Mwandwe Chileshe: My career in nutrition stemmed from my own struggles with ill health

Mwandwe Chileshe is a Global Health Corps alumni who has carved out a meaningful career path in Zambia’s health and nutrition sector.

In this interview, she speaks on how to trailblaze a career that’s both challenging and rewarding—while working to ensure the safety and health of generations to come.


  What inspired you to build a career in nutrition/health?

My work in nutrition and global health stemmed from my own struggles with ill health. As a university student enthusiastic and eager to learn, I was suddenly struck with multiple abdomen complications.

This led me through many hospital corridors and multiple surgical procedures. The experience included severe pain, days of no food, and wards where I saw people in even worse conditions. After three years of this situation, I realized that my opportunity to access health services gave me the best shot at life.

The experience took a financial and emotional toll, which would have been hard to survive without the goodwill of my family.  In the meantime, many women and girls are living through worse, and some of their lives are cut short as they are unable to access the health services they need.

When I started to work on nutrition I was exposed to the dire effects of hunger and malnutrition on women, girls, and children.

Children who lack access to adequate nutrition and consequently suffer from chronic malnutrition (stunting), their fates are decided even before they can make their own decisions. A stunted child is more likely to fail at school, fall sick with other conditions, and struggle to find work as an adult.

My first-hand experience of the heavy price of inequitable health services coupled with my early work experience in nutrition motivated me to build a career in global health advocating for improved nutrition.

What does the future hold for this sector? How can young leaders plugin and cultivate their own careers here?

So many people worldwide are affected by hunger and malnutrition. More than a billion women and girls do not have the access to the adequate nutrition that they need. It is a health and development issue that requires a critical mass of young minds to solve.

Political will has been stated, global commitments have been made, and yet nutrition remains insufficiently funded globally. For an issue that affects so many of us, it is important that we get involved and we pursue careers that will have lasting impacts.

It is a space that still needs people to see its importance and its linkages to so many other health and development issues.

What does it mean to be an anti-poverty advocate? How does this show up in your daily life?

It shows up in the little and the big decisions in my life. Straight out of undergrad I started to work for one of Zambia’s leading commercial banks in a high-density area.

What stood out for me at the time was how during a 30-minute bus ride, the landscape changed from posh malls to people living in shacks. The disparity was so apparent and jarring. Every morning was a trek to where the people strung along their savings. Within four months I knew I couldn’t stay.

I quit at what was considered a prestigious and income-secure job and went right back to work on nutrition and health. For me, being an anti-poverty advocate means that I cannot be satisfied with just my own income security.

When faced with the small choices or the big ones, I will always choose that which impacts more than just me.

After my work at the bank, I went on to lead and contribute to efforts to raise the profile of nutrition and increase political will to address it. I played a significant role in the startup and growth of Zambia’s Civil Society Scaling up Nutrition Alliance (CSO-SUN), the first organization in the country solely dedicated to advocacy on nutrition.

I took the lead within CSO-SUN in ensuring creative approaches towards advocacy efforts.  I became a Global Health Corps fellow working at 1,000 Days in the U.S. as a Global Advocacy and Outreach Associate, working to mobilize greater resources for nutrition initiatives.  In early 2017, I became a global citizen campaigner and was recognized as one of their leading youth advocates.

Through this role, I have led and supported significant campaigns and advocacy on nutrition. Most recently, I was part of the Global Citizen team that worked to secure commitments for the Mandela 100 festival in December 2018.

Why is it important for young leaders to build careers that are socially-minded? How has your career shaped your identity?

The problems arising from hunger, malnutrition, poverty are not new at all. The world needs new solutions to these old problems! It is so important that young people get involved.

We are open-minded, and we have fresh voices and new ideas. We cannot sit by and wait for phantom changemakers – it is us that we need.

My friend joked to me just a few days ago that when someone asked what my hobbies are and what I do for fun, she responded by saying “That’s easy, her nutrition advocacy work.” We laughed, but I interpreted the exchange as a sign that my career deeply shapes my identity.

Perhaps more importantly, I believe it means that the joy that I get from the work I do is evident.

The work you do isn’t easy. How do you stay focused, committed, and well?

There are moments when fighting for health equity is overwhelming and challenging. I imagine that this is true for all careers working towards a better world.

I find that it is important for me to always remember why I do what I do to stay focused and motivated. However, this also includes acknowledging burn out and cultivating time for self-care, which allows me to always bring the best version of myself to my work.


 Interested in contributing for She Leads Africa? Click here.

Imagine Africa at the center of our plates: Preserving, profiting and healing our roots through food

 

What does food, nutrition, and gender equity have in common for Africa and its diaspora?

Together they have the ability to transform the future of Africa’s food system by empowering women and girls who represent the vital engine of the economy.

Africa and its diaspora have a key opportunity to address the double burden of nutrition from diabetes, heart disease to malnutrition by promoting the health and beauty of African foods from teff, millet, moringa, baobab and hibiscus which can unlock economic potential and grow an emerging consumer market with the right policy, resources, infrastructure, packaging and promotion in place.

The World Economic Forum projected double-digit growth of Africa’s economy over the next 50 years. Like Asia and Latin America, the food and agricultural sectors will follow these projected trends.

Currently, a rise in Western fast-food chains has proliferated across the Continent in the name of job creation. Furthermore, the World Health Organization(WHO) reports heart disease and diabetes will outpace killing Africans more than AIDS.

Without a proper health care infrastructure to combat NCD, the economic returns from job creation in the fast food system will have to pay for the health of Africa’s people.  

What shift can happen on the continent to ensure that public health and economic growth are not in conflict?

Academic researchers have documented the positive role of the African heritage diet; therefore economic opportunities are prime for investment in the indigenous foodways while preserving the heritage and supporting a climate-smart and nutrition-sensitive agricultural landscape.

In addition, scholarly works and visionary leadership matched with the public will can ensure that Africa is truly at the center of the plate for Africa and not just on the menu.

How have I come to this belief?

After attending the 2014 African Union Summit which has a theme on ‘food security,’ I was inspired and challenged with how to contribute to the AU Agenda 2063 to address youth opportunities.

Traversing across the continent, I had the esteemed pleasure to tour and speak to colleagues in the health care systems, nutrition systems, and academic institutions along with parents and students about diet and non-communicable diseases.

That’s why I created WANDA: Women Advancing Nutrition Dietetics and Agriculture, to inspire a new generation of women and girls to lead in improving the food system for healthier, sustainable economies and communities in Africa and the Diaspora.

And our children’s generational icon is Little WANDA, a new girl character from the Diaspora, who uses her superpower of African foods to heal her communities with the help of women farmers, food producers, and nutritionists which we call them Big WANDAs.

By visiting the local markets in Ghana, I enjoyed the sights, sounds and buying from the entrepreneurial women selling their farm-fresh produce and packaged goods while I also concerned how the big box grocery stores may displace these micro food enterprises if we don’t see their value in our local food economy and tourism industry.

How can we build a food system that ensures local food entrepreneurs have equitable footing while multinational corporations join the food supply chain?

And what about Africa’s youth?

While giving a nutrition workshop with at a primary school in Nigeria, I saw the eagerness of the students to learn nutrition education after reading “Where’s WANDA?” bilingual book series.

One parent shared how her daughter shared healthy tips to help her Nana prevent diabetes; in a nutshell, she wanted to become food ‘shero’ like Little WANDA in the “Where’s WANDA?” series to help their Nana who has diabetes.

Over the last few decades, fast food chains with subsidized corn syrup, refined wheat and salts have become mainstay fixtures in urban diasporan communities with little healthy food access known as a ‘foodapartheidd,’ the same effect may happen in urban centers across Africa without intervention.

Proper comprehensive nutrition-centered agriculture policy preserving local foodways combined with nutrition edutainment, standardized food labeling, and promotional campaigns are key to keep at bay the unintended consequences particularly in middle-income countries with non-communicable diseases like hypertension while lowering health care costs.

If the African American experience is the ‘canary in the mine’ for Africa, what early intervention and visionary leadership can change the direction of this path? 

In creating WANDA, it was clear that investing in women and girls will be fundamental for Africa’s future!

And men’s role as gate openers of opportunity is key to unlock the resources to build workforce and leadership and combat the historical nutrition inequities and the stigma in the food system.

For too long the world publicly shunned the nutritional value of Africa’s indigenous foodways while using Africa’s food and labor to build their economy. Training more women and youth in nutrition and agribusiness is critical in improving health and economic opportunities for all.

Decolonizing our diet is not only good for the economy but our local food ways.

And agriculture needs an image makeover to inspire a new generation of food leaders with characters like Little WANDA to set course on a proper pathway for a healthy and wealthy Africa.


If you’d like to share a story with us at She Leads Africa, share your story with us here.

Webinar with April Laugh: Earning profit in the fitness industry (Apr 26)

Lola Komolafe, founder of April Laugh  is a fitness enthusiast, a meal plan genius, and a healthy foodie. Join us for a webinar with her on Apr. 26th, as she shares with us how she progressed from passion to profit.


Are you passion driven, or profit driven? Wait a minute! Who says it isn’t possible to pursue both? For many people, working is about much more than simply paying the bills. It’s about having a full life, using talents and making a difference.

Understand that knowing your passion is a lot more easier than learning how to make money from it full time. Whatever it is you love to do, there are an incredible amount of ways to monetize your passion.

Lola Komolafe discovered her passion for fitness and a healthy living and started organizing fitness challenges online, before long she got positive testimonies from friends she’d helped and decided to do what she loved full time, thereby giving birth to April Laugh.

Join us for a 45-minute webinar with Lola Komolafe on Wednesday April 26th, 2017. We’ll be discussing how to discover your true passion and make money from what you enjoy doing. Register below to get the exclusive link to the webinar.

Learn how to turn your hobby into money. Join @fitmrsfats for a webinar on Wed Apr. 26th Click To Tweet

Some of the topics we’ll cover:

  • Starting out in a non-traditional industry
  • Turning a hobby into money
  • Stages and steps to a healthy living
  • Juggling work, life and your finances while working from home.

Webinar Details:

  • Date: Wednesday April 26th
  • Time: 2pm UK // 2pm Lagos // 3pm Johannesburg

Watch here:

 About Lola Komolafe

Lola Komolafe aka April Laugh is a Fitness Entrepreneur, Certified Nutritionist, Meal Plan Genius and a Fitness Enthusiast who takes conscious efforts to live a healthy lifestyle. She helped her husband to lose over 40kg and has been inspiring people to adopt lifestyle changes with the #LifestyleChangeWithApril 12 Weeks Challenge.

She’s also a God-fearing wife and mom to Bryan and lives in England. You can read more about her on here and find her on Instagram: @fitmrsfats

 

Caroline Numuhire: If you want to be a human rights advocate, just do it

Work on your gifts and then the universe will grant you wisdom to shine. Click To Tweet Global health and creative writing go hand in hand for Caroline Numuhire. From Kigali, Rwanda, Caroline got her start in global health as an intern with Save the Children Rwanda. She went on to address childhood malnutrition as a Global Health Corps (GHC) fellow at Gardens for Health International (GHI) in 2014 before joining GHC staff as a Program Associate last year.

Caroline regularly contributes to ECOFORUM and Environmental Africa in addition to penning inspirational short stories. She is currently working on a novel and pursuing a Master’s degree in Global Health Delivery at the University of Global Health Equity in Kigali.


You are both a global health practitioner and a writer. How do you juggle your main hustle and your side hustle? Is there overlap in these seemingly disparate worlds?

My professional life in the global health domain matters a lot to me to feel fulfilled as a human being as this is my contribution to build a more just world. I enjoy sleeping at night knowing that I spent a day achieving a good goal. If I was ever asked to pick one job, it would be a hard decision because I am passionate about my work as well as my writing. I always feel lucky to live in a world that allows me to practice both.

When I believe in a cause or a profession, it becomes so easy to handle it because I understand why I invest every drop of energy and I ensure that I find time to juggle and work on my passions. The reason why I (agronomist and writer) smoothly fit in global health is because it is not and has never been an isolated technical field. Communication, writing, and public speaking are some of the key tools that allow me to be an effective advocate for global health issues. There’s still a huge need to write about these issues that are affecting humanity.

Caroline Numuhire 2

Agriculture, nutrition, and the environment are often overlooked aspects of health and wellbeing. Why are you passionate about these issues?

The simplest answer would be that I have an educational background in agriculture, rural development, and global health delivery. But the true answer is more complex.

Sometimes when we talk about good health, we think about the absence of diseases and when it comes to wellbeing, we picture cash in our minds! In Rwanda, communities of farmers are the first victims of climate change effects and of malnutrition. In the early days of my career, one of the startling realities I faced in the field was that farmer communities suffer from malnutrition while they produce all the beautiful and healthy food that we consume and consequently they face poor health outcomes. In my eyes, it was an obvious facet of social injustice that I had to dedicate my efforts to.

You work with Global Health Corps fellows in Rwanda, many of whom are new to the health sphere and even to living and working on the African continent. What’s been your most challenging experience in this role so far?

The biggest challenge of my work is to work with smart, energetic and result-driven young people who want to observe the impact of their fellowship right away. It requires a form of art to help them understand that once you sow a tree seed it takes days, weeks, and most of the time years to yield flowers and then fruits.

And your most rewarding?

The most rewarding part is to see fellows graduating from the fellowship as empowered, more resilient leaders who are ready to continuously change the face of poverty and inequity wherever they are heading. It is a true transformation!

Caroline Numuhire says 'Don’t fear that there are so many human rights advocates already – they are not YOU' Click To Tweet

Professional women are often stereotyped and coerced into looking, acting and being a certain way. How do you stay true to yourself in the face of societal pressure to conform?

Oh, that’s a poisonous disease! Yes, we live in a society with predetermined norms. Yes, we want to experience the feeling of belonging. Yes, we have so many excuses, right?

In the last 20+ years of my life, I have played the card of likability. You know what? I lost, miserably. Just because I failed to please the only person who matters to me: myself. It’s so easy to be a submissive, scared, shy, soft, incompetent, slow, lazy woman (beauty being tolerated!) and be accepted, included and appreciated. But if your inner voice tells you that you are something else, then be exactly that person. For yourself. Don’t fear making men feel insecure because of their own weaknesses. It’s not your role. If you want to look sexy, smart and happy, be sexy, smart and happy. The formula is simple.

I intimately know that I’m an energetic, hard-working, empathic and imperfect girl and I totally, shamelessly and unapologetically embrace myself. What other people think of me is their own right but not a business I manage. A woman has to value herself and if you don’t know how you can start reading or watching Louise Hay’s meditation videos as well as learning about other women who understand the secret of true self-love.

What advice would you share with other young leaders who want to use their gifts to make a difference in the world?

First of all, work hard on your gift. The world will respect you if you respect your gift. We are all talented. God created us with tremendous reserves of amazing aptitudes and gifts. Just find your own, refine it and it will blossom to heaven.

Epictetus said, “If you want to be a writer, write”, so if you want to be a human rights advocate and you believe that this is your call, your life purpose, just do it. Just do it and dare to believe that only the sky can be a limit. We are all wonderful, we just have to see the wonder in us. Don’t fear that there are so many human rights advocates already –they are not YOU. They don’t hold your values. You are another highly valuable advocate among them. Our biggest enemy is that inner voice that criticizes us, or when we chose to trust other people’s negative criticisms. You have to intentionally shut their volume down, work on your gifts, and then the universe will grant you wisdom to shine.

Caroline Numuhire 1

From one Beyhive member to another, what’s your favorite Beyoncé song? What do you find empowering about her music?

Oh wow. I love all of Beyoncé’s music and certain songs become my favorite depending on my life weather. Currently, I am in love with “Grown Woman”. Because I also “remember being young, tough, brave, I knew what I needed, and… I can do whatever I want.”

I love Beyoncé because she is not only a performer, she is an empowered lady who empowers other women around the world. I play her music on YouTube, and think what a great beat for relaxation! When I am singing and dancing to her songs, I have the feeling that she understands me as a woman and she gets the personal and professional struggles I go through. Then, I smile because I know we could be friends and talk about women’s rights until 3 AM. I also watch her interviews. She empowers me and taught me the importance of beauty in a woman’s life. But most of all, I respect her because she works hard, gets up when she’s down, keeps progressing, is creative and competitive with herself, and she is so gracious!

What is one leadership mantra that you live by?

“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.” – Zig Ziglar


If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here.

Remi Owadokun: I started with N10 and now have customers in 7 countries

Remi Owadokun

Remi Owadokun used a major life change to kickstart her online business as a weight loss coach and nutritionist. She also used that motivation to start an online video series that spreads health consciousness in a fun and interactive way.

Remi shares with us her thoughts on what’s keeping young women healthy, how she started her business with only N10 in her wallet and how she’s planning to take her business global. 


Why did you start the Total Makeover Program?

I started the Total Makeover Program when I made the decision to change my life and lost 40kg. During this process my life was transformed emotionally, financially, spiritually and mentally and I wanted other women to experience this power as well.

The first thing that came to mind was simply to blog about my experience because many people who knew me wanted to know how I did it. How many people do I want to tell? So one weekend I sat down and started compiling my experiences.

Once my blog was up I started sharing it via email to friends and family. When I went out and people asked me about my health transformation I always referred them to my blog. It was meant to start and end there but I started getting a lot of feedback from people who wanted me to keep writing.

There were people who had started their weight loss journeys simply by reading my story and I started getting emails from people who wanted me to coach them. I initially said no because I was not comfortable with people coming to me or me going anywhere.

But one day, a lady emailed me and said; “Please coach me, we never have to meet, just email me meal plans and exercise plans.” That was when it occurred to me that I could turn this into an online business. I imagined that if one person was interested, I could get more people interested too.

Why do you think most young professional women struggle with living a healthy lifestyle?

Many young women are misinformed about what good health means and how they can maintain a healthy lifestyle in today’s environment. Most people assume that someone who is healthy is slim. This is not always the case, there are several “fit looking” people who are unhealthy.

They eat junk, don’t sleep well and are constantly stressed. Most people assume that by just eating right and exercising, you will automatically be healthy. There are many factors that contribute to being healthy and whole.

You can eat all the greens in the world and exercise 2 hours a day, if you are a bitter, angry person, you are upsetting your biological make up. You can actually find rare cases where an individual eats all sorts of crap but because she is happy and fun loving may end up being in a healthier state than most.

Being healthy and living a healthy lifestyle requires a more holistic approach that most ignore. The tendency is to focus on just one area of life and ignore the rest.

What makes Total Makeover Program different from other health startups?

Most health start ups focus solely on exercise and diet. At TMP we focus on two things: primary and secondary foods. Primary foods are things that feed us but don’t come on a plate like love, relationships, career, spirituality, education, etc.

Secondary foods are the items we actually eat on our plates every day.  We know that there is no point trying to control your diet if you don’t focus on the things that trigger you to eat. If we can fix the triggers then we worry less about your understanding of food.

Most people are emotional eaters but most start ups never focus on the emotions. People eat when they are happy, sad, angry, stressed, etc. For some people a fight with the significant other that displaces them and sends them into over eating. For others it is boredom, being stuck in traffic, or a fight with their boss.

I don’t see the point in telling people if they are ill equipped to deal with their emotions when stressful situations arise. I want to avoid the situation where someone I’m working with faces the same triggers and they revert back to their old habits and get so disappointed that they don’t want to try again.

Life can be unpredictable and it is unhealthy and unwise to build our lives based on the happenings around us that are outside our control. At TMP we empower you to take full control of the only thing you truly have control over, YOU.

For your business to get to the next level, would you prefer funding or a mentor? Which one would you choose and why?

I started this business with N10 in my wallet and built it to where it is without needing to look for funding. I would pick mentoring any day as I have always had mentors and I understand the role they play in my life and how they have created opportunities for me.

Proper mentoring provides value that will eventually translate to money. As a thought leader and as a mentor, I find that people who have worked with me are more impacted by the time spent together than anything else. Money will finish, then what next?

What can we expect to see from Total Makeover Program over the next 6 months?

I have coached a little over 80 men and women 1-on-1 in 7 countries in the last 20 months. There is a limit to the amount of people I can coach 1-on-1 , so I am currently creating an online course where people all over the world can download, partake and achieve results without having me there full time.

I recently became an international best selling author for my book “How I lost 40kg” when I hit the number 2 spot only 8 hours after it’s release on Amazon. My next book is due in December and I hope to hit number 1.

I am also starting the 2nd season of the Phat Gal Series. The Phat Gal Series is an online based animation series aimed at spreading health consciousness. It is based on my stories as a fat girl and the lies I chose to believe.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned on your journey towards health and wellness?

Along this journey towards my personal health and wellness as well as building my business, I’ve been reminded that every single person is different and there is no one size fits all approach. What works for one person may not work for the other. We are all in different stages of our lives and all in different environments.

I’ve also witnessed the ripple effect that changing one person’s life can have beyond just themselves. When you work with one person, you are impacting the entire family and possibly a generation.

Women on my programs have also been able to influence their families towards healthier lives. This for me has been an important lesson and has also reminded me of the weight of responsibility I have towards my clients.

Finally, I am constantly reminded of the old adage, you are what you eat. What you eat, whether primary or secondary plays an important role in how you ultimately turn out.

Everything matters, your friends, the type of music, the words you hear and say, what you watch and of course what and how you eat.


If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here

Top 10 best black girl magic moments of getting ‘WANDA’ in formation

women entrepreneurship, leadership, international women's day

Earlier this month, I had the distinct pleasure of attending the launch of WANDA, a newly established nonprofit organization educating, empowering and advocating for women and girls of African decent to become leaders in the fields of nutrition, dietetics and agriculture.

WANDA Shea Yeleen
Tambra Raye Stevenson, WANDA founder, and Rahama Wright, founder and CEO of Shea Yeleen International

The launch, which took place on March 5th was held in honor of International Women’s Day and as such, featured a panel of innovative and groundbreaking social entrepreneurs in industries ranging from beauty and cosmetics, to television and entertainment. WANDA Founder, Tambra Raye Stevenson, groundbreaking in her own right as a National Geographic Traveler of the Year and founder of the DC-based NativSol Kitchen, describes WANDA (Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics, and Agriculture) as an initiative bringing together “sisters of the soil” to encourage all women, young and old, to lead in advancing the fields of nutrition and agriculture.

“Women and girls are at the heart of transforming our communities through preserving our foodways, building vibrant economies and healthy communities,” she said. WANDA will also be launched in Abuja, Nigeria in May.

As a Ghanaian-American woman just beginning her journey into the fields of agriculture and nutrition, I find WANDA’s mission intriguing. The organization promotes itself as a Pan-African initiative, which is hugely significant to me at this point in my career. Though most of my professional experience falls within the realm of international development, a heightened social awareness of racial injustice in the United States, underscored by the growth of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, has compelled me to offer whatever service I can to ensuring a healthy future for Africans AND African-Americans alike.

Having shared this passion with colleagues and advisors, I have been told that I cannot have a successful career straddling both sides of the Atlantic – I would have to choose. The launch of this organization confirmed that I am not alone in my desire to protect and promote health throughout the African Diaspora. And for me WANDA is blazing a trail where there had been none before.

If you missed the launch, check out my top 10 black girl magic moments that continue to resonate with me.

1. Getting in formation

Inspired by the song that launched many a think piece, WANDA flexed its impressive marketing and social media muscle by borrowing from Beyonce’s celebrated and controversial song, “Formation” for the title of their event. Dubbing the launch, “Black Women Getting in Formation: Power of Media and the Arts to Advance Nutrition and Agricultural Advocacy,” WANDA brought attention to the convening power of a song some have identified as a call to arms for black women.

In a recent interview with Black Enterprise, Stevenson shared that WANDA’s version of “getting in formation” means encouraging women and girls to pursue education and leadership roles in health and agriculture.

For me, gathering under the backdrop of “Formation” and a national conversation about self-love and unapologetic blackness brought a palpable sense of pride and purpose to the launch. It was an environment that allowed participants to celebrate each others accomplishments, relate to each others struggles and commit to partnerships moving forward.

A moment that stayed with me, however, was when panelist and WANDA honoree Rahama Wright, CEO of Shea Yeleen International reminded attendees that countless unnamed and unknown women have always and are still doing the work only recently championed by Beyonce. Way before the Super Bowl performance that stunned America, black women worked together to achieve success and independence. This moment from Wright reminded me that despite Beyonce’s undeniable contributions to the movement, the real heroes in the quest for justice and equality are in our midst and should not be overlooked.

2. Celebrating excellence in entrepreneurship

Speaking of celebrating the heroes in our midst, WANDA set a great example by honoring four WANDA women leading the way in promoting positive images of blackness and black women. Along with Ms. Wright, WANDA honored Julian Kiganda, CEO of Bold and Fearless, DeShuna Spencer, Founder and CEO of KweliTV, and Mukami Kinoti Kimotho, Founder and CEO of Joodj.

Julian Kiganda, CEO of Bold and Fearless, DeShuna Spencer, Founder and CEO of KweliTV, and Mukami Kinoti Kimotho, Founder and CEO of Joodj.
WANDA Honorees: Rahama Wright, Julian Kiganda, DeShuna Spencer, and Mukami Kinoti Kimotho (Left to Right)

During the panel discussion, each honoree offered a unique perspective on the realities of being a black female entrepreneur. The most memorable moment for me was the vulnerability each woman shared in explaining that their successes were not won overnight. The panelists openly discussed the tendency in the black community to erase struggles from one’s personal narrative. By openly discussing the blood, sweat and tears that goes into growing an organization from the ground up, the panelists believe that more women may be encouraged to continue chasing their dreams even when they face hardship. It was a message that resonated with the audience who clapped in support of these personal and uplifting statements.

3. The food

NativSol Kitchen provided the tasty, healthy and culturally relevant fare originating from different countries across the continent. Stevenson dazzled attendees with a Morroccan stew, West African rice dishes, savory black eyed peas, and my personal favorite from the event, bissap, or zobo as it is known in Nigeria. The drink is made from dried hibiscus leaves and is known for its tangy flavor and deep crimson color.

African heritage inspired food
NativSol Kitchen catered the event with its signature pan African menu.

NativSol spiced its version up with a touch of ginger, giving the beverage a kick that rounded out the meal. The message I took away from the impressive spread is that food from across the African continent and Diaspora is naturally delicious and healthy. Over time, departure from these foods and the uptake of the Western diet has left a staggering percentage of the Diaspora suffering from overweight, obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes. In the United States, over 75% of African Americans are overweight or obese, while in Africa nutrition related non-communicable disease will account for 40% of the disease burden on the continent by 2030.

A part of WANDA’s mission is to reverse this trajectory and restore health to the Diaspora by embracing the heritage foods that characterize so many of its classic dishes. For more information about the link between culture, food and health check out Oldways African Heritage and Health, a wellness program developing resources and initiatives to promote the healthy foods and delicious eating traditions of African Heritage for good health and community.

4. The fashion

Sometimes being one of a few, if not the only black woman in the one’s work environment requires a precarious balancing act of trying to maintain one’s identity while not becoming a target of stereotypes or scrutiny.WANDA ShoesSometimes it can become pretty stressful. For black women, hair can be one of the most treacherous waters to navigate in the workplace. What I loved about the WANDA launch was seeing successful professional black women in all of their diverse glory.

From Kiganda’s waist length locs to Kimotho’s cropped and colored do, the women at the launch exuded class and professionalism no matter the texture, length or color of their hair. Not only did attendees’ hair make a statement, but their clothes did as well. Who says being a businesswoman only means blue, grey and black suits? The WANDA event was a feast for the eyes, with attendees rocking colorful Ankara print and eye catching jewelry from a range of African countries. This reinforced to me the necessity for all women of the Diaspora to rebel against the societal norms of the work place and refuse to forget just how beautiful every kind of black woman is.

5. Establishing a multigenerational connection

The number of mothers and daughters who came to the launch together pleasantly surprised me. So much of whom I am as a woman in terms of my confidence and self-esteem comes from my mother therefore it only makes sense that mother/daughter pairs would be interested in ensuring that their descendants yet to come are guaranteed equal access to the education and job opportunities they desire.

WANDA event

Beyond those with familial ties, women of all ages were able to connect at the WANDA launch. During the panel discussion, a lawyer with plenty of years of experience asked panelists if they ever seek to engage older women. All panelists highlighted the importance of engaging all generations, particularly elders, in their work.

Mothers, grandmothers and women leaders in general play the pivotal role of passing down cultural knowledge and eating habits, and promote economic growth in their communities. This traditional role fits well into WANDA’s model of empowerment through mentorship. It touched me to know that WANDA and its honorees saw it fitting to remind us that we all can influence the next generation. and we ‘have a duty to plant trees, so they can sit in the shade.’

6. Remembering the importance of self care

After the panel discussion concluded, I asked the panelists how they maintain their enthusiasm and confidence. I also asked how they care for themselves and maintain their sanity if they ever face backlash for their work. I asked this question because, as in the case of Beyoncé, black women who stand up for themselves and for their people can sometimes open themselves up to racist and sexist criticism.

Activists and public figures such as Melissa Harris-Perry have publicly discussed the self-care routines they adopted to protect themselves from their detractors. Though all panelists gave incredible answers, such as knowing one’s limits, never neglecting one’s health and feeling comfortable admitting failure, my favorite piece of advice came from Spencer who discussed the importance of having a team of friends and trusted advisers who you can go to for laughs, tough love, a shoulder to cry on and more.

Spencer noted that surrounding one’s self with like-minded individuals keeps one focused and inspired. I remember looking around the room in the moment and thinking, “We need each other. None of us can do this alone.” This sentiment was solidified by Stevenson who admitted that unlike past initiatives she tried to grown on her own, WANDA would be a child raised by the village – a community of women who want to see the child thrive. The grassroots nature of this organization encouraged me to address my own fears of failure and get involved with WANDA by working on my writing.

7. Reflecting on the pain that unites us (and how to overcome)

The moment that drew out the most thought and reflection came from a comment shared by a woman named Rose. Originally from Uganda, Rose had this to say during the question and answer portion of the panel: “Africans will never heal until African-Americans heal”. Having never heard such a statement, I stopped, as did many other participants, to seriously reflect on what this means.

WANDA Group Photo

Though I’m sure it can be interpreted in many different ways, I took what Rose said to mean that our destiny, as people of the Diaspora is interlinked. It has been interlinked since the first of us endured the Middle Passage. It was interlinked when the Civil Rights movement exploded during a time of widespread liberation on the continent and will continue to be interlinked as Africans and African-Americans battle the very similar challenges of hunger, malnutrition, unemployment, marginalization and limited access to resources. These feelings were hard to unpack, but were appreciated by the panelists who praised Rose for remembering the importance of communal healing and love within the African Diaspora. This was a thought provoking moment that will not be soon forgotten.

8. The unveiling of little Wanda

In a moment that drew a collective “Awwwwww!!!” from attendees and panelists alike, Stevenson unveiled an exciting and creative aspect of the WANDA initiative: Little Wanda of the upcoming “Where’s WANDA?” series, is a character inspired by Stevenson’s own journey to Africa and childhood goals of healing her family.

nativsol series_okra

In developing series, Little Wanda travels across the African continent meeting WANDA Women, or Big Wandas, that research, produce and promote African heritage foods to nourish their communities. “Where’s WANDA,” geared towards girls under ten years of age, will include educational enrichment resources inviting young girls to travel and learn with Little Wanda.

I believe this character, the Diaspora’s answer to “Dora the Explorer,” will open so many opportunities for little girls of African descent to learn about culture and heritage in a way they never have before. With her adorable afro and cute ankara skirt, Little Wanda is a character young girls can relate to and that sort of representation in the media is so important. Follow @NativSol and @IamWANDAorg to catch updates on where Little Wanda goes next!

9. ToluMiDE debuts “Mama Sunshine”

tolumideTolumiDE is a talented Nigerian-Canadian singer and songwriter whose music spans the genres of R&B, Afropop and Soul. Having never met her nor listened her music, I was struck by Tolu’s earthy voice and quirky adlibs. A WANDA honoree herself, TolumiDE graced attendees with a new song called, “Mama Sunshine”.

While listening to the catchy song filled with themes of growth, resilience and renewal, I felt the song was a perfect way to begin a new chapter for many of the women standing in the room. WANDA has provided an opportunity to connect and build a community with a common purpose and that is something I am very thankful for.

TolumiDE had a song for these feelings as well, offering an encore with her song of thanks and praise, “My Love”. Be sure to check out the video on YouTube!

10. Recognizing the strength in numbers

IamWANDAShot

 The WANDA launch was an awakening for me, drawing out feelings of affirmation, inspiration, solidarity and energy that come with finally feeling understood and identifying a direction. Following the close of the event, participants lingered for hours, laughing, sharing and embracing their newfound roles as students, mentors, leaders, advocates, and WANDA Women.

We closed by taking a final picture, which solidified for me that I have become apart of something bigger than myself. The sense of community offered by WANDA and its powerful women and male advocates fills a hole that many black women in the fields of nutrition, dietetics and agriculture often feel, being one of a few, if not the only black woman in their work place.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, people of African descent only make up roughly 2.6 percent of the registered nutritionists and dietitians. It is time to change this and WANDA is a big step forward in finding the solution. There is strength in community and strength in numbers, and I look forward to watching WANDA’s membership grow.

Join the movement and be sure to follow WANDA on Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag, #IamWANDA.