Assia Sidibe: I am building a better Africa for myself and my daughters

Your first husband is your job. It is important to be independent - Assia Sidibe Click To Tweet

At only 32 years old, Assia Sidibe heads the pool of Francophone countries for the African Risk Capacity (ARC) – a specialized institution of the African Union that insures African countries against the risks of extreme weather events. Assia is from the beautiful land of Mali; she grew up in Côte d’Ivoire but had to leave this second home 16 years later, after a coup in the country, for France, where she lived for a decade.

In this interview that took place on a plane, 3 hours away from a Madagascar business trip, SLA contributor Meguy Massoudi attempts to capture just what a trailblazer Assia is. Assia did a great job at answering with candor and a lot of humor.

What did you want to be when you grew up? Why?

I have no idea. I was not one of those people that knew what they wanted to do. All I knew is that I wanted to work in development and help people.

Growing up in Côte d’Ivoire, I could sense the inequalities in society. I wanted to help people that were less fortunate than I was, just not in a charity sort of way. That idea only became concrete when I was around 18 or 19.

How did you decide that finance was the route you would take for your studies and later your career?

When I was supposed to decide what to study, I had no idea what to do. My parents pushed this idea that finance was the best place to start on me. They believed that it opened a career in everything. So I studied finance in high school.

After my Baccalaureate, I did a PREPA (preparatory school) in Superior Classical Letters. I was curious about learning about history, languages, and philosophy. After that, I knew what I wanted to do.

So I did a Master’s degree at Science PO Paris in Finance and Strategy. And from then, it opened up a career in development very easily.

Have you ever done any volunteer work? If yes, how has it been important to you? If not, would you be interested in volunteer work?

When I arrived in South Africa, I gave contemporary dance lessons to teenagers in the Joburg CBD. I wanted to give back to the community.

I wish I could volunteer more. If I had more time I would.

Have you ever faced problems in the workplace because you are a woman, how have you dealt with them?

No. I have faced problems in the workplace more because I am young. Working with African governments however, it has not been as difficult. Being a woman can be challenging, but if the work relationships are based on mutual respect, that is good.

Assia Sidibe: I have faced problems in the workplace more because I am young Click To Tweet

I have been pleasantly surprised by the open-mindedness of senior government officials who are willing to work with women of every age, especially in West Africa. Africans are not as closed minded as we are often made up to believe.

You have a career that allows you to surpass yourself every day, and meet the game shakers in climate change and in governments.

How do you find the confidence to talk to so many high profile people and get them to align with your vision and participate in your work?

I am not at all impressed by high-rank people. At the end of the day, we are all working for the continent. I don’t scare easily or get impressed easily. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect them. I also think it is important to share our different views with one another, Minister or not. You would be surprised how friendly and open-minded people on the continent are.

Was there a time you messed up and felt like you failed? What did you do to recover?

I wouldn’t say messed up. But last year, one of my countries didn’t get on board with ARC. I didn’t feel like I failed because I was on maternity leave. But I felt guilty. It’s a woman thing.

When I had to travel after giving birth and leave a little baby, I also felt guilty. I always leave thinking to myself, did I make the right choice? But I wouldn’t be happy staying at home. I tell myself, I am building a better Africa for myself and my daughters. And If I can make that impact, then that’s good.

What keeps you going in the most stressful times?

The belief in the potential of our continent keeps me going. I believe in what I do. I admit to being a bit of an idealist. But the bottom line is believing in what I do. I meet exceptional civil servants who work in hard situations but they never give up. In hard times, these people inspire me and keep me going.

The belief in the potential of our continent keeps me going - Assia Sidibe Click To Tweet

When we talk about the continent, we don’t talk enough about those that do everything in their power to make Africa better. We only talk about those that are corrupted.

What are your success habits?

My success habit would be never giving up. But I wonder if I even really have success habits. I am just a person who never gives up. It’s in my personality.

Nothing is impossible. So my success habit would be to explore a hundred ways to solve a problem before giving up, in every single thing I do.

What advice do you have for women wanting to make advancements or drastic changes in their careers?

I will start by addressing the point about drastic career changes. Speaking from experience, I resigned from my job in France. You have to find the courage to do it. When you want to do something, do it. For you and for your own happiness. I was young, I didn’t have kids, I was not married. So it was easier for me to do make the change.

When it comes to making career advancement, we need to remember we are equal to men. When I got pregnant and I had to tell my boss, I felt guilty. But we shouldn’t. We should be as demanding, if not more, than men. We juggle families and work, we take care of the household and get the job done.

When it comes to career advancement, remember we are equal to men - Assia Sidibe Click To Tweet

So don’t forget what it is that you can do. You have a power, use it. Never give up.

What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?

When I was 16, I was really lucky. I had friends that had it tougher; they were not close to their parents. I was very lucky to have that. My parents guided me and supported me immensely.

But I would have loved to have someone to advise me to spend more time in poor communities. To see how the other half lives. I was living in a really privileged community without ever getting out of that “bubble”. But it was important to see firsthand the differences in levels of living, especially if you want to pursue a career in development.

If you were to write a letter full of advice for your daughters, what would the main points be?

My letter to my daughters would say, be your own person. Stand by your ideas. Be bold and believe in yourself, you can do anything.

Your first husband is your job. It is important to be independent.

Assia Sidibe: Don’t forget what you can do. You have power, use it. Never give up Click To Tweet

Have you ever thought of going into entrepreneurship? If yes, what ventures do you have in mind? If not, how do you see the next 5 years of your career?

I am really public sector oriented. For me, the next step is trying to make a bigger impact on the continent, maybe going into government. I don’t know if it’s the best way to make an impact.

But in the next 5 years, I would still like to be working in development. I still have a lot to learn.

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Mouna Ben Garga: To create change is my life commitment

mouna ben garga she leads africa
Mouna Ben Garga is working to influence national and international agendas Click To Tweet

Are you familiar with the terms advocacy, social change or community development?

Well, you cannot separate these words from Tunisian-born Mouna Ben Garga because she lives by them. Mouna Ben Garga epitomizes the notion of active citizenship and innovation for social change.  

Community mobilization and development are her passion. When she isn’t advocating for the rights of immigrants in the US, Mouna’s working to influence national and international agendas.

Share with us what you do. How many people you touch and how long you have been at it?

Since 2009, I have committed myself to advocate and mobilize communities. I started as a member of the Junior Chamber International in which we build the capacity of youth to find solutions and be agents of change in their communities.

Moving to the United States, I got engaged with the African Diaspora advocating for the rights of immigrants and engagement in the continent through the AU Diaspora participation program.

Finishing my Master in Public Policy, I found myself doing what I always loved to do as a profession; “community development and advocacy”. I work to create strong alliances to influence national and international agendas around critical causes such as climate change, Agenda 2030 and youth engagement.

Currently, as a programme officer at CIVICUS, a global alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world, I support civil society organizations in Africa and Middle East to develop their innovation capacity in community building and mobilization.

What are you excited about lately?

I am excited about innovation for social change. For a long time, innovation was associated with business and science. However, lately we’re starting to witness the rise of innovation for social change and impact.

Lately, I am working to make it part of communities empowerment in Africa and Middle East.

Lately we're starting to witness the rise of innovation for social change and impact Click To Tweet


Why do you believe in the work you do?

Any sustainable positive change comes from within.

But together we are stronger, more influential and more efficient. Thus, I work to connect people and communities and build partnerships.

How do you stay motivated?

Reading and watching the impact that people are making around the world. It could start from a video advocating women’s right in India. Then, there is an innovative app which helps raise money for Syrian refugees.

I have also been recently motivated by an article about a solution for climate change initiated in small village in Tunisia by a young woman. These achievements empower me to keep working because I am not trying alone.


What is that one thing you think needs to be improved on in Africa’s development?

Full engagement! Decisions about Africa and its development are taken in offices far away from people who will be the final implementers.

Many plans and strategies are published every year and with any new international action, but the implementation mechanisms are not effective. This delays the impact and creates more tensions.

African citizens should play an important part in the continent’s development and not only limited to consultative role. A participatory approach is needed and a process of co-design in which civil society organisations (CSOs) play the interim agent between communities and governments.

African citizens should play an important part in the continent's development Click To Tweet

What do you appreciate most about your country, Tunisia?

Youth! As most of the African countries, our treasure in Tunisia is our youth. Despite the political instability, our youth is finding many ways to make a change.

It is true that many of us decided to be active in CSOs but they are working toward showing a real impact and influencing political process. We stand for our rights, against corruption and we demand transparency and engagement.

We’ve reached a point in Tunisia at which the youth are moving from protesting to influencing.

What do you think makes a good road trip?

Companionship is what makes a good road trip. Even though you can enjoy the good view and the trip journey alone, it is more nurturing to share it with others.

You learn new things from company and your eyes open to new facts and realities. In fact, you will probably pay attention to other details in the road that you would not see alone.

What three items do you always carry with you on a road trip?

  • CD and books
  • My favourite music
  • Cash

Want to see women you know featured on SLA? Tell us what amazing things women are doing in your communities here.

Vivian Onano: Where you come from does not determine your power

vivian onano

One year ago, in front of the entire UN General Assembly, the then 24-year-old Vivian Onano gave her first keynote speech. Not many 24 year olds can claim such an achievement, neither can they say they dined with FLOTUS, hung out with Bill Clinton or met all living American presidents, Jimmy Carter excluded.

Coming from a small village in Nyanza province, Kenya, Vivian has grown into one of Africa’s most passionate youth advocates with credentials that have earned her a seat at the table with the greats of the world.

Diana Odero, our SLA contributor, had a candid chat with the young powerhouse about how her life has changed significantly since then and why she will not stop fighting for the rights the youth deserve.

Tell us, who is Vivian really? Minus all the accolades, jet setting and changing the world, tell us about the girl -Vivian Onano?

Well, Vivian the girl is a very shy person believe it or not. I’m very shy and I think it’s my demeanor that makes people think I’m not. I consider myself an introvert because as much as I’m out there doing all these things, I always feel drained after an event or two. I always need some space and time to myself just to re-energize for the next day or the next thing I need to do.

I’m very down to earth and that’s something else that is also wrongly perceived by those on the outside looking in. I love dancing and being around happy people who are also very focused.

I keep my circle very small, around people who give me the positive energy I need to get things done. It’s really helpful to have such focused and enthusiastic people around you.

That aside, I’d like to add that I’m very approachable guys! There’s been incidences when some journalists have been scared to approach me just based on the straight-faced look I usually have —please don’t judge me by my face, I’m always willing and happy to talk to people.  

How did you get started on this activism journey?

My mum and my grandmother raised me, and my grandmother is a woman with a very giving heart. I grew up on so little but even with the little we had she would call all the neighbours and their kids to share with them when they didn’t have much.

So, it all started from my family who taught me the importance of giving despite having so little. I remember I used to help my classmates with homework back in primary school and I was always that kid who would stand up for others, particularly my fellow girls.

I’ve been a student leader from kindergarten all the way to college and I think that’s where all the self-confidence came from as well. It’s part and parcel of my DNA.

Vivian, who has been a major part of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, is seen here in NYC protesting in solidarity with fellow women the kidnapping of the young Nigerian girls by Boko Haram.

The field you are in currently must bring lots of challenges and difficult tasks to take on. How do you handle such situations? How do you deal with conflict?

It’s true that my field is a very difficult space to be in and I think it’s even more difficult being as young as I am. I always find myself in spaces with people of the older generation and mostly just men.

It’s great exposure and it’s helped me build great networks but I always have to rise up to the challenge of knowing I’m still a young person who has to be an adult at the same time. I’m representing the voices of African youth and I want to be taken seriously but the kid in me still wants to be a kid. Juggling both worlds is quite the task.

Whenever I go to conferences, people are always like ‘When I read your bio I thought you would be much older…’ Others expect to see a 40 year old woman so it forces me to rise up to the maturity level of a 40 year old woman while giving a presentation/talk yet I’m only 25.

I still keep it very authentic and stay true to myself but I always hope my presentation matches what they are expecting to see. Whenever I’m speaking on a panel for example, I never want my age to be used as an excuse for the type of contribution I give to the topic at hand.

I always want to deliver it the same way an accomplished older person would as well and attain the same respect, that way making room for future young people like me to get the same opportunity.

As for dealing with conflicts, it’s always best to be diplomatic i.e. be very honest but also very respectful at the same time. I’ve come to realize that people think some spaces should only be for the older generation. Being mindful of that, I try and remain as authentic as I can be but respectful of where they’re coming from so as to avoid anything escalating out of proportion.

Vivian at the Women Deliver Global Conference earlier this year. Photo by Birgitta Lund

You are a self-proclaimed feminist. What does the word feminist mean to you and why do you think it is still frowned upon today?

Being a feminist in my opinion is giving everybody an equal opportunity to maximize on his or her God-given human abilities. The reason why it’s still frowned upon is because it’s seen as a sort of label for angry women.

As a feminist, I don’t look at it that way. I engage with men just the same way I engage with women when it comes to feminism, gender equality, women’s empowerment etc.

I actually think I’m much tougher on men as I try to make them understand the importance of gender equality, the importance of everyone having equal rights and opportunities and maximize on their talents.

You have sat in the same room with some of the most prominent people in the world including President Obama and first lady Michelle. If you were to have dinner with anyone in the world, who would it be and why?

I’m going to be very honest with you and say my grandmother. I love her so much and it saddens me that I don’t really get much time to spend with her. My grandmother is such a big-hearted person and I think I’ve really taken after her.

Her confidence, her generosity, her humility, her openness and candidness… all that is she and I in a nutshell. I last saw her in May and I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who knows me better than she does.

I know people expect me to run for the big names and what have you but truly, if there were anyone I could have dinner with right now, it would definitely be her.

Regina Opondo: The Kenyan civil society sector is very exciting

regina opondo

Regina Opondo wears so many hats in the Kenyan civil society sector. She is the Executive Secretary of CRECO, a consortium of 23 civil society organisations in Kenya, Co-Convener for the ‘Kura Yangu Sauti Yangu movement, a platform for political dialogue around Kenyan elections, a Deputy Convener for the Civil Society reference group in Kenya, among others.

Regina believes that women work best together and dismisses the saying the women are their own worst enemies. She also says women tend to do very well in civil society as compared to other sectors. If you’ve ever considered starting a career in civil society, this one has lots of gems for you.

Why civil society and not a different sector?

I always knew that I wanted to help people especially on human rights issues, and for me the civil society was the only way.

The civil society sector is also very exciting. There is always something new every day, and there is a feeling of family as we all work together towards specific good.

Do you think are the barriers to women’s progress in the sector?

I would say there is minimal barrier as women with technical expertise in the sector tend do very well as compared to other sectors like the government and the cooperates.

To some extent though, there is the social barrier. I think it is sometimes quite a challenge balancing between work, family and the civil society work. The sector is quite demanding as it requires more hours at work, traveling now and then, active activism and advocacy.

Most women with families in the sector have had to tone down after on active participation in their work and are not as active as they were before. They are forced to take less work and take care of other social responsibilities.

Does being a woman-led organization give leverage in winning donor funds?

I would say yes and no.

Yes, because it makes it easier when one is dealing with women-led donor organisations. I have always believed that fundraising is about building relationships and how you relate. You see for women, there are so many things to share. We talk about challenges and how to handle them and freely give advice when needed. Hence, it is easier to pitch agendas and ideas to women for funding. With men on the other hand, it is hard to build relations as relating with some can be quite a challenge.

No, because the playing field is the same and the quality of work is what matters.


What are your views on the relationship between civil society organisations and the government?

There is a general feeling of mistrust and open hostility that manifests itself differently in many African countries, and in Kenya to be specific.

The current government has not allowed the civil society organisations (CSOs) to operate freely and there is the new bill in parliament to amend the Public Benefit Organisations Act.

The PBO Act aims at protecting freedom of association and allows civil society organisations doing public benefit work to operate under one single Act. The Kenyan government though, has refused to put a commencement date on it.

Has your ethnicity ever affected your advocacy work?

To some extent it has, as others always believe that since one comes from a specific ethnic community, they are automatically inclined to a specific political party.

Hence, they do not tend to be keen on important issues raised but judge your actions, as genuine as they are.

What do you do in your free time

I love art and craft, watching movies, reading fiction and swimming.

I have to try keep fit you know 😉


Any advice to upcoming women leaders?

I would say, look for good mentors to serve different purposes in life whether career, spiritual, family and even technical.

After you succeed, remember to give back that which has been given to you.

Want to see women you know featured on SLA? Tell us what amazing things women are doing in your communities here.