In a world dealing with many challenges and a growing emphasis on creating a sustainable future, African nations are grappling with questions, including: How they can adapt to these changing times and remain globally significant. Against the backdrop of this, Africa Soft Power and African Women on Board convened a thought-provoking event focused on one message: Africa’s success hinges on recognizing and actively engaging its women and young people.
The fully-booked event, titled “Women’s Leadership and Africa’s Youth in a Brave New World of Disruptions” was hosted alongside the UN General Assembly 2023 in New York City. It brought together visionaries and thought leaders to discuss the continent’s place in addressing global issues such as gender inequality, climate change, insecurity and artificial intelligence.
Africa’s biggest opportunities: women and young people
The driving force behind the event was the shared belief that women and young people represent Africa’s greatest opportunity for growth, innovation, and sustainable development.
However, the reality on the ground is different. Despite being over 50 per cent of the continent’s population, women remain underrepresented in critical decision-making spaces. Likewise, with 60 per cent of Africa’s population under the age of 25, the continent boasts a youthful demographic. However, this advantage is hindered by an absence of social infrastructure and inadequate data to inform effective policymaking for the youth. As Africa’s population is projected to double by 2050, it becomes imperative to harness the potential of this growing youth demographic.
In a conversation with Nkiru Balonwu, Founder, of Africa Soft Power Group and host of the event, 17-year-old Elizabeth Nyamwange, inventor, social entrepreneur and gender-equality activist emphasized the potential held by African women. “Gender parity is the thing that’s really going to set us [Africa] forward, and it’s going to set us forward in every single aspect”, she said.
Later, Hon. Dr. Bosun Tijani, Nigeria’s Minister of Communications, Innovation and Digital Economy, made a similar point in a panel discussion. “If we are going to do things better in Africa, we have to understand that our young people are critical. But also women as well, because we’ve neglected women’s contribution for a long time…there’s no Africa without women”, he said. “I don’t think we’ve actually taken the time to articulate the role of women in African society. And we feel like it’s a no-go area because, historically, we’ve had a system where the means and source of livelihood require that you do hard labour, and the African culture elevated masculinity in that regard. But men need to understand that the world we live in today is not about power, but your ability to create a world that can be sustainable – and that’s where ego will have to get out of the way.”
Roman Oben, who’s Vice President of Football Development at the NFL echoed the sentiment with, “Diversity is a fact but inclusion is a choice,” emphasizing the need for intentionality in including marginalized groups.
For Neneh Diallo, Chief Diversity Officer at USAID, decisive action is important. “We can talk about the stats of how many women are represented in government, the public sector or the private sector. We can talk about women’s investment and why it’s crucial. But it’s the call to action that’s important: what are we going to do? We can write all the policy papers we want, but what are we going to do? What’s our action? What are the steps we can take here?”
Omar Ben Yedder, Group Publisher & MD, IC Publications – the machinery behind Africa-focused magazines such as African Business, and New African – also acknowledged the power of actions, stating that, “In terms of climate change and other problems, is that we as Africans don’t want to be seen as a problem child, but as drivers of solutions to global issues. That’s where the opportunities lie; that’s where the narrative’s shifting to. And ultimately, the narrative shifts because of actions rather than words – even though it’s the words and ideas that get us going.”
Intersectional issues, and the private sector’s role in addressing them
Africa stands at a crossroads, facing challenges ranging from gender inequality and climate change to security concerns and the disruptive impact of artificial intelligence. Yet, within these challenges lie tremendous opportunities for the continent to shine. As global interest in Africa surges, it is a pivotal moment for the continent to demonstrate strategic prowess and harness the potential of its young population and women.
So, what can be done? According to the speakers – the private sector has a huge role to play. Olubukola Verheijen, Special Adviser to the President of Nigeria (Energy) set the stage when she stressed how crucial collaboration was. “There’s no way to drive the change we need without private sector capital. Our approach is to make sure that we create an enabling environment in terms of policies that are attractive and competitive.”
Eleni Gabre-Madhin, Chief Innovation Officer at UNDP Africa, drew attention to the importance of nurturing innovation on the continent. “This thing about being young and trying to solve problems, that’s a really big deal. So, how can we protect innovation on the continent? How do we get the innovation ecosystem [on the continent] right? How do you get the public sector and private sector together to catalyse the ecosystem so that young people feel they really can change the world?” She said. “The biggest threat is a dream that dies. When millions of young people on our continent can’t see their dreams realized, that’s the beginning of social unrest – that’s the beginning of other ills we face as a society.”
Wendy Teleki, Head of the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) Secretariat at the World Bank Group, believes that putting women’s leadership at the forefront, especially in finance, can bring about change. She stated, “Building leadership in the financial sector, both in the public and private sectors, is crucial. When women are in decision-making roles, they make pro-women decisions regarding financing. The focus should be on making corporations more effective and removing constraints that hinder women’s leadership.”
For Oscar Onyema OON, Group CEO, Nigerian Exchange Group Plc, collaboration on a massive scale is one answer. “It’s very critical for the public sector to collaborate with the private sector – with the appropriate level of leadership”. Later on, he would stress that moral and financial imperatives are not exclusive, explaining that “It makes better business sense to have 100% of your population represented, versus 50%.”
Chukwuemeka Afigbo, Senior Director, Developer Success – Workforce Identity Cloud, Okta noted the importance of framing. “Most times, when conversations around gender equality come up, it’s usually framed as something that the government or civil society should address,” he said. “But here’s the thing, we have to challenge the private sector to fully commit to addressing this issue.”
Christine Ntim, Founder & CEO of Global Startup Ecosystem (GSE) advocated for leadership support. “There needs to be a conversation about, not only putting women in positions of leadership, but also empowering them to start as well.” On an individual level, she encouraged women to brand their narratives, emphasizing the power of storytelling in opening doors and creating opportunities.
Africa’s moment… and seizing opportunity
In her opening remarks at the event, Uche Pedro, Founder and CEO of BellaNaija, one of the event’s partners alongside Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, and PVSC, urged stakeholders to recognize the critical nature of the current global and African context. “It’s a very critical time in the world and also for Africa. Remember ‘women’s power and leadership’; remember ‘youth power’ – and remember why these concepts are both crucial for Africa’s present and future”. Indeed, as the world grapples with complex challenges, Africa has a unique opportunity to lead by example, leveraging the untapped potential of its women and youth to reshape the continent.
Ms. Diallo urged the diaspora community to take the initiative. “Those of us who live here and have one foot on the continent have an advantage. We can bring investment back to Africa – you don’t have to work for the big corporations, you don’t have to be in public policy or hold big positions.”
Dr. Nkiru Balonwu, Founder of the Africa Soft Power Group and host of the event, believes that bridging data gaps is key to propelling the continent forward. “Unlocking the untapped potential of Africa’s women and youth requires that we understand them. They are not just beneficiaries of development; they are its architects. We must bridge the data gaps, challenge outdated norms, and make informed decisions to ensure that Africa’s future is driven by the brilliance and innovation of its women and young minds. It’ll take time, effort and resources but it’s something we [Africa Soft Power] are already working on.”
Africa Soft Power has long been dedicated to pursuits of this magnitude; the group’s critical objective is mainstreaming all too often still unseen – African perspectives as a fundamental part of the global conversation in every aspect of life and economy.