Hafsat Abiola is President of the Women in Africa Initiative (WIA), a platform connecting leading and high potential women in Africa to facilitate their individual success and collective impact. A leader in Nigeria’s pro-democracy movement, she served as a member of Ogun state cabinet in Nigeria from 2011-2019 where she worked on inclusive growth programs to tackle the high rate of youth unemployment. Ms Abiola is also Founder and President of the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), an NGO that promotes the development of women as initiators of change by offering leadership training and raising awareness about harmful social issues such as violence against women.
She is one of the World Future Council’s Global Advisors, serves as Women Political Leaders’ Special Envoy to Africa and is the recipient of several international awards, including the Vital Voices Award for Public Service. She believes that the unique challenges facing the African continent offer opportunities for female leadership to thrive. Her life’s work is a tribute to her parents who lost their lives while leading the democratic movement that put an end to Nigeria’s military regime in the 1990s.
On the occasion of the Generation Equality Forum, a global civil society event convened by UN Women, co-hosted by the governments of Mexico and France and which will culminate in Paris from 30 June to 2 July 2021, GPI sat down with Ms Abiola to discuss COVID-19’s impact on women, her engagement for women’s economic empowerment and how to unlock the potential of female entrepreneurship across Africa.
Read the full interview here:
GPI: You once said that “women are often seen as victims of crisis, but actually, in the midst of problems, women see solutions”. How has COVID-19 impacted women and what opportunities does the crisis offer for women’s leadership to emerge?
Hafsat Abiola: I think that the current crisis has really helped us see that the way in which we organized work was just a choice and that human beings can make other choices, and that some of these other choices would be more empowering and inclusive for women. Because if you consider the flexibility of the working environment that was forced on everyone because of the pandemic – where people, wherever it was possible were working from home or working remotely – it gives more opportunity for women to balance their different roles. So, if we actually embrace that lesson and provide other support for women, we will have more women in the workforce. Because now women often are making the decision between working in the economy and supporting their families. And I think that we can actually organize the work that women do in the economy so that they do not have to be making that decision. And I think this is one of the big takeaways that the pandemic has shown us. The pandemic has also shown us that where there is a political will, we can always make a way to change global arrangements and systems. And there has been the political will driving the development of vaccines.
And not just has this pandemic been upon us, but it has come along with a shadow pandemic. And whereas we have a vaccine for the Corona virus, what vaccine are we putting in place against domestic violence? This is also another area that is impeding women’s emergence, suppressing women’s voices, oppressing women’s agency. We need to really tackle that as well. So, if we can come up with a vaccine in one year with billions of dollars of public money invested to secure those vaccines and make them available – I mean, more work needs to be done, yes, especially to get the vaccines to countries in Africa and Asia, but we can see that if there is a will, we can do it – then the question is, why isn’t there a will to protect women from the shadow pandemic?
GPI: Your organization, the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy in Nigeria (KIND) works on removing barriers to women’s participation in decision-making. What actions would you like to see implemented to advance women’s representation across Africa?
Hafsat Abiola: Now, women are about 50 percent – sometimes 51 percent but just let us accept that we are roughly 50 percent – of the world’s population. We are not anywhere near 50 percent of the world’s leadership. We are not nearly 50 percent of the world’s top companies. And even though women are economic actors, we are not 50 percent of global economic contribution. So, there is a lot of room for improvement, things that we still have to achieve to get to equity and to get to equality.
So, I think that if we want Africa to be empowered, we, the Africans, just have to accept that we already embody the power and just look to unlock the agency and the ingenuity of our own people, not looking to other people to come to help us.
We finally just have locked in on the issue of how we train women to add value, economic value. And this is our focus now, because at the root of all the problems on the continent is poverty. And we need to provide pathways to prosperity as when women become more prosperous, they will protect their rights.
I am part of so many women’s associations, women’s networking groups fighting to look at climate change, to look at all these issues about health, how to make sure that there is equal access to health care, to address food security. Because at the end of the day, our children, for the shade of trees that they will sit under tomorrow, are the seeds we must plant today. If we do not plant those seeds, they will not have the shade. So, we have to really focus and help women to start on that path of self-actualization so that they can start working on their legacy. That is what KIND focuses on now. And the key, the first step is economic empowerment.
But more and more as I interact with people all over the planet, I realize that they also have something that they need to learn from the Africans. And I think that the Africans need to gain enough confidence in themselves to know that they have something to share.
GPI: Women are still more likely than men to work in informal employment and in vulnerable or subsistence jobs. How can we enhance women’s economic rights and expand their opportunities as entrepreneurs?
Hafsat Abiola: Most of them come to entrepreneurship out of desperation. They have no ideas at all. In fact, they just see somebody else set up an enterprise and they try to copy exactly everything that they can see the other person do. They just try to copy and replicate that. So, there is no real innovation, you know? And I think to expect innovation is a little bit ambitious because many of them are not even skilled in any way. The educational system has been quite poor and they do not know anything really about entrepreneurship. So, we need to build their skills, we need to strengthen the apprenticeship system so they can learn. So, they can learn how other people are doing it, what kinds of strategies those people deploy to solve problems and so they can marshal similar methods to take on an area that they may be interested in.
I think we need to do the socialization of women to make that transition, to understand themselves not as a support team, but as THE team. They are not a supporters’ club for a male team. If they are a supporters’ club for anyone, it is for themselves. They should be their own champions and we have to help them play that role. So, a lot around that is one big pillar of work.
Another big pillar of work is with the financing. Because Africa is underfinanced as a whole. But within the space of women entrepreneurship, the quantification of the gap in financing is about 42 billion dollars. And the African Development Bank is working very hard to close this gap. They are deploying this year, through the support from the G7, 300 million Euros to women entrepreneurs across Africa, and they want to use that to show that women at the meso-finance level are as credible as women at micro-finance level. Because everyone knows that women at micro-finance level pay back their loans. But there has not been enough data for women at meso-finance level, which is the level above micro-finance but below commercial bank lending. So, we need to provide that, we need to work to develop that body of research that proves that point and make sure the banks are able to support women entrepreneurs at that level, at the meso-finance level.
And the last area has to do with the infrastructure in the different African countries. So, Africa has the poorest infrastructure in the whole world of all the continents. (…) And this, the burden of the poor infrastructure, is borne by the entrepreneurial sector. That is why the multinationals can thrive, because they have so much money, but small- and medium-scale enterprises do not have the kind of wealth like the MNCs. So, we need to make sure that the government is putting in solutions to close that infrastructure gap. Because you cannot entrepreneur your way out of roads that are not there, out of telephone systems that are not available. You know, out of electricity that it is not available. For you to produce, you need electricity. And so, we need to have the governments in African countries making deals with Siemens, with all the different major providers, to make sure that we can invest and improve the infrastructure landscape of the continent. If we can do all those three things in the three pillars, then we should be able to have real local indigenous economies across Africa.
I think that in a way, the global economic system is there to support the already wealthy countries and we need to begin to make a demand that more should be done for the economies in Africa, because we have 1.2 billion people that are depending on their livelihoods based on what can be sourced domestically. So, if the world system wants our coltan, our copper, our gold, all our different resources, they should put something more on the ground in terms of value that can be used to build our economies.
GPI: The pandemic has amplified voices for a green recovery after the crisis. Do you believe that “building back better” is possible?
Hafsat Abiola: I would just say that to me, I hope the effects of the pandemic last a very long time, that we have a long COVID recovery because with the COVID pandemic, we had a disruption of the global supply chains. And that is giving opportunity in the African countries, for the African entrepreneurs, to try and meet the supply chains of these large companies that have just been in their countries but never connected to the local economy, that are just there as a source of extraction but not for wealth creation. Because of the pandemic and that those companies could not access the normal global supply routes, they started doing backward integration, which has really helped us. So let that be a long COVID recovery. This is my prayer, because the longer it is, the better it will be for us because it creates an opportunity.
Bernadett Fekete, Project Management