This article is part of a series to celebrate this year’s International Women’s Day that is centred around the theme, Choose to Challenge. To read the first article in the series, click here.
We continue with our special feature for Women’s History Month, and in this second part of our series, we start with Kamala Harris who was recently sworn in as the Vice-President of the US, making her the first woman to occupy this position.
It is easy to look at Kamala Harris and think that her most profound achievement is being the first woman – not to mention, one of Indian and African origins – to occupy the position of Vice-President of the United States, the second-highest position in the executive branch of the US federal government. But in truth, her greatest success has been “Kamala Harris, for the people,” words she said she spoke the first time she stood in a courtroom.
Throughout her career, Kamala has done just that: stand up for society’s castoffs; the lowly; the under-represented; the oppressed; the marginalised, and just about everybody that society tends to swallow in its shallow advancement of the cause of the strongest, the loudest, the seemingly most-powerful.
Real-life stories abound of how Kamala Harris stood up to this last group, challenging what society has erroneously passed off as normal to establish what really should be, as well as what is right and just. An example is in 2012, when she was serving as Attorney-General of California, being the first female and first African-Indian-American to hold this position, there was a case against mortgage firms for their predatory practices that were leading to unfair foreclosures. In negotiations that involved Attorney-Generals of other states, Kamala Harris walked out of what she felt would not bring enough justice to Californian homeowners. She drove a harder bargain and won a $20 billion settlement that was five times higher than that originally offered.
Today, Kamala Harris is Vice-President of the United States, a position that no one of her skin colour or gender has occupied before now. Her presence in the White House gives women all over the world the confidence that they can ascend to the highest positions of their career if they are competent, courageous, persistent and resilient. However, even more significant are her antecedents before the White House, and they give hope to everyone that regardless of their background and the limitations that come along with it, anything is possible if they try hard enough to push forward with their convictions.
If there is one thing multiracial or multiethnic people understand, it is the human need to belong, to carve out an identity that you can proudly own and use to paddle your way through life. They understand discrimination and bias, and how it can cause you to grow up confused and on the fringes of society, which is why they can usually be found in conversations demanding change and challenging oppressive societal norms. One of such persons is Anwar Bougroug.
Anwar is a Moroccan who grew up in Norway. He is a writer, a fashion designer and a stylist consultant as well as the founder and creative director of eponymous fashion brand, Bougroug. As a creative, Anwar weaves the issues surrounding sustainability, gender equality, inclusivity, diversity and sexuality into his art. His path to self-identity created the foundation upon which his quest for a fair and just society rests and draws inspiration from.
Anwar understands that it is not just enough to be accepting of all peoples; you have to be vocal about it. He uses everything he touches to challenge all forms of discrimination, including gender bias, and is a leading voice of change in Morocco, where he comes from.
In his words “I launched the brand in 2017 and was quickly immersed by the Moroccan community abroad and young Moroccans in the kingdom. Bougroug challenges the progressivism and problems in Morocco and the MENA-region, such as toxic masculinity, female empowerment, diversity and inclusivity, and the brand got a cult following from the Arab world and from the rest of Africa very quickly”.
From a young age, Hasfat had to learn how to use her voice. She was only 16 when the June 12 election, which declared her father, Chief Moshood Abiola, the winner of the presidential election, was annulled. Following her mother, Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, to canvass for the release of her father after he was arrested by the military government, Hafsat started to speak up. She has not stopped speaking up or advocating for a just and equal society since then.
In 1997, she founded the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND) in honour of her mother who was killed on the 4th of June 1996 in an assassination that remains unresolved to date. It was birthed in 1996 “to advocate for U.S. support for Nigeria’s democracy movement and to promote human rights in Nigeria.” Now, among other things, KIND advances women’s leadership by removing barriers to women’s political participation and working to eliminate violence against women. It was under KIND that Hafsat secured the right to bring V-day to Nigeria and host the Vagina Monologues, a series of monologues from the words of about 200 women living in different parts of the world describing the violence, and in some cases, joy they have experienced as a result of their womanhood.
She is a councillor at the World Future Council as well as the President of the Women in Africa Initiative, a platform connecting leading and high potential women in Africa to facilitate their increased individual success and collective impact.
In an interview with Vital Voices, she explained why she continues to advocate for women leaders in Africa. “Women are too often seen as the victims of crisis, but in the midst of problems, [they] see solutions… No one questions when women and girls accept the lot that we’ve been given. Yet, we are questioned when we seek to change the way things are. I was 19 when my mother was killed for fighting for change in Nigeria. So it was at 19 that I decided to do more than what my society expected.”
In a society that still regards wealthy women with unfounded suspicion, Udo Okonjo is an award winning international lawyer turned celebrated African real estate entrepreneur and igniter. Udo has a healthy relationship with wealth, seeing it not as an end in itself but as a means to an end that is for the greater good. She celebrates wealth, encouraging everyone and women even more, to strive for great wealth that they can in turn use to not only raise others around them to more significant positions but the more vulnerable in society as well.
Udo Okonjo uses her success to create impact and dismantle poverty – inducing ideologies, overcoming the erroneous belief that a woman should not be wealthy outside of her husband – to create a wealthy and prosperous society.
She has empowered hundreds of people – and even many more women further through the Inspired Women of Worth Leadership Network that she founded in 2010 to inspire, connect and empower women to live fully and with purpose. The network has also since 2020 expanded to incorporate a leadership academy, which in its inaugural year graduated 112 outstanding aspiring, emerging and advanced female leaders. The organisation’s ethos and underlying never changing mission is “to accomplish a world of good through empowered women”, and is achieved through various platforms and high engaging transformational programs.
To understand who Catherine is and the ways she has chosen to challenge discrimination and bias, think of a backend developer who toils behind the scenes to ensure that applications are up and running. Or the person behind the camera taking the story from a physical location to a place of immortality.
Catherine Bickersteth is the co-founder of Strategic Educational Advisory Services which holistically helps students with their education. She is Chair of Development Africa (formerly FamilyCare Nigeria); a trustee of Hope4Girls ( a non-profit organisation that is dedicated to the increased participation and empowerment of disadvantaged young African women in sports and education) and CSR Secretary of Cycology Riding Club, a non-profit that advocates for a healthier lifestyle through cycling.
But away from these titles and positions, Catherine Bickersteth quietly touches the lives of women on a daily basis, providing them with the resources, tools, networks and relationships they need to succeed. For those who know her well, she is a fairy godmother who works behind the scenes for the growth and wellbeing of girls and women.
Dr. Anino Emuwa
Dr. Anino Emuwa started out in corporate banking at Citibank. As she advanced in her career, she noticed two problems. The first was the inability of businesses, mostly smaller ones, to access loans. So she went off to Nottingham Business School for a doctorate that would equip her with the necessary skills to help this group overcome this particular challenge.
When she was done with school, she mapped out a plan that involved working as a consultant with financial institutions to help them improve their capacity for lending to smaller businesses. And then she came face to face with the second major problem these businesses faced: they lacked the right management skills that would enable them use their available resources for success.
It was this knowledge that led her to found Avandis Consulting, a strategy and financial advisory firm for entrepreneurs and business leaders. She decided to focus primarily on female entrepreneurs and to help these women even further, she went on to establish 100Women @Davos and African Women in Fintech and Payments Network (AWFP), NGOs dedicated to building women leaders in business.
Dr. Anino Emuwa is not just committed to building SMEs, she is working hard to ensure that women are suitably represented at the top of these businesses.
Up until May 13, 2020, most knew Diary of a Naija Girl as, well, Diary of a Naija Girl. We knew the name of the person behind the account as ‘Ife’, but that was all we had to go by.
However it did not matter so much. Since 2015 when Ifedayo Agoro started blogging about women-related issues, she has inspired women and men to stop accepting patriarchal practices and ideologies. Her social media pages, which have acted as her blog, have since evolved to vibrant online communities discussing other topics (like business growth, financial management and more recently, her lifestyle brand). Regardless of the evolution of her platforms, Diary of a Naija Girl still continues to be a safe place where women can speak up and be sure that their voices would be heard.
In 2019, she created a YouTube channel, DANG Networks, which basically is a video version of what her blog offers but features stories of well-known women and their struggles behind the scenes. It also hosts the videos from the DANG Masterclass which are short courses on a variety of subjects.
Ifedayo Agoro has described herself as an advocate for women, and her advocacy has started conversations on women-related issues that have moved from words to action in real life. Her choice to speak up for women has helped other women to speak up, not just for themselves alone, but for future generations of girls and women.
In 2020, PwC released its Nigerian MSME survey: in the last 5 years, SMEs had contributed nearly 50%, on average, to the country’s GDP and account for over 80% of employment in the country. Yet, in spite of their immense contribution, they are often overlooked when it comes to the one thing they often need the most – funding.
Adesuwa noticed this challenge as she worked with different financial firms over the years whose focus, among other things, was on emerging markets that included Africa. It wasn’t like there was no funding at all: financial institutions offering loans and private equity firms abound. However, loans from the former come with high-interest rates and other lending conditions that most MSMEs cannot afford, and investments from the latter include funds that are too much for this group.
And this is how Aruwa Capital Management was birthed. “I decided that for the long-term of the business we had to take ownership and control our own destiny. Most of the businesses we take on are currently undervalued and underserved by larger financial institutions … Aruwa Capital focuses on providing growth capital to untapped indigenous businesses with an operating history and track record of profitability of at least three years. The company focuses on high growth sectors such as FMCG manufacturing, tech-enabled non-banking financial services, education, healthcare and B2B services,” she explained in an interview.
But beyond providing affordable capital to small businesses, Adesuwa decided to focus on women-owned businesses, or those who impact women either financially or in other aspects of their lives. “…There is a huge multiplier effect when a woman is empowered. 90 per cent of a woman’s wealth is invested back into her family and community because the woman controls the household. When women have access to capital and financial dependency, they impact the economy and society because of the significant roles they play, especially in Africa,” says Adesuwa.
So far, Aruwa Capital Management has raised $20million for investments which it hopes to disburse in 4-5 investments averaging between $1million to $5million. It has invested in Wemy industries, makers of sanitary products primarily targeted at women and children. But Adesuwa is definitely not resting on her laurels. “It is my point of view that until we change the balance in terms of the capital allocators, I don’t think much is going to change,” she told Forbes in a 2020 interview.
Nigeria is undeniably rich in minerals, owning significant deposits of limestone, lead, zinc, coal, gold and precious stones. Yet, it was only in 2018 that the solid mineral sector contributed its highest earning in 12 years to the economy to the tune of N69.5billion. What makes this even more interesting is that a report by the Nigeria Investment Promotion Commission (NIPC) estimated the current commercial value of seven of the country’s solid minerals (Iron ore, Coal, Lead/Zinc, Bitumen, Gold, Limestone and Barite) at trillions of dollars.
Reasons for this underperforming sector range from corruption, to poor data management to illegal mining fueled by even more corruption and poverty. In fact, banditry in the North has been linked to illegal mining that has flourished in the region for years.
These challenges that inadvertently lead to the exploitation of children and youths are not strange news to Solange Boccovi, who is the Managing Director of Orion&Sirius, merchants of natural coloured gemstones. When Orion&Sirius started out, they had a goal in mind – source for best gems but only ethically and from conflict-free regions. It was in their quest to achieve these goals that Solange stumbled upon the mining community in Nigeria and the challenges that are tearing it apart.
She had two options: go with the status quo, or stay true to the brand’s mantra and ensure an ethical process in the mining of gemstones. She chose the latter, educating the miners on what the stones were really worth and working to ensure they got their just dues.
In 2018, Orion&Sirius launched the Fingerprints campaign in Nigeria as part of a global effort to raise awareness on the importance of sustainable gems mining practices in Africa in a bid to contribute to economic growth and improve employment opportunities in the sector.
Today, Solange continues to ethically work with miners in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. Through Orion&Sirius, she envisions the modernization of the African coloured gemstone sector in building sustainable livelihoods within gems-mining communities.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Like Kamala Harris, Chimamanda is a name that immediately conjures an image in the minds of anyone who has access to a smartphone and is conversant with the goings-on in Africa.
Chimamanda is unapologetically feminist and unapologetically African, in that order. Her novels and speeches address socio-economic challenges especially in the African society, including Nigeria where she is from. Her bravery and courage to stand up against injustice and lawlessness have inspired thousands of people the world over to lend their voices fearlessly to the same cause.
Even now, Chimamanda continues to speak up, advocating for the rights of women and girls, the oppressed and the marginalised, the victimised and those that society considers ‘weak.’ Even without any obligation to, she embodies the theme of this year’s Women’s Day celebration, Choose to Challenge so perfectly that we are in awe of what she has done and continues to do.