CWY-JCM Interview with Annatu Ben-Lawal, Project Director of WELI

Anatu Ben-Lawal is the Women’s Entrepreneurship and Livelihoods Initiative (WELI) Project Director for Africa Skills HUB (ASH). She has spent the last 10 years working in development work with Non-Governmental Organizations and Social Enterprises at community, district, and national levels. She is the founder and CEO of Social Innovation Africa and focuses on social entrepreneurship as well as working with young women and adolescent girls. Today I have the pleasure of interviewing her to find out more about what she does for the program and what motivates her to do this kind of work. 

 For someone who has never met you, how would you describe yourself? 

Well, I am part Nigerian, part Ghanaian and my father was a diplomat, so I would describe myself as a serial traveler!  

In simple terms, what is your role in the WELI program? 

I am the director of the WELI program which is being implemented by ASH (Africa Skills Hub) in partnership with CWY-JCM. I co-designed the program and now I oversee the implementation of our design. I make sure that all the key elements of the program are functioning correctly. For example, I am always looking to multiply the impact of our work by getting more partners on board, getting more media coverage, and reaching as many young women and adolescent girls as possible.  We have a very endogenous curriculum that is being implemented locally by those who created it.  We are tackling cultural and social norms that are challenging for female entrepreneurship. We are doing this but firstly highlighting the positives norms that assist women in starting their own businesses but by also looking at the origins of the more challenging norms that women face when trying to become entrepreneurs from a very objective point of view. We are not trying to tell anybody what is right and what is wrong. My job is really to make sure that all of this is happening and ensure that these women are gaining confidence and have all the right tools to become sustainable and innovative in their means to earn a living.  

When did you first know you wanted to work in development? 

I spend a lot of time in Europe when I was younger, traveling with my family and when I came back, I struggled to understand why Africa is the way it is: Why are resources not equally distributed? Why are women and girls struggling? Why are there so many challenges that exist here that do not exist where I was, in Europe? These are some of those age-old questions that I think everyone in development keeps asking themselves. It prompted me to start thinking about what solutions were required to address these issues. 

Why did programming related to adolescent women and young girls become one of your focuses? 

I had an experience where I was working in Sierra Leone on FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) and really started understanding the deep-seated issues that revolve around this practice; it was, for me, a spiritual awakening. I cannot begin to describe to you what this was like in the context of this interview, but it certainly was eye-opening and life-changing. I saw women of all ages, who had survived atrocities such as so-called “witch hunts”, wars, and other terrible sufferings say things like: ꞌꞌYes, this happened to me. I was raped in the war, my body was mutilatedꞌꞌ. These were all traumatic experiences to listen to. This happened while we were having a candlelight vigil for the victims of the war, and this was a space where they could talk freely about it. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to do this kind of work with women for the rest of my life. Ever since, both women and social enterprise have been my areas of expertise. I have been working with women for 10 to 15 years and have seen the benefits of female entrepreneurship. Now I am thrilled to focus on the future of work and breaking down gender norms to allow more women to participate in the global marketplace.  

What are some of the key services offered by WELI that are not currently available and why are those elements important? 

What we are trying to do differently with this program is to deliver a total package. If you start a program in a conservative city and say: ꞌꞌWe are going to have some training with your daughter on Sexual and Gender-based violenceꞌꞌ. Most community members would object or at the very least, be hesitant. However, in WELI, we have included this discussion as part of an entrepreneurship incubator and demonstrated that it is an essential discussion for a young female entrepreneur. We have created women’s only safe spaces where they can discuss the challenges they face together as women. They talk about culture, gendered entrepreneurship and we try not to guide the conversation since it is their space to use how they would like.  

 How do you stay motivated to continue having challenging discussions around gender and sexual-based violence, especially when it can be emotionally taxing, controversial, or difficult to have at times?  

I think for me, I have always viewed this as a lot of misinformation and a general lack of awareness. Sometimes when speaking to these communities and looking at some of their traditional norms, you will find that they place restrictions on what a woman can and cannot do. It becomes important to challenge those notions, and it is necessary work that must be done if we are ever going to be impactful and see the end of various harmful behaviors.  Once you understand that there is a reason why we are where we are and that most of the issues we are facing now are the aftermath of previous generations, it becomes easier to challenge the norms that negatively impact women. I could do this for the rest of my career. Sometimes you get to see the impacts instantly, especially with girls and women who have been inspired by these discussions. I find that sometimes there are instances where these communities have never viewed women and girls being able to be themselves, but when they do, they become advocates for change, and it can be very powerful. Now more than ever, people are willing to listen, and we are using this platform to implement some great initiatives.  

 Can you tell us a little bit about the local implementation partners you work with, what their role is and what is it like working with them? 

We have an experienced local partner that we work with; Behasun Integrated Development Organization, also known as BIDO is really committed to grassroots development and has been working in communities and in local languages for a very long time. They facilitate a lot of engagement with men, notably in the Islamic communities, and engage them in making pledges towards breaking down gender norms. They create dialogues and scenarios that help people understand why it is important that women have access to the same opportunities as their male counterparts. They also dive into the root causes of gender-based issues such as gender and sexual-based violence and how we can begin to tackle them. They are involved in a lot of innovative projects; their latest one being a mobile radio van which was conceptualized as a response to COVID which allows them to reach more communities effectively. They partner with projects such as WELI to travel into communities and offer training and sensitizations on various topics.  

Sometimes development projects can take a long time to show results, are there some small or immediate results on a day-to-day scale that motivate you? 

I think this is why I’m having the most fun on this project. This morning, as I arrived at the incubator workshop, we had one lady who is physically challenged who had fallen earlier in the day and could not attend. I stopped by to visit her and her mother; they expressed to me how excited she was to be in the program. They showed me some of the herbs they grow to make a living and all their other enterprises! Monday was the first day of training, and the women didn’t want to leave when we finished. They stayed late to chat and make friends and meet all the staff. So even though we are very early in the program, we can see how excited everyone is about having an opportunity like this.  We are sharing amazing stories of resilience surviving COVID and how empowered this programming is making them feel. One of the ladies is traveling from as far as 4 hours away to participate, so those are some very early indications that this is a well-received program, and that fact keeps me motivated! 

If I gave you a call on WhatsApp on a regular weekday, where could you be and what could you be doing? 

I would probably be in one of the projector areas, so either the Volta region in Ghana or the Theis Region in Senegal. I am very much a community/village/grassroots sort of person; I even just moved into a small village myself! I will always be in the community; so, if I’m not at an incubator training or speaking with the girls, I’m either engaging in a dialogue with the traditional leaders, chatting with one of the partners in the field, or exploring new partnerships at the University. Oh, and I love visiting the individuals involved in the program at their homes as well! 

Who are the women that are taking part in the WELI program? Could you tell me a little about the ones who are signing up and taking an interest?   

 We have been really amazed by the women who are taking part in the WELI Program. I will be honest and say that they do need support in skills training and so forth, but they all come because they can see that we have something very important to offer, whether that be knowledge or training that may better their lives and make them feel more confident within themselves. The women who participate are coming from many different backgrounds, but all are united by the feeling that there is a great need for change and that they can improve their socio-economic positions, cultural positions, and their livelihoods.  

 Why is rebuilding entrepreneurship post-covid in Ghana and Senegal important to do with women?   

 There is something about empowering women and helping them find their voices which is beneficial for the entire community. We have decided to do this with women because, at the end of the day, women have been marginalized for a long time.  

Looking at the history of women in Africa, one of the things that people do not understand is how little entrepreneurship exists for them in Africa, and that is why we don’t have a strong entrepreneurship ecosystem for them. It’s not factored into our education so things that appear normal in other places do not translate well here. When looking at entrepreneurship policies, you will see that women’s needs are not factored into these policies even though we know, that a female entrepreneur works differently and has different needs. Some examples include childcare, maternity leave, and access to finances. Women represent the majority of entrepreneurs at a small and micro-level and are often important breadwinners for their families.  

 Being in Tamale right now, what would you say the women who signed up for the WELI program are most excited about?  

 Some women are coming from backgrounds where they have been told from a very young age that they cannot do certain things because they are women and seeing examples of women in leadership has really inspired them. They beginning to feel empowered, and you would be surprised by how many of them are now realizing that they have a voice. They are excited about opportunity, and rightfully so. There is limitless opportunity for them.