According to UNICEF Women do 60% of the worlds work but earn only 10% of the world’s income, while reinvesting 90% of their income into families and community. Therefore empowering African women and reorganising their contributions and role in the continents future economic transformation and social and social development has become imperative, says Mrs Maureen Ochem founder of the Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF). Mrs Ochem believes there is need to empower the African woman because she represents the potential for Africa’s socio-economic development. AWIEF is set to hold a two day Pan-African conference for women across the globe women who share a common interest to improve their lives and be recognised and celebrated. The  Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum  (AWIEF) a premier, pan-African conference and exhibition event will bring together an exclusive group of thought leaders, women entrepreneurs and women in business, investors, amongst others. Mrs Ochem speaks more on the conference which holds from September 7-9 2015 at the Oriental Hotel Victoria Island Lagos, as well as her fashion and style.

Maureen Ochem

What inspired the AWIEF conference, how did it come to bein?

It all started from my upbringing. I was raised by a widowed mother. She struggled to train us and see us through our education. Again, Then, I have lived in different countries and continents, and in all the places where I’ve lived and travelled to, I have also observed the lack of recognition of women’s contribution to the economic development of the society. Then there are the obstacles most of these women have to go through.

Maybe the situation is not very bad in the west, but in Africa it is. Also, across the world, it has become a global agenda that women must be empowered economically. It makes good economic sense because women have a natural instinct to do certain things. If you empower a woman, she tends to invest her earnings into the household, into the education of her children, and they go out to contribute to their communities, the nation and the African continent. So, why not give women the same opportunities men have?

Women in Africa encounter a lot of challenges trying to start a business. Access to finance is one major problem, but having access to economic opportunities is where it starts. Then there are cultural obstacles. For example, in some communities, a woman cannot source for a loan without acquiring the signature of either her husband or a male figure, even though the person is not bringing anything into that business. In some societies, women don’t have rights to land, even in the Igbo community I come from. Then, across Africa, there is a lot of economic growth.

Everybody is talking about Africa rising, Africa growing and Africa moving on. Having seen all of this, I saw there was need to create awareness; there is need to make our government see the importance of economic empowerment. There is need to empower the African woman because she represents the potential for Africa’s socio-economic development.

Who are your targets?

We are bringing together established, successful businesswomen, and, also, young, emerging and aspiring female businesswomen. We are bringing together policymakers, the government, non-governmental organisations, and also the academia. Being a pan-Africa event, we are trying to create a platform for networking and learning across borders, and also for potential business partnerships and mentorship.

There will be a small fee to pay. But we have two very high-level training workshops for delegates. One will be on leadership and ethics, and will be presented by Leap Africa, and the facilitators are top-notch. Then the second one will be presented by the Business School Netherlands, and this is a school people go to get their MBA.

This is one of the reasons why we are looking for sponsorships, because if we are able to raise enough sponsorship, then we will be able to make the participation free for all young and emerging entrepreneurs. So, we are working very hard to ensure that happens.

Most of the businesses owned by women are SMEs. How do you intend to empower them?
A lot of the businesses we are talking about are MSMEs. Many of the female businesswomen entrepreneurs are operating in that arena. We also want to bring focus on the challenges faced by women in the rural area. We are not leaving them behind. We are bringing the grassroots to this conference, and to help us do this, we are partnering with the Quintessential Businesswomen Association. They have members in every local government in the country and they are empowering women in the agricultural sector, teaching them how to do things and manufacture local products like honey. So, we are bringing some of these women to participate.

One of the problems female entrepreneurs face is access to credit. How can this be solved?

We have a section dedicated to access to finance. We have experts who will make presentations on the topic. One of them is our speaker from Tanzania, Mrs. Sabeta Mawenja, who is the Director-General of the first purpose-built bank to empower women entrepreneurs. She is coming to present a case-study on how we can innovate in the banking sector, just like they have done in Tanzania. Maybe after the event, a bank can come up and decide to open a bank dedicated for women. They’ve done the same in Ethiopia. Then we will have a panel discussion with experts from the banking and business sectors. They will help us explore the problem and find solutions. Oby Ezekwesili will be making a presentation titled  Securing the Future: The Imperative of Girl-Child Education. So, we have to educate the girl-child, keep her safe; that’s where it all starts. That’s why you have low ratio of women participating in entrepreneurship schemes. We have been able to engage, at very high level, relevant stakeholders like social entrepreneurs like Leap Africa, nongovernmental organisations, the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs. So, our expectation is that, at the end of this conference, we would have created a more enhanced awareness and more informed approach to the challenges that women encounter in their businesses. Then we hope to be able to proffer solutions.

What motivated you to start a business around conferences and events?

I’ve a lot of experience with conferencing. My second university degree was as a translator. So, when I finished, instead of going to work as an interpreter, I went into conferencing. Why? The nearest opportunity was to work for the European Union, but I wasn’t an EU citizen at the time. So, I started organising conferences across Europe. From there, I joined UNIDO, where I worked for ten years. So, I’ve had to organise very high profile conferences. Then I worked in Cape Town, South Africa, as a research manager, before going to Ethiopia.
My love for professional and international conferencing started in 1996 when I organised the 16thGeneral Meeting of the European Grassland Federation (EGF 1996),  September 15 – 19, in Grado, Italy. Not only was I employed to organise the conference, but it turned out that I was the only black head in the crowd during the event. Instead of being intimidated, I felt rather motivated to go on, and today I am glad I did.

You still look smart and fit. What is the secret?

I eat healthy, do exercises, and practise yoga, essentially. That is what I do to unwind. Then I read a lot when I have the time.

What motivates you in life?

My family motivates me. I am passionate about Africa. After working for decades in Europe, I realised that with all of our resources, Africa can be better. I’m one of those people who believe in Africa.

What are some of your memorable moments in life?

It’s connected to my family life, my marriage and the birth of my children.
My husband is a retired scientist, Dr Alex Ochem.    We met in Nigeria while he was on holiday.

If you had to advise female entrepreneurs, what would you tell them?

They should stick in there. It’s not easy, but it’s worth trying. They shouldn’t give up.

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