Meet women who are contributing to Africa50’s mission
The world has come a long way since the first international women’s day gathering over a century ago. In Africa, far more women are represented in government and politics now than 50 years ago when most countries became independent. Some have even become president. However, globally statistics show that at the current rate of progress it could take over 200 years to fully close the economic gender gap.
Africa50 is committed to doing its part, both by promoting women within the organization and by improving the infrastructure that African women need to advance toward equal rights and opportunities. In light of this year’s International Women’s Day Theme, “Balance for better”, we want to highlight the thoughts and experiences of our dynamic women.
Africa50 has a rich mix of women from various origins, with different backgrounds, and diverse career paths. All have a wealth of experience and some have had ground-breaking leadership roles in international organizations and the private sector. All are passionate about making a difference, whether for women worldwide or by supporting Africa50’s mission.
Imoni Akpofure, a former Director at the International Finance Corporation and now an Africa50 Investment Committee and Board member, emphasizes that, “Africa50 is a great example of promoting women, both internally and in its work on infrastructure. We develop and invest in projects across sectors, from transport to power and ICT, which are essential in the foundation of inclusive economic growth in terms of access to economic opportunities, social services, information and knowledge. We are definitely going to impact women, since they are affected disproportionately by poor infrastructure.”
Of Africa50’s high-leveI staff about 50% are women, including the Chief Operating Officer, Legal Counsel, and several investment and project development officers, and the majority of its operations staff are women. This commitment to equality was confirmed at the last General Shareholders Meeting, when 50% of the newly elected independent board members were female, bringing the overall board balance to 36% women.
Board member, Sophie L’Helias, a co-founder of the International Corporate Governance Network and founder of LeaderXXchange, which promotes diversity in governance and investment, sums it up nicely: “Both the investment and infrastructure worlds are traditionally less diverse on gender, career path, and ethnicity than other business sectors. Studies time and again show that diversity and inclusion are critical to innovation. Africa50 intentionally nurtures a culture of inclusion that paves the way for innovative thinking to tackle the continent’s critical infrastructure challenges. Africa50, especially as an African institution, is sending a powerful message on the value of diversity to organizations around the world.”
Board member Monhla Hlahla, who has chaired or been a director for several African infrastructure companies over a 20-year career, cautions that, “Women should not get comfortable simply because they’ve been elected to a board or a have a good income. We’ve come a long way thanks to the struggles of those before us, but statistics show that we still have a long way to go. Each generation improves and fortunately more men are becoming partners. Africa50 is doing its part, giving women the chance to grow and progress.”
Board member Félicité Omporo Enouany, Advisor to the Ministry of Economy and Industry of the Republic of Congo, also stresses the theme that women in Africa are underestimated and not treated equally, both professionally and socially. To overcome this “we need to have vision and be given the chance to demonstrate our competence. By proving that we can play a decisive role in an organization’s success, working with men, we can show that equal qualifications should be rewarded with equal compensation and equal rights.”
The structure of Africa50, a small, flexible organization, is ideal for empowering its employees. Senior Investment Officer Aparna Rao, a graduate of Wharton Business School with 15 years of experience in marketing and international organizations, points out that, “Working in a diverse team is key to realize transformational change. Africa50 harnesses my skills across a broad spectrum of activities. I am able to work on projects from the concept and idea stage until financial close, which is very rewarding.
Africa50’s women are cautiously optimistic on the progress that has been made. “There is still a long way to go, but it is a good time,” says Ms. Akpofure. “If you’ve been pushing against the door for some time and it opens, you don’t ask why, you push the door and you go on.”
Investment Officer Laone Bukamu Hulela, a graduate of Harvard Business School and former McKinsey consultant, cautions that, “you do not see enough progress for young women of 18 to 35. More efforts should be done to ensure that they have the same access to job opportunities or salaries that men do.” She encourages women to share their ideas on business opportunities, “because when we come together things get done.”
General Counsel Kimberly Heimert, who earned a J.D. from Harvard Law School and was OPIC’s Vice President, argues that, “in society, it’s not until men have the same rights legally and socially as women that we will truly have equality. Men should be able to take paternity leave, just as women take maternity leave, and have the option to stay at home and take care of their family.” Ms. Heimert strongly believes in the inherent benefit of all types of diversity, “I am not one of those feminists who believes we are all exactly alike and therefore we should be treated alike. I am a woman and I am different.”
Chief Operating Officer Carole Wainaina, a former Assistant Secretary General for Human Resources at the UN and senior Coca Cola executive, also emphasizes the need for women’s solidarity, without discounting the role of men: “It can be a lonely journey as a senior executive, and over the years I have learned to build and lean on a support team of other women, as well as enlightened men.” Concerning work-life balance she adds: “I remember trying to turn down a job because I had two young children and did not think I could do it all, but the Coca-Cola division president, a white male, reminded me that unlike him, I was a role model for many African women, so I had a moral obligation to take the job. This sense of responsibility has stayed with me and given me the strength to take big chances and step out of my comfort zone.”
Summing up Africa50’s message on International Women’s Day, she adds that, “As we make progress on the journey of gender equality, I have found that we women also need to stay true to ourselves. If you want to be trusted, be honest; if you want to be honest, be true; and if you want to be true, be yourself.”
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