By Josephine Akaerr, Special Correspondent
In Africa, a continent where gender inequality is already a serious threat to development, COVID-19 is further impacting economic opportunities for women. At the March edition of Canon’s Africa Frontiers of Innovation series, four leading women shared how they choose to challenge barriers in business and the arts to succeed professionally.
Achieving the UN’s goal of gender equity by 2030 may be harder to achieve than pre-COVID-19 as women have been shown to bear a greater negative impact economically. Studies have shown that women bear the economic brunt of the pandemic and are carrying the bulk load of unpaid care work. According to a McKinsey report, more than one in four women in the USA are considering downscaling their careers or leaving the workforce.
In Africa, where gender inequality is said to be one of the greatest threats to the future, 70% of women remain financially excluded. According to Forbes Africa, none of the continent’s 18 billionaires is female.
At the most recent edition of Canon’s Africa Frontiers of Innovation on March 24, 2021, three leading photographers – Aisha Augie, Gulshan Khan and Sarah Waiswa chatted with business leader Irene Ochem, CEO of the Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF), about how they choose to challenge gender inequality and how they overcome barriers to professional success.
The Africa Frontiers of Innovation series, presented by imaging leader Canon, brings together thought-leaders from across the continent to discuss solutions to contemporary issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic. The monthly sessions are broadcast on social media and hosted by award-winning Kenyan journalist Victoria Rubadiri.
The March episode, in keeping with International Women’s Day, focused on women trailblazers. Canon is a long-standing champion of gender equality, with more than half of leadership positions filled by women. This is a figure far above the norm in corporate Africa. “Supporting women to rise in the workplace is a natural part of Canon’s corporate philosophy of Kyosei – working together. We believe in empowering people and creating equal opportunities,” said Corporate Communications and Marketing Services Director, Canon CAN, Mai Youssef.
According to Nigerian-based Ochem, African women face many hurdles as entrepreneurs and professionals. These include securing finance, getting into markets and few networking opportunities. “Generally, the African corporate sector is run by African men and a few African women. Women do not have equal access. There is a gap and our job is to close it.”
Whilst all the panellists talked of having to overcome major barriers, they also highlighted opportunities and insights that come from being a woman. “When there is a crowd of photographers trying to catch ‘that shot’, I stand out because I’m female. Sometimes I get pulled to the front. It comes with good and bad. For me, it’s mainly been good,” said Augie. Four proven tools for empowering women were unpacked at the session – social media, mentorship, celebrating success and networking.
South African photographer Gulshan Khan, the first African woman to be hired regularly by Agence France Presse (AFP) and first female South African Canon Ambassador, said social media has helped secure commissions that she wouldn’t have had access to before. “Social media opened up the field. I put my work on these platforms and it started getting traction. It helped me be seen by editors.”
An award-winning documentary and portrait photographer based in Kenya, Sarah Waiswa believes social media has been a game-changer. “These days you don’t need anyone’s permission, you can self-publish and get your work out there.”
For public servant, communicator and mixed media artist Aisha Augie, social media has brought greater work prospects. “In Nigeria, politicians use images as social proof, to bridge the gap between government and the people. Photography and videography have become an integral part of every communication plan because people want to see what has been done and hold those in power accountable.”
Augie’s also seen her followers be inspired: “Social media has been a space to share my story and this has shown other women that’s it’s possible to pursue a career in photography.”
Mentorship has been an important element in helping level the playing field and creating opportunities for young women. “In the beginning, I didn’t know how to navigate this industry. People reached out to me a lot and the exchange of information and knowledge was invaluable,” said Khan, who believes in sharing expertise from a place of abundance rather than fearing competition.
Waiswa founded the African Women in Photography collective as a circle of support. “Whether it’s an online webinar, one-on-one conversations or sharing job openings, mentorship is extremely important. Walking with others gets you further than walking alone.”
Ochem believes winning women have a responsibility to pave the way for others to follow. “Peer-to-peer learning is powerful. When we reach the top the door mustn’t close behind us. We must leave that door open for more women to come in.”
Ochem is the convenor of the AWIEF Conference and Awards. She is certain that celebrating success encourages women to rise to greater heights. “Sometimes it’s a lack of confidence that holds women back. If you believe you are capable, it becomes a reality.
“Recognising achievements is very powerful. The exposure can attract potential investors and make it possible to scale, to grow. Seeing sisters who have done it, women who are creating jobs and building the African economy is highly motivating.”
Canon celebrates achievement with their Canon Ambassadors Programme. This includes a growing number of African women photographers and film-makers: Yasmin AlBatoul (Algeria), Laura El-Tantawy (Egypt/UK), Yagazie Emezie (Nigeria) Menna Hossam (Egypt), Georgina Goodwin (Kenya), Gulshan Khan (South Africa), Aïda Muluneh (Ethiopia) and Sarah Waiswa (Kenya/Uganda). Says Khan, “I am reminded how very important it is to be visible, to take up space, to be proud of this work.”
Networks – like the Canon Ambassadors Programme and the African Women in Photography collective – can be instrumental in helping women navigate their way forward.
“Women do not have access to networks that men do. In corporate Africa there is a typical ‘men’s club’ ethos,” claims Ochem. “We work around this by creating a network for women entrepreneurs; we become their connection.”
Augie has found networking invaluable, particularly in areas where local resources are limited. “I’m from northern Nigeria and it can be difficult to rent or source specialised cameras. People in your network will loan their equipment to you. You make connections who have connections. You pass on work. When I can’t take a commission I refer to those I know.
She says that funding often comes via networks: “If you want to do a project or exhibition, sponsorship is almost always found through someone who knows you. Networking is key.”
The pandemic created new relationships said Waiswa. “Through the internet, it’s been possible to connect with people you would never have thought of; it’s opened up spaces which may not have happened previously.”
Despite the many obstacles, all four women are excited about the future. They celebrated the recent election of Samia Suluhu Hassan, Tanzania’s first female president and several other encouraging signs.
One of the few positives from the Covid-19 pandemic has been breaking into new work. “International clients, unable to fly in their usual journalists and photographers, were forced to consider the local pool of talent,” explained Waiswa. “It’s sad it took something so drastic, but we welcomed the work and exposure.
“Whilst COVID has been quite a dark time, there has also been light. It has shown us the value of life, how fickle it can be and to consider our place in the world; what we can do to make a difference and an impact. Although the pandemic has limited our ability to travel, it has made us look inward, and perhaps that’s where our focus needs to be.”
For Khan, this is a time for transformation and healing. “Now more than ever we are having conversations. We need to keep this momentum going. We can only shine when we are rubbed up against each other. It can be uncomfortable but it’s the only way we are going to progress.”
Ochem is excited. “We are more aware of our rights, especially young women. Many innovations are coming out of the continent. We are gradually getting buy-in from men, who are starting to understand that gender equality benefits everyone. It’s not just a human right. – all the research and analysis shows that when men and women have equal opportunities, there is development.”
“The pandemic has complicated many people’s lives, which is why these conversations in the Africa Frontiers of Innovation series are so valuable at this time,” commented Youssef. “We hope that the practical strategies for success discussed with inspire and encourage women everywhere,” said Youssef.
Canon’s Africa Frontiers of Innovation will continue to explore contemporary challenges with African thought-leaders every month through 2021.