How these Women Leveled the Playing Field for African Women in Business
African women have taken the baton of leadership and entrepreneurship from the menfolk and they are running with it as fast as they could. Gone are the days when women were not given a chance at the table and when they were starved of the opportunities that could unleash their potentials. They are now creating their own tables and the world is adjusting to it.
The reason the millennial and Gen Z generations of women can make giant moves in the business world today is because some women from the generations before them have broken the patriarchy barriers and leveled the playing field.
Although the fight for gender equality, especially in Africa, is far from over, African women are at a vantage position and the younger generation of women are even more capable of completely turning the tide.
As we celebrate the #InternationalWomensDay, we have highlighted 5, out of the 50 Most Influential African Women in Business who were profiled and interviewed in the penultimate edition of the Business Elites Africa magazine.
Read the complete stories of these 50 powerful African women here>
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria
Okonjo-Iweala is a Nigerian economics and international development expert. She is an industry titan with a long list of achievements and laurels to her name, with the latest being the Director-General, World Trade Organization. She’s the first woman and first African to attain this position.
The former Nigeria’s Minister of Finance is a member of the Boards of Standard Chartered Bank, Twitter, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), and the African Risk Capacity (ARC).
During her first term as a finance minister, Okonjo-Iweala spearheaded negotiations with the Paris Club that led to the wiping out of US$30 billion of Nigeria’s debt, including the outright cancellation of US$18 billion debt.
She spent a 25-year career at the World Bank as a development economist, scaling the ranks to the Number 2 position of Managing Director, Operations between 2007–2011.
Miriem Bensalah-Chaqroun, Morocco
Being successful in business seems like a given for a child born with a silver spoon in her mouth, especially the one whose parent already built a business empire. But in reality, it’s not as simple and Miriem Bensalah-Chaqroun is proof that it takes a lot of dedication, hard work, perseverance and developing a thick skin.
Born in Casablanca, Morocco on November 14, 1962, Miriem is the Chief Executive Officer of Les Eaux Minérale d’Oulmès (English: Oulmès Mineral Waters). The company is the flagship arm of the Holmarcom Group, a Morrocan conglomerate founded by her father, Abdelkader Bensalah in 1956.
Growing up in an entrepreneurial environment with her father and uncles certainly unleashed the business spirit in her but she had to work twice as hard to earn a seat at the table, which was dominated and controlled by men.
Morocco being a country where patriarchy reigned supreme, backed by an inheritance law that gives men the rights to take the chunk regardless of the position they hold in the family, Miriem fought against these ideologies and gave her country-women a voice.
Amel Karboul, Tunisia
Amel Karboul is a social entrepreneur, politician, philanthropist, and Speaker, well known in the international community as a change agent. She is the first woman in history to be named Tunisia’s Minister of Tourism, becoming the youngest member of the Mehdi Jomaa government from 2014 – 2015.
Karboul has taken on leadership positions that had been traditionally reserved for the menfolk and she has proven to be up to the task. According to her, she’s many things because “I refuse to be put into one particular box. I reject stereotypical thinking and have taken on many roles where I didn’t fit the mold.”
As someone passionate about education, Karboul has developed a renewed and compelling investment case and financing the pathway for achieving equal educational opportunities for children and young people. She is currently the CEO of the Education Outcomes Fund.
Folorunso Alakija, Nigeria
In a world, especially in Africa, where women have few opportunities to build hugely successful businesses like their male counterparts, Nigerian billionaire, Folorunso Alakija is one of the few who proved it could be done, and she has inspired more women on the continent to dare the impossible.
After years of building a fairly successful fashion company, Rose of Sharon House of Fashion, she wanted more from life, and this led to her bitter-sweet journey into the oil business. In August 1993, the Nigerian government awarded Alakija’s company, Famfa, an oil prospecting license after years of applying multiple times. It was a win and a relief, but a short-lived one, as it took another three years to find technical partners.
It was difficult finding partners because the oil bloc that was allocated to her company was undesirable at the time. This was because it was deep offshore and technology had not reached the water depth of the 5000 feet oil bloc. Alakija’s company eventually got an invitation from Texaco and negotiations lasted for three months – a deal was struck.
Another round of problems arose in 1999 after Famfa struck oil in a commercial quantity. The government of the day demanded 40 percent share of the 60 percent share owned by Alakija’s company, leaving it with 20 percent. It meant the government wanted to take two-thirds of the company’s share.
Against all odds, Alakija went to war with the government and eventually won. Although, the battle lasted 12 years before victory came. Today, the 69-year-old oil baroness is one of only two female billionaires in Africa, with a net worth of $1 billion.
Ibukun Awosika, Nigeria
In hindsight, it would seem Ibukun Awosika was handed a blueprint that aided her journey to success, yet she was not. She only defined her goals early and worked out unconventional strategies that eventually earned her a top spot at the table, amidst many obstacles.
It was considered a suicide mission for a 25-year-old African woman to venture into the furniture business in 1989, an industry dominated by the menfolk. But Awosika had the audacity to establish her furniture manufacturing company, Quebees Limited, that year. This was after she had a three-month stint as a showroom manager at a furniture firm, Alibert Nigeria Limited.
Before launching out independently, Awosika said she was convinced that furniture business was her path to success despite the odds that were stacked against her. Knowing that being a woman was already a disadvantage, she vowed to build her business on pure modest and ethical standards, against the popular norm of corruption and immorality, as a gateway to successes in business at high levels.
Although this decision cost her tears every time she lost out on a deal on the account of her uprightness, she stuck to her guns, regardless.
Now, as a serial entrepreneur of international repute, a motivational speaker and the first woman to Chair the Board of Nigeria’s oldest financial institution, First Bank, Awosika’s integrity earns her a stellar reputation that makes her an attraction to the global business community. “The longer you are in a space and delivering value, the longer you cannot be ignored,” says Awosika in 2019, 30 years after building multiple successful businesses.
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