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Who Runs The World: Young African Women Trailblazers

2012 was a formidable year for the African woman – the continent got its second female head of State in Joyce Banda, President of Malawi. The International Criminal Court (ICC) for the first time in its 10-year history got its first African and female Chief Prosecutor, the Gambia’s Fatou Bensouda, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma of South Africa become the first woman to head the African Union. While The Gambia and Somalia appointed their first female foreigner ministers, Susan Wafa-Ogoo and Fowsiyo Yusuf Haji Adan and Africa got its first female Anglican bishop in the person of Ellinah Wamukoya in Swaziland. As more women continue to push the boundaries, one is not blind to the fact that the achievement of a few does not equate the continued political and economic marginalisation or the social and cultural oppression of millions more. There is a long way to go and much work to do before the African woman can make claim to full equality. However, there are young African women trailblazers, who are changing the narrative from the fields of activism to philanthropy to technology to the arts and culture. They are women who cut across the board but contribute to evolving story of the African woman at home and in the diaspora.


The Storytellers

Chinelo Okparanta (Writer)

Chinelo OChinelo Okparanmta’s debut collection of short stories, Happiness Like Water, is described as a confident offering that introduces the reader to men and women, who are burdened by the past and the future, and are consumed by the high expectations – whether of success at home in Nigeria or in their pursuit of the opportunities and dreams that America offers – was published in the UK in May by Granta and recently launched in the US. Like any writer, who has been through the process of drafts and redrafts with an understanding that writing is a lonely craft, Okparanmta admits to being excited about seeing her work come to fruition. “This is my first book, so that in itself is exciting–to have watched it go from just an idea to a fully developed book. As far as anxieties go, I have some about how the book will be received, but I imagine that is normal.”

Born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, Okparanta earned her M.A. from Rutgers University, and an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have appeared in GRANTA, The Kenyon Review, The Iowa Review, among others. Her writing style is said to be ‘raw and elegant’, a factor that shines through in the unflinching universal stories of ambition and longing she tells.  From Wahala, which tells the story of a couple, who visit a traditional healer hoping to finally conceive a child to Grace, which depicts the life of a middle-aged college professor that comforts a troubled young Nigerian student – but the relationship that develops between the two women seems as inevitable as it is forbidden. Stories that are bound to generate a discourse about life in Nigeria and the elements of Okparanta’s background that have shaped her characters, a reality she sums up whem she said: “These are difficult, challenging stories. They tell of regular, everyday people–of our brothers, our sisters, our children, our neighbors. But, again, they deal with difficult topics. I hope that the collection as a whole allows us to see ourselves in these characters, Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike. I hope that these stories encourage us to hold open conversations about who we are as people, where we are, and where we’d like to be.”  Happiness Like Water will be followed up shortly by her debut novel, tentatively titled Under the Udala Trees.


Kathleen Bomani and Nosarieme Garrick (Filmmakers)



In an age where anyone can start a blog or use their camera to record what they like and post online, Kathleen Bomani, 28 and Nosariemme Garrick 28, respectively from Tanzania and Nigeria, and based in the US, are two ambitious young women with an equally ambitious dream to tell the story of “their” Africa. Their project My AFRICA IS, is a docu-film series, which aims to showcase the talent and ingenuity Africa has to offer the world.  To date and solely by word of mouth, and their prowess use of social media, both ladies have successfully drummed up support for their project in spite of the hurdles along the way. “Since the unveiling of plans for My Africa Is, a lot has happened. We made an overambitious attempt to raise funds on Kickstarter, overshooting our goal greatly; however it propelled us into the awareness of the African diaspora community who have started vouching for us. From the Kickstarter project, several opportunities have come about. From editorial pieces in international publications, to partnerships with organisations, and a Museum, and we are seeing what started out as a simple documentary series morphing into an integrated effort on many levels. We did not want to sit still waiting for funding to come before telling stories of a changing Africa, so we are connecting with exemplary young Africans through Skype, in what we describe as our ‘Skype Sessions’ and we profile young Africans in the diaspora through ‘webisodes.’ We are putting out original content that is representative of a balanced Africa.



“Our goal for 2013 is to create more engaging content for our audience. We are still in the fundraising stages but we hope to be out shooting on the continent by the middle of the year. The stories we plan on covering are in Senegal, Ghana, Angola, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Nigeria. Social media has been a useful platform for us as our Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter base is growing daily, and the positive feedback from strangers keeps us going. Though funding has been our biggest challenge, it has however, caused us to veer off a straightforward course and create the multiple levels of what My Africa Is today. We’re young and independent, so the sky is the limit. We are really concerned with delivering a quality product that breaks out of the mould, and educate the world on our great continent.”




The Social Entrepreneurs

 Saran Kaba Jones (Social Entrepreneur)

saran kaba jones

Saran Kaba Jones (C) Yinka Aj

“I’m a firm believer in the private sector as the best option for sustainable social and economic change in Liberia and recently co-founded the Liberia-based company, Empire Group, to create businesses in the areas of small-scale manufacturing, agriculture, and hospitality. Our goal is to create employment in rural Liberia, with the aim of helping communities become aid independent and self-sufficient”, says Saran Kaba Jones, a social entrepreneur.

Living proof of her word, she is the founder and executive director of FACE Africa, a non-profit, which funds and supports sustainable clean water, sanitation and hygiene projects in Liberia. Jones started FACE Africa on her return to Liberia, 20 years after she left aged eight, and shortly before the country’s civil war began. Returning home to find her country of birth in dire need, she made it her mission to help, and specifically focused on access to safe drinking water and empowering women through education and skills training as the areas where she could make a change. To date, FACE Africa, which she started in 2009, has raised over $350,000 for clean water projects in Liberia. However, it seems managing a company and a social change project is not enough. In September 2012, and on the request of the US Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), she was invited to participate in a 2-week entrepreneurship project in Guinea. The goal – to conduct a training program on entrepreneurship, address some of the challenges and barriers women face as emerging entrepreneurs, and help them acquire the skills, networks and values needed to start and grow innovative and sustainable enterprises as a source of job creation and empowerment in society.  2013 has been another busy year and her goal for FACE Africa is to “complete at least 10 clean water projects this year as we begin our County by County initiative to provide complete water coverage to River Cess County.”


Solome Lemma (Social Entrepreneur & Activist)

solome lemmaSolome Lemma is an activist and social entrepreneur, and believes “transformational change in Africa requires Africans to take a lead in the process. “Aid” and “Development” shouldn’t be exports when there are invaluable skills, resources, and ideas within and from Africa. Africans are the continent’s most important resource and many of us in the diaspora want to invest in the continent’s future. After years of working in and on Africa, I have realised that we leverage our passions, knowledge, and resources best when we support and amplify the social change innovations and solutions being spearheaded by Africans in Africa.”

Lemma is of Ethiopian descent and passionate about promoting the ‘diverse, nuanced, and dignified’ narratives about the Horn of Africa and is co-founder of HornLight, an online platform. In 2012, she was recognised as a White House Champion of Change for her work with diaspora communities. However, creating a social space that encourages and nurtures philanthropy in Africa is one project close to Lemma ‘s heart and, is co-founder and executive director of Africans in the Diaspora (AiD), which seeks to unleash the philanthropic, social and intellectual capital of the diaspora to invest directly in Africa and advance social and economic change on the continent. AiD, which launched in late 2012, ‘envisions a self-reliant, socially and economic Africa, and believes that to achieve that level of change, Africans must drive the process of development in their communities. Lemma said “We work to ensure that Africans on the continent and in the diaspora play a leading role in Africa’s progress by connecting their skills, resources, and ideas through our Funds, Voices, and Connections programs.” In December 2012, AiD embarked on a marathon fundraising campaign with the aim of raising $30,000 for three African based projects – Synapse Centre (Senegal), Physicians for Social Justice (Nigeria) and WEM Integrated Health Services (WEMIHS – Kenya) Lemma says one of the lessons she has learnt since AiD started the campaign is “if ever you doubted the willingness of Africans to engage in philanthropic investments, you can take that doubt out the door. Africans have been giving to the campaign and are doing so with passion and conviction.” Adding that it has been fulfilling to once again realise what she has always believed – “Africans do and can give in philanthropic terms, and it’s been great to see that proven.” AiD has set its sights on revolutionising the way aid assistance is generated for Africa by Africans in 2013.


The Creatives

Njideka Akunyili (Artist)



Njideka Akunyili describes her art as one that addresses the “internal tension between my deep love for Nigeria, my country of birth, and my strong appreciation for Western culture, which has profoundly influenced both my life and my art. I use my art as a way to negotiate my seemingly contradictory loyalties to both my cherished Nigerian culture that is currently eroding and to my white American husband…My art serves as a vehicle through which I explore my conflicted allegiance to two separate cultures.”  When an artist is this brutal and honest about the “overarching conflict” that exists in her art due to the reality of belonging to two worlds, you can expect a body of work that will invigorate a discourse about identity and where home is. And that is what the work of the Nigerian-born visual artist, who creates painted drawings with print and collage elements promises to do. The Yale University School of Art graduate’s work has been compared to that of Wangechi Mutu, the Kenyan artist, and has been described by African Digital Art, one of the foremost online art platforms dedicated to African artists as one that is “inspiring conversation around love, heritage and culture.” Akunyili was the artist in residence at the prestigious Studio Harlem for the year 2011-2012.  Her most recent exhibitions include New Works at Zidoun gallery in Luxemburg, Lost and Found: Belief and Doubt in Contemporary Pictures at the Museum of New Art and Detroit, Waiting for the Queen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In 2013, she will be featured in Viatamin D2, Phaidon’s new book surveying international contemporary drawing and is a 2013 resident artist at the International Studio and Curatorial Program. Her larger than life artistic work portrays detailed depictions of different strands of her life and her environment, creating a narrative that is relatable. As the public and art lovers become more aware of Akunyili, 2013 could prove to be the year galleries and art buyers cannot get enough of her.


Toyin Odutola (Artist)

“My Nigerian heritage and American upbringing influence me equally. I feel as if they aren’t so much hyphenated or slashed as they are cyclical, a constantly renewing source for me to return to find new ways of re-presenting imposed labels of identity,” says Toyin Odutola. The Nigerian-born and US-based artist, 27, was recently named by Forbes magazine as one of its stars of Art & Style in its annual 30 under 30 list. Odutola gained her Master of Arts (MFA) from BA in Studio Art and Communications in 2012. Known for using ‘ballpoint pens, markers and drawing materials,’ Odutola creates intricately layered and unusual portraits with a commanding artistic aesthetic attention from photographs. She told the New African Woman, it is her hope “the audience can clear their cultural and socially prescribed lenses to see the underlying truth of the individuals I portray, which is more abstract exercise that representational, for it boils down to material descriptions. In sum, I hope people will partake in seeing a person rather than simply glancing at a passer-by.”  With over 10 group and 3 solo exhibitions under her belt, including her most recent show at the Jack Shainman Gallery, New York, 2013 is proving to be another momentous one in what is building up to be a remarkable creative career in the art world.




Lupita Nyong’o (Actress)

lupitaShuga, a ground-breaking MTV series about the ‘the lives of sexually active young Kenyans and highlight the risks associated with unprotected sex’ and impact of HIV/Aids catapulted Lupita Nyong’o to the attention of audiences in Kenya, and across Africa. Since Shuga, Nyong’o has gone on and continues to push herself as an actress. Nyong’o’s big screen debut in 2013 will be in Twelve Years A Slave, by the acclai8jmed director, Steve McQueen’s where she plays the role of Patsey, a slave who’s both the object of affection and cruelty of her master. Produced by Brad Pitt, film insiders have described it as a pivotal role and she will be starring alongside Chiwetel Ejiofor and Adepero Oduye.  Nyong’o was born in Mexico to Kenyan parents, raised in Kenya and studied in the US, and is a graduate of the Yale School of Drama and has over 10 years of acting experience. In 2007, she directed and produced the award-winning documentary, In My genes, a film which exposed the personal and societal challenges that people with albinism face as members of one of the most ‘hyper-visible and misunderstood minority groups’ of Kenya’s society. With over 5 stage plays to her name, her other starring roles include the critically acclaimed The Constant Gardener (2005) and The Namesake (2006). Nyong’o is currently shooting the feature film thriller, Non-Stop, , co-starring   Liam Neeson. With prominent film roles gradually lining up for the young Kenya actress and filmmaker, she is bound to be one of the talking points for 2013, where the growth of African actresses on the global stage is concerned.


The Educator

Deborah Ahenkorah

deborahCo-founder and executive director of the Golden Baobab prize, Deborah Ahenkorah’s has one dream – to revitalise children’s literature in Africa and promote reading and education. “I believe that deep-rooted change comes through education and in 2013, we hope to begin this transformation by introducing African children to the experience of reading stories that relate to their lives,”  says the 25-year-old political science graduate. The Golden Baobab Prize is an African literary award that honours writers of children’s stories with African narratives. It came about due to Ahenkorah’s passion to encourage the writing of African literature for young readers and was inaugurated in 2008.

A World Economic Forum Global Shaper, Ahenkorah has been recognised as one of Ghana’s leading social entrepreneurs. “Growing up in Accra, I was a ravenous reader and most of the books I had access to were American or British. I grew up reading Western stories that had very little to do with my life, and my children would too, unless someone did something to change the game. I decided to be that someone.” Says Ahenkorah and so, it is her dream that in the next ten years, African children’s literature will be selling wildly in international bookstores. One of the reasons why the 2013 objective for The Golden Baobab Prize, now in its fifth year, is to  take the lessons learnt from the last four years and use it to revamp the prize. “We want to make it more competitive with other similar Prizes, not just by offering more money, but a well rounded reward that includes an ensured publishing contract, marketing and promotion, and possibly opportunities to attend writer’s conferences.” While it remains to be seen what the Golden Baobab Prize has in store for African children’s literature over the next decade, Ahenkorah’s vision has not changed. “My dream for the future would be to one day walk down the street in Accra and see a little child trailing after his mother with an African book in his hand, so enthralled with the story that he could not put it down.”


Women in Tech




East Africa and in particular, Kenya has served as the hub of technology in Africa. In that equation, women refuse to be left out, Akirachix is filling that gap, solving local solutions for women and creating a media buzz about their work. A not-for-profit organisation, it aims to inspire and develop a successful force of women in technology who will change Africa. Akira is a Japanese word which translates as “Energy” and “Intelligence”, and the founders of Akirachix say it aptly describes the group of women who founded and currently run the organisation. Judith Owigar is co-founder and president of Akirachix and her goal is to increase the number of women who are creators of technological solutions and in effect change the perception of technology by women. She says that the group’s objective for 2013 is to “find innovative ways of making our programs more sustainable. We would like to grow as an organisation and in our impact to our community. One of the new programs we will pilot is a computer boot camp program for young children aged less than 13 years. We also hope to establish partnerships with organisations that share our vision.”

Founded in April 2010, the goal of the group is to be the leading women’s network impacting technology in Africa. Its programs are developed to reach young women at different levels, from those in High School to University to those already working in the field of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) or wish to pursue a career in ICT.  Akirchix provides three essential strands for the women in technology that it works with – Networking, Training and Mentorship and runs a Kids Outreach programme that introduces the children to developments in the field of technology. The AkiraChix model is repeated in different countries within East Africa and currently partners with Women in Technology, Uganda and Asikana in Zambia. The baton is no longer just in the hand of the men where technology in Africa is concerned. Akirachix is challenging the norm and addressing the balance.


Read Full story: Young African Women To watch in 2013





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