Written by Elizabeth Dearborn Davis Tuesday, July 10 2012
Although I have lived in East Africa for over six years, I admit that I had little previous knowledge about the small country of Gabon until I received an invitation to attend the New York Forum AFRICA (NFYA), a gathering that convened government leaders, CEOs, social entrepreneurs and UN agencies to discuss the future and the opportunities in African economies.
The brainchild of the event, Richard Attias, honed his event planning and marketing skills as he built his company Richard Attias & Associates, known for producing events like the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Middle East Peace Summit in Jordan, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Hawaii and more.
Libreville, Gabon may seem an unlikely location for a global convening. Attias announced that this venue was selected because of his relationship with Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba, who has a vision for transforming his country into an African example of sustainable development and ecotourism, and becoming an emerging market economy by 2025. (A special report about Gabon in the Financial Times provides more insight into Gabon's development strategy).
Influential leaders from around the world flew to Libreville (not without quite a few delays and unplanned overnights in Kenya or Cameroon due to cancelled flights) to participate in this conversation about Africa's growth at NFYA. The world has recognized that Africa is no longer the continent of despair or hopelessness. Flights to Africa are no longer filled with missionaries or aid workers; instead, savvy investors and businessmen recognize the potential of investing in these economies. Six of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies over the past decade are in Africa. Nine of the 20 fastest growing cities in the current decade are African. Africa’s total population will reach 2 billion by 2050 – 20 percent of the world’s population. While many in Africa will live in poverty, hundreds of millions will be middle class consumers.
NFYA identified three key themes for discussion and debate:
- Finding the right business models
- Spurring innovation and entrepreneurship
- Continuing the improvements in security and governance
In many ways, Gabon is the complete opposite of the country I now call home, Rwanda. Gabon has a population of just 1.5 million people, making it the least densely populated country in Africa, and Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa. Gabon is one of the most prosperous countries in Sub-Saharan African with the highest HDI (Human Development Index) and the third highest GDP per capita (after Equatorial Guinea and Botswana). Rwanda still remains one of the poorest countries on the continent.
A Focus On Women
To complement the NFYA, the Cecilia Attias Foundation for Women hosted a separate event, the Dialogue for Action Africa (DFAA). Co-hosted by the Gabonese first lady and her organization, the Sylvia Bongo Ondima Foundation, the DFAA gathered a diverse audience of more than 550 individuals representing government, civil society and private sector from across Africa, Europe, the Middle East, India, China and the United States to discuss two key themes:
- What are the greatest challenges facing African women today?
- What are the concrete actions that we can take immediately to make progress?
The Cecilia Attias Foundation compiled the outcomes of these conversations and created a Plan of Action that was presented at the G20 Summitt in Los Cabos a few days after the DFAA.
Panels addressed the daunting reality that despite the recent boom of economic growth across Africa, women still lag behind. For every one woman dying in Europe from maternal mortality, 1000 women die in Africa. Research has shown that as income levels for women increase, rates of domestic violence regularly increase as well. In East Africa, less than one-third of college students are female, and the majority of women work in subsistence agriculture, living on less than $2 per day.
Nahid Toubia, chair of the White Ribbon Alliance Sudan, spoke to the gathering about the politics of maternal health. She was the first female Sudanese surgeon and a pioneer in the field of maternal and reproductive health rights. In addition, she has led the fight against female genital mutilation in Sudan and around the world. Edna Adan Ismail, founder of the Edna Adan Hospital, also shared her experiences of training midwives across Somaliland.
I spoke on a panel about women's education with Hon. Aicha Bah Diallo, chairperson of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE); Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO; and Holly Gordon, executive director 10x10 Educate Girls, Change the World. Aicha and Irina highlighted the work of the UN and governments to increase the enrollment of girls in primary and secondary school in accordance with Millennium Development Goal 3. Thirty-one million more girls have been enrolled in primary school since 1999. I argued that women’s education - specifically at the secondary and tertiary levels - must be designed with strong collaboration of the private sector to ensure that market-relevant curriculum. The African higher education systems are not adequately preparing students with the skills needed to succeed in today's changing economies. All the discussions and celebrations about the influx of foreign investment and rapidly developing economies will be moot if there is not a qualified workforce available to run these businesses and innovative entrepreneurs ready to build new enterprises.
Richard Attias moderated a panel of seven African first ladies (Sylvia Bongo Ondimba, first lady of Gabon; Chantal Compaore, first lady of Burkina Faso; Patience Goodluck Jonathan, first lady of Nigeria; Jeannette Kagame, first lady of Rwanda; Dominique Ouattara, first lady of Ivory Coast; Penehupifo Pohamba, first lady of Namibia; Mareme Sall, first lady of Senegal), and they each spoke about the work they are spearheading in their countries to promote the rights of women. He also asked them what advice they would give their husbands. The audience especially liked the answer of Mareme Sall, first lady of Senegal, when she advised her husband President Macky Sall to always remember to serve the people, and not himself.
DFAA presented complex themes around education, health care, reconciliation, entrepreneurship and access to finance. The audience asked pressing questions and frequently submitted resounding criticism to a panelist's opinion or strategy. Practitioners presented compelling arguments about the reality in the field, and policymakers explained the complexities of enforcing global policies to ensure women are included at the negotiating tables. New strategies were built and partnerships were forged among individuals who normally work within their own silos of responsibility. Cecilia continued to emphasize that it is imperative for our global community to take bold action on these issues, and not be satisfied with constant dialogue about the need for change.
I left the DFAA with a renewed sense of energy and optimism about the global women's movement. Unfortunately, it is also sobering to acknowledge that less than 10 percent of world leaders are female, and we still have a great amount of work to do to ensure that women have the opportunities to participate in the global decision-making process that affects African communities.
Inside The New York Forum AFRICA
The president and the first lady of Gabon were actively engaged throughout the weekend at the NYFA and participated in panels and plenaries with leaders such as Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus; former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Andrew Young; financier and investor Ariane de Rothschild; Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwabo; South African business mogul Ivor Ichikowitz; and Vanu Bose, president and CEO of Vanu Inc. (Full list of speakers here.)
I participated in a panel about sustainable tourism and how it can provide economic and social development to the African continent. The tourism industry has the potential to create significant economic growth for countries that develop wise strategies for balancing conservation action with investment in tourism infrastructure. As an educator, I spoke about the need for human capital development and education policies that match the needs of a growing private sector. The college I co-founded, the Akilah Institute for Women, offers a diploma in hospitality management to prepare young women for leadership roles in the tourism industry, the fastest growing sector of the Rwandan economy. Rwanda is a powerful case study for investment in tourism development. Today, this industry is the largest foreign exchange earner and has already created over 500,000 jobs for Rwandans.
For nonprofit organizations and social enterprises working in Africa, we have a responsibility to tell a different story about female leaders and entrepreneurs in Africa. The world is used to hearing stories of famine, violence and poverty coming out of Africa, but a generation of young women across the continent are courageously launching their own businesses and reforming their governments. They deserve special recognition and a global platform in order to strengthen and embolden their initiatives.
More women making a change in African communities:
International human rights activist Naomi Tutu takes past experiences as a black woman in the midst of apartheid South Africa and turns them into her motivation for empowering underprivileged men and women.
Janine Maxwell is taking her family from their suburban home in Alpharetta, Ga. to Swaziland, Africa where she, her husband and daughter will live without electricity and the usual comforts of suburban living -- all for a great cause.
Dedicated to bringing electricity to African villages, Solar Sister follows an "Avon-like" model that utilizes social capital.