Hafsat Abiola: Invest in Women to Accelerate Progress
from Women Around the World, Women and Foreign Policy Program, and Women’s Political Leadership

Hafsat Abiola: Invest in Women to Accelerate Progress

The president of Women in Africa (WIA) Initiative, Hafsat Abiola, shares her experiences for International Women’s Day under the theme “Invest in women: Accelerate progress.”
A woman works in a rice mill in Aliade community in the Gwer local government area of the central state of Benue October 4, 2012.
A woman works in a rice mill in Aliade community in the Gwer local government area of the central state of Benue October 4, 2012. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

This interview with Hafsat Abiola is produced by Senior Fellow Linda Robinson and Research Associate Noël James.

What have you personally learned about how leadership is developed during your career and the work of WIA? 

I was raised in Nigeria by a dad who was a prominent businessman and a mother who went from being a housewife raising seven children to becoming a successful entrepreneur. When my father won the 1993 presidential elections in my country, and the military junta annulled the elections, he was put in custody. I witnessed firsthand how transformative owning a business was for my mother’s confidence and strength to help finance the pro-democracy struggle that emerged through her business. She provided leadership to the movement until she was assassinated in 1996. My father never did come out of custody alive, but democracy was restored and has been sustained in my country since.                  

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My parents’ experiences influenced my journey of activism and advocacy, which started in my early twenties as I was thrust into this pro-democracy struggle. Since, I have been on the frontlines of building Nigeria’s democracy in several roles, from founding the Kudirat Initiative for Democracy (KIND), a national non-profit that works in Nigeria, to my eight-year stint as a member of a state cabinet in my country’s industrial state, and now, my current role as the president of Women in Africa (WIA), which supports women entrepreneurs in Africa. I have continued this work as co-lead of Project Dandelion, where we are enrolling women leaders to drive the response to the climate crises, and in my work as a member of the UK Board of World Connect, where I am refocusing the development industry on igniting the agency of local communities. Through these commitments, I have come to understand that leadership is a collective undertaking.   

My favorite African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Leaders’ success or failure often depends on how well they can ‘go together’ with others. I have learned that leadership is a process of growth, learning, and adaptation. It is cultivated through continuous self-reflection, embracing vulnerability, and paying attention to the context in which one operates. It’s hard work, so hard that many (especially women) do not accept to lead unless and until they see a goal that compels them.   

Working for Africa’s rise through WIA is one such compulsion for me. It is a journey that transcends mere organizational leadership; it’s a profound commitment to empowering African women entrepreneurs. Every day, I am reminded of the resilience and ingenuity of women across the continent, who are not just seeking to create economic value but are also weaving the social fabric of our communities tighter with every endeavor they undertake.  

The journey of WIA is more than a reflection of what has been accomplished; it’s a beacon for what is to come. The resilience, creativity, and leadership of African women entrepreneurs inspire me daily, driving me to tirelessly advocate for their empowerment. Africa’s rise depends on its women and men, but women are a largely untapped resource; expanding their economic access will unlock their potential.  

Ultimately, I agree with Mahatma Gandhi that my life is my message. The message I want to convey is that sometimes, all we have to do is work on the threads that pull us together so that we can go farther. It is what I work towards in all my commitments. The individual leader can have an impact, but when we weave a community of leaders working together to meet the challenges of our time, it is then that we become unstoppable. 

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What is WIA’s approach to the economic empowerment of women in Africa? 

WIA is an initiative that aims to support and empower African women entrepreneurs across the continent. However, their path is fraught with unique challenges—access to capital, gender biases, and limited market access, to name a few. At WIA, our mission has been to dismantle these barriers, creating an ecosystem that nurtures the aspirations of African women entrepreneurs.  

WIA’s approach to the economic empowerment of women in Africa encompasses several key strategies:  

  • Training and mentorship: Recognizing the importance of skills development, WIA offers training programs and mentorship opportunities to women entrepreneurs. These programs are designed to enhance business skills, leadership capabilities, and technical knowledge.  

  • Financial support: Access to finance is a significant barrier for women entrepreneurs in Africa. WIA works to facilitate access to funding through partnerships with institutions and by organizing pitch competitions where women can present their businesses to potential investors. 

  • Networking and visibility: WIA provides a platform for women to connect, share experiences, and gain visibility. This includes hosting events, boot camps, and webinars that provide a platform for women entrepreneurs to share their ideas.  

  • Advocacy: WIA also advocates fostering a more supportive ecosystem for women entrepreneurs. Our platform is dedicated to raising awareness about the challenges and opportunities for African women entrepreneurs with the backing of worldwide economic figures such as ambassadors, encouraging entrepreneurs, investors, and individuals of high stature.   

Where does WIA work in the continent, how many women have benefited, and what measures of effectiveness or success could you cite? 

From the bustling markets of Lagos, Dakar, Cairo, and Nairobi to the hubs in Gabon and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), women are leading the charge in transforming Africa’s economic landscape. WIA operates across the African continent, focusing on select countries to strengthen the local entrepreneurial landscape.  

The stronger the support that we and others offer, the more successful women in Africa will be. For this reason, our approach at WIA is a holistic model. We understand that empowering women is not just about financial support; it’s also about creating networks, enhancing skills, and advocating for policies that foster a more inclusive economic environment.   

Since 2016, WIA has used this approach to build programs with impact in fifty-four African countries. WIA has provided over fifteen thousand start-ups with technical assistance and over four hundred girls with digital training programs with organizations including Atos, Clifford Chance, and Engie. We have also supported twenty-three African Young Leaders through acceleration programs in partnership with companies such as Dior, Huawei, KPMG, Lazard, and TotalEnergies. We have carried out twenty-two studies on the empowerment of African women in partnership with economic actors of the African continent and established two hubs that provide dedicated support for women entrepreneurs in Gaban, in partnership with Eramet, and the DRC, in partnership with Working Ladies. Overall, WIA has built a database with more than forty thousand women entrepreneurs and leaders on the African continent, and we have created a global community of 194 thousand members. 

The effectiveness of WIA’s programs can be measured by three key performance indicators: the number of women entrepreneurs who have received training, mentorship, or financial support, success stories of businesses that have grown or expanded due to WIA’s support, and increased visibility and networking opportunities for women entrepreneurs. 

Please share one or two individuals’ stories about how WIA set them on a path. 

Claudia Castellanos, Co-founder and CEO of Black Mamba Foods and WIA54 2020 laureate 

Claudia Castellanos is the co-founder and CEO of Black Mamba Foods, which is an ethical Eswatini food manufacturer that distributes gourmet products—chili sauce, pesto, chutney, and jam made with ingredients organically farmed and without added preservatives—in Southern Africa and abroad. Through Black Mamba’s partnership with a local NGO called Guba, the company trains smallholder farmers in permaculture and organic farming. To date, sixty farmers are part of the value chain, and the direct positive impact reaches over one thousand people in Eswatini. Using regenerative agricultural practices has improved soil quality, water use, and the biodiversity of land used by smallholder farmers. In 2020, Black Mamba won our WIA54 program and secured an investment of 9.2 million rupees ($559,000) from the US venture capital fund Enygma Ventures to broaden its impact on the continent and internationally.    

Yasmine Koné Massandje, Co-founder of Kounandy Volaille and JAMII Femmes 2022 laureate 

The JAMII Femmes program by The Coca-Cola Foundation and supported by WIA significantly propelled Yasmine on a path of entrepreneurial success. At the local boot camp in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, she received advice from seasoned professionals, which was crucial for the management and growth of her business. Interacting with our large community of women entrepreneurs across the continent provided valuable insights and peer support. The $10,000 grant enabled her to transition from renting unsuitable spaces and purchasing land to start building a farm for her poultry business. She targets to increase the production to ten thousand turkeys by the end of 2024. The Coca-Cola Foundation and WIA’s support through the JAMII Femmes program not only equipped Yasmine with the necessary tools and resources for immediate improvements in her business but also set the stage for its future growth, showcasing the JAMII Femmes program’s role in fostering women’s entrepreneurship in Africa.   

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