Entrepreneurs are changing the narrative about women’s leadership in Africa

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Rebecca Harrison
Chief Executive Officer and Co-founder, African Management Institute

Anita Erskine
Chief Executive Officer of Erskine Global Communications

Betty Beenzu Chilonde
Founder, Bulongo Incubator for Creative Skills


Sarah Zaaimi
Deputy Director for Communications, Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs, Atlantic Council

SARAH ZAAIMI: Hello, ladies and gentlemen. I would like to welcome you to another panel, an exciting panel on “Advancing [Women’s] Leadership in Africa.”

Let me first start with a conundrum that I’ve been struggling with myself. Women in Africa represent half of the population, and yet they are only 8 percent of wage earners and they only bring 13 percent of the GDP. But yet, if you scratch the surface, you will find a thriving ecosystem where women entrepreneurs such as the ladies here on my left and all the attendants that you’ve been listening to throughout this conference, they show a different image of Africa. They tell a different story of Africa where women leadership is a true success story.

For example, members are also talking about this. Women entrepreneurs, for example, in Africa are over 26 percent, and that’s above the global average. And also, most of the women in Africa are self-employed, and that’s, like, over 58 percent.

So to help me untangle this conundrum and discuss this, we have a panel of trailblazers and entrepreneurs, inspiring ladies who have been working in the continent. Let me introduce to you our panel today.

So, to my immediate left, Rebecca Harrison, who’s the CEO and co-founder of [African] Management Institute. She comes to us from Kenya today. She’s been doing a tremendous job. Her institute has over fifty-thousand beneficiaries from over thirty-five countries in Africa.

Next is our host that you’ve been acquainted to throughout this morning, Anita Erskine, who is the CEO of Erskine Global Communications. She’s a media personality. She runs her own shows on the radio and TV. But she’s also a social entrepreneur, advancing women, especially young girls learning in STEM, among other things. I’ll let you discover more.

And last but not least, coming from Zambia, is Betty Beenzu Chilonde, And she’s the founder of Bulongo Incubator, but she’s also a social entrepreneur herself and a fashion designer. She’s passionate about sustainability and has been doing a lot of work on the ground.

So welcome, ladies.

Let me start with you, Anita. How can we tell a better story of African women beyond the headlines, the scary headlines of war and conflict and things we’ve been listening to? How can we scratch the surface and show the real face of women leadership in the continent?

ANITA ERSKINE: Thanks, Sarah.

I think, first of all, we can by not pretending that those negatives [don’t] exist, you know, because you don’t tell a real story by sweeping the realities under the carpet. You actually look at the problems head on. You talk about drought and flooding in Somalia, and you talk about the women who are—perhaps who bear the brunt of—you know, brunt of this. You talk about the entrepreneurial ecosystem and the women who are frontlining it, who are at the forefront of it. You talk about perhaps a corporate world, you know, technology, et cetera. And you also underline the women who have, quote/unquote, “broken the glass ceiling” to be at the forefront.

But I think, ultimately, the element of owning that narrative is also—it’s kind of like double-sided. You don’t tell Africa’s story only on the one side of talking about how beautiful and how culturally layered it is without talking about the negatives as well, so that then you own how that story is told. So when you focus on women’s leadership specifically on the continent, you also don’t focus on the CEOs, you know, and the entrepreneurs; you talk about, you know, the women who lead their communities, you know, right down there, so to speak, at the grassroot level, and the women who, you know, sacrifice everything to ensure that their children go to school. That is a form of leadership as well. You know, so make sure that you project the entire story so that somebody doesn’t have to tell the other side for you.

SARAH ZAAIMI: That’s very, very pertinent on how granular the story of Africa is. And I would just want to add to that also is that there is some kind of essentialism on the way we tell the story of Africa as if it’s one country or one culture or one thing although there are different layers and layers to this continent and sometimes many disparities and many success stories but also stories of sadness. So thank you for saying that.

I’m moving to you, Betsy. I know you care a lot about innovation and I think that’s a theme that’s recurrent throughout this conference that we’ve been hearing throughout the different panels this day. There was this study—staggering study by UNESCO in 2021 that actually most women entrepreneurs in Africa are innovating somehow. Like, I think 24 percent, they innovate in a certain way.

I think maybe it’s the reality on the ground or the… specificity of what they have been doing. How do you explain that and how do you live that throughout your own journey as an entrepreneur and a designer and someone at the forefront of innovation in Africa?


I think to answer that question, really, I would say that, you know, different things happen every day as women do their businesses and go about whatever they are doing and so to remain stagnated is really, like, something bad for a woman.

As you go through challenges you have always to think about how best you can do something, how best you can deliver, how different you can do things in order to achieve, at the end of the day.

So basically I think as a person who supports innovation and who has been through certain struggles as an entrepreneur, as a woman, I think it’s important really to also educate oneself how you can do things better, you know, as opposed to just focusing in one line.

It’s always best to look around what other people are doing, what other countries are doing, how are they, you know, reaching a certain target or how are they getting or surviving. So, really, innovation in that way is continued and you keep learning like that.

SARAH ZAAIMI: No, thank you so much for that. It’s very wise words coming from someone who have been, you know, grappling with this and working with this every day.

I’m turning to you, Rebecca. I know you spent a lot of time in the continent and you have roots there working with women and trying to open new perspectives in tech, in venture capital, and other fields.

I want to go back to the fact that women are still underrepresented in businesses. In board members, for example, they make less than 8 percent in board members of businesses but they also make less than 20 [percent], 24 percent at best in parliament. So even as decision makers they are, largely, underrepresented.

How do you explain that and how do you overcome it in your day-to-day life trying to work as a social entrepreneur and also as an economic entrepreneur?

REBECCA HARRISON: Yeah. What a great question. If I could answer that we would be fixing this problem, I guess.

But yeah, I guess I wear two hats as an entrepreneur myself and then like Betty also working with entrepreneurs, and I guess when I think about women in entrepreneurship particularly, you know, capital is the issue that we often end up coming back to, that women are just so underrepresented when it comes to seeking capital and accessing capital.

And I think there’s a few—so maybe I’ll just focus my answer on that—I think there are a few challenges there. One is the pipeline building, that there aren’t—there still aren’t enough strong female-led businesses coming through the pipeline to be able to access capital, at least in theory. That’s what the male capital allocators say.

I’m not so sure it’s true. But, arguably, the pipeline is still, you know, like you were saying I think 24 percent of businesses are women-owned. Of the businesses that we support we’re almost half and we’re very intentional about that because we feel like it’s our role to build that pipeline so that investors don’t have that excuse anymore.

We know that there are great women-led businesses out there and we want to help get them ready to be able to access that capital. So that’s one is building the pipeline.

The second is I think our models of capital have been very driven. I think one of the panels this morning made this point that you can’t just kind of take a Silicon Valley VC model and kind of put that in an African context and expect it to work. It’s just—the businesses are so different. The risk profiling is so different. And a lot of the women that we work with don’t necessarily want, you know, hockey-stick growth. They’re not looking for that. They’re working—they want to build profitable, sustainable businesses that grow. They’re ambitious, but they also want to integrate that with their lives and their communities.

So I really believe we need different types of capital and we need to embrace different journeys rather than just having this kind of techbro-driven, like, VC culture that women feel alienated from and don’t even want to be a part of anyway. We need kind of different models that are—that are more inclusive of kind of the incredible women entrepreneurs out there.

SARAH ZAAIMI: As a follow-up question to that, do you think equity investment is something that needs to be incentivized and put forward, and maybe also incentivized by other allies from outside who could, you know—you know, push the governments in the continent to adopt more equitable policies towards women, especially in the startup and entrepreneurship sectors?

REBECCA HARRISON: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s something that kind of allies from all spaces can contribute to because it needs intentionality at every level, whether it’s pipeline building, whether it’s capital. I mean, just an interesting stat, we’ve seen how women entrepreneurs are much—A, they create more jobs in relation to revenue than male entrepreneurs, but they create significantly more jobs for women. So, of the entrepreneurs that we support, more—so 75 percent of them have more than 50 percent female workforce, compared to, I mean, low double digits for men. It’s just so stark it’s fascinating.

So women champion other women, typically. So if we can get more women into kind of every stage of the value chain of entrepreneur support, from kind of mentors to capital allocators to entrepreneurs themselves, you know, whatever it is, I think that’s how we’ll see change, is really—and everyone can be an ally on that wherever you are in that kind of value chain.

SARAH ZAAIMI: That’s very important, especially to find allies within other women, women elevating other women and that peer-to-peer building up to find your footprint.

I’m turning to you, Anita. I know in our initial discussions we spoke a lot about agency. I know you built your own company from, you know, the bottom up. Is the startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem in Africa hostile for women? And how can agency reverse that trend or help empower women in that leadership?

ANITA ERSKINE: I’m sorry, I think women own the startup and entrepreneurial space.


ANITA ERSKINE: No, I think we own it. And I don’t have the data in front of me, but you can challenge me. I find that so many more small organizations/startups created from, you know, fashion startups, innovative startups, tech startups… are all run by women. But you perhaps don’t know about them and see them, perhaps because women tend to focus on getting the work done. Sorry, guys; mean no harm. You know, her focus is in the back office, is in the factory, because she’s responsible for so much more than just herself. So I find that, no, the women are there.

Of course, I mean, post-COVID we’re all going into a world of telling our stories, and people becoming a lot more vocal, and people saying, well, you know what, let’s own the narrative, which I strongly—you know, I advocate for. But I think that women really do what they do best, and that is they lead. You know, women don’t necessarily stand up and shout: Hey, look at me. I’m the founder. I’m the CEO. But she will start something, even on a small scale.

And when you talk about agency, I find that a lot of the time women are over-mentored and underfunded. So when you talk about agency, you know, you tend to be—you tend to confuse that with a woman being able to start her business. No, my focus on agency, really, is her ability to not only empower herself, but ensure that she’s got a story to tell that empowers other people, ensure that she’s educated enough to make the kinds of decisions that affect her positively, ensure that she’s able to understand the business, she’s able to understand the financing behind the business, financial literacy, and that when she comes up with an idea she’s surrounded by people who only are ready to say, you know, a tap on the back—Go, Rebecca! Go, Betty!—but who are able to back that up with cash, with money.

You know, so, listen, we could talk all day about this. But I think that, to be very honest with you—and I’m very happy, Rebecca; you need to help me define the data—but I think that a lot of the entrepreneurs, a lot of the leaders in the entrepreneurial and startup ecosystem are women, and they’re getting the world to pay attention to the continent. They’re just not talking about it.

SARAH ZAAIMI: No, thank you for that myth-busting discourse.

I would like to challenge you on that. There was a recent report by Brookings that says that women in Africa tend to confine themselves to certain comfortable sectors that the society expects them to be in. I know you, throughout the sectors that you are working on, you are busting that myth as well. But is that something across the continent that you’re seeing, or is it just among the elites in certain capitals—maybe Accra or Casablanca or other place, Nairobi? But is it—is it across the continent, or is it just a bubble that we are seeing and we are just seeing through those elites?

ANITA ERSKINE: I work on a project called Africa’s Business Heroes, and every year we see about twenty-seven thousand or thirty-thousand applications from across the continent. And it would shock you how many businesses, you know, focusing on social impact work or focusing on impact at the ground level and all the way up, how many of these entrepreneurs are women. So they are not only—and they’re not only in the cities. They’re not only in Joburg or in Accra or in Nairobi; no, they are in the rural areas as well. Some of them are giving up their full-time glamorous jobs in the big cities and then moving to their hometowns to build businesses just so that they can feed and employ other women on the ground.

So, no, it’s not—you know, the bubble is not per city or is not, you know, according to, you know, the 1 percent or 2 percent from middle to high income. No. In fact, if we did our research a little bit well—and perhaps we should have, you know, prior to coming here—we’d find out that a lot of, you know, a lot of the women are, you know, grassroots-driven. And I don’t know, hundreds of women who are employed at that rural and grassroots level are employed by other women.

SARAH ZAAIMI: Just to deconstruct that a bit further with you, Betty, we chatted a bit briefly about the weight of culture, and the cultural restraints and cultural norms that sometimes would tend to belittle the work of women. That’s what you were telling me through your story and through how people perceive, for example, designers. They say, well, designer is not a real job. You know, like, there is a lot of weight of culture on women trying to lead. Can you develop more on that from your personal experience? And how did you overcome that? And what would be your advice for young women entrepreneurs having, you know, to overcome all the stigma around what they do and trying to explain themselves to the society?

BETTY BEENZU CHILONDE: Thank you, Sarah. I think I’ll also just echo what Anita has said. There are so many women, young women out there who really want to do it, who want to make it, who want to do big things out there. But then, also, speaking from experience back in Zambia, you find that, just like you have mentioned, the weight of culture. You know, there is a certain responsibility that is placed on the woman to be able to be the homemaker, OK? She’s expected to take care of the children. She’s expected to nurture everything that is around and the man is supposed to work. So you find that even as much as she wants to make it, certain responsibilities restrain her from achieving more than the male counterpart. So you find that in some way she will be trying, but there are so many challenges that are coming against her. But, true, there are so many women out there.

And also, sometimes there’s a fear that if I go against, you know, what the culture expects me to do or, you know, what—there’s this, what they call, marriage material. I don’t know how many people have heard it, but the marriage material kind of woman is the woman who is submissive, who is not out there who wants to achieve, and who—the one who is going to be listening to what others are saying and really conforming to what society wants her to do or what they believe her to be able to be in society. So as much as they want to go out there, there’s a fear that, you know, they will be seen to be less marriage material and they will not get married at a certain age, and you know, then they are not good enough women. So all those constraints really come against the woman and they are not able to go forward.

The other thing that I would want to mention also is for those that actually manage to make it, they are seen to be maybe promiscuous, you know, as to mean maybe they have achieved because they have compromised in a way. So women are expected not to achieve more because, oh, you are pretty, so because you are pretty then you went against certain things, and that’s how you’ve made it. So there’s all those challenges, really, that come against the woman. But, yes, the women are there and they are ready to do it, but we need to sort of like help them to come out of those fears.

SARAH ZAAIMI: I want also to focus on the reverse phase of culture, because I feel also it’s the African culture that sometimes allowed these women to be empowered. Because if we tap into the history of the continent, we will find lots of stories of women fighters and, you know, women fighting patriarchy or even matriarchal societies where the woman is the breadwinner or is the head of the tribe or is the healer or is highly esteemed. And that’s not something that people maybe are familiar with. So do you also think that maybe culture is what made you and empowered you to become a leader?

BETTY BEENZU CHILONDE: I would say yes and no.

Yes in a sense that, of course, the African continent has so many languages, tribes, and all those things. If I come to Zambia, I come from a tribe of the Tongas, and these are the farmers, the healers. You know, they are the ones who are seen to be providers, more like food providers and all those things. So culturally, yes, some cultures really push the woman to be out there. Like in the Tonga land, women are the ones who are seen to be workers and the men would, like, really sit back and they will marry five women, and the women will be farming and they’ll be producing food and all this. So women are seen to be assets in a sense that they are the ones who are going to come and work to provide for the family. So, yes, in that way women are seen now to push themselves to be seen as workers to lead, to be able to provide for the family, and all those things. But when you come—you bring that kind of culture back to the city, these are the women who want to achieve. They want to achieve higher grades in school. They want to be seen to be doing better than the men and all those things. So, yes, culturally I think that thing is there.

But because of a mixture of culture, there’s now so many culture mixing here and there, there are so many different beliefs and different upbringing that have sort of, like, diluted how people value things, how they value marriage. I want to say this because I’ve mentioned that you know, women don’t want to come out because they want to be married and all those things. But then, also, I would want to say that I think you know, the way people are brought up, the values that they are—are instilled in them as they are growing, also sort of like affects how they think, you know, and what they pursue. Yeah.

SARAH ZAAIMI: I want to explore that point a bit further about what values and what education do we instigate in women and plant in women that seed of empowerment and self-reliance. And I know, Rebecca, you care a lot about training, about education, about advocacy. How can we empower women to play that role through effective education? And are there any case studies or anything you care to share with us from the success stories that you’ve been—you’ve been living or implementing around you?

REBECCA HARRISON: Yeah. And I’m ambivalent on this one because I agree with you, Anita; women are empowered already. We have power and we’re doing—we’re doing it. We’re building businesses across the continent. And sometimes I feel conflicted about this. I feel like as an ecosystem we’ve responded to what’s essentially a problem with the system by telling women to be more confident, right? Like, sometimes I’m like, well, actually, women are just quite accurate at describing their business success.

So if we look, for example—when I look at the data from our businesses and we disaggregate by gender, we see that women are really good at describing accurately the performance of their business. When we ask them, you know, a few months later, how is your business doing; have you increased revenue, profit, whatever; what they tell us matches up with what we see the actual—has happened in the business. Men, on the other hand—(laughter)—consistently overestimate how well their business is doing. They always tell us their business is growing, they’re making a profit, they’re doing so well. Then we look at the numbers and we’re, like, well, some of you are, you know.

And so—and we are guilty of this as well. Not guilty. I mean, it is a real thing that we need to encourage women to take up space and to own their voice and particularly in some countries. So we have a—we have a program called Speak Up To Lead, which we often run—we don’t—we try not to run too many programs that separate out women and men because networks are so important.

But we sometimes give women—we offer women on a program this extra module on kind of finding voice and agency and speaking up to lead. But I have to say I have this ambivalence because at the same time I’m, like, you know, rather than telling women to be more confident sometimes I’m, like, men should just be more accurate. Maybe that would stop things.

SARAH ZAAIMI: Is it maybe a marketing skill that they need to present their work better to the world?

REBECCA HARRISON: Yeah. I mean, I think that there’s something in it and for sure, like, I think, you know, many women do need to be bolder at times about telling our stories. But again, like, when you look at the data on raising capital male VCs consistently ask women about risk mitigation strategies and they asked men about opportunity.

So no matter how good you are at being bold and telling your story if the system is consistently kind of asking you the wrong questions I mean, yeah, we need to get really smart about navigating that. But, yeah, I just—I really resonate with your point about kind of over mentored and underfunded, I think.

As much as we need to encourage women to get out there and own our stories, really, the system’s got to shift for us as well, I think.

SARAH ZAAIMI: On the point of over mentor them—I’m turning to you, Anita—also maybe accessing funds and capital has to do with access to networks and sometimes what’s lacking is that one contact that you meet, the someone who is willing to take the risk with you, and so what—how can we make women have more access to those networks where capital resides?

And how can women empower women and help them get that access instead of having an ecosystem where women are competing with women because there is so little capital that everyone is just preying on that 8 percent?

ANITA ERSKINE: Listen, I think women compete with women because women are told there’s only two seats in the room and half the time you really don’t want to bring the other person or the other woman who’s as good as you. Then you don’t become the first.

I love awards. I love recognition. But sometimes I think that women are made to believe and think that there can only be one winner and there can only be—you know, and you want to be the first woman to be the oil magnate. You want to be the first woman to be the diamond magnate. You want to be the first woman to tell—you know, and so the entire space is filled with you must compete for this one spot.

But if there’s a second spot do not bring someone who is as good or better than you because then you won’t be the first, and that’s the bottom line. So I feel that women are in this space. We are in the—look at us. We are here. We are in this space. And then, of course, women don’t ask each other what’s your name and what are you into and how can we—and how can we interact, how can we work together.

You know, women always wait to be asked, oh, what’s your name and half the time, you know, because we don’t have the confidence to walk across the room because the room is so cold, you know, we kind of wait and hope that someone will ask us the necessary question and with that question we can give them the right answer and with that right answer it can open a door.

But having said that, I see a shift and that’s why I love the new generation of women. The new generation of women don’t even wait to be invited. They ask and say, I am coming to. You know, the new generation of women will hop on a flight and will travel across the world because there’s something essential happening on the other side of the world.

And so access to that capital is in the rooms that we find too cold to enter and access to capital is in breaking that essence that there can only be two of us. For me, every single time I’m invited somewhere, I mean, I am known to be the S-H-I-T disturber who will always say, hey, can I have five more invitations because there are five young women who are in my program that I would love to be in the room.

We didn’t get taught how to speak in these kind of rooms. We had to discover it the hard way. And, Betty, you said it. I mean, then they say, oh, Anita, you talk too much. Oh, this one is too wild. Oh, this one is too this. Oh, you know what, she’s too aggressive.

You know, but it’s not that. It’s the self-assurance. It’s the self-knowledge. It’s the self-empowerment. It’s the self-inspiration with which I walk.

And so you have this generation of women, and so if you want to break that concept of being in the room, accessing capital and all of that then you mustn’t have a room filled with fifty-something-year-old women. You must have a room fairly balanced with fifty-something-year-old, thirty-something-year-old, twenty-something-year-old, and perhaps sometimes even late teenagers to understand how you do it, how do you move in the room, how do you shake it, how do you, you know, be so concerned that one person is Caucasian, another person is Indian.

Who cares? You know, so the perception that we can’t—you know, one, we can’t all win is absolutely wrong. Then the perception that, oh, well, if one person wins it means next year there can’t be another female winner is another wrong thing.

But it happened to us. Let us not let it happen to the generation of women that are coming.

Did I even answer the question?

SARAH ZAAIMI: Oh, yeah. You did answer exhaustively the question. Thank you for your inspirational words.

I hope that a lot of women and a lot of allies and a lot of people working on Africa would hear this message and it will resonate with them.

I’m moving again to you, Betty, to maybe talk about solutions. I think we entangled enough the challenges and the landscape itself. If we move to actionable things let’s start by government policies.

What needs to be changed, reformed? I come from Morocco and I know in the 1990s there was that quota—women quota system that really elevated women representation in the parliament by, you know, instigating a 35 percent representation in women.

There are other things that could be done in the continent. You spoke about family and about perception and culture, maybe reforming family codes and giving more margins to women could be helpful. Maybe also gender-sensitive budgeting or maybe even removing taxation on some of the startups that are women led.

What are other things that you think from your experience from the concrete challenges that you are facing every day should be made at the government level?

BETTY BEENZU CHILONDE: Thank you so much, Sarah.

I think mentorship is one thing that can work to help women be elevated. I say mentorship because, you know, just like Anita has said whenever there’s an event there needs to be a balance, OK, and this balance sort of, like, creates an opportunity for the younger generation to learn from those who have already done it before.

And I think what the government needs to do—I know back home the government has made intentional provisions for women to be in politics—for example, a certain percentage to be also, like, in parliament and all those things.

But I think when it comes to women entrepreneurship and business and all that I think maybe what other incentives that can be there really is to allow the woman to be a woman. I say that because, you know, we cannot be the same as men.

I know there’s gender equality, all those things, you know. But let the woman be the woman and when I say that, really, I mean let the woman experience being a mother, for example. Give her enough rest when she needs it. OK. When they have babies do you give them enough time for them to recover and then come back to work?

Because when you look at the work landscape you find that maybe the leave for the woman is thirty days or forty—or forty days, same as the man. But you need the woman to recover. You need her to take care of the child and come back to the same opportunities and be able to be at the same level with the men, because biologically the woman is different.

So I think that needs to be recognized. And also by virtue of having a woman obviously she needs more time. You find that certain opportunities she’s not able to take—she’s not able to take those opportunities because of maybe, you know, biological clock and things like that. So I think those things need to be considered and she needs to be given, you know, equal opportunity and, you know, be able to be who she is and still continue pursuing careers and entrepreneurship.

SARAH ZAAIMI: So it’s gender-sensitive laws and allowing women to be women.

If we turn to the international community—and I know here there are many agencies and organizations and even investors among us here in the audience and people listening to us online as well—Rebecca, what would be the incentives or the actions that these allies internationally could do to lend a hand to empower and advance women leadership in the continent?

REBECCA HARRISON: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s about bringing a gender lens across the board and kind of asking those questions about participation of women across programming. So whether that’s around kind of finance allocation where, you know, there’s pros and cons against kind of—for and against quotas, but at least like taking a really intentional view; looking at design, ensuring that kind of gender lens is built into design; that products and solutions, that we’re taking a kind of human-sensitive design approach with women at the center, actually designing for the needs of women; and then ensuring that we’re elevating women’s voices within that programming so women are actually making decisions. And the more that we have women in positions of power and influence, the more I think we’ll see that kind of, you know, trickle down throughout kind of different components of programming.

SARAH ZAAIMI: Thank you, ladies. I also wanted to thank you for the insightful case studies and testimonies and voices that you lended to this discussion.

I also wanted to give the floor to the audience here if they have any questions, comments, additions to this discussion. So we could—and then I’ll turn back to you to answer.

Q: Hi, thank you so much, ladies. This has been a very insightful conversation. My name, again, is Joy LeFour with the Valcrest Institute.

And my question, any of the panelists can take it, but I have followed Rebecca Harrison for years and I really salute your work. And all the other ladies here, thank you so much for the insights shared.

Now, in the context of advancing women leadership in Africa, can any of you tell me, how can we leverage public—the partnership between the private sector and the public sector to create a sustainable opportunity to support systems for women in Africa, and especially in the rural areas?

ANITA ERSKINE: Do you want to take that?

SARAH ZAAIMI: Any other questions before we answer, our comments?

Q: Hi. I’m Audra Killian and I’m with DAI. And so thank you so much for the insightful responses for the—to the panel.

And I think one of the things that’s clear from the panel is the amount of female entrepreneurs across the continent. I was wondering if the female leadership in the private sector has been translating to the public sector and to politics and government, not necessarily just at the high level but also at kind of like the public-facing roles? So with civil servants, at the ministry level, just because not everybody can be President Sirleaf. So I’m just wondering about has there also been, like, a gradual growth of women leaders in politics and governance. Thank you.

SARAH ZAAIMI: Anyone else before we answer? No?

OK, any one of you want to take those?

ANITA ERSKINE: I can start from the first and then come to the second.

So I think it is Rwanda that has an increasing amount of women in—


SARAH ZAAIMI: Fifty percent. Yeah. Yeah.

ANITA ERSKINE: Fifty percent, yeah?… Sixty-one [percent]? It’s 61 [percent]? Yes. So then my automatic answer would be yes. And even when I look at back home in Ghana, every four years when we have the presidential elections and for members of parliament you see more women actively participating in wanting to be in those various rooms, so to speak. So, yes, you can see the increase.

And I think that gradually we’re being able to debunk or break down the fears and the concept that to be a woman in politics you’ve got to be the female version of Arnold Schwarzenegger. And you know, so making it a little bit more attractive for women, but also realizing that the more we wait for, you know, certain decisions to be made on our behalf, the more regression that we encounter. So I’m seeing that a lot.

And in terms of the first question about, I guess, the interface between public and private, let me just talk from the perspective of girls’ education and banning early marriage as an example, because leadership doesn’t just happen when you are born. Leadership is actually the result of where you come from, how you are brought up, who leads you, what are you protected by. And I see that a lot more African countries are beginning to fight against, for example, early marriage. A lot more are beginning to look at helping girls pursue careers in STEM because that’s where the leadership eventually comes from.

So, of course, as I said before, I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I know even in the space that I work in in STEM or in communications or the media or across other industries that there’s a lot more government policies and conversations, you know, at the parliament level about how to get more girls educated. In Ghana we’ve got the Free SHS, which means that more girls automatically are able to go, you know, to school. But that doesn’t mean that girls don’t go to school where there is poor sanitation facilities, which eventually kind of kicks them out. So I see that increasingly we’re all becoming very conscious of how to make sure and ensure that the ecosystem, so to speak, is favorable, you know, for girls.

REBECCA HARRISON: Can I just add something on the public-private partnership? And thank you so much for the shout-out.

But we’ve—we stumbled upon a super interesting model for public-private partnership recently, which is leadership incubators. So we’ve been running a program on agricultural transformation with a partner, AGRA, where we bring together leaders at fairly senior level from public, private, and civil society and put them through a pretty intensive kind of transformational leadership experience. And what’s been so exciting and unexpected about this is how individuals connecting with individuals drives change so quickly. I mean, it’s obvious, right, but just to see this happen so quickly.

So, for example, we saw—we have the delegates working together on kind of practical action-learning projects, right? And so one project in Tanzania, we had a female entrepreneur who’s one of the leading entrepreneurs in the poultry sector in Tanzania in a group with a policymaker in the agricultural ministry, and they together worked to change Tanzania’s poultry policy just through, like a leadership project. And it really—and you know, I know that it’s ag, it’s a little bit off topic, but it really got me thinking about, you know, could we make this happen for gender? Could you get, you know, women from across public and private sector, civil society together in a really transformational leadership experience? What might that kind of generate? Could we do it for climate? So if any funders out there, you know, who want to collaborate on this—but, no, seriously, I think it’s a super exciting kind of idea to explore. If anyone, you know, wants to kind of co-create on that, would love to.

SARAH ZAAIMI: One more question and then we could turn to our guests with some closing remarks. We have under one minute.

Q: Thank you. I am Sarah from Zimbabwe. I just wanted to appreciate the panel. I enjoyed everything that you said.

I am just wondering at the top of my head if maybe you could comment on the role of men in supporting women’s leadership, because I’m thinking that we are fighting this battle because of mostly the patriarchal systems that we have. And maybe the battle is harder because some of the men are pushing back. So I feel that maybe if we don’t have them on our side or at least allowing us space, it’s going to take some time for us to be fifty-fifty at the table, be it in government, be it in the private sector, be it in the academia. So I’m just thinking, what are your thoughts on that? Thank you.

SARAH ZAAIMI: Thank you so much. I’m turning to you, Betty, if you could quickly maybe answer and also give any last remarks.

BETTY BEENZU CHILONDE: Yeah, thank you so much. I think that’s very important what you have just brought up, because as much as we talk about these things I think it’s very important for men to accept and want to support women.

What I have noticed is that men who are—who are, like, living in the diaspora are more willing to assist the women back home with home duties and also make—understanding that the women have to work and then they have to also take part in, you know, providing for the family in that sense. But when it’s back in Africa, it’s a very different story. You find that the men are not willing to assist the woman. So that becomes very, very difficult for the—for the woman.

And that actually brings out the fact that men are actually pushing back. And as much as they are talking about it on the political level and all those things, they are not willing at a personal level to accept and support the woman. So the woman has double work. They have to work, and also they have to work in the other sense. So I think it starts from accepting that the men have to accept to want to support the woman and be able to offload some of the duties that the woman is going through to be able to, you know, uplift the woman.

SARAH ZAAIMI: Any very, very last words before we close? I think we ran out of time.

ANITA ERSKINE: Oh, my husband absolutely loves the fact that I’m who I am. But, no, I mean, that’s why I said initially there’s two sides to everything. I married someone who absolutely loves the fact that I get to travel around the world and who is at home right now taking care of the kids. My daughter was unwell yesterday. He’s happy to give her her Benylin, you know what I mean? So I think there’s the other—there is the other kind of—you know, we don’t even have time to talk about the kind of man you should marry.

But just to finish off, I think that if there are women who have the money—we talked about women not being funded. Fund a women-owned business or a woman-owned business. What stops you from putting money into a woman-owned business? I think that’s a thing that is key. Two, stop trying to be the only woman in the room. And, three, gender equality doesn’t mean you get to do what the man does or, you know—you know, they say sometimes what a man can do a woman can do better. I disagree. I think women are good at doing exceptional things, some things, and women cannot do other things. Same thing with men. So if you pursue your career, pursue your dreams, pursue ambition, pursue it from the perspective of being the best woman you can, not the best woman that is better than the man in the room. And I think that’s how, then, you are able to also get the—to get the men to support.

SARAH ZAAIMI: Thank you. Thank you.

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Image: A panel speaks about advancing women's leadership as part of the AfriNEXT conference on December 12, 2023.