It Is Not The Bullet That Kills
She has been known as Lady Liberty.
On June 28th, 2019, dressed in white clothes, Alaa Salah stood on the stage of the 3rd edition of the Women in Africa summit that took place in Marrakesh, Morocco. Next to her was Hafsat Abiola, the Nigerian activist, entrepreneur and President of Women in Africa – the only Panafrican summit for African women in business, entrepreneurship, science, culture, and politics.
“It is not the bullet that kills…” Alaa Salah said in Arabic in front of the 550 delegates.
These are the same words she recited from a poem, Thawra, when she stood on top of a car in Khartoum at a student demonstration on April 8th, 2019. The 23-year-old student in architectural design has in recent months emerged as a leading voice in the democratic movement in her country, Sudan. For not only did she defy the authoritarian leader of Sudan in April, but she has since played a vocal role in the fight to end the military regime that seized power after Generals toppled and arrested their President.
Alaa Salah is a vital voice.
Her outspoken and firm protest act in the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, was captured by a simple smartphone picture. She was already draped in a white thoub—a garment reminiscent of the Nubian Queens and which symbolizes democracy, femininity and power. The large golden earring she was wearing reflected the sun and suddenly turned into a beacon of light while she pointed her finger high towards the sky, resolute to be heard. In the time it took for the picture to digitally reach all parts of the world, Alaa Salah was propelled as the protesters’ iconic face of the Sudanese revolution. Soon dubbed ‘Woman in White’ and ‘Lady Liberty,’ her life has been threatened ever since.
“Because we were 1,000 students together, we were fearless,” Salah said. “We were determined to defend our country.” The young woman added that she will not return to her architectural design studies until democracy is reinstated.
Since her speech in Khartoum, more than 100 protesters have been killed.
But on July 4th, six days after Alaa Salah’s presence in Marrakesh, the Sudanese military and a pro-democracy movement announced that they had reached an agreement to share power through a three-year joint sovereign council before elections to be held three years from now.
“It is not the bullet that kills,” Salah told Women in Africa.
“What kills is…” and she kept speaking up, raising her voice and mixing her words with those of the entrepreneurs, lawyers, scientists, artists and corporate leaders participating in the conference.
They included the singer Rokia Traoré; the astrophysicist Rajaa Cherkaoui; Dalberg’s partner from Japan Naoko Koyama; Gladys Mosomtai, a Kenyan researcher at the International Center for Insect Physiology and Ecology; African Man of the Year Award (AMOYA) Younes El Mechrafi, Director General of the Moroccan Games and Sport (MDJS); the President of Vital Voices Alyse Nelson; Corine Maurice Ouattara, one of seven entrepreneurs awarded at Women in Africa for her health company, Mousso Health Pass, which offers digital medical record on connected bracelets; Sheika Intisar Al Sabah from Kuwait; the UN Women’s Awa Ndiaye Seck; Birame Sock, founder of Third Solutions, MyReceipts and Founder 5; the American filmmaker Felicia Taylor; EBW2020 founder Ingrid Vanderveldt; and Amira Yahyahoui—the only African woman whose tech startup, Mos.com, was fully funded in the Silicon Valley.
“Together we are and we will change the centuries’ old story of Africa through the magic of women from all part of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and America and from the few men who have understood that we are changing Africa for the greater good,” Abiola repeated throughout the two-day summit hosted under the High Patronage of his Majesty King Mohammed VI.
“We have to stop thinking ‘charity’ when we talk about women of Africa.” | Aude de Thuin, founder of Women in Africa
A continent of 54 countries with a population of 1.3 billion—which should double by 2050—Africa is often depicted solely as a place of armed conflicts, miseries, corruption, poverty, and diseases, a continent that the world needs to embrace with fake compassion. Africa is rarely seen as a myriad of regions of innovation, creativity, development, economic growth, entrepreneurships and investment opportunities.
“We have to stop thinking ‘charity’ when we talk about women of Africa,” said Women in Africa’s founder Aude de Thuin. “The only message is, ‘Women in the economy are at the same level as men,’” de Thuin added.
The former Presidential candidate in Nigeria and founder of #BringBackOurGirls Oby Ezekwesili echoed this idea when she said, “Africa is not a humanitarian case; Africa is a business case; Africa is a business opportunity.”
Africa is the continent with the highest percentage of women entrepreneurs (24%), and Rwanda is the country with the highest representation of women in parliament (68%). Everywhere, stories not only depict the African economic force but also the essential role of women to define Africa’s future.
Africa, however, also accounts for the highest percentage of women owned businesses’ failures. “African women are willing to take risks,” Abiola explained in an interview with AfriCanDo, “but they have challenges that need to be surmounted,” she added. “We want women to launch businesses not out of needs but out of opportunities: they need to be bold, more ambitious, smarter and more strategic.”
On a continent that counts one of the youngest populations in the world, women and girls are a wealth to be invested in through training, skills and education, and as the Roland Berger / Women in Africa 2019 study shows “through an enhanced access to support structures and to banking and telecommunications infrastructure,” Abiola added.
“Africa is not a humanitarian case; Africa is a business case; Africa is a business opportunity.” | Oby Ezekwesili
“Africa is the only region in the world where more women than men choose an entrepreneurial career” said Frédéric Oudéa, the CEO of Société Générale, one of the partners of WIA54 along with Roland Berger, Sodexo’s foundation Stop Hunger, Honoris United, GFI, Total Foundation, Engie, Facebook and Totem. “Opening a field of possibilities to the feminine dynamic will have a certain impact on the future of the African continent,” Oudéa added.
An initiative of Women in Africa, WIA54 was developed to welcome, train and promote women entrepreneurs from every African country. More than 1,700 of them applied for the 2019 edition. For two days before the summit, the 53 women laureates of WIA54—each one of them representing all of the 54 African countries, with the exception of Eritrea—gathered in a bootcamp to learn new skills; to share ideas, projects, and dreams; and to network with one another. Their businesses cover a wide range of industries—environment, education, social innovation, digital and technology, agriculture, health, fintech, cosmetics, and tourism—and, together, they paint a picture of vivid opportunities for economic growth and job creation through entrepreneurship.
“The WIA54 entrepreneurs are innovative, creative and fierce.” | Ann Walker Marchant
And when the time came for the 53 women entrepreneurs to take the stage, they celebrated their shared energy and power by breaking into spontaneous song and dance—as if fully understanding that they are at the core of Africa’s new paradigm.
“These young women entrepreneurs represent the future of not only their countries but the future of Africa and the world,” said WIA54 Godmother Ann Walker Marchant, founder of The Walker Marchant Group in Washington D.C. and a former White House Special assistant to Bill Clinton. “They are innovative, creative and fierce. They are breaking glass ceilings and changing the perception of business in Africa. These fresh faces are the future.”
Entrepreneurship is particularly attractive to African women: 96% of female students surveyed by Roland Berger say they plan to start their business because becoming entrepreneurs would allow them to have a positive impact on society. “Only 16% of women would favor this professional path to become rich while 84% of women want to be entrepreneurs in order to change the world,” explained Anne Bioulac, co-managing partner of Roland Berger France.
During the conference, there were also African, European, Asian and American voices who expressed the concern that African women leaders should better define how they want to work with the rest of the world.
With Asia, the objective is to take the lead of professional investment prospection, beyond India and China, through a demanding process that includes transparency and positive social impact.
Acknowledging the growing diversity of African-Asian economic exchange, the participants of Women in Africa also agreed that Europeans need to revisit their own business relationships with African countries and corporations to remain competitive.
“You do not want to allow the news media to dictate how the world sees you.” | Star Jones
But as Alaa Salah’s story shows, it is incredibly important that the media both on the African continent and throughout the world, play their role and report on the dynamism of African women so that the narrative of Africa as a place of development and opportunities, of talents and growth, the new paradigm that Hafsat Abiola and leaders from Africa keep asking for, is heard and seen.
It is urgent that Africa, and especially African women write their own story, stated Star Jones, an American lawyer and a former co-host of The View on ABC network. “In other words, you do not want to allow the news media to dictate how the world sees you,” Jones explained. “You write your own narrative and you tell the world who you are.”
According to the Africa Narrative, in the United States only, Africa is scarcely mentioned in news and entertainment media, and when it is, five countries grab almost 50% of the attention— Egypt, South Africa, Kenya, Seychelles and Congo—while positive stories on business are almost nonexistent (8%).
Yet, “Africa is capable of producing its own images and telling its own stories,” said Regional Director for TV5 in Africa Denise Epoté.
The need is to make sure media broadcast the stories, the way they did Alaa Salah’s. Her story is less about another dangerous political situation (we could enumerate here many countries where similar situations occur, Venezuela topping the list) and more about a young female student filled with professional dreams who, unafraid, raises her voice to fight for the values and political leadership that she believes her country deserves.
At the end of her conversation with Alaa Salah, the President of Women in Africa, smiling and speaking in a low, soft, powerful tone, shared with the audience a chapter of her own life. A few hours from graduating at Harvard when she was 22—the same age as Alaa today—, Hafsat received the news that her mother Kudira Abiola had been gunned down in Lagos while fighting for the release of Hafsat’s father Moshood Abiola, arrested and imprisoned after he won the 1993 Nigerian Presidential election, and later killed. “But my country today is democratic and is improving day by day,” Hafsat Abiola told the Sudanese heroine. The President of Women in Africa has herself become a business and activist leader recognized not only in Nigeria but also in Africa and throughout the world. What made a difference for her was the support she has received from numerous organizations and individuals, such as Vital Voices in Washington D.C. and their leaders, then Melanne Verveer and now Alyse Nelson.
“We are so proud of you Alaa; I know we see your heart.” | Hafsat Abiola
Hafsat Abiola thus announced the launch of a young leaders’ program in 2020 to accompany the development of women like Alaa Salah in politics, civil society, business, entrepreneurship, media, culture and any sector where they want to make a difference—and fittingly she nominated the Sudanese student as the first recipient.
“We would be honored to welcome you in this community of young leaders in Africa, to support you as you make your way in Sudan—and perhaps beyond Sudan, as you make a plan for your life,” Abiola told her. “We are so proud of you Alaa,” Abiola continued. “I know we see your heart. I know your country would be well set if one day you were to become President of Sudan.”
For now, the 22-year-old worldwide sensation wants democracy to return and then finish her studies.
Yet, she knows she is not alone on her path to success. As soon the conversation ended, African women entrepreneurs, business and political leaders jumped on the stage. One by one—while chanting and dancing—one by one, they hugged Alaa Salah, sharing their smiles, tears, hopes and words with hers, making her one of them.
“It is not the bullet that kills,” Salah had told them before.
“It is not the bullet that kills; What kills is the silence of people.”