Eniola Mafe was recently described as a “Convener” in the Diplomatic Courier’s ‘Top 99 under 33’ 2012. Her role as the Program Manager for Africa in Vital Voices Global Partnerships, a leading international NGO that supports businesswomen, allows her to “bring people together in creative ways to address a pressing international issue or enhance the foreign policy community.” Speaking with Folake Soetan of Ventures Africa, Eniola shared the successes of Vital Voices and her own passion for supporting and honouring women change-makers.

Thank you so much for taking the time to interview with us!

VW: Getting to know you a bit, how does who you are relate with what you do? 

EM: I am an English-born Nigerian currently living in the United States and my personal experience as an African woman who’s lived in two western countries (UK and USA) has formed how I approach the work that I do. Being a first generation immigrant, I am constantly tying in diverse opinions and viewpoints towards reaching an overall common goal of furthering economic development of Africa. I attended Spelman College for International Studies and then worked on Wall Street at Merrill Lynch for a couple of years as an equity financing analyst. That experience helped me to understand the role of business and finance in development especially when it comes to developing and utilising financial tools to increase income and trade across borders. I was always driven by an overwhelming need to connect my business experience with development and I knew that I wanted to work in partnership with the private sector. It was also important to me that there were always overall development outcomes, so not business for business’ sake but as a means of generating income for families and individuals. At the same time I believed that the qualities that make the private sector run, such as efficiency, productivity and innovation, needed to be integrated into international development. So I went to Georgetown University, Walsh School of Foreign Service where I focused on international business development and the role of the private sector in economic development. I also think that women are a big part of the equation so it’s been great for me to be able to tie in my own heritage as a Nigerian woman with my current professional endeavours by working with a non-profit focused on economic empowerment for women.

VW: Why do you think it is so important to focus on economic empowerment for women? And what are some of the unique business environment challenges women face?

EM: Empowering women isn’t just about the women’s issues. It is about enabling them to have a say in broader issues that have an impact on their world. If 50% of a country’s economic, labour and innovation force, is inhibited or ignored in the economic growth, it’s safe to say that country is only realising 50% of its potential. So when we think about empowering women, it’s a country issue, a community issue and a family issue. We know from experience that when you invest in women it has that multiplier effect, not only on her family. Her children are more educated, she tends to invest in her family and community at a higher rate than men. So reaching maximum potential for a community or country requires an understanding of the challenges that women face. They carry “the double burden”; double burden of work and childcare responsibilities, coupled with cultural and societal views of women which affects her ability to invest in her country. So improving economic opportunities for women requires acknowledging and addressing the societal and cultural constraints that are put on them.

VW: The Vital Voices mission is “to identify, invest in and bring visibility to extraordinary women around the world by unleashing their leadership potential to transform lives and accelerate peace and prosperity in their communities”. Practically speaking, what does VV do to fulfil this mission?

EM: As a development organisation investing in women, one of the key things we realise is the importance of women’s leadership. In practice this means women having their voices in the right places and ensuring that there is a critical mass and quality mass of women in decision-making positions of their countries. We don’t want them to just be quotas in leadership but their business acumen and effectiveness should evident. Even though it’s admirable to have quotas in politics or in the number of women on corporate boards, we focus on the effectiveness of women once they’re in those positions. Our support for these women includes grant making, capacity building, exposure (which can be in the form of visibility for the women I work with, and lending credibility to the work that they do) and encouraging established leaders to have more trust in newer leaders.

Of course we recognize that the women were here before any intervention from Vital Voices and they will continue to be here afterwards. Our interventions leverage on the existing potential of the women leaders we work with, amplify that potential and add credibility and visibility in any way that we can. There are some amazing women that are doing great things that are already impacting their communities and countries and we are saying that we hear them and see them; we just try to add further visibility and build their capacity to continue to reach their potential. We don’t deal with the women as empty vessels; instead we acknowledge their abilities and purpose and leverage that. We also encourage the women to demonstrate openness in allowing new voices to be heard, that is allowing younger women to learn from and be inspired by their experiences. We call it ‘paying it forward’; the women mentor, train or in some way invest in others’ successes and also work towards creating an environment that continues to invest in the future successes of others.  It is the mentoring and coaching, which ensures that women not only rise to the top but also bring others with them. That is the guiding principle of how we do what we do. In practicality, if our mission is addressed, our job is done. We’re in this business for development to an end, so I would like to work my way out of a job!

VW: What is your role as Program Manager Africa, for Vital Voices?

EM: I specifically work on our economic empowerment and development portfolio for Africa. I often work with direct interventions for women entrepreneurs and business leaders. My direct engagements include training and technical assistance, which could be for the women business leader, the wider business enabling environment or for her vehicle for change, i.e. her business or the business women’s association she works with. When we talk about her vehicle for change for business it means she’s a job creator, she is creating income for her employees and she’s providing the community with goods and services. A business leader is also usually a leader in her community. In the economic sphere, her business community includes her business, the business associations, her suppliers or those businesses she supplies to. I also engage with the wider business environment, the policies, legislation, institutions and entities. Vital Voices has a partnership model so even though I work directly with women entrepreneurs, I also work with associations that support them and corporate partners that can provide services for the women.  We’ve run programs where we brought in corporate partners who women entrepreneurs from various sectors can supply to. We also bring partners in to provide business advisory expertise which is usually expensive for the entrepreneur. Our model allows her to still have access to that information and expertise.

So on a day-to-day basis what I do varies. For example right now I’m working on a training program for 30 women from all across sub-Saharan Africa in agro-processing and textiles and finished apparel. And we’re providing them with training over a three-day period to develop a business growth strategy that they can adapt to their own business for the markets they serve. I can do that one day while the next day I could be working with a business association to develop their organisational financial management planning so that they can better serve the women who are members of their association. It’s great! It’s entrepreneurial, in that each work day can be drastically different from the next, as I respond to new developments or trends or find opportunities to leverage. My work really requires me to be a jack of all trades but also use concepts that may already exist and see how it can be adapted to support the women we work with.

VW: Why is the partnership model so important and what are some of the challenges you face in executing it?

EM: Good question. Vital Voices doesn’t have offices in the countries we work in, for example for Africa we have a presence in at least 7 or 8 countries but we have women within our network in more than 40 countries. So we don’t have actual offices in those countries but we work with local partners because they know the terrain, the local needs and where there are constraints. We want to work with existing organisations, entities and individuals because it makes our support more demand-driven. Integrating them into the planning and design of our programs ensures that there is a constant feedback loop on what works, how it would work and in what target market it would work. We also respond to opportunities as they arise from partners or prospective partners. It’s a great opportunity because you are constantly entrepreneurial but it obviously comes with challenges. Collaboration requires more time in terms of planning and thinking through things; you can’t take a unilateral decision. However, you know that overall the quality of the product will be enhanced because you brought in more people. You know that the quality overall will benefit the women astronomically because it is demand-driven. We do have capacity challenges, we’d love to respond to everything and add our value where needed but we know we have to be strategic about how we do that and how we use our scarce resources. Also you know that when grant-making is involved it changes the dynamics. We have to manage the relationships we have on ground well and listen and communicate well to make sure whatever we do is working. We also develop cross-sector partnerships, private and public sectors, Civil Society Organisations and even technical service providers to leverage on each sector’s core competencies for the benefit of the program.

VW: What is the most inspiring story of an African change-maker you have heard in your time at Vital Voices?

EM: It would have to be Kah Walla. She is a dynamo in every sense of the word! She owns her own strategic consulting firm called Strategies, in Cameroon. She is a business leader and also just recently ran for president of Cameroon in the country’s most recent elections. We have been working alongside Kah for a number of years in various ways. She was a dynamic woman even before we engaged with her. She embodies the Vital Voices leadership tenets in that she has a very strong sense of mission starting off as a business woman and community organizer. Through a strong passion to make her country better and to improve the lives of her country men and women she decided to run for office at various municipal and provincial levels and was one of a handful of women who ran for the presidency of Cameroon. She’s been a community organiser at the local level for market women, developing their skills and their ability to lobby for a better business enabling environment for themselves. She has also been a strong advocate for women in the informal sector in Cameroon and internationally. Just because they are informal doesn’t mean that they are not formalised in terms of their business operations and vision. So though she has strong roots in the community and works directly with grassroots women, she also speaks to the elites and engages them. She’s been able to transcend a lot of the lines between political and business, national and international. She is a young leader who doesn’t just see herself as a business woman but as a woman with a responsibility to her wider community to change it. She a doer, she walks the walk, even at the risk of her own safety! Kah Walla sees an end vision in sight and wants to reach it, whilst encouraging other men and women to do the same. Now that is leadership! She very much embodies the ideals that Vital Voices seeks and we want to identify and support a critical mass of Kah Wallas who can affect that kind of impact, in their various spheres of influence. I think there is a dearth of good leadership in Africa.  For instance it’s telling that the Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership has not been awarded to any African leader in the past few years. This is a prize awarded based on good governance, and promoting democratic ideals. This and other examples are emblematic of the paucity of leadership; and the lack of adequate pipelines to develop effective leaders. I strongly believe that developing women to take on these roles is one key element to Africa’s development and making  the continent better and more equitable place that lives up to its promise. Working along size these amazing women is what makes me get up in the morning. 

VW: What would you say have been crucial contributors to the success of Vital Voices?

EM: I think one main contributor is that we listen to the women. We have a lot of research, and background data, but to really understand the constraints women face and increase the value of our contribution we listen to them. Since they are active in their respective countries, they know the trends and they know what’s needed. We build trusted relationships with all our partners and stakeholders within and across sectors. For the women, we make sure our interventions are sustainable programs that create lasting impact. By building networks, each woman has multiple networks of women she can constantly engage with so a training session is not just a one-time interaction with no follow-on. Finally we make sure we treat partners as agents of their own development. This means that they play an active part in their growth and are not simply beneficiaries of our programs. Ultimately we strive to provide gender-sensitive demand-driven interventions that are sustainable.

VW: And finally, from your experience training and supporting female entrepreneurs in Africa, what advice can you offer our readers on successful business enterprise?

EM: Have a strategy. I can’t stress this enough. It is relatively easy to articulate where you are in your business and where you want to go, that is points A and Z. What is much harder to articulate is how to get from B to Y – for this you need a strategy. If you can articulate the well-planned steps that will get you where you want to go, you’re much better positioned for success.

Thank you Eniola!

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