I left the closing plenary of the World Economic Forum on Africa in Addis Ababa last Friday with a profound sense of optimism. Josette Sheeran, the Forum’s new vice-chairman, moderated a wonderfully inspirational panel with African Young Global Leaders and Global Shapers. She asked: “What if, what about and if you could…”

For three days on limited sleep, we conversed about Africa — what needs to be done, what we’re doing well, where we’re going and the speed at which we’re traveling. South Africa’s minister of finance, Pravin Gordhan, delivered his heartfelt remarks, reminding us that there are a billion lives on this continent that need to benefit from Africa’s transformation.
Little did I realize how swiftly and significantly Minister Gordhan’s words would touch me.

For more than 13 years I’ve had the privilege of making friends with exceptional African women. As the head of Lifeline Energy, my work takes me into all sorts of different environments, from crowded urban settlements and refugee camps to isolated rural areas. Here, our solar and wind-up MP3s and radios provide access to information and education specifically for these underserved populations. And, whenever I travel in Africa, I make a particular point of speaking with women who struggle to make ends meet and who use fossil fuels for their basic energy needs. I’m convinced that as long as women are dependent on non-renewable energy sources, the odds are highly unlikely they will rise out of poverty.

On Saturday, I asked my Ethiopian friend, social entrepreneur and children’s TV presenter Brukty Tigabu, who runs Whiz Kids Workshop, if she could arrange for me to meet local women. Brukty took me by taxi to Fresh and Green Academy, a colourfully painted primary school located off a two-lane paved road in one of Addis’s newer neighbourhoods (when I visited Addis 10 years ago this area was little more than a eucalyptus grove).

Fresh and Green, although accredited, doesn’t receive government support. Its founder, 36-year-old Muday Mitiku, relies on sponsorship and income-generating projects to fund the education of 125 local at-risk children from preschool to grade 4. She also helps support their destitute mothers medically and financially. Although she lives in a modest two-room house, Muday has adopted eight children whose mothers have died of HIV/AIDS and would otherwise have been forced to live on the streets. Some of the children are HIV positive themselves.

Muday told me the tragic story of a woman who was lying on a floor in a shop room nearby waiting to die. Although anti-retroviral drugs are free in Ethiopia, people still have to find the funds for transport, often wait for hours to be seen at a hospital, and then require regular meals to ensure that they don’t become ill from the medication.

During my trip, I visited women in their one-room, rough-hewn mud, straw and aluminium shacks they rented in back gardens and behind a bar. I also spoke with three women, all part of the Fresh and Green cooperative, who were weaving brightly coloured scarves on traditional wooden looms on the school grounds. As I was a textile major at university, I recognized the looms — the historical design hasn’t changed for more than 2,000 years (weaving of cloth is considered a highly skilled occupation, and as such, is usually performed by men).

All the women that I spoke with confirmed what I’ve heard hundreds of women say, that they spend far too much money on kerosene, charcoal and firewood. Their rent includes an unreliable electricity supply, usually a light bulb dangling from the ceiling; they can’t afford batteries for a flashlight or radio. One woman had a clock radio, but it didn’t work because a rat had eaten the cord.

As Brukty and I were saying our good-byes, a wafer-thin girl named Sara ran past us with ripped-up paper in her hands, crying. Her mother had torn up her homework and told her that there was no point in her going to school as she was just a girl. We went to look in on the mother. Lying on the ground under a threadbare blue blanket, her silhouette appeared as if she was a 10-year-old girl herself as she was so emaciated. She had lapsed into a coma and could die at any moment. It was devastating to witness this.

Imagine that Sara’s last memories of her mother are those of unspeakable cruelty. Her mother is like many other poor and rural women who migrate to cities across Africa and around the world. Many are often forced to turn to risky sex work to feed themselves and their children just to stay alive.

It is precisely girls like Sara and other children at the school, the mothers of the cooperative and even Muday, who so far Africa’s transformation has passed by.

As I think back to Minister Gordhan’s reference to the transformation of a billion African lives, I truly believe that until we in Africa change our attitudes to the treatment of poor women and girls and encourage the Sara’s of this continent to be all that they can be, we cannot yet congratulate ourselves on Africa’s transition.

The World Economic Forum can be a powerful force in achieving this transformation if we all build on the strong intentions expressed in Addis last week.

by Kristine Pearson in Addis Ababa (also published on Huffington Post)

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