The Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF) plans to host its annual conference and exhibition from September 21st to 23rd, 2016 at the Lagos Oriental Hotel.
Founded by Irene Ochem, AWIEF is a Pan-African initiative and platform created to bring attention and focus to the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit the African woman possesses while exploring obstacles that may stop her from breaking down barriers and prevent her from reaching her maximum potential in society.
How did you come up with your business name?
After starting ICO Conferences & Events Limited, I founded the Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF), the two key words here are: entrepreneurship and innovation. Entrepreneurship is indispensable to the economic development of a nation and innovation is a key factor for business growth. Having an innovative approach creates more opportunities for business success. Entrepreneurship when combined with innovation creates a powerful tool for unlocking potentials that will foster the financial and economic empowerment of the African woman.
Who inspired you to start this business?
My mother inspires me. My mother was a young widow and she raised me into the strong woman I am today. I am also inspired by other exceptional women, many of whom have positively impacted my life. Living in and travelling across many countries in Europe and Africa, I observed that women have not attained the same level of societal recognition as their male counterparts for their equally fundamental role and contribution to nation building and socio-economic development, particularly in the African continent.
Across Africa, I observe that when economically empowered, women are able to excel in their various small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs). If empowered with the right tools, African women by their very nature, will readily reinvest their income to lift up their families, their communities, their nations and, ultimately, the African continent. Therefore, I felt the time was ripe to give a voice to this imbalance and bring this situation to the limelight by founding the Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum – AWIEF.
Who is your target market?
Young, emerging and aspiring business women, innovators and entrepreneurs across the African continent. Put simply, our target market is the next-generation of African women innovators. Our target market is also not so young, but the existing business owner operating with no access to equal business-enhancing opportunities as her male counterpart.
How have you financed your business?
This question stands at the core of the issues and challenges AWIEF aims to highlight and address: the lack of access to financing, equal opportunities and economic inclusion for the African female business owner and entrepreneur. Many African women have to rely on their personal savings and on family support to start and grow their businesses.
My company, ICO Conferences & Events and AWIEF have not been an exception to this rule. I have had to depend on family and my personal resources to hit the road running.
Along the way, very valued support came in from corporations that imbibed the message of the AWIEF initiative. We are deeply appreciative of their support during the inaugural AWIEF conference and exhibition, and hope this support does not wane for the upcoming second edition scheduled to hold on the 21st to the 23rd of September at the Lagos Oriental Hotel in Nigeria.
What is your competitive edge?
We are pan-African. Through the AWIEF initiative, we foster intra-Africa trade opportunities, networking, sharing and learning across the Continent’s borders.
What is the long-term plan for your business?
We want to:
- effectively influence policy and affect policy change on women’s rights across African countries,
- AWIEF will develop programs and projects to effectively impact the lives of African women across all strata of the society. This would initially be achieved by creating and spreading awareness of African women\’s contribution to society. This then would be followed by the implementation of empowerment initiatives, business skills and entrepreneurship capacity development, and mentorship programs through linkages with various stakeholders and successful women business leaders in Africa and the Diaspora.
What challenges have you faced thus far?
Obviously the economic and financial challenges are there. But equally challenging is the apparent complacency of many African women to accept the status quo of economic exclusion as normal or their lack of zeal and understanding of their personal potential to break down barriers and achieve economic freedom and personal satisfaction.
What key things have you learned since starting this business?
One year into starting my company ICO Conferences & Events and founding AWIEF, I have learnt that:
- Things hardly work out the way you planned them to and so adaptability, persistence and resilience are key for success.
- The need to always stay motivated and focused is important. When problems and setbacks come, you can view them as opportunities for growth.
- It is alright to make mistakes. I have made some and I have learnt a lot from my mistakes.
- I have come to appreciate the power of communication and networking.
- There is no such thing as work-life balance. I understand that I need to work hard to succeed. However, my passion for the work and the satisfaction that I get for making a difference compensates for the lack of personal time.
What five(5) things do start-up entrepreneurs need to know?
• Budding entrepreneurs need to know that starting a business is never easy. The challenges are enormous and daunting and you will need to work long hours to make your success happen.
• To turn your idea into reality, you must keep alive that initial strong burning desire and will; stay in tune with technology and new media also, network extensively.
• Always seek advice, find a mentor – an experienced and successful entrepreneur you can trust.
• Persistence is a key factor for success. When things get tough, your friends get few. You will find many doors closed and locked but do not give up when you come across these road blocks or when you feel defeated.
• Yes, failure can happen. Make mistakes and learn from them.
What advice do you have for youths looking to start an idea but say ‘there is no money’?
It is critical for young entrepreneurs to be determined and strong-willed. Start small with the little you have – yes, you can. Money is important, but it is not everything. Passion and commitment: these are the watchwords. Your passion for your marvelous idea is your driving force, and your commitment is what gets you working endless hours without feeling the pinch. Excellent communication skills will sell your ideas, and before you know it, someone may listen to you and the finance will come.
How do you think African youths can continue to support each other?
I find it interesting and at the same time encouraging that today’s youths have many communication channels available at their fingertips. I mean networking in real-time using the Internet and tools such as Facebook, Twitter and the rest. Young people should continue to network widely and share their ideas with one another. They must also be open-minded and come to the “discussion table” with the right mind-set and spirit to work together for their common good.
How many jobs have you created so far?
Currently, we have employed a few people both in Nigeria and in South Africa. We also work with various consultants on short-term contracts. But indirectly, AWIEF has created many jobs for people across various sectors.
How has technology enhanced your business?
We live in a technology-dominated world and digital technology helps women and young entrepreneurs develop sustainable solutions in sectors such as agriculture and finance. At ICO, we are knowledgeable about how technology and new media can be used to drive and transform our work and business. I believe that without the Internet and social media platforms we could not have gotten our message across to stakeholders the way we successfully did with AWIEF 2015. I am sincerely appreciative of this importance.
How can we support and improve innovation in Africa?
Innovation in Africa for me means finding better ways to solve our local problems and this matters a lot. There is the need to transform the African economy to an innovative and knowledge-based economy. Innovation in Africa can be supported and improved by building and promoting sector-specific design and technology clusters, innovation hubs and science and technology parks. We should also facilitate and accelerate the participation of women in technology by bridging the gap in STEM education.
Contact Irene Ochem here: