The Promise of Africa's Women

In this photo taken Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. women turn cassava into garri flour at the International Institutes for tropical
In this photo taken Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012. women turn cassava into garri flour at the International Institutes for tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, Nigeria. From fields nestled among the lush rolling hills of Nigeria’s southwest, the small plants rising out the hard red dirt appear fragile, easily crushed by weather or chance. Looks, however, are deceiving. These cassava plants will grow into a dense thicket of hard, bamboo-like shoots within a year, with roots so massive a single planted hectare can provide three tons of food. The plants survive fires, droughts and pestilence, while offering a vital food source for more than 500 million people living across sub-Saharan Africa. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

At the launch of Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo's foundation last month, I had the privilege of moderating a panel with the Presidents of Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia and Benin in front of 1,000 business and political leaders. The former Nigerian head of state and his peers spoke eloquently about the need to educate girls. President Obasanjo stated: "If we educate a girl, we educate a family." As a result, he has named the education of women and girls as one of his five key initiatives for his new foundation.

But beyond the basic issue of education -- which will help families, villages and countries pull themselves out of poverty -- women remain the untapped economic superpower. As Africa becomes more and more prosperous, we must ask what role African women will play in this growth.

It is already evident that they are a dynamic and driving force. When it comes to entrepreneurship, women have proved themselves to be highly creative; so effective that a recent New York Times article suggested that "women entrepreneurs drive growth in Africa."

Culturally it is commonplace for African women to work. The World Bank suggests that two-thirds of African women are in the workforce, and it is estimated that they grow 80 percent of the continent's food. But there are still many impediments to be overcome, and taboos that prevent women from being fully integrated into the economy. Women are often part of the informal economy, a casual labor market in which wages are lower. Sometimes, they face traditions that prevent them from inheriting farmland and property.

Although countries like Malawi and Liberia have female presidents, female leadership is still rare: just two out of 54 countries are headed by women. The under-representation of women at a political level is a problem that African nations, like the West, must work to overcome.

Last June, at the New York Forum Africa in Libreville, Gabon, I moderated a session with seven African First Ladies. The 50-minute panel was truly inspiring with the First Ladies talking about concrete actions and results delivered in their home countries in a very short time. They also gave insightful answers to my question about the advice they would give their husbands, proving that women are a driving force both in society and family. These seven First Ladies are truly inspirational: using their passion and their position to drive real change and real empowerment for women citizens in their countries.

If women are the key to Africa's future -- and I believe they are -- we must figure out how to take away the barriers to their participation. A change in attitudes, culture and habits is required. I call on governments to follow President Obasanjo's lead and put their full support, political and economic, behind the mobilization of this untapped economic superpower