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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Delphine Groot: Your success as an entrepreneur is determined by your willingness to work hard

delphine groot

Delphine Groot had her big breakthrough into the African-inspired fashion scene in the Netherlands in 2015. That was when she had the opportunity to showcase her collection at the Locked & Loose event in Amsterdam in the summer of 2015.

Organized by The Natural Hair Club, the event exposed her unique collection to a crowd of entrepreneurs, designers, sponsors, and consumers. Many of whom were impressed and this eventually generated publicity and sales for her brand, Bobo Couture.

SLA contributor Uloma Ogba, spoke with Delphine on seeking alternatives to follow her passion and being a cultural ambassador for Africa in the Netherlands.

How did you decide on the name “Bobo Couture”?

I belong to the Bobo ethnic group, native to Mali and Burkina Faso. The Bobo people have a thousand-year-old tradition of handicrafts and textiles. When choosing a name for my fashion brand, I felt that Bobo was fitting.

Bobo captures who I am and what I want to bring to the fashion industry. I bring with me well-designed and crafted clothing, and jewelry inspired by my rich African heritage.


What was your motivation for starting your own business?

I was born in Mali but grew up in the Netherlands and in several other African countries. So, I have seen a fair bit of the world and absorbed parts of the different cultures I have been exposed to.

In university, I studied Human Geography and International Development because I wanted to understand the role of cultural exchange in global development.

However, after graduation, I quickly realized that I was not suited for office work. And so, I decided to seek alternatives to follow my passion. I came up with the idea of starting my own business. I wanted to find a way to apply my studies to something that I find both practical and engaging.

Through Bobo Couture, I am able to participate in the cultural exchange process. I do this by creating access in the West to the creations of local people in various African communities. For every item I sell and when I get a chance to tell the story behind its creation, I see myself playing a role as a cultural ambassador for Africa.


What is the process like for you as a designer and an entrepreneur?

First, I must give credit to my mother who is my business partner and provides a lot of creative input. Together, we decide on the right fabrics and designs for each collection.

The goal is to showcase different aspects of our African culture that our customer base in the Netherlands can relate to and appreciate. My culture is very vibrant, colourful, exciting, playful at times, and very focused on community. I try to make sure each collection represents that in varying degrees.

From reviews I have read and from your own accounts, your brand Bobo Couture is doing really well, exceeding even your expectations. How do you think you are contributing to the development of Africa as you say?

All the fabrics and textiles that we work with, for the clothing and jewelry, are sourced locally. We also employ tailors and craftsmen in Mali, Togo, Kenya, and Ghana.

By providing them with work on a consistent and growing basis, we contribute to their economic development and professional growth. We want our workers to take pride in the things that they produce.

We also want them to know that our goal is to ensure that their work and the meaning behind it, reaches a wider audience.


You recently expanded your business to set up a physical location. In addition you manage the online store and travel back and forth between the Netherlands and Kenya to import the clothes. How are you able to find balance in your life?

To be honest, these days it seems like all I do is work. But I love seeing the efforts of my hard work come to fruition. In the first year of Bobo Couture, I had to give up my personal life. No going out with friends or going on vacation.

Since we opened the store, even though we employ some local girls to help out, I still have to be present most of the time. The only things that keep me sane are using what little time I have to keep up with the gym and talking to my family. These provide me with the physical and moral support I need.

Given your experiences, what would be your advice to aspiring entrepreneurs?

If I could give one piece of advice it would be that hard work is the most important key to your success. There are going to be many challenging times ahead. But you have to try to view failures as part of the learning process to reaching your goal. Set big goals and dare to achieve them.

When I started, a lot of people tried to discourage me. I heard the market was already saturated and it would be hard to stand out. Before I got an assistant, I had to transport all my clothes to and from events by myself. But I always believed in myself and in my ideas and that is what got me here today.

Any final thoughts?

I think a big part of why my designs sell so well is because they are a true reflection of who I am. I would never sell anything that I wouldn’t proudly wear myself.

Whatever brand you choose, if it reflects you, then selling it to the public will never feel like hard work.

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