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Female Leaders Making Inroads in East Africa

Inclusion is crucial in all sectors of society for several reasons, underpinning both moral imperatives and strategic advantages. In line with the International Women’s Day theme of ‘Invest in Women: Accelerate Progress’, it is apt to note that East Africa has witnessed a large increase in the visibility and influence of female leaders across various sectors, including politics, business, and civil society in recent years. This trend is a positive sign of progress being made towards gender equality in leadership roles and entrepreneurship.

Empowered women in East Africa are breaking traditional barriers and contributing significantly to the region’s economic growth and development across various fields of politics, governance, and industries including technology, finance, agriculture, and energy in a region historically dominated by patriarchal systems.

I highlight some key areas and examples of female leaders making significant inroads in this region.

Politics and Government

Across East Africa, there has been an increasing number of women elected to parliamentary positions. Rwanda, for example, has been noted for having one of the highest percentages of women in national parliaments globally.

The President of Tanzania, Samia Suluhu Hassan, assumed office in March 2021 following the death of President John Magufuli. Her presidency marks a historic milestone as she is the first female president of Tanzania and one of the few female heads of state in Africa. She is credited with giving the country a diplomatic facelift and significantly improving trade relations.

Serving as the President of Ethiopia since October 2018, Sahle-Work Zewde is the country’s first female president. Although the position is largely ceremonial, her role is significant in promoting the visibility of women in leadership positions.

Business and Economy

There is a growing number of women taking up significant roles in the business sector, including as CEOs, founders, and managers of major companies. This shift is not only changing the gender dynamics within the business community but also inspiring more women to pursue entrepreneurship. Just a few stand-out women in this sector include:

  • Mary Wamae serves as the Group Executive Director of Equity Group Holdings Plc, a leading financial institution in Africa headquartered in Nairobi. Ms Wamae has made a significant impact here by contributing to its growth and strategic direction through being involved in the group’s operations, strategy, and expansion efforts. She has been recognised for her leadership and expertise in the financial sector and won the 2021 Women on Board Awards for her contribution.
  • Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu founded footwear company @soleRebels “as a way to blend her Ethiopian community’s creative artisan talents with the traditional ‘barabasso’ (Ethiopian recycled tire) shoe”. Her business and ethos have given her international recognition where she has been praised for her innovative approach to sustainable manufacturing and for creating jobs in her community.
  • Flora Mutahi is the founder and CEO of Melvin Marsh International , known for its flagship brand, Melvins Tea. Mutahi noted as being the first to introduce flavoured teas in Kenya, and has played a significant role in the country’s agribusiness sector.
  • A seasoned professional in the fields of finance and development, Tanzania’s Dr. Frannie Léautier has held leadership positions in several international organisations, including the African Development Bank Group and The World Bank. She is also the co-founding partner of Mkoba Private Equity Fund, focusing on supporting small and medium-sized enterprises in Africa.
  • As a prominent figure in the African private equity landscape, Joyce-Ann Wainaina is known for her strategic foresight and innovative leadership. Her expertise in identifying high-potential startups and facilitating strategic partnerships has significantly contributed to the development of the private equity sector in Africa. Her role has not only been pivotal in driving financial returns but also in ensuring that investments create lasting social and economic value, exemplifying her commitment to leveraging private capital for the greater good.
  • Sarah Ngamau‘s journey began as a young entrepreneur at age eight to becoming the managing director of CREADEV – Creating for People, a prominent venture capital firm, exemplifying her enduring passion for finance and investment. Her early venture selling snacks at school planted the seeds of a career that would blossom into a significant role in shaping African businesses. Driven by the ambition to support and build global African champions, Sarah is dedicated to providing meaningful capital that propels business growth and economic development.

Women in Tech

East Africa has seen a significant rise in female leadership within the tech sector, a field traditionally dominated by men. Women are increasingly taking on pivotal roles, from founding tech startups to leading IT departments in major corporations and playing a crucial role in shaping the future of technology in the region. Here’s a look at some notable female leaders making inroads in the East African tech landscape:

  • As CEO of Intrasoft International East Africa, Wambui Mbesa is known for her significant contributions and leadership in the technology sector, having played a pivotal role in driving digital transformation and innovation within the region. She has been instrumental in implementing cutting-edge solutions across various industries with her leadership extending beyond corporate boundaries, as she actively mentors young professionals and advocates for the inclusion of women in technology.
  • Juliana Rotich is the co-founder of Ushahidi, a global non-profit technology company originating in Kenya. Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, developed a crowdsourcing platform that is used worldwide for disaster relief, human rights reporting, interactive mapping and election monitoring. Rotich’s work has been influential in demonstrating how technology can be used for social change.
  • Though more broadly associated with the tech scene across the African continent, Rebecca Enonchong has made significant contributions in East Africa through her work with AppsTech, a global IT service provider. She also served as chair of AfriLabs Foundation, a network of innovation centres across Africa, and has been a strong advocate for African technology and entrepreneurship.
  • Ugandan entrepreneur and tech enthusiast Evelyn Namara is the founder of Vouch Digital, a leading digital payment platform that leverages technology to create transparency in the distribution of aid and resources. Namara’s work showcases the potential of fintech in solving real-world problems in the region.
  • Audrey Cheng is the co-founder and former CEO of Moringa School, a multi-disciplinary coding school in Kenya that aims to address the tech skills gap in Africa. Through Cheng’s leadership, Moringa School has grown significantly and has been instrumental in nurturing the next generation of tech professionals in East Africa.
  • A notable figure in Kenya’s tech scene, Njeri Chelimo Martha is the founder of MOOKH AFRICA, a digital platform that makes it easy for African creatives and entrepreneurs to sell their products and services online. Her work has contributed to empowering small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the digital economy.
  • Dorcas Muthoni is the founder and CEO of OPENWORLD, a software company delivering e-government and business software solutions in the East African region. Muthoni is also a founding member of AfChix, an initiative that promotes women’s involvement in computing and technology.
  • Ghana’s Regina Honu’s work with Soronko Academy has had an impact across Africa, including East Africa. She is passionate about teaching young girls to code and breaking stereotypes in the tech industry. Her leadership in tech education continues to inspire women and girls across the continent.

These leaders, among others, are not only shaping the tech industry in East Africa but are also role models for future generations of women in technology. Their achievements underscore the growing importance of diversity and inclusion in the tech ecosystem and the positive impact of empowering women in leadership roles.

Civil Society and Activism

Female activists and leaders in civil society across East Africa are at the forefront of advocating for women’s rights, gender equality, and social justice. They are instrumental in pushing for legal reforms, educational opportunities, and healthcare improvements for women and girls.

Women are also leading various environmental and social initiatives, contributing significantly to community development and conservation efforts.

Below are a few notable women who have been making inroads in civil society and activism in East Africa:

  • Ugandan-born Winnie Byanyima is a prominent figure in international development, known for her roles in various United Nations agencies and as the executive director of UNAIDS. Her global work has had significant implications for East Africa, inspiring many women in the region to take up leadership roles in activism.
  • Uganda’s Memory Bandera is a women’s rights activist focusing on democracy and good governance. She co-founded the Uganda alliance of Girls Not Brides and is the Director of Programs and Administration at DefendDefenders. Her work centres on empowering women and girls, advocating for their rights, and fostering leadership among young women in East Africa.
  • Kenyan environmental activist Omido Phyllis is a Goldman Environmental Prize winner known for her work in advocating for the rights of communities affected by industrial pollution. Her campaign against lead poisoning in Kenya led to the closure of a lead-acid battery recycling plant and highlighted the environmental justice struggles faced by many communities in East Africa.
  • Human rights lawyer and activist, Fatma Karume is known for her vocal criticism of policies that undermine democracy and human rights in Tanzania. She has been involved in several high-profile court cases challenging the government’s decisions and has been an outspoken advocate for the rule of law and freedom of expression.

Challenges and Opportunities

Despite these positive trends, female leaders in East Africa continue to face significant challenges, including gender-based discrimination, societal stereotypes, and limited access to resources and opportunities. However, the increasing visibility of women in leadership positions is breaking down these barriers and opening new opportunities for future generations of women.

The progress of female leaders in East Africa is a testament to the region’s evolving attitudes towards gender equality and women’s empowerment. As more women ascend to positions of influence, it is expected that they will continue to drive social, economic, and political changes across the region.

These women, among others, not only contribute to economic growth but also inspire future generations of female leaders in East Africa and beyond. They exemplify the potential of women when given equal opportunities to succeed in business and leadership. The trend towards greater gender diversity in business leadership roles in East Africa is expected to continue, driven by increasing awareness of gender equality benefits, supportive government policies, and the success of these trailblazers.