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Meet 8 African women shaping the future

8 African Women shaping the future

Ndidi Nwuneli

It was the Nigerian military junta that sent Ndidi Nwuneli from Africa to study in the U.S., and it was a will to correct the false image of her continent she saw stateside that brought her back. “The face of Africa was a hungry child,” she says. And though she witnessed such images in reality during the food crisis of 2008, she firmly believes that with the right education, leadership and policy in place, African countries’ food and agriculture sectors are their tickets to prosperity. This conviction has led her to found entrepreneurship platform Nourishing Africa and co-found consulting group Sahel Consulting & Nutrition and Nigerian food company AACE Food Processing & Distribution; serve as a board member for a number of major national and multinational organizations and business, from Nigerian Breweries to the Rockefeller Foundation; and establish youth empowerment organization LEAP Africa, to equip the continent’s rising generation with the skills and values to accomplish all that she has and more.

Wanjira Mathai

The many hats Wanjira Mathai wears are all stitched with the same thread. Whether it’s through developing leadership programs for African children and youth, serving as vice president and regional director for Africa at the World Resources Institute or advancing sustainable energy through the Clean Cooking Alliance – not to mention her repertoire of work in agroforestry, women entrepreneurship and landscape restoration – Mathai tirelessly works to transform not one but all of the landscapes and lives on her continent. Better than saying that she’s walking in the footsteps of her mother Wangari, who received the Nobel Prize for creating the Green Belt Movement, is that she walks in front of them, carrying forward the Movement’s vision to use tree-planting and nature-based solutions as means to achieve social and environment justice as well as chairing the Wangari Maathai Foundation. Suffice to say, she’s leaving her own legacy.

Fatoumata Diawara

The story of two-time Grammy nominated Malian artist Fatoumata Diawara began with a leap of faith. When she was 19, she fled her home and arranged marraiage in Bamako to move to France and pursue a career as an actress with a French street theater company. But it was her voice that caught the most attention, leading to her into a career as a singer-songwriter who has now performed alongside the likes of Paul McCartney, Herbie Hancock, Nicolas Jaar and a host of others – and often stealing the show. Her rich image of vibrant clothes, Indigenous adornments and stoic composure is matched with songs mixing traditional elements from West Africa’s Wassoulou region with jazz, Afropop, blues, funk and Malian folk, coupled with words often sung in her national language Bamabara, melding into music that’s as aching as it is joyful, with beats enough to dance. Although she continues acting alongside, her voice is also powerfully used in her work as an advocate for social justice and climate action, organizing musicians into song and video campaigns and penning lyrics about the modern slave trade. “This is my time, and I’m sharing my soul,” she says.

Fatou Jeng

From the experience of Fatou Jeng, one thing is clear: Young age is no obstacle for creating an impact. This trailblazing youth climate activist has a lot under her belt, from founding the youth-led environmental NGO Clean Earth Gambia to serving as one of the 30 young people selected to organize the first ever UN Youth Climate Summit in 2019. On the international stage, she is the policy operations lead for the Women and Gender United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Youth Constituency (YOUNGO), where she has been a driving force for policy submissions on gender and climate change. In Gambia, she has trained more than 500 school children about climate change and spread awareness about environmental issues to local communities and youth organizations. On top of that, she is also a Fridays for Future organizer and serves as the current chair of the global board for Plant for the Planet. Currently pursuing her master’s degree in environment, development and policy at the University of Sussex, she shows that real change is driven by young people. “If we want something done, we cannot leave it to the older generation,” she says.

Agnes Kalibata

Before becoming a prominent scientist and policymaker, Agnes Kalibata was born in Rwanda to a family of smallholder farmers who became displaced during the country’s struggle for independence during the early 1960s. Funded by the family’s income from growing beans and maize and raising cows, she went on to study entomology and biochemistry at Makerere University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. After beginning her career as a research scientist, she returned to Rwanda to become the Minister of Agriculture and Animal Resources from 2008 to 2014. During this period, she implemented programs that fostered food security and lifted more than a million Rwandans out of poverty. Today, she serves as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to the 2021 Food Systems Summit, where she’ll bring people from all parts of the world and all walks of life together to figure out how to transform our food systems to meet the Sustainable Development Goals. She is also the president of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), where she works to improve incomes and food security for 30 million farming families across Africa. Through her work, she has shown the transformational power of change when science and policy are brought together.

Selassie Atadika

Selassie Atadika is a culinary visionary, not only through the her creative use of traditional ingredients from across Africa, but also through the way she revolutionizes the entire dining experience. She is the owner of the restaurant Midunu, which pops up throughout Accra as a nomadic dining experience and a continual stage for her development of what she calls New African Cuisine – a holistic cuisine that blends culture, community, sustainability and environmental connection. Raised in the U.S., Atadika remembers connecting with the culture of her native Ghana through mealtimes with her family: “Food is such an important aspect of our lives because it touches everything, it is the tie that binds.” Her journey since has taken her from the UN to the Culinary Institute of America, becoming a founding member of Trio Toque – the first nomadic restaurant in Dakar, Senegal – and then returning home to Ghana to advance her unique form of cuisine further. She recently launched the Midunu Institute to document traditional culinary practices in Ghana and nurture local food systems.

H.E. Nancy Tembo

H.E. Nancy Tembo, Malawi’s Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources, has twice been elected as a Member of Parliament to the country’s National Assembly – in 2004 and 2019. In her current position, she advocates the restoration of Malawi’s forests by transitioning from charcoal energy – such as by using more efficient cookstoves, briquets or gas stoves – and reforestation. At a recent tree-planting event in Lilongwe, she succinctly summed up society’s dependence on forests and why we should all take the initiative on protecting them: “We all need trees for almost everything which we do every day. In fact, we need trees more than trees need us.”

Adjany Costa

From science to service, Adjany Costa excels. It’s no wonder the Angolan marine biologist and conservationist has been named National Geographic Explorer, as she’s gone on no less than nine expeditions in the Okavango River Basin – three of which she led. In 2015, she joined the National Geographic Okavango Wilderness Project to navigate the entire river and document its great biodiversity, leading to the discovery of 24 potentially new species. Needless to say, she has won numerous awards, including her team being named as the 2019 National Geographic Explorers of the Year and herself a 2019 UN Young Champion of the Earth for Africa. She has studied marine biology all over Europe, acquiring her PhD in wildlife conservation at Oxford University, and was the youngest minister in Angolan history when she was appointed Ministry of Culture, Environment and Tourism – a new “super ministry” – and remains a presidential consultant. The world awaits to see the next frontier for this young explorer.