Thursday, May 23, 2013

Women's Leadership - Why Africa is Rising. Report on Vital Voices, WIMBIZ Forum

Hi Everyone,

It has been ages since I last blogged and though I've missed it I've kept busy :)

Thanks to the encouragement of a fantastic person I know however, I've decided to share a few pictures and thoughts from a forum I attended today. It was nothing short of inspiring for me because as a writer who focuses on real women and their experiences in business and leadership in Africa, it's always exciting to put a smile and personality (not just a face) to the names and accomplishments.

Of all the interviews I have conducted, perhaps only two have been face-to-face; a feat made possible by technology. Today I met three of the extraordinary women I have written about in the past and it was truly exciting. The Vital Voices and WIMBIZ (Women in Management, Business and Public Service - Nigeria) forum titled Women's Leadership - Why Africa is Rising was the outcome of the many activities that Vital Voices, a US-based international NGO that supports women in leadership and business, has been doing in Africa.

The forum brought together delegates from several African countries including Kenya, South Africa, Uganda and Cameroon to address women's issues in the area of leadership both in corporate governance and in the public sector. I won't go into a lot of detail at all about what was shared at the forum but here are key points that I took away:

  • All conversations that aim to change the landscape on which women attempt to work and lead must include men; and men in power for that matter - men with the ability to support the movement in every way. (Ps: Maybe at such women's events there should be a quota for men of influence? ;-) who knows...quotas certainly was a hot topic)
  • Women mustn't wait to be handed influence, push for it. Adeola Azeez (WIMBIZ Chairperson) encouraged us: Network! And when you're networking, employ the principle of Bond AND Bridge. Bond with other women, friendly smiling faces, people you know and people within your normal comfort zone. But don't stop there. Bridge! Go out of your way to meet those far outside of your comfort zone but with great potential for adding value to your life and career. Don't approach only smiling faces, you offer the smile. And always go into a networking session with a strategic plan of what you want to accomplish. (Maybe I shouldn't admit this publicly but I certainly did not have a strategic plan today... I was just excited to go lol. But I did have an idea of what I wanted and by both luck and design I got exactly that and far more)
  • Women make up 70% of Africa's informal sector and about 30% of the formal sector. It's unsurprising then, that only 1 of 26 women in the continent's formal sector are in senior management positions compared with 1 of 6 men. There is much room to grow. A panelist put up an interesting view that rather than trying to formalise the informal sector, focus on providing the basic services that will enable informal sector women to boost their productivity and they will in time make the shift to the formal sector. That struck me, I'm not sure I agree, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered but the various perspectives from business, government, legal etc certainly broadened mine (and I'm sure everyone's thinking.
I have not attempted to do justice to the diverse and enlightening conversations that took place today. These are just a few things that stuck to me. Thanks to the organisers and all the women that contributed their wisdom. What to do with all this is now the big question I am seeking to answer. That, I think will come out over time. In the mean time, enjoy a few pictures from today. I'm the one who for some reason dressed like a banker :-)

With the inspiring Kah Walla, CEO&Founder STRATEGIES! Consulting Firm and 2011 Cameroon Presidential Candidate

Madam Due Process! Obiageli Ezekwesili, Former Vice President of Africa Region of World Bank and former Federal Minister of Education & Minister of Solid Minerals; radical pioneer of sector reforms. 

The incredibly fabulous Eniola Mafe (in the middle), Africa Program Manager, Vital Voices (and new friend!) and Eva Muraya, CEO & Founder Brand Strategy & Design, Kenya (middle)

During Oby Ezekwesili's keynote address from my too-far-back sit.

Please stay tuned, I have a few really exciting writing projects coming up that I will start sharing on here (repentance!). I am particularly excited about book reviews and the first will be a review Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook. Watch out!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What a man can do…Divine Ndhlukula, Founder, Securico Security Services

By Folake Soetan

(I really love this woman's story...first published in Ventures Africa)

One of the most striking things about Divine Ndhlukula, one of Africa’s most successful women, is that she always knew that she would be successful. The 52-year old is the founder and Managing Director of Security Operations (Pvt) Limited, one of Zimbabwe’s largest security groups. Securico Security Services provides uniformed, armed officers, armoured vehicles for transportation of valuables, while Canine Dog Services and Multi-Link P/L provide trained security dogs and electronic security systems respectively for many of Zimbabwe’s high-profile companies. Very little is ladylike about the security industry, yet Ndhlukula has successfully shifted the industry paradigm from male dominance, leaving her mark as a leader among peers. She says to women: “If you want a certain future, go out and create it. Conquer your fears as that is what enslaves most women.” Divine began creating the future she wanted in 1998 and has certainly had many reasons to be enslaved by fear along the way.

With an uncommon level of business awareness, Ndhlukula began dreaming of life as an entrepreneur in her teen years. Her vision was always of herself running a large business, and she told everyone who would listen. After graduating with an Executive MBA from Midlands State University, Zimbabwe, and obtaining an accounting diploma, Ndhlukula worked briefly for the government and for the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation as an accounting officer. She then moved into the Insurance industry where she spent a few years. All the while, her desire for entrepreneurship never faded.

Ndhlukula dabbled in everything. She sold clothes to her colleagues at work then hired other friends to sell the clothes; from the money she made, Ndhlukula bought one 8-tonne truck, which she hired out to a construction company. When the opportunity came to rescue and take over her late father’s farm, she quit her job and went into the farming business. To keep the farm going, Divine took out a loan, using her house as security, and when the crop failed in 1995, she came dangerously close to losing her home. Although accepting defeat was never an option, she returned to her old employer in the insurance industry and excelled, quickly joining its executive team. Having learned critical business lessons the hard way, Ndhlukula enrolled herself in an Entrepreneurial Development Programme. By sharpening her skills in goal setting, business planning, networking and opportunity seeking, she prepared to avoid making the same mistakes.

Her golden business opportunity did not come until 1998 when she noticed a gap in the security services sector. The sector was dominated by male entrepreneurs who ran large companies that catered to Zimbabwe’s biggest corporations and multinationals. Their total domination of the market meant they paid little attention to service quality, and that was where Ndhlukula found her niche. Starting with four employees and very little capital in her home in 1998, Securico Security Services has since grown to one of the largest security firms, employing over 3,500 workers. Impressively, more than 900 of her employees are disadvantaged women making Securico the largest employer of women in the private sector in Zimbabwe.

She shares in an interview with BBC, African Dream:

 “Most of the women that we employ here are single mothers, we targeted them primarily because we knew that they were not going to get an opportunity from anybody and they would not be able to look after their children. So this is an opportunity for them to have a livelihood and to educate their children. We employ close to a thousand women now, about 900+ and to me that’s one of the happiest things I’ve done in my life as a person because I have impacted very positively on women who would have not have had an opportunity, who would be eking out a living and possibly even going out to sell their bodies to make a living.”

Through Zimbabwe’s exceptionally difficult economic and political times, Ndhlukula steered Securico towards stability and growth with a few key strategies. From the start, she made sure client-centred, quality services were always available and tailored to clients’ needs. One of the company’s top priorities was to retain good staff. During times of economic difficulty, her management team brainstormed creative ways to compensate staff and retain clients. Securico provided staff with accommodation, transportation to and from work locations and provided services to organisations that could offer in kind payments such as commodities (rice, flour etc.) companies. Thus staff received many payments in kind, and Securico was able to retain valuable staff.

Ndhlukula also maintains a no-bribe policy. She had anticipated getting lots of business from the government but her stance against bribery has meant that the government market remains closed to Securico,
 "We never give a bribe because the moment you start giving somebody a bribe today, they expect you to give them a bribe every other time. And, you know, you cannot do business that way."
Ndhlukula is proud of her stance and grateful for her clients who prioritise doing business ‘by the book.

Divine Ndhlukula’s journey has been a difficult one; nobody expected a woman with no securities background to succeed in the male-dominated environment. Yet succeed she has. She has won 11 national awards in the last 12 years including Empretec Entrepreneur of the Year (2001) and Entrepreneur of the Decade (2002). Her crowning achievement, she says, was winning the 2011 Africa Awards for Entrepreneurship, beating over 3000 other firms from 48 African nations! Ndhlukula did not realise how far she had come with the Securico team.

Having made it through some of the most difficult business conditions any entrepreneur is likely to face face, Ndhlukula is eager to pass on her knowledge to other fledgling businesses:
“When you start making a bit of money one should always recognise that it is not yet your money. It is still the business’ money because you want that business to grow. So for you to sustain it and enjoy phenomenal growth that anyone going into business wants is to reinvest all the little bits of cash that you get then you can be assured that your business will grow.”

It is this level of discipline and commitment that has secured her place in history as one of Africa’s most successful female entrepreneurs.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

African Silicon Valley: Interviewing Rapelang Rabana, Founding Partner, Yeigo

Rapelang Rabana has been listed on Oprah’s 2012 ‘O’ Power List, mentioned by CNN and is a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, all before the age of 30. A founding partner of Yeigo Communications, developer of some of the earliest mobile phone VoIP applications, shared her experiences and insights with Ventures Woman in an interview. Here’s what she had to say:

VW: Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself?
RR: I have been able to have live in 3 cities thus far in my life and seen very, very different ways of life. I lived in Gaborone, Botswana, then Johannesburg and now Cape Town. I did most of primary school at Thornhill Primary School in Gaborone, and then proceeded to Roedean School in Johannesburg to complete my primary and secondary schooling. I matriculated in 2001. Cape Town became my home when I came to study at the University of Cape Town and I never left. I studied at the University of Cape Town for four years, where I completed a Bachelor of Business Science with Honours in Computer Science. While programming was very difficult for me, I ultimately chose to stick with it, because I believed unlike finance, accounting, marketing, psychology and various other industries, you didn’t have to spend so much time analyzing, reviewing, auditing and evaluating something someone else did, in the hope of adding some marginal value. With Computer Science, you could create actually create something, from the figment of your imagination, from nothing – there seemed to be real power there to create tremendous value.

VW: So what motivated you to start Yeigo Communications?
RR: I genuinely didn’t think that getting a job made any sense. It was not out of trying to be rebellious or brave. Getting a job scared me on many levels. On one level, I was scared about who I would become – I believe that how we spend our time, what we spent our time doing, what ends up taking our attention, thoughts and energy, has a huge influence on who we become, and in a big corporate environment, the degree to which I could control that, seemed very limited. There was a sense of loss of controlling my own destiny and that seemed to me a greater risk than doing a startup. On another level, I was simply tired of playing the system. While I had done it very well up until that point, I was horrified at the idea of doing it for the rest of my life – I was aching just to spend my time doing something that mattered and not playing organizational politics.
My co-founders and I decided to apply ourselves to issue of the cost of communication, having been plagued with sending ‘plz-call-me’ for a large portion of our varsity careers. We were inspired by the reality that using the internet / IP could dramatically change communications of the future: not just in terms of cost but also just the sheer variety of the different forms of communication and interaction that become possible when you are online. We went into mobile VoIP market early in 2006, when it was ground-breaking on a global scale. When we launched our first mobile VoIP application to the public in 2007, it was among the first in the world.
I see great potential for technology and the internet to bring inspirational change. Telecommunications is one of many industries that can benefit, and there are many other areas I look forward to being involved in and bringing about that inspiring change.  Ultimately it is the end-user, the society we live in that will benefit from better access to services, from services becoming more affordable, from being part of a knowledge economy and consequently being more able to contribute to the world economy and improve and grow businesses.

VW: Access is a very important word in your company. What does it mean to you?
RR: The quintessential device to reach young people is the mobile phone; it can deliver the kind of access that will change lives. With the growth of mobile broadband connectivity, the mobile phone will go beyond traditional GSM voice and SMS. From more cost-effective communication using mobile VoIP, instant messaging and social media, to portals of information, to educational applications and games, community forums and platforms to engage and exposure yourself to another world of information - the list of ways to make an impact is endless.
I believe the internet and mobile represent for the millions and especially young people around the world, the most effective tool for empowerment. The internet can be a most crucial enabler. And this enabling factor is not limited to freedom of expression we all observed in the Arab Spring. It goes beyond openness and transparency of political institutions. For billions of people, the internet can prove the most effective and scalable method in delivering, facilitating or improving access to critical supporting information and systems for farming, education, health, financial services, entrepreneurial activities, job opportunities as well information portals that provide a broad range empowering information and an understanding of what else is happening around you. The printing press in the 1400’s enabled the dissemination of information at an unprecedented level and contributed significantly to the exponential growth in global trade at that time. The internet can take that dissemination of information to another level.
Most of us will be familiar with the Chinese proverb about teaching a man to fish as opposed to giving him a fish. My proposition is:
Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime. Expose a man to the internet and he will change his life.

VW: The internet is indeed powerful! Please tell us a bit about what Yeigo does. Why is it so unique?
RR: The Yeigo story is compelling because it shows what imagination, hard work and perseverance can do, with some help from a Google search. We started as university graduates, who just thought they should try doing something interesting and potentially powerful and stayed committed to that for years. And it wasn’t just any kind of business, it is top-end high tech innovative software that holds its own on an international stage.
Yeigo is about innovation-driven product development and has been pioneering world class innovation for 8 years. Known for producing some of the earliest mobile VoIP applications globally, Yeigo has continued to specialize in the conceptualization, development and deployment of software solutions that take full advantage of convergence trends within the mobile, web and cloud computing arena.
Late in 2011, Yeigo developed and launched Office Connection, a business telephony solution hosted in the cloud and fully accessible though a simple online interface. Delivering everything expected of a traditional on-site telephone system and much more, Office Connection has been custom built to provide the necessary tools to meet the challenges South African businesses face in accessing professional business telephony services. There is no expensive setup cost; it has a simple web interface with ‘drag and drop’ features to give 24/7 control; it provides real-time billing and budgeting on a company-wide or individual level; and it connects dispersed office-bound, mobile and home workers under one telephone system.

VW: In 2008, Yeigo established a key partnership with Telfree. What necessitated that partnership and how has the partnership changed or improved the way Yeigo works?
RR: Along the way it became imperative for us to be able to control the telecoms back-end over which our mobile applications operated. Furthermore, the consumer mobile VoIP space required significant venture capital funding for markets that remained inaccessible from South Africa. The partnership with Telfree gave control of the carrier-grade telecoms network they had just established in South Africa as well as distribution access to the business SME market where our products could be combined with a holistic business offering.

VW: On a more personal note, what part of your work excites you the most?
RR: It’s the extraordinary privilege of seeing something you have worked on manifest into reality, after all, it started with just a thought! It always makes me smile, that all we had in the beginning was a thought – how incredibly powerful human thought, the imagination and discipline can be, when backed by persistence.
There is so much to learn here as new eco-systems will be created especially in emerging markets where the impact of technology is yet to reach the vast majority. I hope to find opportunities to challenge myself in a wider variety of areas as we try to make technology relevant to more people.

VW: What would you say has been the single best decision you have made on your entrepreneurial journey?
RR: Having people I absolutely love spending time with around me for the journey, my partners Lungisa Matshoba and Andrew Snowden. It’s a long and exhausting journey and very often difficult. Success or failure is the ultimate outcome of a business, it's the fun of the ride, the pleasure of working with people you think are amazing, everyday for years, because at any given point that is all you have.

VW: So what is your working relationship with your partners like?
RR: Our working relationship is based on mutual respect and trust. It’s important that at no point, one partner feels they are better off without the other, and that was never a problem for us. The crucial ingredient to the lasting partnership is that our values are aligned. People go into businesses for various reasons, some to get a big tender, or maintain an extravagant lifestyle, or just for the sake of exploiting opportunities. We wanted to do something great and hopefully make a success of it.

VW: Do you have any mentors? Who has influenced your professional life the most?
RR: While I didn’t have any mentors at the start, I developed a few good relationships along the way with more experienced businesspeople. However, the most influential people on my life have always been my partners.

VW: You are involved with Ubuntu Africa. Please tell us about your work with this NGO. Why do you feel it is important to contribute to African development in this way?
RR: While there are many orphanages and homes for HIV positive children, the Ubuntu Child Healthcare initiative was very compelling for me. It operates from the premise that the HIV affected child’s best chances for a whole and fulfilling life is to remain amongst their family and community and works with child and care-givers to enable them to deal with the implications of caring for an HIV-positive child, making it more manageable. And only if environment is destructive, is a child pulled out of it. I deeply appreciate this approach because if I think about it, this is how I would help an HIV positive cousin or someone I loved – I would want them to be able to live their full lives and manage the disease and not end up in an orphanage. I believe real help, is about helping people the same way you would help someone you actually loved (so true!). I help on a strategic level to steer the NGO and hope to expand into the rest of South Africa.

VW: You and Yeigo have received some fantastic awards and international recognition. Which awards experience has been most meaningful to you and why?
RR: Mostly recently, it was the mention in the CNN article, ‘Africa’s Marisa Meyers’ that touched me the most. It is very special because it's the first direct comparison with the technology giants in Silicon Valley which have thus far seemed much removed from us in South Africa. It was great to see that technology innovation is becoming as appreciated here.
Secondly, I would have to mention the inclusion in Oprah Power List 2012. This was just mind-blowing because I was included on the same list as women like Aung San Suu Kyi, Lady Gaga and Dalia Ziada whose influence on society is extraordinary.

VW: Finally, there are a lot of young African men and women who have recently graduated and are faced with long-term unemployment prospects… Considering that you started Yiego fresh out of university, what is your advice to these graduates?
RR: There will never be enough jobs for all the young people today – more and more of us must become entrepreneurs. The internet does a lot to level the playing field with regards to access to information…you can become an expert in any field now if you put in the work and time to teach yourself. All we had to start was an internet connection and a cheap laptop, yet we produced world-class innovation.

Develop your mind. More than ever, there is so much to learn, so much to know, so many different things to do. The opportunities to be whoever you want to be have never been more accessible to those who pursue their dreams.

Thank you Rapelang! The opportunities are out there and commitment is crucial. We appreciate you sharing your insights.
Feel free to leave your questions and comments below!

Ideas that change the world: Exclusive Interview with Cristi Hegranes, Global Press Institute

Global Press Institute (GPI) is the brain child of Cristi Hegranes, a 31-year old American journalist and former foreign correspondent that is changing the face of international journalism and women’s empowerment. In six years, GPI has grown from just Cristi, to news desks which employ 120 women in 25 countries, including desks in Nigeria, Ghana, Egypt, Uganda and South Africa. Winner of the 2012 Grinnell Prize, a $100,000 cash prize and over a dozen other social justice awards, Cristi sat down with Folake Soetan to give a special insight into the passion behind GPI.

It is an honour to interview you Cristi, thank you for giving us your time!

VW: You’ve been in the news a lot lately, the winner of the 2012 Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice, can you tell us a bit about that award?

CH: Absolutely, Grinnell College is a really extraordinary a liberal arts college in Iowa with a really amazing commitment to social justice. Every year they do an award called the young innovator for social justice where they recognise people under 40 who are doing something with social justice in new ways. We applied for the Grinnell Prize last year and actually found out in May that we won but had to keep it a secret for 3 months, which was really difficult! So it’s a tremendous honour for GPI for our work to be recognised on this level. The entire team here is just really thrilled!

VW: Congratulations! So you started GPI in 2006, why?

CH: The idea for this organisation came out of my experience working in Nepal. I found that the system of foreign correspondence was lacking when you wanted to tell in-depth stories that touch the humanity of a place. As a foreign correspondent you just don’t have the context and access you need to be able to tell those stories. Context being social, historical, political, and cultural and access in terms of I didn’t speak the language fluently and my official interviews went through translators set up by the government. So my ability to cover the critical issues of what this country in the midst of civil war was facing was slim to none and my stories were only scratching the surface.
Then I had an experience in a small village in Nepal where I was able to spend a bit of time with an amazing woman who, I think if she was still alive would be shocked to see the impact she had on my life and what we’ve created out of it. She was the matriarch of her village and had everything I wanted to tell better stories. She had the trust of her community, amazing access to real human narratives and she had the context to tell stories in a way that could really create systemic change. So in spending time with her and thinking about the things I was struggling with I realised I had two things that she didn’t have and that was journalism training and an incredible global platform on which to display my work. People looked at me and said, she went to New York University, she has a master’s degree and all these newspapers publish her stuff, so it must be true. Certainly if Fatima was writing and publishing something she would struggle against those two problems. So the challenge I gave myself was to create something that solves those two problems simultaneously, and this idea became the obsession in my head. Eventually I left Nepal and went back to New York. I moved to San Francisco and I got a job as a feature writer for SF Weekly but I could not get the idea out of my head. I realised that the opportunity to hear from real people around the world in a meaningful way could be revolutionary in three ways. The person reporting the news, their life would change dramatically; the communities generating the news would change as people are given greater access to information, tools to make better choices and to live fuller and freer lives and on an international level, global awareness would increase extraordinarily because the world would get news from someone who is actually very qualified to tell those stories.
So I worked for SF weekly for about a year and then I did something very stupid (laughs) which was quit my job. I was a 25year old writer earning a good salary; something many students would die for. But I quit my job and got to work putting this idea into practice. I developed the business plan, the training-to-employment model, raised a little bit of money and just went for it. We launched the first programme in Chiapas, Mexico in 2006.

VW: Wow! Why Chiapas, Mexico?

CH: I actually really wanted Nepal to be our first country but given that I had absolutely no fundraising experience when I started GPI, Mexico was a less-expensive option. It’s actually funny that it was our first desk because it is our most difficult desk to fund. It has struggled with being underfunded almost since it was founded. Chiapas is the southernmost state, right at the bottom of Mexico, both rurally and figuratively. People just don’t think about Mexico as needy in the same way they think about other countries.

VW: Can you tell us a bit about the GPI business model?

CH: In the original business plan, GPI was not actually a gender specific model. But as I went through the planning process I realised that I didn’t want to do what so many international organisations around the world do, which is provide training in a vacuum. We see resumes of people who have attended over a hundred trainings, every training the UN and any international NGO coming in to the area has ever done, yet they are unemployed; they have no practical application for those skills. I didn’t want to do that, I had seen the negative effects of that all over the world. So we developed a training-to-employment model, which means that anyone who goes through the GPI training programme automatically receives an offer of employment. So they are not just getting training but also a very practical, supportive environment to use those skills. After the training each of our reporters produces about one story a month and they work with our local and global editors to do story coaching and source development so in every story they’re growing, practicing and learning new things. After 6 years we have a little more than 91% retention rate in our programme so people that join GPI are sticking with us!
The gender specific component became important because around the world men would tend to take a training programme and go to a place where they could make the highest dollar with those skills, which is culturally acceptable. But by training women we not only invest in them, data from the around the world also shows that women will reinvest up to 80% of the income into the community. And we’ve seen that come into effect in real ways; women are sending their children to better schools, living in better homes and have greater access to medical care because they are earning strong living wages from a dignified profession. We’ve absolutely seen the impact of training women.

VW: How else do you measure the impact?

CH: This is a difficult question since the impact of a story is potentially limitless… but we measure impact in 3 ways. We look at the basic analytics like how many people are reading the stories, how many are syndicating, how many stories we’re producing. We also track the impact on the women we’re working with, how their lives change over time, how their skill sets change. The third one, which is nebulous, is the impact of the story. Story can and probably does change people’s individual lives every day but we don’t have data points to track how the way you think and feel about something changes. We do track tangible social actions from our stories, so when Members of Parliament and the Prime Minister’s office credit a GPI story for changing a discriminatory law in Nepal, that’s huge impact. When people come together to protest or create new organisations after a piece on political rape in Zimbabwe, that’s huge action. When major organisations come forward to pledge to donate equipment to a children’s hospital after one of our stories reveal that dozens of infants are dying every month from asphyxiation because they don’t have proper access to medical care, these are all real tangible impacts that can’t be underestimated. One of my favourite parts of GPI is that we’re journalism optimists; as much as the whole world is lamenting the death of the profession we’re demonstrating every day that it is alive and well.

VW: How then do you make money?

CH: By the skin of my teeth most days! (laughs) We are funded by foundation grants and donations from individuals. GPI doesn’t take any money from any government or government agencies from anywhere in the world, locally or globally, so we can maintain our independence. Right now we are 70% funded by foundations and 30% by individuals.

VW: Do you have any plans for sustainability?

CH: Sustainability has been a huge focus for us this year and we were really thrilled to get a big grant last month that will help us achieve some of our sustainability goals. The key to GPI’s sustainability we believe is going to be syndication or content marketing as people now call it. By the nature of our work we are producing a very sellable commodity; we’re producing incredibly accurate and authentic news content from places that most news organisations don’t operate. Because of our model, our news is also produced for a fraction of the costs that other media would pay to actually get stories from around the world. We are in the process of developing a new syndication platform that would allow the news outlets all over the world to take our content in multiple languages for a fraction of the cost and we hope that within 3 years GPI will be 30 to 40% sustainable based solely on the sale of our content. We’re very confident in the credibility and uniqueness of our product and we hope that syndication is the key to our sustainability, helping us alleviate funding needs and escape fundraising trends. Six years ago, not many people funded media. Today media is a somewhat sexier thing to fund but we want to be prepared for the day when it’s no longer so sexy. We’re taking some really bold steps in that direction.

VW:  And how do you find and train your reporters?

CH: Usually we target a country based on a variety of indicators, taking into account safety and security and a country’s media laws. And once we’ve decided on a country, we get to work building local partnerships so that we can get greater access to a diverse population of women. Then using a variety of diversity indicators we try to recruit as diverse a team as possible. The women of GPI come from all walks of life. Many of our reporters are former sex workers and members of the untouchable caste in Nepal and India. We also have reporters who have master’s degrees and are well-educated but just happen to live in countries and places where unemployment is particularly strong or the opportunity to practice this kind of journalism doesn’t exist. So GPI attracts all types of women and offers the opportunity to all types of women. English in not a primary requirement for our programme so much of our content is produced in local language and translated to English. The diversity indicators (ethnic and religion) are different in each country but we include diverse women who can work together to really tell the stories of the community. This is something you don’t get with one foreign correspondent who’s an outsider.
We have developed our own training programme called the principles and practice. The principles part goes through the ideals of the traditional journalism because we don’t really identify with the citizen journalism model at GPI. What we produce is the more ethical, investigative, narrative-rich, fact-checked news as opposed to blogging or social media models. The principles deal with the ethics of journalism while the practice takes you through the nuts and bolts. Depending on prior experience and education levels the practice part is different for different women. Typing drills and learning how to use software on a computer is available for those who have never done it before; others who come in with that basic skill set are able to produce more news faster but the same opportunity exists for all women who are paid hourly for training then monthly for every piece produced.

VW: What kind of news does GPI produce?

CH: We cover pretty much any issue in a community. Just because our reporters are women doesn’t mean we cover only gender-specific news topics but certainly it is a specialty. We do a lot of reporting on education, the environment and health, some political stories but that’s not always our focus. And we really try to get away from the traditional stereotyping of foreign coverage where all you hear about is poverty, war and disease. We try to do a lot of arts and culture coverage, celebrating what is unique and beautiful and working well; solutions-based stories that are talking about progress. This is a really important piece of our coverage. We are also launching a video initiative which will bring video reporting to 5 news desks in the next couple of months. (Click here to watch a video about GPI)

VW:  These are real women writing about real situations currently going on, even in some post-conflict areas. Do your reporters risk repercussions for their work and how are they protected?

Safety and security is the biggest piece of the planning that goes into launching a news desk. We also have a security policy at GPI to mitigate the obvious risks and provide a system in the event that something does happen. After about six and a half years we’ve never had an incident of a reporter being threatened or detained so we really do take the safety of these women very seriously.

VW: Fantastic. Who is GPI’s main audience?
CH: The audience is one of my favourite things about GPI because it’s so diverse. GPI has an automatic appeal to people who are hungry for international news but are tired of traditional reporting. Our audience is generally between 18 and 49; we have people with very different political affiliations regionally, we have regular visitors from over 160 countries and we’re reaching about 5million people now. It’s been great to see the readership grow so much in the last few years. We’ve also launched a new website this week so we’re hoping that gets more individual readers along with our syndication initiative, which will get our material onto as many other news outlets as possible.

VW: Focusing on you a bit, can you share a bit about your background and upbringing?

CH: Sure. I was born and raised in Santa Fe New Mexico, USA, where most of my family still lives. I left at 18 to attend Loyola University in Los Angeles. Afterwards, I took a fellowship at the Pointer Institute for Media studies in St. Petersburg, and then I went to New York University where I got my masters. It was after this that I actually went to Nepal for the first time.

VW:  Did you ever envision yourself on this path that you’re on?

CH: Never! I have been a journalist for as long as I can remember – I wrote for my junior high school newspaper, I was the editor-in-chief of my high school and college newspapers, so I’ve certainly done this forever, since I was a little kid, but no, never. One of the things people always ask me is if I miss being a reporter and I do! I love being a reporter and I was always a better reporter than writer. I do miss it but when I step back and look at the body of work that has been created by GPI reporters around the world it’s astounding. I could never have created such an extraordinary body of work on my own. For the past 5 years it had been just me working by myself from my house and in 2011 we added a managing editor then suddenly this year things just changed course! We have six relationships with six new foundations this year including the Nike Foundation and some other larger foundations that have supported us in the past. I’ve got a full team working with me here in San Francisco which is just a dream come true. Our reporters around the world are producing better news than ever so it’s been really fun! Sure I wake up at 4:30am every day but I can’t imagine doing something I really love more than this.

VW: What challenges did you face starting up GPI?

CH: The initial challenge was that everyone thought I was crazy. In 2006 a lot of people did not respond to this idea that some woman somewhere in the world was better at reporting than a trained reporter from a major news organisation. They thought it was a silly idea. That was the initial challenge but once we were able to launch our programme in Mexico and then Nepal, it really became obvious that the model worked. Two different sets of women in two different places took the same programme and came out with the same skill set and instantly began writing amazing stories! My second challenge was that I had no experience fundraising and I had no idea the degree to which fundraising would control my life. It’s a necessary evil that I’ve come to terms with and I’m much better at it now thankfully. We have a consulting firm that works to introduce us to the right people and help us refine our fundraising message; fundraising was definitely a challenge. But the programme has been so amazing to watch unfold, to be a 25 year old with an idea and find out that there are hundreds or thousands of women who are willing to help me make this a reality is just fantastic.

VW: What was the best decision you ever made in your professional career?

CH: I made two decisions that I’m so grateful for. Deciding to quit my job at SF weekly to start GPI is definitely one. There have been points when I was out of money, out of sleep and felt like I was at the end, when I didn’t know what the next step was. I think the decision to always push forward and never waver in my faith in this idea is the other decision I’m grateful for in retrospect. It did take 6 years of slogging it out before getting to a place where tomorrow is certain but that’s a great place to be. I’m so grateful for working in a time that the technology exists to make the idea possible.

VW: And finally what advice would you give to young women pursuing an education or just starting out in their careers?

CH: My advice is two-fold: first, absolutely chase the dream. But the second thing is plan, and be extremely diligent in your planning and research. I think honestly if I didn’t have the really thorough, robust business plan that I did before I launched the first programme, I’m not sure where GPI would be. Get comfortable with things you’re not good at; I hated math my whole life but budgeting has become such an important skill to me! Really embracing things you feel you're not good at is very important. Always take a step back and look at the bigger picture because although the reality of GPI on a day-to-day basis is challenging, the work that we’re doing is creating exponential change in the world and in the lives of the reporters. The stories they are producing are igniting social change every day so taking a step back to see the big picture is really important.

Thank you Cristi!

Undoubtedly, the big picture is at the forefront of Cristi’s mind as she looks to expand GPI’s global reach in coming years. Look out for more information to come about more news desks opening soon in Africa!

***First published in Ventures Africa

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Diaspora Leadership against all odds: Kate Anolue, Mayor of Enfield, UK

Here's an interview with a fantastic woman I got to interview, first published in Ventures Africa. Enjoy!

In one of our most inspiring interviews yet, Ventures Woman sat down with Councillor Kate Anolue, Mayor of Enfield in the United Kingdom. Anolue is an ideal example of the African Diaspora that move beyond participating in their new societies to transforming them. Here is her story:

VW: Please tell us a bit about yourself

KA: My name is Kate Anolue. I’m Igbo from Anambra state but I came to this country over 40 years ago to join my husband. Within this period I had 4 children, the last one was born in 1984. Unfortunately I was widowed in 1985; the youngest was only 18 months old, the others were 5 years, 9 and 13-years old.  I was left with 4 children to bring up and for someone who had not really spent long in the country, it was a shock. While I was having my children I had done my general nursing and midwifery qualifications. But when my husband died it was a matter of ‘what do I do next’, stay at home and take care of the children? Or carry on and see how I can manage. There is a saying that God will not give you a load you cannot carry so I took it as my cross to carry and continued doing things as I had. For me it was a job that I needed to do. There wasn’t a single day that I said I’m tired of this. These were my children, left for me so I had to look after them. And I did not believe that I should sit down and receive state hand-outs because I had good qualifications as a trained midwife. I was able to carry on working full-time as a community midwife and I had a lot of support from my colleagues and managers at work so I was able to look after my children as well.

VW: Wow! So when you went through your period of personal difficulty, losing your husband and raising your children did you have any mentors, personal beliefs or support systems that helped you?

KA: Well I think it was my personal belief because I didn’t have any mentors and all my friends still had their husbands; I didn’t have anybody that was widowed with children, especially four children. I think my personality helped. As the eldest of seven I was always the ‘mummy’. But being mummy in this country and looking after the four children alone while working was not something I asked for; I had to move on anyway. I didn’t have a mentor so now I like to share what I went through, not so people can say I’ve done well but to encourage other women that if something like this happens to you, you can make it. Don’t go back into your shell because once you do, you become vulnerable and not only vulnerable within society but to men. You start to feel like you need a man to help you look after your children. My whole idea is that no matter what situation you find yourself, sit up and conquer difficulty. If help comes yes, accept it but don’t sit to wait for it. You don’t want anyone coming in to say after you’ve done your work, ‘because of me this woman has done this’. No, I did it myself and I’m proud to say that without fear that someone will come and say otherwise. When you do that you will be even more proud of yourself.

VW: So how did you transition from midwifery into politics?

KA: I always wanted to be a lawyer. But you know back home you believe that you must always do what you parents want you to do. My dad wanted me to be a nurse and when I became a nurse I felt I’d fulfilled my father’s wish so I thought ‘now I’m going to study law’. I got admission to University of North London in 1992 to study part time, two evenings a week and on Fridays, which was meant to be my day off. There was nothing like a day off for me. I studied with young people so I have a soft spot for them; I became their sort of mother. It was good for them to ask, I have my certificates, why am I still doing this? They don’t have any certificates, they should be working hard. It was a good model for them.

I plodded on part-time for 5 years all the while maintaining my full time job. I also ran a nursing agency from my house from 1989 up until my third year in university when I decided I wanted to concentrate and focus on getting my degree. In the end, I made a 2:2 so I was happy. The children were always there; when mummy had her books out, they got out their books too. And if you ask my children it’s not like they were neglected, they will tell you about all the places that mummy would take them. People ask how I managed to take them out, keep a full time job, study, run an agency and be in politics for the past ten years. I’ve been lucky to be quite healthy, I believe in healthy living, I go to the gym, learned to swim and I think that has really helped a lot. But I think it’s all about determination; you have to believe in yourself, there’s nothing like I can’t.

When I finished I wondered what to do with my law degree. I became the Royal College of Midwives Steward. When midwives had problems, I went to the union and management and spoke on their behalf. I was also able to review patient complaints with management using both legal and midwifery eyes to see where we were going wrong and how to rectify it. However I wanted to do more politically. I began attending local government and national conferences and when I came back I would write down what was discussed and what I’d learned. I think joining politics or anything doesn’t mean that’s the only thing you do. It is good to take any part that you can. I became not only more active in politics but I realised I really wanted to be in it, to be part of the decision making. I decided to nominate myself instead of just waiting to be nominated and see whether I would be selected. You have to be selected within the party first before you are elected so once you are selected you go out to the people to be elected.

VW: And indeed you were elected! So where exactly is Enfield located and what is your role as mayor?

KA: Enfield is in the outskirts of North London. It is a very green borough but it’s almost split into two. We have a very poor area in the east while the other parts are well off. There’s definitely inequality in Enfield and it is related to the past. The eastern parts were industrial and very built up with houses very close together and crowded while the other side had more space and greenery. We have a population of over 300,000 now, with over 51% of them being ethnic minorities including Africans, Chinese, Turkish etc. This is very different from before when I was the only black student in my general nursing classes. These days if you go to a hospital to meet the nurses in training you hardly find a white nurse.

As mayor of Enfield I am the first citizen. This means I represent the whole of Enfield. Whenever there is any dignitary or royalty coming into the borough, I meet and greet them. I also attend many functions within and outside the borough, giving out certificates, launching of new organisations and chairing council meetings. The main goal is using the weight that comes with the position to positively influence the society.

VW: What would you consider your biggest personal achievement since coming into the role as mayor?

KA: I think for me it’s showing that anyone, whether you are black or a woman, can get to any place you want. This is not our country but you can see that if you want to be part of it and merit it, you’ll be recognised. So for me it is a big achievement personally, for women and for those who have come to settle in the country. By settle I don’t mean you forget where you come from. I go home often and when I got this position I had a lot of Nigerians especially from my town that attended the inauguration. I made them wear traditional attire because for me, promoting our tradition is another achievement. I made sure I wore my traditional attire with the head tie and everything for my inauguration ceremony. (She’s wearing it today!)

VW: Did you ever envision yourself where you are today?

KA: Never in my wildest dreams! Even when my husband was alive, all we were thinking about was that we wanted to go home and send our children to secondary school at home. I actually maintained that and when my son was at secondary school age he did one year here, went home and spent five years in Federal Enugu and came back. My daughter finished secondary school here and went back to do law school in Nigeria. But she spent only 18 months because there was always one strike after another and all her school mates here were moving on. She has no regrets about those 18 months because she learned a lot and now travels to Nigeria on her own. I’m glad we laid that foundation but as for myself I never envisioned all this, it just happened.

VW: So what was your core motivation for joining politics?
KA: I think my core motivation was the job I was doing. I was a community midwife and I looked after mothers and delivered babies in their homes. When I went to see them they always had housing problems, would ask questions about their environment, schools and health but I was never able to give them full answers to their questions. I would always say ‘I’ll find out for you’. So I thought to myself ‘the people I am asking, how did they get there?’ It was only when I finished studying law that I had the courage, wisdom and insight to be an advocate for these people. I now knew exactly where to go for answers and could add my voice to it to change the way things were done.
So I became a councillor and because health is my background I became Chair of the health scrutiny where we scrutinised things that were happening in the hospitals and local health centres to improve services. For example, we changed the system so that families did not have to spend hours waiting in hospital for a simple blood test. That was an important achievement and there have been many others. My experience in the community contributed significantly to the role.

VW: Is there one thing you would like to do before your term is up?

KA: By the time I finish my term, I want Enfield to have a dedicated Youth Day. I’ve worked a lot with the youths and many activities I do help the youths. I am a school governor in two primary schools, I work with Enfield women’s centre and Enfield Women’s Aid which deals with domestic violence, Henlon youth centre which deals with youths with mental issues and helps them. I was also thinking about what charities to support and I came across Sickle Cell and Thalassemia issues which affect afro-Caribbeans and people from the Mediterranean who make up the province. I realised that there was actually an Enfield Sickle Cell support group which I’d never heard of. Being an ethnically-linked issue, if there was no strong support, very little would happen for the group. I’ve known a lot of Nigerians with sickle cell and if it’s not well-managed, youths die early. I was talking to my relative she said she had lost 3 children to sickle cell, two boys and one girl who was 21 years old! She was glad I picked up the cause and so was the group. Before my tenure is up I want to work with the group to raise awareness about it so that people think about their blood type before getting into serious relationships because it does cause a lot of heartache for the parents and pain for the child, they miss out on a lot of things normal youths do. I hope to extend this work back home and host a conference on Sickle Cell issues. There are people that want to do something but need someone in the public eye to take the first step. I want to be that person.

VW: As an African woman in the diaspora everyone asks the question, are you going home? Will you go back to Nigeria or have you been involved in any work that contributes to development back home?

KA: Because I’ve been so busy working full time and in politics here, I haven’t actually been very involved back home but I believe there is a time for everything and that time has come. I see myself back home. I’ve got a wealth of knowledge in health and women’s issues and even if it is just talking about empowerment, I want to contribute and get women to believe that if I can do it they can too. My next focus is definitely home.

VW: In terms of politics in Africa, corruption always comes up. Would you encourage women to go into politics in Nigeria? What would you say to them?

KA: My encouragement would be ‘go in!’ Women are the wealth of the economy and if we sit back and say because of that corruption we’re not going to go, then that means we are letting the corruption continue! We can’t always look for money. I believe here people move on because they do a lot of voluntary work for society that does not involve money. For example, in the Olympics, those people that worked on the roads, in stations etc. all did it voluntarily. Such things give experience and even for fresh graduates it can make all the difference in getting a job. Be willing to do that kind of work and don’t always focus on money.

VW: So would you consider going into politics in Nigeria?

KA: I would certainly like to lend my knowledge and experience. However, before you do something like that you need to be well known in the country so I wouldn’t jump straight into politics. There are other things that could lead to politics but if I find that I am doing better and getting out my message and empowering women without going into politics then I will carry on with that. And maybe through what I’m saying one woman might say ‘I want to go into politics, maybe because Kate was a politician she is able to do and achieve all this’. So perhaps because of my political experience others would want to go into politics.

VW: Do you have any inspirations?

KA: I haven’t got many but I am an avid follower of Tina Turner. She is a woman that inspires me so much with her energy. She’s been through a lot and she survived; she's a survivor. Only yesterday, my daughter sent me a clip of her at 72 and she looked so wonderful that I sent a message back that this is how I want to look when the time comes! (laughs) She’s one person that inspires me. There are many others that have achieved so much. I’d like to have the heart that Nelson Mandela had, to go through so much and still forgive. I also admire women like Mother Theresa who gave herself to help the poor. The most important thing for me is to help and continue to inspire people. As women, we need to be part of the system at all levels and not allow ourselves to be beaten. Believe in yourself. When you need to do something, don’t doubt and you will be strong enough to make a change.

What a story! A mother, midwife, entrepreneur and lawyer! Thank you Councillor Anolue for sharing your life and work with our readers. You have indeed inspired us, keep representing Africa well.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

How sisterhood ended a war and changed a nation: Leymah Gbowee

One of my personal favourites, women in political leadership who refuse to take no for an answer. I dare-say that by the age of 40, not many women have seen as much trauma, distress and hurt as the Liberian peace activist, Leymah Gbowee. In her memoir, ‘Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War’, Leymah retells the 14-year Liberian civil war story through the eyes of a mother.

Born in central Liberia in 1972, Leymah Gbowee’s teenage years were disrupted when war broke out in 1989, lasting until 2003. The first civil war left over 200,000 dead, and like many political struggles in Africa, was the effect of attempted coup d'├ętats and fraudulently elected leaders. Charles Taylor, a former government minister, invaded Liberia in 1989 to overthrow the Samuel Doe regime that had been forced on the Liberian people since 1980. The civil war lasted until a short-lived ceasefire was called in 1995. War broke out again but a peace agreement was reached in 1997 and Charles Taylor was elected as the President for Liberia. However, a second civil war soon followed from 1999 to 2003 with the re-emergence of rebel groups contesting for control of the country. In all, some 250,000 Liberians lost their lives due to wartime activities; many of these were children, shamelessly used as soldiers by Taylor’s government.

During the first war, Leymah fled on foot to Ghana, with an abusive partner and three young children. She eventually returned back to Liberia with her children having nearly starved in poverty in Accra. It was during this time that she joined the Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Programme (THRP) connected with the Christian faith in Liberia. She began to rehabilitate some of the former child soldiers used by Charles Taylor’s army through this programme. Leymah also made connections with West Africa Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP) leaders trained in the Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), a Christian university in the US specialising in peace-building and restorative justice.

In partnership with Nigerian lawyer and peace leader, Thelma Ekiyor, Leymah started Women in Peacebuilding Network (WIPNET), a women’s organisation focused solely on securing peace through the collective action of women across all ethnic and religious divides. It is this group of women that made history by securing peace and bringing an end to the 14-year civil war that nearly destroyed the country of Liberia.

Dressed in white and carrying placards, the women of WIPNET mobilised by Gbowee, held mass prayers and protested peacefully against Taylor’s government demanding an audience. Their fliers read: "We are tired! We are tired of our children being killed! We are tired of being raped! Women, wake up – you have a voice in the peace process!"  And for the women who could not read, simple drawings were made explaining their stance. With unusual protests such as the threatened “sex strike” against men, they were finally granted an audience in 2003. Leymah Gbowee represented the women before the president as the spokeswoman for the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. Their efforts pressured Charles Taylor to engage in peace talks with rebels and other African leaders. But when the peace talks seemed more like a party and a peace agreement was unlikely to be reached, Leymah again led over two hundred women to camp outside the meeting hall until an agreement was signed on August 18, 2003. This marked the beginning of peace in Liberia, further solidified by the election of Africa’s First female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, whom Gbowee endorsed for re-election in 2011.

The depth and impact of Leymah Gbowee’s story can hardly be captured in a few words. Detailing the dark days of depression and alcoholism she faced as a result of war trauma, constant separation from her family and now six children, Leymah’s memoir tells the story of a mother who made a difference despite hardship. At only 40 years, Leymah Gbowee has become a mother to not just her own children, but to thousands of ex-soldiers, women and children displaced and orphaned by the war. Through her continued efforts, Liberian women are empowered to play an active role in both the economy and politics of their state. By creating an atmosphere of peace for women to flourish, entrepreneurship in Liberian women is on the rise. According to Gbowee, "women need knowledge and awareness, political representation and economic empowerment to advance in African countries"  (Interview with Moiyattu Banya). Such programmes as the Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women Initiative runs a free four-month programme teaching women about finance and accounting, preparing them to launch their own ventures.

Leymah Gbowee went on to complete a Master’s degree in Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding in 2007 at EMU’s Centre for Justice and Peacebuilding. In doing so she overcame a long battle with poor self-image and low self-esteem. She was also called on to address international UN panels and write papers on the areas of peacebuilding and justice. With the support of Abigail Disney, feminist philanthropist and descendant of Walt Disney company founders, Gbowee started WIPSEN (Women in Peace and Security Network) an organisation fully owned and run by women, after the new head of WANEP would not grant WIPNET its autonomy.

Gbowee’s work through her women’s organisations continues to run in line with her firm belief in the power of African women.

“We found that in certain counties in Liberia the areas with the high rates of violence against women, and low graduation rates had communities where women were not as organized; the areas with very low rates of violence against women and high graduation rates women are very vocal and organized. This is important for us to advance as women” (Interview with Moiyattu Banya)

Her work, supported by thousands of women, has brought her many accolades including 2007 Blue Ribbon for Peace from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Havard University, 2011 Alumna of the Year, Eastern Mennonite University and the high honors of 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, jointly won with Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemen’s Tawakkol Karman, another woman peace activist.


Today, Leymah continues to inspire many young women activists and entrepreneurs in Liberia and beyond to overcome social and psychological barriers. Because of her work, we can expect to see many more female leaders and entrepreneurs emerge in Liberia and West Africa and I will be ready to tell their stories.