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Angélique is an icon. Her Grammy award-winning music, charity work as UNICEF Ambassador and charisma captivate millions of people around the world. Kidjo is the first woman to be included in Forbes magazine’s “40 most powerful celebrities in Africa.” As a dedicated campaigner for education and women’s rights, the Beninese artist was the perfect candidate for our conversation for Ecobank Foundation’s Transforming Africa series.

Transforming Africa discusses ways to help Africa realise its economic prosperity and human potential. We talked about how simple innovation can transform millions of lives through sustainable solutions. For example, Akon Lighting Africa shows how affordable solar energy brings electricity to millions of villages.

Angélique’s passion for her Batonga Foundation, an organisation which empowers women and girls through secondary education, and Africa was clear: “I don’t do it for the accolades, I don’t do it to be thanked, I do it because it has to be done,” she exclaimed. My colleague and I watched in awe as Angélique, whose nickname growing up was ‘when, why, how,’ gestured dramatically to emphasise her points; her colourful red nails dancing as she talked. Our conversation inspired in me a deep feeling of hope and clarity for Africa’s future. I wished we had more than just 45 minutes.

Africa’s challenges are clear. According to World Bank figures, nearly 41 per cent of sub-Saharan Africans live in poverty, two in five adults are illiterate with rates highest amongst women, and around 66 per cent are unbanked.

These are old problems that need fresh solutions – Angélique’s inspiring take on transforming Africa does just that.

My top 3 take-home messages from our conversation:

1. Data and mobile technology help drive transformation

Africa’s digital revolution is making serious waves in innovation. Mobile supports millions of jobs, widens access to health information and financial services, and contributes to economic growth. Mobile generated $153bn to Africa’s GDP in 2015 – that’s 6.7% of the continent’s economy. Africans innovating for themselves is not revolutionary, but scaling up sustainable solutions using digital technology is still fairly new.

Angélique developed a mobile app in partnership with the international research organisation Population Council that maps the needs of 5000 community members in one day. Inputting the data into a computer programme clearly identifies where you can apply resources efficiently and effectively. With the data collected for her Batonga Foundation, Angélique realised that the young women in the community need a girls’ club, where they can feel safe, do their homework and socialise. Angélique firmly believes that a solid foundation in education can help develop physical, mental and monetary wealth.

The club is a clear example of African innovation – a social space geared towards women’s development is few and far between in Africa.

She told us these young women could be a driving force for the economy; “If you give these girls the possibility to play a role in their own lives by educating them, the GDP of the country goes up.”

2. Development practitioners need first to work hard to gain communities’ trust

“When you live in poverty the only thing you have is your dignity,” the advocate of girls’ education said: “Even if someone comes to hear about what you need, the sense of mistrust is greater than you think, and it’s hurting our effort to move forward in Africa.” Angélique believes this is one of the biggest barriers to transformation. And it can easily be overcome. Shifting to a mentality of teamwork, which taps into people’s resilience, should be the driver that transforms and empowers communities.

3. You need to involve men in development conversations about women

This view might not be profound, but how often is this put into practice? Angélique tells the story of how she convinced a father to allow his teenage daughter to continue with school. Angélique’s sense of female independence and drive is testament to her upbringing; her father is a long-time supporter of empowering women and strived to nurture her curiosity in a ‘man’s world.’

To successfully transform Africa, we need to involve men more in breaking the cycle of gender inequality.

“We have to form the people; we have to educate the people, for me, it’s a bigger dream that I have.” Angélique plans to expand her successful data collection project across Africa.

Transforming Africa continues this year; follow @EcobankFdn on Twitter for more updates

Watch Transforming Africa with Angélique Kidjo






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