Hafsat Abiola, Nigerian activist for human rights, civil rights and democracy was appointed June 5, 2018 as the Executive President of Women in Africa (WIA) Initiative. This is a key step for the global platform dedicated to the economic development and support of leading and high potential African women. The founder, Aude de Thuin, and Hafsat Abiola share their thoughts on this significant step for the Initiative.
Aude, why has Hafsat been appointed at this time?
This is the stage of maturity. Since the beginning of WIA Initiative, I have always said that I would give my place to an African woman, because it is in the logic of WIA to have an African President. It is with women that Africa will develop in trust and in complementarity with men.
Hafsat Abiola, why did you accept?
I believe in the vision of Women in Africa Initiative . Women are the greatest untapped resource the continent has. So I want to help lead the organization that is working to harness their potential. It could very well be the game-changer that unleashes the long-anticipated rise of the continent.
Aude, why did you choose Hafsat?
First, because of her personality. She was one of our first WIA Ambassadors, and joined WIA Council a year ago. Secondly, because of her career as an activist for human rights, civil rights and democracy, and values so close to ours made her the ideal candidate. Finally, for her analysis and her vision of the role of women in the economy. All this combined made it obvious that she is the right person at the right place.
Hafsat, what are you main goals as president for 2018 and the two coming years?
My goals for 2018 are understandably modest. It is primarily to learn. To learn how the organisation currently operates, to meet our partners and listen to their vision and interests, to engage with our members across the continent and learn what they see as the biggest opportunities and the toughest challenges. In the coming year, my focus will be on building out the structure for the future and beginning to tie that structure to performance. I’ll be focusing on ensuring that we have ambassadors in all the countries of Africa, that we have active councils in at least a third of these, and that we expand the network of partners that we engage on behalf of our members.
Hafsat, how will your background contribute to the development of WIA Initiative?
In some ways, it seems that everything I have done in my life was preparing me for this role. A little over two decades ago, I got involved in advocating for democracy in Nigeria at a time of military rule. I was in my early twenties and due to the particular circumstances, I was one of the spokespeople for the movement. It entailed traveling around the world, working with a diverse community of organizations and associations to push for the global community to support the Nigerian people’s demand for democracy. Since then, I founded an organization that is dedicated to the empowerment of women and young people in Nigeria and then served for seven years as a member of cabinet in Nigeria’s industrial state, Ogun State, where I was responsible for the Millennium Development Goals and later the Trade & Investment portfolios. As a result of these experiences, I have built quite a broad network of relationships with global and local leaders, organizations, foundations, and governments from Washington DC to Ouagadougou that will be useful to WIA Initiative now as it seeks to expand its footprint and impact.
Aude, what are the challenges of this new presidency?
Hafsat becomes Executive President and CEO of Women in Africa. The main office will be based in Lagos, Nigeria from next October. Paris will keep a representative office, just like Casablanca. Hafsat will be in charge of the “vision” for Women in Africa and, as such, in charge of the programs and all the contents of the summits, whether global or regional, and the digital platform. She will be the spokesperson and interface with the pan-African and global partners who accompany us. She will chair the Council and expand the network of our ambassadors. She will be accompanied by the team in place, composed of seasoned professionals, and she will complete this team as WIA grows. In the short term, in addition to being the spokesperson for WIA Marrakech 2018, Hafsat will contribute to the program whose generic theme is “Watch Africa with confidence and Believe in its talents”. Hafsat will also put together the second regional summit to be held in Lagos at the end of the year with the WIA team.
Hafsat, what do you think the current assets of WIA Initiative are?
The organization has a great network of women across Africa and around the world as well as strong relationships with companies and organizations, especially in Europe. Internally, we have a dynamic team that is committed to delivering results for Women in Africa, which means that there is no limit to what we can achieve, so long as we remain focused on our goal, which is to ensure the rise of the women of Africa.
Aude, what role will you play now in WIA Initiative?
I am 67 and I will keep a promise made to my family to slow down my intense life of work: I will bring my vision, to help Hafsat and her team apprehend the specific job which was mine during years ; I will also nurture the relationship with major French and international partners that I have known for a long time. And suggest names of speakers because through my intense daily readings, I spot incredible talents that I will submit to the group “program” who will then decide, under the authority of Hafsat. I want to continue writing too, because I still have a lot to say about what I see in this ever-changing world, who is so unwilling to really welcome women as true economic partners, capable of having a vital role in the evolution of our societies.
Hafsat, how do you consider the sharing of experience with Aude?
I have profound respect for Aude. Well before she founded Women in Africa Initiative, I followed her work at the Women’s Forum for many years. I was always impressed and inspired by her achievements and have long wished to work with her, which was why I didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation to become an ambassador for Nigeria for Women in Africa and later to join the board and now to serve as the President/CEO of this laudable organization. I expect ours to be a strong partnership built on a shared belief in the promise of women in Africa, complementary strengths and the deepest commitment to realizing this promise.
Aude, what is your assessment of WIA Initiative nearly two years after its global launch?
I am proud of what we have achieved, because we organized a recognized world summit in Marrakech in September 2017, and a first regional summit in Dakar last April, which will be followed by a second in Lagos at the end of the year. We have also developed a leading African database and strengthened the network we had. But there is still so much to do. We are developing a digital platform connecting leaders, entrepreneurs and investors. We want to connect our members with young talents through a mentoring program. We are finalizing our website and have included a pure-player media to showcase the women we spot. And thanks to our partner Roland Berger and the sponsorship of Société Générale bank, our Foundation, WIA Philanthropy launched our second call for applications to receive in Marrakech next September 54 women entrepreneurs, one by continent and/or one from the diaspora. We will present them to investors, connect them with our community and the media so that the world will see how African women are creating new business models, all significant for the future of the continent. Whether in the fields of health, nutrition, education, energy, water, technology, finance, women are major players in this economy that Africa is in dire need of, and we want to make it known loud and clear.
Hafsat, what are the crucial needs according to you for African women in terms of career development, entrepreneurship, empowerment?
In Africa, women need know-how, finance, enabling policies and other forms of support. They need more than lip service. They need services and projects that are relevant and carefully designed to address the real challenges they face.
Aude, after these two years of experience, what advice as a woman leader do you want to give African women?
Whether in Africa, France or anywhere in the world, my advice to women is to have more self-confidence. They must know that the world would be different without them, and that they are the future of their countries. As far as Africa is concerned, the whole world knows that it is through women that things will move. The world is waiting for them and needs them.
*Interview courtesy Women In Africa Initiative