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Africa in Focus

Inspiring the next generation of women leaders

More and more, women are paving the way for young girls to become leaders in their own communities. We hear every day of the accomplishments of African women—from the everyday front-line work of women against the pandemic to the elevation of others to positions of influence and responsibility. At this momentous time in the history of the global trading system, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, former Nigerian finance minister, former managing director of the World Bank Group, and nonresident distinguished fellow with the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative, became the first woman ever and first African to head the World Trade Organization. We also note the elevation of Monique Nsanzabaganwa, former deputy governor of the Rwandan Central Bank, as the Africa Union’s first female deputy chairperson, with responsibility to carry out much-needed reforms to sustain Africa’s continued march toward greater solidarity and integration.

Thus, in the 2021 edition of our flagship report Foresight Africa, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative has chosen to highlight the transformative leadership of women—in management roles, on the front lines of the pandemic, and in everyday life—by opening each chapter with a salient quote from an eminent woman.

Now, to celebrate International Women’s Day this year, the Brookings Africa Growth Initiative asked leading women to reflect on the challenges facing young women and to share their thoughts on how we can more effectively encourage and empower young women and girls to become leaders themselves. Each woman was approached for this purpose because they took action against all odds, rising to great heights in their communities, on the continent, and on the global stage. Below are the responses from these inspiring women.


Winnie KiizaRt. Hon. Winnie Kiiza
Former Leader of Opposition, Parliament of Uganda

Even though women are vaulting to leadership spaces, our communities remain obstinately resistant to women in leadership roles. They (the patriarchy) too often perceive women as too delicate to lead. This trend, among many other deeply-seated and unconscious gender biases, force potential women leaders to withdraw into their shells. Yet, women possess inherently strong attributes that can help lead more effectively.

As women leaders, we should and can operate under the existing patriarchal system by sharing our accomplishments and ambitions, so as to change and shape our communities’ perceptions about women’s ability to lead, and create a source of inspiration for women to rise above the gender bias and fear.


Hafsat AbiolaHafsat Abiola
President, Women in Africa Initiative

Africa’s girls and women stand to gain most from shaping their continent into a place that releases its enormous potential. It is to them that I look for leadership. So many are living on the margins of society, in the black and gray economies, in community associations, in peer lending groups. They are not integrated into the economy or the institutions of governance. It is high time they were. Indeed, we will go on talking about Africa’s potential until this army-in-waiting of changemakers take charge. They can and must connect their businesses to the economy and anchor the state to their vibrant communities. They can give birth to an Africa that becomes the finest expression of how to develop a continent. Africa was the cradle of civilization. Tomorrow, it can be a leader in a globalized world.


Frannie LeautierDr. Frannie Léautier
Senior Partner and CEO, SouthBridge Investments

This year, more than any other year, we should celebrate women in leadership. The COVID-19 pandemic has fallen heavily on the shoulders of women. Many have lost sources of livelihood. Most have triple duty, caring for families, managing households, and holding down economic activities. And some have faced the brunt of the pandemic as caregivers and essential service providers. Yet others have stepped up to also solve challenges in their communities. We should engage our young women to realize that they already have superpowers they can invoke to solve problems and lead—locally, nationally, and internationally. They should trust in these superpowers, ones of observing, listening and learning; empathizing with others; experimenting and persevering when doing what’s hard; and crystallizing lessons into actions that bring systemic change. But most importantly, we should encourage them to not be afraid to dream big or to start small, as seeking solutions to the day-to-day problems facing us and our communities can lead to broader change in the world.


Arunma OtehArunma Oteh, OON
Former Treasurer, World Bank

Harnessing Africa’s phenomenal female leadership is critical to “building forward better” post COVID-19. Indeed, when given the opportunity, African women bring to bear important leadership qualities such as courage, compassion, character, and empathy. They are also able to succeed with managing complex situations because they are authentic, collaborative, rigorous, results-oriented, and sacrificial. These are all attributes that society needs today to rebuild after the greatest crisis of our lifetime and to end the twin challenges of poverty and inequality. I am optimistic that, if we equally leverage men and women, young and old, we can transform what has been a multi-faceted crisis into possibilities that will unleash Africa’s enormous potential.


For more on women in leadership and the unique obstacles they face, see the recent Brookings event, “Women and Leadership” with new World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and former Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard.

See the blog, “5 ways women are driving Africa’s transformation and contributing to a global reset” by Winnie Byanyima and Caroline Kende-Robb for more on the remarkable role of women in Africa’s long-term recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

For strategies on how women and girls can be put at the center of the COVID-19 response, see the blog by the World Bank’s Mamta Murthi, “Putting girls at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic response in Africa.”

Furthermore, you can learn more about the pressing challenges facing women and girls under COVID-19, in Damaris Parsitau’s Foresight Africa 2021 viewpoint, “Invisible lives, missing voices: Putting women and girls at the center of post-COVID-19 recovery and reconstruction.”

Finally, each chapter of this year’s Foresight Africa report begins with a salient quote from an eminent woman, emphasizing the transformative leadership of women—in management roles, on the front lines of the pandemic, and in everyday life. You can find all of those reflections here.

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