Innovation is No Longer a Male Domain, African Women Leaders Tell AHAIC

Innovation has, until recently been a male-dominated preserve, but a group of women pioneers speaking at the Africa Health Agenda International Conference on Monday told of how the right mindset and a desire to improve lives has helped change the landscape.

Speaking during a virtual panel discussion on Women in Innovation: Providing leadership, creating solutions and driving change, panellists shared their stories of how they overcame adversity and gender disparity as women inventors and entrepreneurs to make a difference.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s Africa Director, who grew up in a South African township during apartheid,  encouraged participants to push for positive change even when facing challenges. She emphasised the importance of bringing men on board when dealing with gender imbalances.

“Help men to understand that it is to their benefit. Men can be powerful enablers of gender empowerment. Women are power…let’s get men to support us,” Moeti said.

The first day of the conference coincided with International Women’s Day and the discussions were aimed at demystifying the notion that women have a limited role in innovation.

“Through this event, we wish to mobilize and provoke change, and help advance women in the field of technology and science topics that we aim to further explore in a series of discussions through the year,” said the conference organisers, adding that “innovation is crucial to identifying solutions to achieve the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs)”.

For Edna Adan Ismail, Somaliland’s first midwife and renowned healthcare activist, the journey to success was all about considerable and equal participation of women in business, education and innovation. 

Driven by the urge to address the inadequate healthcare in her country and increase women participation in an almost male-dominated environment, Ismail said her focus had been to do something that would advance women. 

On Tuesday, Ismail will celebrate the 20th anniversary of a hospital she built in Somaliland, the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital, which was established primarily to provide better health care to people whose lives have been traumatized by war, and to train nurses, midwives, and other health workers. 

The hospital also has diagnostic laboratory facilities and an emergency blood bank and offers diagnosis and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.

Ismail also built a medical university 10 years ago which currently has 1500 students enrolled in various disciplines of the medical field,  70% of whom are women. 

At 84, Ismail said one is never too old to contribute to meaningful change and encouraged participants to “never give up as giving up is never an option”.

“What we do, how we collaborate, the contributions we make to save human lives is what will continue to drive us,” she said adding that women bring positive change when provided with opportunities and training.

Several panellists shared personal stories of how they used entrepreneurial skills to overcome adversity, how they were empowered and the challenges they faced.

Sheila Alumo, Managing Director, Eastern Agricultural Development Co. Ltd, was forced to care for her two younger siblings when she was just 11-years-old after her mother died. There were days when her family went without food and she had lost all hope.

Her story is one of hope, perseverance and succeeding against all odds. Alumo recalled how, at one stage, she would walk several kilometers to buy and resell sugar cane to help feed her family.

Today Alumo’s Uganda-based company employs 22 people and, through its agricultural business, pursues improved socio-economic and human development of rural smallholder farmers. The company has a network of 3,117 farmers, 40% of whom are women. Alumo said she works with rural populations to contribute to their livelihood improvement.

“I know what it is to be hungry, not to have food…no hope. As a young girl knew that I had to make a difference.”

It was Alumo’s parting words that resonated with most of the panelists and participants: “Our backgrounds define our future, but our resilience will carry us through”.

The conference runs until Wednesday, and covers a range of topics including the state of health security in Africa and the need for an African Medicines Agency.

Image Credits: Photo credit: NSTOP Team.

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