but for all those who came to depend on it for their livelihoods. That sense of community behind my business, both supporting them with employment and representing them to the world, is what drives me every single day.
Favourite Ethiopian dish? Mitmitta Tefftastic puffs. Introvert or Extrovert? Both.
Describe yourself in two words? Extraordinarily Ethiopian. Favourite African city? Addis, of course! Dream dinner party guests? Elon Musk, Chamath Palihapitiya, Roz Brewer, Malcolm Gladwell, Kanye West, Tiffany Haddish. Favourite musicians? Teddy Afro and Aster Aweke.
Entrepreneur, Investor and Educator
Lelemba Phiri ZAMBIA
Lesson: “You are not your role or title – evolution is the key to thriving.” After completing her Chartered Accounting studies in Zambia, Lelemba Phiri studied for a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Accounting from Oxford Brookes University in the UK. After a decade working as an accountant in Zambia and South Africa, she led a financial startup scaling it across several African markets, before starting her own investment company Africa Trust Group (ATG) - focusing on the growth and development of women leaders and entrepreneurs across the continent. In 2019 ATG launched a R100 million ($5.7 million) venture capital fund to invest into women-owned or female-led businesses, with the eleven successful businesses coming from countries including Zambia, Swaziland, South Africa and Angola. Alongside this, Lelemba also ran women’s financial literacy workshops and wrote a successful e-book. Among her many awards, she has been recognised as the Most Influential Global Marketer by World Marketing Congress and Africa’s Most Influential Woman in Business and Government by CEO Magazine.
As women, there are so many boxes that society places us into, and some that we play into ourselves that can limit our lives. Things like thinking, “I’m a mother so I can’t have a career”, silly ones like “I’m an accountant, so I can only wear dark suits”, or things like “there’s a big problem in the operations department, but it’s not in my job description, so I won’t suggest a change that I can see would help.” If you allow yourself to fall prey to those labels it can be suffocating, and you won’t grow. My career has been shaped by evolution and it’s at the core of what I do. I’ve worked in so many roles and so many types of organisations and each time I’ve moved onto a bigger role. I’ve made some risky moves a few times, and each time got better and more comfortable with that risk. I qualified as a chartered accountant at the age of 23, which I was extremely proud of, and secured a good job working in the revenue services in Zambia. But at some point my husband and I decided, with our two sons, to move to Cape Town. I left my job without securing another one, and ended up working for a large oil company, which was a great opportunity and helped me evolve again. Then, after ten years of being an accountant, I suddenly realised that I hated it. The work was very cyclical, I didn’t get to interact with people; I would just sit behind a desk number crunching. I was listening to a talk about “burnout” and realised that I had three of the four symptoms. I told my husband that I thought I was on the cusp of burnout and that I needed to quit my job. I’m a planner, so I said I thought I needed six months; he said, “what if you don’t have six months? You have to take care of your health.” So I quit. 38
It was hard – I spent two weeks in bed with wine and crisps, crying. I had an identity crisis because being an accountant had given me opportunities and had taken me places. I felt really lost. But gradually I realised that my value was in who I am and not in my label, or title. Again, I took a risk, and from working in a big corporate company with a guaranteed wage, I joined a small startup, which grew from one to five countries. By the time I left it, we’d raised more than $30m, but I felt I’d contributed as much as I could there. It was time to evolve again.
The next thing was setting up my own investment company. I had seen, especially as a leader of a start-up that there was a lack of other women leaders and entrepreneurs – often because of a lack of investment. There’s data that shows when you invest in women, they invest more in their communities and environment. But in some ways I worry that this has been overemphasized, and investors think that female businesses don’t provide competitive financial returns, but that’s not true. They do. Then there’s the fact that figures show that Sub-Saharan Africa loses $95 billion annually by not having women fully engaged in the economy. We need to invest more in women. Another reason I’ve seen women being held back in business is a lack of financial education. I was lucky, I grew up with an entrepreneurial mum so being entrepreneurial was normalised for me, and a dad who was an accountant
and scholar. I learnt about money management early; I was analysing mortgage accounts when I was six and acting as a little loan shark to my friends at school! Later on, my friends would ask me questions about how I could afford something and save up for it when they had run out of money by the end of the month. I used to answer questions on Facebook as I found these were the same questions popping up time and again. When I first left my job in the corporate world, I started running workshops and then wrote an e-book. I’ve had so many people get in touch to say that those
lessons have changed their lives. What’s important to succeed in business, and in life, is recognising that as we change as people and as our circumstances change, we need to adapt. In order to thrive, we need to keep learning and evolving.
What makes you laugh? I’m really silly, so I laugh at anything and everything! I’ve got a wicked sense of humour. What’s the one thing you wish you’d known when you were 18? I wish I knew that the really hard moments, or even the really great moments, will pass. You have to be OK with what’s in between. Favourite food This is hard because I am a foodie, but it would have to be chocolate eclairs. Favourite African city? Cape Town. Books or podcasts? Books. I’m currently reading an old business book, Movers and Shakers: The People Behind Business Today.
Founder and CEO
Temie Giwa-Tubosun NIGERIA
Lesson: “You don’t need permission to start your dream.” After experiencing a traumatic birth with her son, Temie Giwa-Tubosun was haunted by the thought that if she had been in her home country of Nigeria, instead of in the United States, she might have died due to lack of available blood. It crystalised a realisation for her: that there needed to be a solution to improve access to blood transfusions in the country. She already worked in healthcare, as a graduate fellow at the World Health Organisation in Geneva, on UN programmes and for an NGO in Nigeria. In 2012, she founded One Percent Project, educating people on the importance of blood donation, running it alongside her job. In January 2016, Temie founded LifeBank, a technology and logistics company based in Lagos set up to tackle the problem of blood shortage in Nigeria. The company now also operates in Kenya and Ethiopia and to date has saved over 14,000 lives.
The thing I often see with women in business is that they are waiting for permission, and it’s a trait that can hold you back. You have to jump into the arena and just start, rather than waiting to make your dreams come true. There’s a statistic that’s often quoted when it comes to applying for jobs, women read the requirements and wait until they are 100% qualified before they apply, while men go for it if they tick 60% of the qualifications. Obviously, that means that men are more likely to get the job. I think I was waiting for permission. I knew that in Nigeria we had a problem with people donating blood, so I founded an NGO called the One Percent Project which was about convincing young people to give blood. I ran this alongside my job. But my experience giving birth to my son changed my career path – I knew I had to dedicate myself 100% to this project. I had gone to America to give birth as my parents were still out there. My son was premature and there were difficulties; I knew that had I given birth in Nigeria, I or he could have died. I wanted to change that, so I left my job and started LifeBank as a business that I ran full-time. I stopped waiting for permission to go for it. I have always worked in the field of healthcare. I was born and raised in Ila Orangun in Osun State in Nigeria and lived in the South West until I was 15, my parents had left for America when I was nine and I joined them. I went to high school in Minnesota and graduate school in California, but I always knew I would be a citizen of the world and probably return to Nigeria. An early experience cemented what I wanted to do; I had come back to Nigeria after graduating and was working in 42
the northern part of the country. I met a young woman who had been in childbirth already for a couple days, it was a tricky labour, the baby was breech, and they were both struggling. Everyone around her was just waiting for her to die; they didn’t have the resources to help her. Thankfully, she didn’t – she held on. But I never forgot her story. Being an entrepreneur is very different to working within an organisation.
It’s incredibly exhilarating and there’s nothing like seeing something you’ve been planning for years become real and solve real-world problems. But it’s also really tough, mentally, at times. You have to be very strong and keep the faith when it gets tough. Being the CEO of a company is a very lonely job. I’ve realised that to survive, I need to take care of myself. I was working every day, up to 12 hours a day. I was getting quite depressed from the volume of work, so last year I decided that I would dedicate one whole day to the things and people I loved - cooking and my family. On the tough days, I check the statistics. At the latest count we have saved over 14,000 people. But it’s not just about numbers. I try to imagine what each
person must have been feeling. I imagine being a young woman on a hospital bed having just given birth, knowing I’m bleeding and wondering if I will survive, when suddenly the blood arrives. It reminds me that every day we get to rescue people on the day that they think they’re going to die. That’s so powerful. I know that I am adding value to the world and that makes everything worthwhile.
Do you have a favourite Nigerian saying? Something my mum says is “A word is enough for the wise”, which means that wise people will get the point quickly. What’s something you wish you had more time for? My family and cooking. What makes a great leader? Empathy. I think it’s essential in order to focus on your customers, to be good to suppliers and partners and inspire and grow your team members. I’ve heard it described as a superpower. How do you relax? Cooking: Every Sunday I cook cuisines from different parts of the world. I’m an adventurous cook, I like studying new recipes, going to market and spending six hours in the kitchen. Favourite Nigerian food? Pounded yam; it’s divine and I love it. Do you value networking? You do need networks to help you succeed; the right team and support system is crucial to your outcome. But I think it has to be organic to be useful – there is too much emphasis placed now on going to networking events and meeting the “right” people. I think that’s a bit forced, I value an organic network. 43
Former TV Personality, Musician and Podcaster
Vanessa Hau Mdee TANZANIA
Lesson: “Take care of your mental and spiritual self.” Vanessa Hau Mdee rose to public prominence as the first Tanzanian ‘MTV VJ’ and started presenting radio and television programmes, including interviewing pop stars from Kelly Rowland to French Montana to Stella Mwangi. She then successfully pivoted into a singer/ songwriter career; her first solo single “Closer”, was downloaded over 30,000 times in its first week and remained in the charts for over 13 weeks. She went on to win numerous awards, both nationally and internationally, for her songs and videos, as well as building up a social media following of millions of fans. After retiring from music last year, Vanessa has launched a successful podcast, Deep Dive with Vanessa Mdee, and is about to launch a wellness start-up.
My message has always been “stay true to you” and the importance of being in tune with yourself, but until this last year I’m not sure I really understood what that meant. There were lots of factors that came with my job that made me very unhappy and I ended up falling into depression, so I had to leave the entertainment industry. Knowing when to stop – and that it’s OK to stop – is hugely important for your mental health. Actually, I’ve found that when you do, you can go through a huge period of personal growth. It has been an interesting time of discovery that has led me to a new career path. I grew up in Arusha, Tanzania, which is known as the Geneva of Africa; international visitors came every week. It has the best of both worlds: rich Swahili culture and a glimpse of the rest of the world. I always knew I wanted to be some type of entertainer, but in African homes that isn’t necessarily the thing we are meant to aspire to be. My father was a journalist-turned-diplomat, my mother accountant-turned-full-time mom, and I went to university to study law.
away from home before and we were working all over the continent. It was exhausting. I was doing presenting work while I built an independent solo singing/songwriting career; I did everything myself, from promotions to marketing to styling – and everything in between. I thank God for social media – for a lot of African entertainers, especially independent talent, there’s no other way to promote your work and brand. I was able to build up a strong following because people liked what I stood for, which was a young woman building her own career, forging her way and taking Tanzania up to the next level, and with it, Swahili culture. In an industry that was saying to me, “Why wouldn’t you sing that in English?”, I was unapologetically Swahili. On stage I had a strong, fierce façade. But in private, I really struggled with confidence, especially as a woman who wasn’t necessarily deemed beautiful.
In 2005, Viacom had just established the MTV networks in Africa and it needed faces for the channel. They promoted the competition to be a presenter for months, and thousands of aspiring TV personalities auditioned – it was a big deal. My father had just passed away, I hated my law degree, so when my best friend said I should try out, I thought, why not?
I always tried to remember that Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
It took a month of auditioning, and in the end I was victorious. But it was tough. We had to learn on the job. I was also propelled into sudden fame and I struggled a lot; I was 18, had never been
But it can be hard sometimes battling against external factors and voices. A lot of this is why I retired last year – music is my first love and I love creating cool
content, but being in the industry wasn’t making me happy. With a bit of time off, I’ve seen new ways to be creative and connect with people. People are afraid to be still, but I think it’s important to evolve. I have a podcast, Deep Dive with Vanessa Mdee, which is dedicated to women, it’s a journey of self discovery. I’m also embarking into the tech world with a wellness platform. In my personal life, I am embracing life’s
changes and looking forward to the things that are on the horizon, like marriage and maybe becoming a mother. I spent my twenties living life in the fast lane; now I’m enjoying taking it slow. I undertake small daily practices like gratitude walks, which I do with my fiancé, and I’m a very spiritual being, so I enjoy worshipping, praying and meditating. It’s a great way to recalibrate and start my next chapter.
Who is your biggest inspiration? My two moms: my mother and mother-in-law. Who would play you in the film of your life? Myself!
How do you relax? We glamp in the living room. We have a mattress in front of the TV and sprawl out. I’ve learned to ignore my phone; I used to never let a message go unread, but now I do. What TV programmes do you love? Something that I’ve discovered lately is that I love sports documentaries. I just watched the Tiger Woods one on Netflix. What’s your favourite food? I love Swahili cuisine, with its tropical elements, like coconut and spices; it has soul. I love to cook other cuisines, too: my fiancé’s mom taught me to cook Nigerian jollof rice, and I love oriental food like Chinese and Thai.
Lawyer, Entrepreneur and CEO
Monica Musonda ZAMBIA
Lesson: “Learn by doing, rather than waiting for the perfect moment.” Having qualified as a lawyer and practising in different countries from Zambia to the US and finally in Nigeria, Monica Musonda decided to leave her General Counsel job, return to her home country and become an entrepreneur. In 2012 she founded Java Foods, a food processing company based in Zambia. Her first product was eeZee Instant Noodles, which became Zambia’s leading instant noodle brand, before going on to create Supa Cereal, a fortified instant porridge, for school feeding and emergency relief programmes. Apart from success in Zambia, the company now exports products into Zimbabwe and Malawi. Monica is a World Economic Forum 2013 Young Global Leader and Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow, whilst Forbes Magazine and Africa Investor have both named her as one of the leading Young Powerful Women in Business in Africa.
I was a lawyer for many years, working around the world including the UK, US, South Africa and Nigeria. I loved the work I did and took great pleasure in working for different businesses in different countries but working in Nigeria opened my eyes to a different type of life, because it is a very entrepreneurial type of society; everyone there has a side hustle. I’d always known that at some point I wanted to come home and create an impact in my country, in terms of creating jobs, creating brands and leaving a legacy that others could follow. I didn’t see that happening as a lawyer. I had worked for a very successful familyowned manufacturing business in Nigeria and my boss was very inspirational; he was a great believer in Africa and Africans making a difference. He was also a risk taker, who encouraged me to see things differently. Coming from a very riskadverse background (my parents are professors and I had qualified into a very structured profession – Law) – all this was new to me. But I realised that now was the right time to go home and start a business. I saw that we had a very young, urban and aspirational population whose consumption patterns were different from that of their parents - they wanted and needed great tasting, convenient and affordable food, and that was the basis behind my first product. I came home and spent about seven or eight months trying to understand the market and putting together a business plan – all things you should do in a perfect world. I remember speaking to a mentor and he asked, “How is the business going? How is the roll out? How many employees do you have?”. I told him that I hadn’t done anything yet, that I was still working it out on paper. He told me that I just needed to 50
get on with it; that I wasn’t going to find the answers on paper. He was right. Of course, you need to have a bit of research behind you, and know your figures, but the best way to work it out is by doing. I can tell you that the business I have now and the business plan I wrote out are two vastly different things. I only really understood what the customers wanted, how they would pay for it, how we could transport it and a hundred other factors once we started, and we’ve had to adapt along the way. One thing that changed was our focus. We started just as a convenience food producer; the problem was that a lot of the food was imported and so expensive. But then we realised that there was so much more to creating food and our consumers wanted food that was actively good for them. So we added fortified food products to the range. That was an example of learning through doing and listening to what the customer wanted.
There are all kinds of challenges that come up when you’re an entrepreneur; the pandemic is a huge example of something you could never plan for.
How you get through them is down to your character: you have to be mentally strong. There were several times in the first few years when I had no money and wasn’t seeing any real breakthrough. But in those moments, you have to go back to the “why”. For me it was because I wanted to create a lasting impact in my country and inspire other female
leaders – there still aren’t enough, especially in manufacturing. Now I can look back and see that impact has happened. I’m proud that I’ve done that. It only takes one person to make cracks in the ceiling. I hope that the women coming behind me will be able to break through even quicker.
Favourite type of television programme? I don’t watch a lot of TV, but I love docuseries about real people and situations. Recently I watched the one about Hillary Clinton and it was so interesting to see the type of issues she had to address that Biden didn’t have to. We have a long way to go to see more women in leadership. Favourite African destination? Vilanculos in Mozambique. Guilty pleasure? Chocolate. Favourite local dish? Kapenta, which is fried sardines. Books or podcasts? Books – I’m reading A Promised Land by Barack Obama. Introvert or Extrovert? I am a bit of both – I’m an extrovert at work but on a personal level I need to withdraw to draw strength and gather myself. 51
Founder and CEO
Saran Kaba Jones LIBERIA
Lesson: “Build your support network early and lean on it when you need to.” When civil war broke out in her native Liberia, an eight-year-old Saran Kaba Jones and her family moved first to Cote d’Ivoire, then to Egypt, France and Cyprus before moving to the United States in 1999. When she returned to Liberia 20 years later, she wanted to help her country. In 2009 she founded FACE Africa, a community development organisation working to strengthen water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructure and services in rural communities across Sub-Saharan Africa. Amongst her many awards, she has been listed as a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, one of Africa’s 25 Top Women Achievers by the Guardian UK and Forbes Magazine’s 20 Youngest Power Women In Africa.
I left Liberia when I was eight years old due to the civil war. My father was a diplomat and I spent my life living in different countries and traveling the world. When I returned to Liberia 20 years later, I saw a country in desperate need because of the damage the war caused to the infrastructure. I started to see the impact and how lifechanging it was for these young kids, but I also saw that the issue of clean water was even more critical. Many of these children would get terribly sick from the dirty water and horrible sanitation in their communities, forcing them to miss days of school. I wanted to help on a bigger scale, so I founded FACE Africa to address the issue of unsafe water. I wanted to bring attention to the issue so I started talking about it on Facebook. People began to get in touch and ask how they could help. I then started to build this network of people who wanted to support me and my mission, and many of those people I still work with today. I built a committee of extremely committed individuals who contribute their time, talents and expertise to FACE Africa. One obvious benefit is that you can outsource the bits of the job that you’re not so good at. For example, I’m not a terribly great fundraiser; I hate asking people for money. My committee is extremely valuable because they help me do that work. Another vital reason for a support network around you is that they can pick you up when you’re down - when you feel like you’re falling apart. Founding a non-profit, or any business for that matter is hard – and sustaining it is even more challenging. There have been times where I’ve been in tears because I’ve felt like I’ve reached the end of the road. I’ve been in 54
debt because I was not taking a salary at the start and even today, twelve years later sometimes I go months without pay. I neglected my health and for years did not have health insurance. My social life took a hit. It’s a tough, lonely world. However, when I thought I couldn’t do it anymore, my support network was able to lift me up and affirm that what I was doing, was worthy. They have told me that they will not stand by on the sidelines and watch me fail. This has helped encourage me and enabled me to pick myself up again.
Part of being a leader is being willing to compromise and understand that if you’re building a team, then they’re going to come with different viewpoints and principles that may not align with yours. The important thing is communicating your values, so your team understands what is important to you. It’s also vital that you make room for a healthy exchange of ideas. I’ve learned that even though you may be set in certain ways, it may not be best for your organisation; there has to be some level of compromise. I think it contributes to a really healthy and diverse organisation.
What I’ve learned is it’s never too early to seek out mentors or a peer group that you can learn from and ask for help. I’ve been able to build my organisation into what it is today because of that support.
What did you want to be when you were little? I wanted to be the first woman President of Liberia, which is no longer possible because Liberia has already produced the first African woman president. But I think I will end up doing something in government eventually, maybe even become the second woman president! How do you relax? I don’t, especially now I’ve got three kids including a 14-month-old toddler. I used to love reading, but I buy books and they just sit and collect dust. What TV series can’t you get enough of? My husband and I steal an hour when the kids are asleep and binge-watch TV; it’s not current but we loved Game of Thrones. Favourite place in the world? Lamu in Kenya is a little paradise on earth. If I could retire anywhere it would be there. If you could have one superpower, what would it be? To have the ability to make all the pain and suffering in the world go away.
Showrunner and Screenwriter
Kalista Sy SENEGAL
Lesson: “No matter who you are or what you’ve been through, you are important. Don’t be afraid to be you and to be different.” Kalista Sy is as screenwriter, notable for writing and producing the TV series Maîtresse d’un Homme Marié, or Mistress of a Married Man, set in Dakar which tackles subjects which are usually taboo in Senegal, such as sex, infidelity, domestic abuse and polygamy. With millions of views, it has taken the country by storm and has been called the ‘Senegalese Sex and the City’. Such is her influence, in 2019 she was listed among the BBC’s 100 Women.
I believe that many of the people who meet success in life have two motivations either they have a specific talent, or they have something to prove to the world. I belong to the second category. I’m conscious that I’m an atypical person. I’ve always been different and for a long time that has been exhausting, it can be scary to not be like the masses. But over time and with the benefit of age (I’m in my thirties now), I’ve learned to celebrate my difference and be unapologetic about it, just being the way I truly am. I used to argue a lot, but now I try to listen to other people, understand where they’re coming from and get around any blockages that we face. In return, I’ve discovered that they then respect me for who I am.
I’d advise any other young woman to not be afraid of being different. The first time I was aware of fighting the stereotype of what someone thought about me, was when I was 11 years old. One day when I was in sixth grade, after reading my name the teacher asked me if I was from the Fulani tribe. I said yes and he told the class: “Well, this one at the age of 18, she’ll already be married and have 15 children.” At that moment I vowed not to be trapped by his stereotype. Lots of young girls are limited by society because of prejudices and gender, I knew I did not want to be one of them. As a kid, I always knew that I would have to fight for my future. I did my A-levels and did well at school, and then 58
a year at university studying journalism. However, I had to stop as I was the main breadwinner for my mother and siblings. I started working life early because I had to provide for my family - my parents divorced when I was six and we went to live with my father because my mother didn’t have the means. I was like a mother to my brother, who was bipolar and my other two siblings. Like every mother, I was focused on trying to make him perfect in the eyes of those who were viewing him, instead of understanding that he was different. I did it out of love as a way of trying to make his life easier, but I later realised that wasn’t the right approach. He died when he was 30. Featuring a psychologist in Maîtresse d’un homme marié and addressing mental health issues is a way for me to make peace with myself. I’ve always known that I was destined for the film industry. I’ve always had an ability to showcase emotions, I used to write a lot and people kept telling me “You write images.” I’ve always had a thirst for telling stories and encouraging women to evolve. In 2015/2016 I started writing and posting short stories on Facebook - I was inspired by the suffering that I’d seen my mother endure; I saw how desperately unfair it was for her to lose custody of her children. So I became interested in creating powerful stories about everyday lives that African women can relate to. Initially I only wanted to do 10 chapters, but I ended up doing a hundred because of the excitement that it generated. I’ve found that the world of work is still very male dominated. I had various work experiences in environments that were predominantly male, and I noticed that men around me tended to talk about physical attributes when they were
referring to me. I was only seen through my body and the fact that they found me sexually attractive. Many women in their work environment tend to highlight the fact that they are wives and mothers because it is a way to protect themselves. I refuse to comply with these society norms and as rule, I refuse to reveal my matrimonial or familial status because I believe women have a right to be respected as human beings, period. It’s unfortunate that a woman has to fight to obtain respect whereas for
a man, it’s a given. I believe in the power of stories; I think they can help women evolve and my job as a screenwriter helps me tell those stories. I get contacted a lot by women on social media and I always say, “Tell me what you dream of being and I’ll create her for you!” That’s my mission. I’m happy about the success of the show, but I always want more! There is always so much more to be done.
Who do you consider a hero? For me any person who is able to turn on the light for the other is a hero. There are people in our lives who don’t necessarily wear a superhero cape, but they push us forward. Early bird or night owl? I am a night owl; I can go days without sleeping, especially when I am in the euphoria of creation. What’s your favourite book? Forty Rules Of Love by Elif Shafak for the depth but also the beautiful lessons of humanity. This book keeps my feet on the ground. What is your favourite African dish? As a good Senegalese, I would say Thiep. If you have already eaten the Senegalese Thiep you will understand. Who would your three dream dinner party guests be? Shonda Rhimes, Mo Abudu and Ava Duvarnay. I’m already laughing because I don’t speak English fluently and I don’t even know if they would understand everything I would like to tell them. But they inspire me and give me the strength to go for it. Which three people have been the most supportive of you over the course of your career? I have many; I’ve always been lucky to have people around me who believe in me and always push me to move forward, even when I find it hard to believe in myself. Where do you see yourself in five years? As the Head of KALISTA PRODUCTION; that would mean a lot. 59
Journalist and News Anchor
Yvonne Okwara KENYA
Lesson: “To succeed you need to work hard and to remain authentic.” Yvonne Okwara is a journalist and senior news anchor at Citizen TV Kenya, where she hosts news and business shows, including the popular show The Explainer, which tackles topical issues in-depth. Before that, she worked at Kenya Television Network (KTN), where she started out in the research department and worked her way up to senior news anchor, then head of anchors and head of news strategy. Yvonne is an alumnus of the Bloomberg Africa Leadership Initiative (ALI).
One thing people don’t always see when they see someone ‘successful’ is the years of hard work that went into getting there. It never happens overnight. I started out in television when I was nine or ten, doing a children’s TV show on the national network KBC. I did it for a number of years until school became a lot busier and I outgrew the show. While I was there, one of the best pieces of advice I was given was from one of the female producers, who said, “If you’re passionate about any other subject, go out and study that; journalism is a craft that we can teach you later.” I loved science so I studied microbiology at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology before making my way back into journalism. My first job after university was in radio – I was in both radio production as well as working as a presenter. There I had been a studio tech operator, behind the camera, a gallery director - every job I have taken has been an attempt to understand everything I can about the business I am in.
I have constantly been learning and putting in the time and work; there is no shortcut. The way I undertake my current job is actually similar to the way I approached my science degree. Science starts with a hypothesis or an assumption, then you look for proof and evidence, put it to an evidentiary test and finally come up with a conclusion. That has been helpful training 62
for my journalism. For example, it’s what I do with The Explainer – a show where I tackle an issue – I did that with COVID-19 about a year ago, as well as Ebola and the elections. I take a big issue, break it down and help the viewers understand what is happening. I started doing this programme about three years ago. I had been doing big political interviews with people from the President down. But I was getting burnt out from them; they always seemed to either not be truthful or they didn’t know the answer; I’m not sure which was worse. I had a fly on the wall moment while I had two politicians on my show who were doing the usual thing of calling each other names, each saying the other was lying and that they were a crook, when I thought, ‘what am I or the viewers getting out of this? It’s driving me insane’. I also felt the need for news to be useful, and so The Explainer was my outlet. People said I was committing career suicide by not pursuing political interviews, but I knew I could always come back to them. The idea of authenticity is about being yourself and deciding what your values are - what you believe in and what you stand for shines through in everything you do. In my particular field of television journalism, there’s a vanity in what I do: people expect me to look and speak a certain way. I’m supposed to dress a certain way, have a certain skin tone, and look ‘sexy’. I get pressure to make myself softer and to smile a lot more, because some people do not appreciate a woman who is forthright and gets down to business. But I have defied those expectations of me. I’m a serious person, I tackle complex political issues and ask the tough questions – I’ll smile when I need to. I’m not going to fit a mould that
people expect of me, and that’s important, because it makes me authentic. Everyone suffers from a lack of confidence or imposter syndrome at some point. The way to get through that is to acknowledge the feeling and work your way out of it. Recently I had one of those moments: I was nominated for the Africa Leadership Initiative (ALI) Media Fellowship Programme run by Bloomberg, and I was so unsure about why I had been selected, out of so many others, that I started suggesting better candidates in my interview. I left feeling absolutely certain that I wouldn’t get it. Even when I did, I spent the first six months of the
two-year programme wondering why. But now I realise I was really good at it, and it has changed my life: I now do business journalism as well as my political beat. It’s at those moments of doubt when you need an inner circle of people who can help and encourage you. Close family and friends remind you of why you’re doing what you’re doing, but they also keep you in check and keep you true to you. If you work hard and make sure you are authentic, then that really helps with your confidence. You cannot be in competition with other people because you’ll always fall short. You have to live up to the goals you set yourself.
Local TV series you can’t get enough of? Kina – A depiction of the true lives of the haves and have nots. Murder, greed, love, betrayal and the nail biting reach for the end game. Who do you consider a hero? My mother because she’s incredibly special. My older brother was born with special needs and she dedicated her whole life to him and made such tremendous sacrifices. She raised us with pretty much next to nothing, but taught me about integrity, unconditional love and strength through adversity. What book are you currently reading? I’m very slow, but The World As It Is, by Ben Rhodes, who was President Obama’s national security advisor. Favourite musician Youssou N’Dour, who I’ve listened to since I was little, Tiwa Savage, Angélique Kidjo and Anita Baker. Night in or night out? Night in, I’m an introvert. I’m terrible with crowds and audiences; I just want to curl into a little ball and become invisible. 63
Entrepreneur and CEO
Tara Fela-Durotoye NIGERIA
Lesson: “Think about your vision as you build your business.” While Tara Fela-Durotoye was studying law at Lagos State University, she started a make-up artist service as a hobby. Once she graduated, that side hustle turned into a fully-fledged business, House of Tara International, with the vision of creating a globally respected beauty company of African origin. Additionally, she has empowered tens of thousands of beauty entrepreneurs through her “Tara Beauty Entrepreneur” initiative, to become successful beauty entrepreneurs with skill development, mentorship and profit generation through the sales of Tara product line. Tara has been nominated as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum and named one of Forbes’ ‘50 Most Powerful Women in Africa’.
I became a make-up artist while I was studying law, starting by just doing it for friends. It was a hobby at first, but by the time I graduated I realised that I had created a business that I enjoyed, and I was a lot more passionate about it than I was about law. I started to take it very seriously and started building a company that I now believe will outlive me. As you create and grow a company and brand, the biggest lesson that I perhaps have learned over the last 20 years is that you need to have a vision. The first thing this vision has to do is inspire you, the visionary. It needs to keep you excited. Next, it needs to inspire the people who are working in, and for, your business. To do that, you have to care about what they care about; you need to make sure that what you’re doing and building is worthy of their commitment. So, for my business, it’s not just about being the number one brand, it’s about the lives that we impact. Secondly, that vision has to take into account the context of where you are. We live on a continent that has many social disparities, so as business leaders, we need to build businesses that bridge this divide. We need to consider issues such as unemployment, women empowerment, and to alleviate more people from poverty. As a continent, we don’t have many homegrown businesses that outlive their founders. I am passionate about putting systems and structures in place so that my business is still here providing great products and value for all our stakeholders and most importantly, transferring these processes to their indigenous organisations. It means that as an African Founder, the business, vision and its existence is bigger than just you. I did not struggle with confidence in the 66
earlier days – I took the plunge. I’d ask myself, “how bad could this idea be?”, and just gave it a try. But as I have gotten older, I’ve become more risk averse, bearing in mind market acceptance and penetration, return on investment etc. It’s easier to take risks when you’re young and have less at stake.
I always remember that the power of the mind is critical whenever you have doubts. What you believe you will succeed at, you will – and if you think you will fail, and let your heart fill with doubt, then it can fester. You have to think about taking one step forward, consistently, everyday. You have the ability to do much more, if you only retrain your thoughts. Having said that, it’s really tempting as a leader, and especially as an entrepreneur, to keep pushing yourself and ultimately forgetting that you’re human with limitations. The danger is that you will burn out, as I did in 2015. I’m in the habit of using holiday times to examine what I’m grateful for over the previous year. But while on holiday with my son, I couldn’t remember anything that had happened that year – not a thing. I had blanked it all out. The harder I tried to remember, the more I couldn’t. It was a wakeup call and it made me realise that I needed time off. On my sabbatical, I was intentional about pausing to reflect and appreciate the
seemingly little things. I was reminded of one of my favourite poems that I learnt as a child by WH Davies, and it is about the importance of standing still at times in life to appreciate what is around you. I hadn’t been doing that. I took a year off to reset, and ever since then I’ve had really strict boundaries, such as not waking up and checking my emails first thing or taking moments throughout the day to pause and meditate, or making sure I don’t say yes to every single social
engagement. I’ve had to remember that work shouldn’t be 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Giving back is just as important to my vision of the business. I am a woman of faith, and we are taught that any success you achieve should be for all, not just you. That has been an important part of my vision: not only helping budding entrepreneurs but by giving our continent a home-grown brand we can be proud of.
Are networks important? They are very important; networks are enrichment programmes; it enriches you and the people you meet. Sometimes it’s about the doors it opens, or the ones you can open for others. How do you relax? Exercising outdoors daily, reading and gardening. Who is your biggest inspiration? My mentor, the businesswoman Ibukunoluwa Awosika. Favourite food? Dodo and beans. What skill do you wish you had mastered? Learning to speak French.
Model and Philanthropist
Noëlla Coursaris Musunka DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Lesson: “Take the time to educate yourself and become a pioneer for yourself and Africa.” Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Noëlla Coursaris Musunka’s life changed dramatically when her father died suddenly when she was five and her mother was forced to send her to live with relatives in Europe. While studying Business Management in London, she won a modelling competition, leading to a career working with luxury brands such as Crème de la Mer, Roksanda, Black Opal and Max Factor. In 2007 she launched Malaika, a foundation to empower and educate girls in Africa. The Malaika school opened in 2011 and provides free primary and secondary education to 370 girls, as well as an agricultural programme that provides the staff and students with organic food. There is also a ‘Football for Hope’ community centre, built in partnership with FIFA, which provides a hub of learning for over 5,000 youths and adults each year, along with 20 wells which supply fresh, clean water to over 35,000 people. In 2017, Noëlla was named one of the BBC’s 100 Most Influential & Inspirational Women of the Year, and in 2018, she received an award at the 100 Years of Mandela celebration. She is an Ambassador for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. She has also spoken at a number of international 69 forums from the World Economic Forum in Davos to Harvard, and MIT.
When I was five years old, my father passed away. My mother was left destitute and unable to keep me with her, sent me away to relatives in Europe. I didn’t see her again for 13 years. I had an unhappy childhood, but the one shining light was my education: I worked hard and did well at school. At the time I was upset with my mother for giving me up, but at the same time I wanted to make her proud. When I was in London studying Business Management, I won a modelling competition and my life was transformed I was flying around the world, appearing on magazine covers. I got into modelling through a competition, but I always knew that without an education, I would not have had the confidence and the knowledge to work professionally and grow a career for myself. When I was 18, I went back to the DRC for the first time and I was deeply shocked. The conditions my mother was living in were very poor and the country as a whole needed help. It was shocking to see so many children out of school and so many kids living on the street. We have more than 49 million girls in the continent who don’t attend school and we need to close the gap. When a family can afford to, they send boys to school. Girls get married young, they also get pregnant young. I wanted to change that, I could see a country full of potential, if only there was better infrastructure and schooling. To change the narrative, you need strong schools and education on the ground in Africa. Africa has a young population – we need to intentionally invest in our youth so they can become the socioeconomic engine. I launched ‘Malaika’, which means ‘Angel’ 70
in Swahili, a foundation to empower and educate girls in Africa. I wanted to establish a school that would be so amazing, that I’d send my own children there. I travelled around the DRC, visited several communities and found Kalebuka, a forgotten rural village in the southeast that was extremely poor with no water or electricity or even a proper access road. The people here really wanted more opportunity. So we started little by little, building first a well, then raising money to build our school followed by a community centre. Then we lobbied for a road to the village, part of which was completed only about three years ago. We started with three classrooms and now function as a fully-encompassing ecosystem, through which we educate 370 girls, with the community centre providing literacy and vocational education, health classes and sports to more than 5,000 youths and adults annually. We’ve also built or refurbished 20 wells and have a thriving agricultural programme which feeds students and staff while providing employment and a sustainable farming education. One of our other initiatives is ‘Mama Ya Mapendo’, meaning ‘Mothers with Love’, which provides opportunities for the women of Kalebuka at our community centre. We train and provide the equipment they need to make the uniforms for the children, bags, phone covers and other accessories. We sell them locally and it’s a really successful income generator for the school, as well as giving the women an opportunity to learn and work. Everything we do at Malaika is about empowering people. I don’t want the girls to simply come and just accept what we are offering, I want them to believe
in their own potential and to take hold of any opportunity they are given with both hands. We also teach the girls about values and leadership by providing them with role models. I come back to the DRC every summer and know most of the girls by name. I see them grow from 5-year-olds just entering school to these incredibly accomplished young women, ready to take on the world. They see me giving back to my country and that’s an important lesson. We tell them, “You have a chance to go to this school and grow as a phenomenal woman, but
you have to give back one day.” What is amazing now is the transformative effect it has had on the girls – before, all they could have expected was marriage and motherhood; now they can dream of careers as well. They all have dreams. We have a lovely young girl named Audience, who is working toward becoming a journalist and Alicia, a future doctor... It’s beautiful to see them growing. After my kids, this school is my biggest pride.
Favourite place in the world? I love Kalebuka, where Malaika is located! I also love New York City, where I lived for a time and Cheltenham where my family and I now reside and London. London is so magical. Favourite podcast? My dear friend, the singer-songwriter Eve’s new podcast, Constantly Evolving, has a great theme and many fascinating stories. Favourite food? I can’t get enough of African food; my favourite dish is Fufu. My children and I love traditional Congolese food. How do you relax? I relax by taking a bath or listening to music, or both at the same time. Favourite musician? I love Aretha Franklin. She’s amazing. Early bird or night owl? Both, these days! I have lots of early mornings and late nights. I’m a bit of a workaholic. Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs Build sustainability into your business and make products and services that will serve people and help us live better. 71
TV and Radio Personality, Social Influencer and Philanthropist
Samantha ‘MisRed’ Musa ZIMBABWE
Lesson: “Be faithful to your happiness.”
Samantha Musa started her radio career on Zimbabwe’s ZiFM Stereo’s breakfast show, the station on which she now hosts the drive-time slot. Since then, the Zimbabwean personality, known popularly as ‘MisRed’, has presented a weekly entertainment show on Zimbabwean television, ZTV, along with presenting international events such as Lake of Stars Festival and the MTV Africa Music Awards among others. Passionate about helping young entrepreneurs, she launched Red Market Sunday, an initiative where she allows small businesses to use her social media platforms to market their products and services to her hundreds of thousands of followers.
As a single mother to two kids, one of the most difficult things I have to do is balance being a working mother with a high-profile career that involves events and international travel, as well as being the firstborn in an African family, with all the responsibility that goes with it. I have learned that in order to help everyone around me, I really have to make sure I’m OK first. There was a point where I wasn’t doing that. I was trying to do everything and be everything to everyone, and I was failing to manage. I had moments of depression and I generally felt overwhelmed. It didn’t help anyone – I just felt like I was failing, a lot.
So I started prioritising myself from that moment on and the more I did that, the more effective and productive I became in my career and my homelife. I had a strange ambition for a child: I wanted to be a sound engineer. I remember telling my dad and he was bemused: the typical careers that parents wanted for their kids were doctor, lawyer, banker. I had to dumb down my aspirations to suit their idea of what I would be, and so I just quietly did music
at school, learning traditional African instruments. I started a degree in Marketing in South Africa, but I dropped out. I got a job in a call centre in Pretoria to pay the bills, but I was useless: I never got a sale. Then one day a man called and told me he liked my voice and asked if I could come and do some recordings. I ignored him, but he called my boss back and said he wanted to use me for voice overs. I did it and started to make a bit of money. It made me think I could work in radio. I really wanted to move back to Zimbabwe because I had a child who I had left with my parents, so I moved back home. I was unemployed without a cent to my name, but I just started telling people that I was on the radio. I said it so many times, I began to believe it myself. I sent in demo tapes to a few stations and got rejected. One day, eight years ago, I was praying, and I got really angry with God. I asked him what exactly he wanted me to do. I finished my prayer, and ten minutes later there was a phone call from ZiFM Stereo, who had already rejected me. The producer said, “We can work with your voice; come in for another audition.” They liked me and I got the job. I’m a firm believer in manifesting. It doesn’t matter what you believe in, but there’s so much power in words. Which is why, whenever I’m talking to myself, I speak kindly. I don’t want anything negative to come out of my mouth and manifest. I think women can be very guilty of speaking badly about themselves. I developed my confidence through my work. I went straight onto the breakfast show with one of the biggest radio personalities, and it was a baptism of fire.
I didn’t know what I was doing and it was so hard, especially being a woman. You’re expected to be the sidekick and I had to fight to develop my voice. It didn’t come naturally, but now I’m a very bold person. It has changed me. I used to worry about what people thought, now I say you either like me, or you don’t, but this is me.
use that to help entrepreneurs running start-ups because I’m really passionate about young people in business. Every Sunday they get to advertise their business and products for free on my account; it’s been going for more than a year and we’ve had over 52 million impressions. It’s my way of giving back.
I have built up a large social media following, and I decided that I wanted to
Favourite musician I love a lot of people – there’s so much music out there. My all-time favourite is Oliver Mtukudzi – he spoke deeply to my African self and had so much depth. I also love Jah Prayzah. Favourite local dish Sadza and maguru nematumbu, made in the traditional way. Favourite place to travel? Manicaland Province as a whole, but specifically Honde Valley in Zimbabwe. There are endless tea estates and rivers that feel like they have been dreamed up from a novel. It’s the most beautiful thing you will see in your life. In Chimanimani they have waterfalls that could be mistaken for the doors of heaven. How do you relax? Golf – it’s the most relaxing thing ever and I can’t have my phone on. Advice for your 18-year-old self? What’s the worst that can happen if you just try?
Doctor and Entrepreneur
Djamila Ferdjani NIGER
Lesson: “When you falter, stand up with even more determination.” Despite there being no expectation to stay in school, Djamila Ferdjan was determined as a young girl to finish high school, go to university and become a doctor - to help alleviate the suffering she saw around her. She not only became one of the first female doctors in Niger, but also founded one of the largest polyclinics in the country. Not content with those achievements, she later went back to university to study Public Health Policy, to help effect greater change. She has since initiated a voluntary vaccination program for Street Children in Niger, has a programme for female entrepreneurs, and initiatives to help girls remain in education. Djamila is part of the UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) ranking of 100 women leaders in Niger in 2012. She was also voted “Nigerien Woman of the Year” by the Nigerien daily TamTam Info in 2012 and gave a TED talk, which has been viewed by thousands.
My whole childhood was spent fighting for my chance to have an education. I grew up in the village, in a very conservative family of 14 siblings where girls did not stay in school - it was felt that being able to read and write was more than enough. But I was desperate to get an education and become a doctor. The only way for me to persuade my parents to let me stay in school was to achieve excellence; I would say, “I can’t give up school because I’m doing too well.” At that time, every year, the First Lady used to host a celebration with the best pupils from across the country who were invited to spend the day at the Presidential Palace. I was invited several years in a row. For my parents, having their daughter invited to the presidential palace was very impressive. After my high school diploma, which only one other of my other siblings achieved, I wanted to go to university. Luckily I had an ally, my uncle, who was my father’s big brother and the head of the household, who told my father, “We don’t have any doctors in the family. This little one has a gift, let her continue.” My parents agreed to let me go to university on the condition that I get married, so I got married right after high school to a very open man. I was working as a doctor when one day someone told me that a financial institution was providing funding for women with an entrepreneurial project. I was 29 and decided to apply to open a polyclinic in Niamey. As well as running the clinic with hundreds of employees, and working as a doctor, I was also a wife and mother of five boys - it was a busy time! But I belong to the generation of women who are committed to getting into spheres of society that were traditionally reserved 78
for men, through our professional and social achievements. After 14 years of hard work at the clinic and seeing the problems on-theground, I realised that I wanted to effect even greater change, so I went back to university at the age of 42 to study Public Health Policy in France. It felt like a gamble, and learning wasn’t so easy the second time around. But knowing why I was returning to school, with a passion and determination to serve my fellow citizens - helped me succeed. Back in Niger, I have been involved in several Public Health Policy missions and developmental programmes, as a consultant for national and international organizations throughout the continent. All these missions and actions in the field have a common denominator eradicating poverty and promoting the well-being of our population.
There are struggles for which I could never admit defeat. Among them, is my unfailing commitment to the schooling of young girls in Niger. Outside of the capital city, the majority of girls in Niger don’t continue their education further than the village school limits. There are many obstacles to girls’ education in rural areas. Parents prefer to sacrifice their daughters and keep them home to help their mothers. With Niger being such a vast country, sometimes their schools are far away from home and young girls have to walk a long distance to attend, so their parents will remove them before it’s too risky or too
exhausting. In truth, it is not so much a question of getting a girl to go to school, but of putting in place the logistics necessary to keep her there, especially in rural areas. Several of the girls we are supporting have graduated from university thanks to our help. I also think it’s hugely important to empower women through income generating activities and encourage them to become entrepreneurs. The programmes we run not only empower women to take charge of their own lives, but better yet, they are able to provide for their families.
Early bird or night owl? Early bird.
The third commitment that is equally close to my heart are the initiatives to reintegrate street children. Through vaccination campaigns, distribution of food, and high-level advocacy, we are working to offer them a way out and a chance of a better life. When I think back to my early ambitions, I realise now that I had no right to give up. The better I was, the more I had the chance to continue my studies, to realise my dreams and to provide a solution to the suffering of the people around me.
Favourite book and why? “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela; he is one of Africa’s greatest heroes. The book deals with his 27 years in prison and all his struggles for the recognition of human rights in South Africa. What makes a good leader? Empathy and a willingness to learn from others. What is your favourite African dish? Le Foutou banane and Sauce Graine, which is an Ivorian dish. What is your mother tongue? Can you speak other African languages? My mother tongue is Arabic. I am fluent in Djerma and Songhai. Favourite African saying? Happiness is not acquired, it does not reside in appearances; each one of us builds it at each moment of life with our heart.
‘LeadHers: Life Lessons from African Women’, is a collection of beautiful, insightful and inspirational real-life stories from a selection of formidable African women who are pioneering change in their communities. Following on from the successful launch of ‘Inspiring #Changemakers: Lessons from Life and Business’, this collection focuses on 19 women from diverse backgrounds and countries who provide a snippet of their life stories and how they’ve managed to succeed no matter their circumstances and challenges. Navigating their path to success across music, fashion, retail, politics, business, technology and the NGO world, they provide practical advice and tips for women and future leaders everywhere. So, no matter where you’re from, your background or challenges, these women show that anything is possible when you’re willing to succeed and make your mark in the world.
‘LeadHers : Life Lessons from African Women’, is a collection of beautiful, insightful and inspirational real-life stories from a selection...
Published on Mar 2, 2021
‘LeadHers : Life Lessons from African Women’, is a collection of beautiful, insightful and inspirational real-life stories from a selection...