Nothing in her career suggested that Irène Ochem would end up dedicating her life to the cause of women entrepreneurs. Born in Nigeria where she spent a good part of her youth until obtaining her university degree, she decided to pursue her higher studies in Europe. Holder of an MBA in international management, training as a translator, civil servant at UNIDO, a United Nations program… the profile is interesting. Undoubtedly enough to settle down permanently in Europe. But no. Fate has decided otherwise. “I went to Italy to live and work there. But I always felt like I was missing something, that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. Later, the opportunity arose to return to Africa, for family reasons. So we moved to Cape Town,” she says. Back in Africa, she worked for two years at the University of Cape Town, before landing a consultant position for the African Union in Addis Ababa.
With the African Union, Irene was entrusted with the organization of an African industrialization day in 2012. Preparations which gave her the opportunity to meet many women business leaders or who had succeeded in the industry throughout Africa. Something is starting to bother her. “I was also at a stage where I was thinking about how to reinvent myself and my personal experiences as a person. I was raised by a widowed mother. Growing up, she taught me the importance of working as a woman to ensure that I am economically self-sufficient. So I wanted to do something that could teach women or show them how to become economically independent…” she recalls.
This is how she launched Awief in 2015. The project was so clear in her head that it quickly took off. Initially, for Irène, it was a question of bringing together women entrepreneurs within the framework of a conference, in order to present those who have succeeded and to serve as models for young people who aspire to become entrepreneurs. Having always had in mind “to make it a pan-African platform, working with women from all over Africa”, Irene began by launching the conference in Nigeria in 2015, then in South Africa, a year later. “I realized that many young women would attend this conference and meet successful women that they normally don’t have the opportunity to meet and interact with. So it has become a platform to bring women together, provide them with quality content and discuss issues and challenges related to starting, growing and sustaining a business,” she explained. Today, the organization has forged a pan-African dimension. She works with development partners in the design of projects and programs to support the development of women at the point of contact.
Awief, the consecration
From access to skills to access to finances, including business development and the creation of a network…Irène’s approach embraces all links in a company’s performance chain. Having become a real organizational machine since 2017, Awief has launched several programs which have allowed it to work with international structures such as USAID, the African Development Bank, the European Union, Nedbank, GIZ, etc.
“We need to support women with ready-made investments, so that we can carry out this capacity building program during the year. The conference has therefore become a place, a platform where we bring together the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem, so that not only do we present our impact, what we do, but also the ecosystem can come and engage and share knowledge, share ideas and present opportunities,” she emphasizes.
Kigali is a model of women’s empowerment
For the ninth edition, the conference is being held in Kigali around the theme: “Leveraging the digital economy to innovate, redefine activities and strengthen the capacities of entrepreneurs”. A choice of location far from fortuitous if we believe Irène. “The choice of Kigali was made first of all because it is a country in East Africa, a region that is a reference today. But that’s not all, Kigali is a model of women’s empowerment, which supports the growth of equality between women and men in leadership and business. And Kigali, as a city, also has a good infrastructure, attractive for this type of event. This is a prerequisite for an event like this, which attracts young entrepreneurs and women entrepreneurs from all over Africa. So it’s easy for Africans to participate. There are no visa fees or difficulties to overcome. Finally, it’s a world leader in business and women’s empowerment. So it made sense to hold it here,” she says.
For Irène, no initiative is too much, given the challenges facing women. “As much as we’d like to see things change quickly, there’s still a huge gap between what women get and what the other side needs to get. If we talk about access to finance, there’s a gap of over $60 billion in access to finance across all sectors. So, digital, digital skills, we have a lot of problems to be able to take advantage of the opportunities of the digital economy. We need the right skills. You know, for this to happen and in this space, you need digital skills. There’s a digital divide between men and women that needs to be bridged,” she quipped.