When she left her mother country, Zaire, 20 years ago, Ceo of Leading Women of Africa, Madelein Mkunu, never imagined she would one day embark on a journey that would empower thousands of African women.
She comes from a very strong political background in Zaire (now the DRC), where she
grew up in a very political family, especially as her eldest brother was the Communications minister of Zaire for a long time and was very close to the country’s former dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.
At the young age of 24, Madelein Mkunu left Zaire and relocated to South Africa with hopes and dreams to get as far away as possible from her political past. Her mind was set to build a life of her own, build her own identity, discover her own potential and make a positive change in the world. Today, after a few career changes, as the CEO of Leading Women of Africa, and Co-founder of the Women in Entrepreneurship, Infrastructure and Sustainable Energy Development (WEISED) initiative, she is living her dream – doing exactly what she set out to do in 1994 when she first set foot on South African soil.
BBQ caught up with Mkunu in Cape Town, where she spoke passionately about the importance of empowering women, entrepreneurship and the role women can play when it comes to sustainability issues.
You are passionate about empowering African women, as well as being the founder of Leading women of Africa. Where does that passion stem from?
I am not sure I even know how to describe the source of my passion. I am myself amazed that despite the challenges of building a new vision from scratch, the disappointments, and many times the mistakes that I make; yet I still wake up in the morning and find the energy to continue the race. There must be some super- natural power helping me so that I do not get discouraged. I am passionate about Africa and the role women can play in its development. I truly believe in the potential of women and that this continent needs more women to step up, rub off the negative heritage of apartheid and colonialism, to make a significant contribution in Africa’s development. And they are already doing it: the number of women in politics, in business and social activities... thus in small percentage, prove that women are waking up to take their rightful place in the society. And I hope more women will follow suit.
You have been noted for promoting win-win partnerships between women in Africa. What do win-win partnerships entail and why are they important?
This is one of the reasons I am interested in development studies. If we look back, we will see that Africa is one of the recipients of international aid, donations etc. If aid were important for development, Africa would not have been what it is today with the amount of aid that she has received. So clearly, no country can develop on the basis of aid. In 2000 when the Millennium Development Goals were adopted, they included the eighth goal to ‘develop a global a partnership for development’. This represents one of the keys to Africa’s development if implemented correctly. Women are now considered stakeholders for development, therefore, when engaging with women, it needs to be on equal footing. Through promotion of win- win partnerships with women, we really just want to send a strong message to all partners for development (government, private sector, international community) that women are no longer looking for aid, donations or charity, but they are looking for mutual beneficial partnerships. This is part of our advocacy, so that we can be acknowledged as important as all other stakeholders.
You have also been promoting skills transfer through your endeavours. What skills are most vital at this point in time to achieve sustainable development in South Africa and Africa at large?
This can be linked to the Chinese proverb about teaching how to fish versus giving fish. We believe skills make someone an independent and empowered individual. It is not a secret that Africa is being rebuilt by different external expertise (China, India, Japan and the West). The favour we can do for ourselves is making sure the transfer of skills takes place. Otherwise, someone will build roads for us, and when that road breaks, we will have to call on him to come fix it. One of the keys to job creation is access to skills. For women, it is even more critical to ensure they are equipped with every possible skill they can get access to.
How does business link to sustainable development, and how do we identify and denote sustainable business?
For a business to be linked to sustainable development, it has to have minimal negative impact on the global or local environment, community, society, or economy; it also has to strive to meet the triple bottom line, meaning, while making profit, they care for the people and planet. And who can better achieve these goals, if not a woman? Every day women manage household resources and make decisions with environmental impacts.
What is being done to promote women becoming actively involved in business, and are we doing enough – especially when it comes to sustainable energy development?
Allow me to refer to two important reports on gender. The first is “The World We Want”, produced after the Rio+20 conference in 2012. The second report is a survey that I personally conducted on behalf of the African Development Bank in 2012 on gender and economic opportunities in Africa. These two documents highlight the journey of women and my survey was specifically analysing the accessibility of economic opportunities by women in a very global aspect. The Africa Competitiveness Report 2011 revealed the rate of women’s entrepreneurship was high in Africa. However, this is not necessarily a sign of women’s economic empowerment. When it came to sustainable energy development, looking at what the UN is striving for: in 1992, UN Member States unanimously agreed that “women have a vital role in environmental management and development. Their full participation is therefore essential to achieve sustainable development”. But during Rio+20, which was 20 years later in 2012, it was sadly revealed that women still had a long way to go. Many governments in Africa have adopted a policy of at least 30% representation of women in all decision-making structures leading to an increase in female participation, across all levels. But not much has been achieved, as the BWA census revealed.
Do you feel that there are enough women leaders in Africa? If not, why do you think this is the case and what can be done to promote leadership among women?
I would say rather there is enough potential women leaders in Africa who need to be prepared to lead. Women represent 52% of the African population. Ernst & Young’s Women of Africa reports refers to this phenomenon as, “A powerful untapped economic force“. This potential still need to be converted to real and tangible contribution through sustained leadership.
Why the need to empower women when it comes to growing the importance of procurement in energy for economic development?
Beside the limited access to capital, women need access to economic opportunities. While conducting my survey, it became clear that African governments need to take a holistic approach when designing strategies in order to give support to initiatives that will create strong institutions to represent women in business in general. Procurement is one of those strategies. Women and energy are what is needed to drive Africa’s economies to the next level. The better women understand their role and participation in energy development, the better they are to deliver and contribute to the development of their respective economies.
You left your accounting job to take on what you describe as an “unknown road” to which you have felt drawn. Please tell us more about this shift in your life path.
It is never too late to discover and embrace your dream, your purpose or destiny. After more than 10 years in accounting, I discovered it was not my calling. And I was not prepared to waste any more time doing things that did not bring fulfilment. I just decided to jump into the deep end, although I did not know where I was headed. All I know is, I discovered my interest and I just needed to create a space for myself in the world’s system. That is what I am doing.
Obviously, this was not an overnight decision. My passion for women’s issues emanated from my upbringing. I was brought up to be proud of who I am and see myself as an equal. I grew up in an environment where I saw my mum and other women struggle to raise their kids. As a girl I kept thinking that when I grow up, I would like to help women. The idea was always in my mind and it further developed into a vision that is today shared with many.
What sectors are we most likely to find women engaging in business, and is there a reason for their involvement in these specific sectors?
Studies by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor show that a far higher percentage of women entrepreneurs (as compared to men) are involved in the informal sector (80% of female-owned businesses are informal, com- pared to 65% of male-owned businesses). But, within our network, we have a high number of formal businesses owned and man- aged by women, across sectors, but especially in infrastructure development. There are multiple women’s construction, engineering, and information technology companies proudly led by women in these sectors.
Do you think we have done away with the glass ceiling? If not, could you explain?
The Businesswomen’s Association (BWA) conducted a leadership census in 2012 and it was clearly revealed that despite the fact that women make up 52% of the population in South Africa, only 43.9% of working South Africans are women and they constitute only 21.4% of all executive managers and as low as 17.1% of all directors in the country. The 9.1% of women as CEOs (3.6%) and chairpersons (5.5%) in South Africa remain a minority within a minority. These stats tell the story of where women find themselves.