Irene Ochem


As the world strives to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030, on the front burner of most governments, industries, organisations and individuals is Goal number five, which seeks gender equality and empowerment of women and girls. It is in this light that the Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF) Conference, Exhibition and Awards is set to hold its 5th edition next month. MARGARET MWANTOK spoke with the founder Irene Ochem on the project and the need for societies to allow stronger empowerment of women.

Can you tell us the objectives of your organisation?
My organisation is the Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF). It is a pan-African non-profit organisation that nurtures and actively promotes women’s innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa through its development programmes, accelerators, and networking events. AWIEF’s mission and principal objective is to foster the economic inclusion, advancement and empowerment of women in Africa through entrepreneurship support and development.

Why are you involved in this project?
This is the most difficult of all the questions that I have always had to contend with. I believe that my passion for AWIEF is a cumulative resultant of the circumstances and experiences I have lived all my life, born and raised in rural Nigeria and by a very strong woman; and spending my work life between Africa and Europe.

There have been talks of empowering women and the impression sometimes is that such efforts have the tendency to break the family units, what is your take?
I would beg to differ from the impression that empowering the African woman would tend to break the family units. Quite to the contrary, I would say that empowering the African woman would strengthen the family units because the empowered woman has the deep feeling of personal satisfaction and that she has attained her highest potentials as endowed by nature et al. To the best of my knowledge, and as far as I can remember, women who have engaged in farming with their families in the rural areas have not failed to maintain their family units even after toiling with their members in the farms. Therefore, I am simply unable to imagine how empowering the woman to benefit more from what she already does would lead to breaking the family unit.

However, we must keep in mind that every person’s life, man or woman, has several components including work, leisure, hobby and family, and that my thesis is only valid where the different components of a person’s life are each accorded the right portion of the person’s time and space. This is valid so much for the woman as it is for the man. There will be clear disequilibrium and tendencies to “cracks” in scenarios where one component of an individual’s life tends to overshadow other components, so much for the man as it is for the woman.

We are aware that the traditional African woman was economically relevant while still placing premium on the family order of things. What could today’s woman learn from this?
I quite agree that the traditional African woman has always been economically relevant. Afterall, the average African woman, especially those in rural communities, have always engaged in some sort of petty trading and in subsistence agriculture alongside their other family and household chores. In some cases, the monies generated in these mini and micro engagements and undertakings have constituted the backbone of their individual family finances. Furthermore, several cases are known of widows who have had to raise their children on their own. Therefore, it may be affirmed without doubts that women all over the world have always been and will always be economically relevant in the societies where they live and work.
Consequently, the talk about women empowerment inter alia is essentially a discourse for the enhanced recognition and appreciation of the fundamental role played traditionally by the woman in the family, in the economy, at national level and globally.

Some people believe that using the terms, “inclusion” “empowerment” and “support” still deepens the dependency mindset against women and even by the women themselves. Any idea of how a change in nomenclature can strengthen the agenda?
No, I don’t believe there is need for a change in nomenclature, but a clearer understanding of the definition and context of the terms in question. Of course, talking of “inclusion” “empowerment” and “support” for women, which fails to underpin excellence in the women would only exacerbate the dependency mindset against women. I feel personally and particularly very concerned in this particular debate because these key words form the integral part of my Organization’s glossary and lexicon.

There is need to state emphatically here that we talk and push for “inclusion” “empowerment” and “support” for women in scenarios and circumstances wherein the principal cause for their exclusion is their gender, and this is diametrically opposed to situations where females are “granted” career opportunities specifically because they are women. Obviously, this latter scenario would only deepen the dependency mindset even by the women themselves. We are all aware that one’s best judge is their conscience. Therefore, a woman who secures a job, a promotion or rises significantly in her career because of her gender rather than her ability and competence in the field would certainly suffer from severe inferiority complex when compared to their male colleagues and counterparts. But such simply can never be the case for any female who soars in her career exclusively because of her capacities and ability to deliver great value in her field of competency.
When these necessary ingredients are available, I would simply encourage women to fight even harder for their rights because nothing good comes without a struggle.

Affirmative action has been around for a number of years, yet women are neither growing in political structure nor climbing in the corporate ladder as the men. What could be the reason, especially given that women almost outnumber the men in population?
I have always tried to tread this issue of “Affirmative action” with great caution. We need to distinguish clearly “Affirmative action” that seeks to achieve equal opportunities for capable women to their male counterpart in the context of any work that needs to be done from the Affirmative action, which merely tends to promote women for the simple fact that they are women. I would consider the former as effective “Affirmative action” while the latter would rather be destructive “Affirmative action”. However, having made this distinction there remains, in the case of the former, the need to draw a clear line between what gets said and what gets effectively done. In fact, an interesting Italian proverb states that: “There runs a sea between what is said and what gets effectively implemented”. So, I daresay that so much talk about affirmative action without visible impact on the career path of competent women in Africa, both in politics and the corporate world, would be tantamount to mere lip-service. But again, we must not lose sight of the notable exceptions, also among African countries both in politics and the corporate world, where women have achieved great heights in their careers. “Rome was not built in a day” is yet another proverb, so we may not imagine resolving decades-long problems of female marginalisation and exclusion, which are consequences of cultural barriers, almost overnight. The important point here is to ensure that the ascent of women in their respective careers is gradual and steady and commensurate with their individual capacities and capabilities.

Reaching rural women is critical to any enduring change, many argue. But most interventions are limited to the urban areas. What plans do you have to impact the critical mass of the rural women populace?
That’s quite very correct. I mean that reaching and positively impacting the rural woman is pivotal to any enduring change especially in the context of Africa where the larger percentage of the population are rural dwellers. But I would rather think and argue differently and say that the idea of interventions limited to urban areas is fast becoming a thing of the past. In other words, there are currently several national and regional initiatives, programmes and projects that are specifically and purposefully designed for grassroots women, and I have been part of some of these projects.

Take for instance one of our major flagship programmes: the VALUE4HER project, a continental programme that seeks to strengthen women-led agribusiness enterprises in Africa, which is sponsored by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), a European Union funded institution based in the Netherlands. VALUE4HER is specifically designed to target both urban and rural women agriculture value chain actors. This AWIEF-implemented programme has had tremendous impact on many African women agripreneurs.

There is no gainsaying the fact that Africa remains the hardest hit world region in terms of food insecurity, and this may only be successfully addressed by implementing successful agricultural programmes as VALUE4HER that aim to boost food production across the continent. The challenge is for our African countries and continental regional bodies to step up the necessary policies to effectively reach women in the grassroots.

Can we learn some of your achievements across the continent?
Thank you very much for this question. This year we are celebrating the 5th anniversary of the AWIEF brand and we have a great record of landmark successes and achievements attained vis-à-vis the advancement and empowerment of women in Africa through entrepreneurship support and development.
The impact of AWIEF incubation and accelerator programmes for hundreds of young women entrepreneurs across the continent, range from improved business operations, business growth with increased revenue, new business partners and joint ventures, to job creation. In June we launched #VALUE4HERConnect, the first continental digital marketplace for women in agribusiness, a customised market information and intelligence platform where women agripreneurs can reach out to one another, share and access structured resources and services, and create opportunities for women-to-women and intra-African agribusiness trade.Launched in 2017, the AWIEF Awards are annually celebrating great achievements as well as showcasing that women can thrive in male-dominated sectors. And of course, as you know, since 2015, we host the annual AWIEF Conference and Exhibition which has become Africa’s largest female entrepreneurship platform. Last but not the least, we have been able to establish strong partnerships with reputable global organisations and institutions.

What do you think would happen if society allows stronger empowerment of women, especially in Nigeria and Africa?
This is a very interesting question. I sincerely believe that Nigeria and Africa in general would get a lot richer if society allowed stronger empowerment of women. In fact, there are several published reports by renowned institutions that detail the loss of several trillions of US Dollars to the global economy due to denied empowerment of women. Considering that this plague is more typical and characteristic of many African countries, it is easy to assume that the windfall beneficial impact of women empowerment would reflect more evidently on the national economies of African countries.

But looking at this question from another viewpoint: that the society is merely a collective of the single building-blocks, the individual and the family, it is possible to take this question a bit personal and put the question to oneself. What would happen to me or change in me if the woman became more empowered? Invariably, responding truly and sincerely to this simple and straight forward self-interrogation would probably shed more light or rather the correct light on what would happen if society allowed stronger women empowerment in Nigeria and Africa.

QUOTE: Women who have engaged in farming with their families in the rural areas have not failed to maintain their family units even after toiling with their members in the farms

QUOTE: There are several published reports by renowned institutions that detail the loss of several trillions of US Dollars to the global economy due to denied empowerment of women

Source: Guardian