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‘Majority of African women are still denied opportunities’

By Tobi Awodipe
22 January 2022   |   3:33 am
Lizz Ntonjira is strategic communication, media, advocacy, and policy facilitation expert with experience gained in the public, private and international development sectors spanning over 15 years...

Lizz Ntonjira

Lizz Ntonjira is strategic communication, media, advocacy, and policy facilitation expert with experience gained in the public, private and international development sectors spanning over 15 years.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in law, a postgraduate diploma in Public Relations from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in the UK and a Master’s degree in Public Policy and Management from Strathmore Business School. She is also a Public Policy Management Fellow from Virginia Commonwealth University in the US and a recipient of former US President Barack Obama’s Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders (2015).

Currently, she’s the Global Communication Director at Amref Health Africa where she leads and mentors a team responsible for programme communications, institutional messaging, thought leadership and offers strategic guidance for Africa, Europe and North America.

In August last year, she self-published and released her first book about youth and leadership titled #YouthCan; an anthology of powerful, inspiring, and challenging stories from youths breaking barriers across 22 African countries. She was also recently named Top 35 under 35 Youth in the Exemplary Leadership Category and recognised by BIC for her impactful book. She also runs the Lizz Ntonjira Network, a platform that provides innovative, engaging, interactive and tailored training and coaching for youths.

Committed to changing the African narrative by showcasing compelling stories that reflect Africa’s improving development agenda, she has received various international and national awards and accolades.

In this interview with TOBI AWODIPE, she talks about changing the African narrative, the three C’s of mentorship for women and how her network and anthology targeted at youths would be catalysts for both individual and national development.

Give us a peep into your early years and education, how was it like for you?
I WAS born in Kenya to civil servants parents. My dad was an economist and my mum, was a nurse; both retired now. Because of the nature of their jobs, we moved around a lot. I grew up with five siblings that I truly adore and parents that I honor, love and respect for the sacrifices they had to make to ensure my siblings and I had food on the table, good education and clothes on our backs; toys too, when they could afford it. 

As a child, I wanted to be a pilot; that was before I realised that I needed to be very good in mathematics and physics; I preferred languages and humanities. So, I decided to become a lawyer. I have a law degree, but I don’t practice. I am more drawn to strategic communication and policy implementation. I was that student who would always be called on to make speeches, recite poems, and speak on behalf of my school during high-level events. That was because, I was a very confident child, and I would like to believe I’ve carried that confidence with me throughout the years. It has helped me get to get where I am today, as well as all my other qualifications. I have several degrees and certifications from professional and leadership courses that I have undertaken over the years.

Take us through your career journey, how has it been so far for you?
I’ve always been passionate about storytelling. My first article was published when I was just 10 years old, so, naturally, becoming a writer was something I really looked forward to.

During my first year on campus, while pursuing my Law degree, I struggled hard until I got a regular column at a leading media outlet called the Daily Nation newspaper; I think my first paycheck was about $100 in 2005. The following year, while still studying and writing for the newspaper, I got a job as a news anchor at a leading news channel when the media station was relatively new. At 19 back then, I must have been one of the youngest (if not the youngest) news anchor in the country. I also volunteered for a PR company. I juggled several things back then; I was pursuing my law degree, working for two organisations and still managed to volunteer for another organisation.

Being able to do these things multitask be efficient at all tasks assigned to me at work and still study and pass my exams, is something that has shaped who I am today. I’m a strong believer in no pain-no gain. I remember with fondness the many nights I did not sleep because I was either studying for an exam or completing a work deadline. My career growth over the past 16 years has been organic; I have worked extremely hard and smart to get to where I am today. 

You are currently the global communications director for Amref Health Africa, what does this role entail?
Amref Health Africa is currently running programmes in over 35 countries in Africa with lessons learnt over 60 years of engagement with governments, communities and partners to increase sustainable health access in Africa. Amref also incorporates programme development, fundraising, partnership, advocacy, monitoring and evaluation and has 11 offices in Europe and North America, as well as three subsidiaries.

In this current role, I am a leader and mentor within the communications department and the global communications network where I provide leadership for all our global corporate communications, programme communications, stakeholder relations and advocacy campaigns working in collaboration with diverse teams in Africa, Europe and North America, to position us as a premier organisation for lasting health change in Africa and delivering on high impact global online and offline campaigns to drive marketing and policy change.

Further, I have been responsible for building strategic alliances and partnerships with the purpose of implementing the visibility and thought leadership agenda of the organisation working closely with our leadership and programme teams. Therefore, developing strong, effective communications campaigns and marketing engagement strategies with relevant local and global organisations (both government and private sector) to deliver on strategy, has been a key mandate of my role, which has been supported by my deep and vast understanding of Africa’s current developmental issues and the policy and regulatory environment.

How are everyday Africans being impacted with you at the helm of affairs?
Many people are certainly more informed about making the right health choices through comprehensive communication around various topical health issues. My role is to ensure that we create a credible and dependable source of thought leaders in health matters both in Africa and globally, especially in this age of misinformation and disinformation. 

By working with governments and other partners to facilitate more pro-health policies, through the impact-driven stories that we tell, through the partnerships that we build, through the communities we work with, our vision will be fulfilled in ensuring African people of all ages, all income levels and social groups, and in all places, enjoy good health and well-being, through acceleration towards Universal Health Coverage and creating environments that promote healthy lifestyles. 

As someone who has worked in the public, private and international development sectors, what’s your impact in these roles?
I have led and advised some of Africa’s leading organisations to deliver scalable programmes, manage risk, identify and leverage market opportunities and manage critical engagements with both internal and external stakeholders. For some organisations, I have set up their communications and external relations departments from scratch. Bringing my extensive experience and expertise in the areas of communications, advocacy and brand management, I have led and overseen several global public outreaches and communications initiatives that have contributed to the bottom line for-profit companies and acquired new funding and support from new partners in the international development space.

With every role, I’d like to believe that I have demonstrated impact, moving beyond normal business operations to overcome new challenges, develop strategies to optimize the experience of organizational growth through various means.
You have worked in different fields over the years, tell us some pertinent lessons you have garnered over time and want other women to know?
As a young woman who has often been the youngest amongst senior leadership in the various roles I have held over the years, prejudice and bias against my age and gender inevitably became a catalyst to my accomplishments. I feel strongly that the status quo has to change. Institutional mindsets are the most significant barriers to women leadership, especially at the higher levels. People make assumptions about women based on their stereotypical roles in society. There is a lot of age discrimination in the workplace as well, including an unwarranted bias against millennials.

It doesn’t help that there are so many negative articles, and ‘studies’, that continue to perpetuate this misinformed perception. I have sat in panel interviews where male panellists have suggested that we shouldn’t hire too many young women in case they all fall pregnant at the same time. Most of the time, the interview questions directed at women are different from the ones directed at men. Women are often asked if they are married, and how many children they have. Such questions are an outright invasion of privacy. I’ve sat in many interview panels and I’m yet to hear a man ask those questions. One thing I have noticed is that women and young people rarely speak up. We need to speak up and to speak confidently, regardless of the odds.  

You mentioned that you’re passionate about changing the African narrative, how are you seeking to do this?
By looking at the glass half full as opposed to half empty. I know in Africa, we have a lot of challenges, but that’s not the only story. We have spectacular things happening, we have fantastic champions in Africa who wake up every day, dreaming and taking action to change this disappointing narrative. I wish a little bit of African history were taught in schools around the world because sometimes, you get upset, then you realise people, not from the continent, have no idea; they’ve never been taught anything about Africa.

It’s the responsibility of the international media and the education system. Just a little bit more education about Africa would really help. Because, yes, we have lots of challenges; we have conflicts, diseases, corruption and bad leadership, but then that’s not the only narrative. We have so many amazing things happening as well. Through the youth network I run, I hope to nurture the next generation of current and future young leaders. It is also time for Africa to rise and create the change we desire to see.

African leaders must realise that nobody is coming to our rescue. We must take responsibility for our populations and move swiftly to create sustainable, African-led decisions to bring an end to the development crisis we experience across all sectors. We must seek to transform what we have now into systems that combine local knowledge with global best practice and find ways to finance our development agenda domestically and sustainably.

Tell us about the network platform, how are you using it to advance the cause of younger women?
I’m super committed to giving back and impacting a positive change in anyone I interact with. It is on that backdrop that in 2019, I founded the Lizz Ntonjira Network; a platform that provides innovative, engaging, interactive and tailored training and coaching for youths with a strong bias to young women. It’s aimed at enlightening them on the different unexploited professional and personal paths, to become leaders and consequently inspire the next generation of leaders.

Within its mission to inspire young leaders through mentorship and coaching, we’ve impacted over 1000 young people through youth career and coaching workshops and CSR. The Network has offered 18 people scholarships and currently has a total of 3000 registered members with over 400 members signed up for the Mentor-Mentee Programme. I also run a YouTube series dubbed 16 Minutes and a book club within the network. 

Tell us about your latest book?
The book is titled #Youthcan and is an anthology of 50 empowering stories from across 22 African countries told by 29 women and 21 men. The youngest person featured in the book is a 9-year-old Nigerian, Grace Busari and the oldest, a 60-year-old professor, Prof. Bitange Ndemo, because I strongly believe in the power of passing the baton and that every young successful person stands on the shoulders of a giant who’s been there before them. 

The book is divided into 12 chapters, with each focusing on various sectors. The beginning of each chapter starts with a letter from a thought leader/expert in that sector writing an inspiring letter to the younger generation followed by three features of outstanding youth across that sector/chapter in Africa. Youth empowerment and participation is a dynamic cycle, which is the foundation of the book.

The book is not only intentioned to inspire the youth through the lens and stories of other youths in the frontline advocating for change and making things happen, but this will be a great resource for the older generation, particularly in the private, public and development sectors that often have a negatively skewed perception of the youth, to see and experience first-hand youth accomplishments and their knack in leadership. When empowered, young people can contribute to all sectors of the economy with a passionate desire to be catalysts for both individual and national development.

The youth are and will remain, a significant part of the African population for the foreseeable future. Developing and implementing appropriate strategies, policies and programmes to mitigate the risks and challenges they face must be much more of a priority for the government, private as well as development sectors than it currently is.

As someone that has worked across Africa, how best can we fight gender bias and uplift more African women?
We are all aware that despite achievements and progress made over the years, African women face major challenges and obstacles. For example, we still do not take into account differences in income and power between men and women, hampering efforts to finance programmes that reduce inequality. In addition, the majority of African women are still denied education and employment and have limited opportunities in trade, industry and government. I strongly hold the view that since time immemorial, women have played and continue to play a significant role in the economic and social development of their countries. What is at stake is that they are not visible, not recognised and not rewarded for the hard work they do. Governments, the private and international development sectors need to do more in allocating more funding for women-led businesses and at the workplace ensuring employees have safe channels to report bullying, sexual harassment and sexism without being exposed, victimised or dismissed. 

How important is mentoring for personal and career growth to women?
Mentorship offers critical linkage to combine technical and academic achievements with job-related skills. This includes communicating ideas and visions in a concrete manner as young women build their careers. As a result, the mentee learns the art of decision making, articulating the points of view, as well as listening. I like following the 3 C’s of Mentorship- Consultant, Counselor and Cheerleader. 
Consultant: Just as consultants are hired to provide specialised recommendations based on a wealth of industry knowledge, as a mentor, I’m responsible for sharing my own business insights gained through years of real-world experience. Mentors are often experienced in areas that mentees are not, and insight from a mentor can save a mentee both time and resources in figuring out a problem. 

Counselor: Listen. Guide. But don’t give away all of the answers. Although it can be easy for a mentor to simply point out mistakes, there are often valuable lessons for mentees in making those mistakes along the way. Good mentors will be able to reflect on their own experiences to determine when the journey was more insightful than the outcome. In these instances, a mentor must play the role of counsellor and provide guidance but not answers, enabling their mentee to figure out the right course of action.
Cheerleader: In addition to all of the constructive feedback and advice that a mentor can give, they should also provide support and enthusiasm. Mentors should help celebrate a mentee’s successes, no matter how big or small.

Tell us something you did/do that has taken your career to new levels?
Taking risks and trusting my instincts; I think have been the biggest drivers of my growth. I recall a time when I left a permanent and pensionable job for a three-year contract and most thought I was crazy; even my mum thought I was crazy. Before I made the decision, I assessed my short and long-term goals and concluded that the contract job catapulted me to meeting my long-term goals faster. 

I’m not sure why, but many people fear taking jobs on contract and they are just as good as any other job. There’s twice I declined really good job offers because, in the first instance, I felt that the organisaton’s culture (after speaking to several employees there) did not align with my core values as an individual and in the other, the interview process was quite unprofessional. I’m a strong believer that whatever organisation you choose to work for must align with your values. I think the habits that have helped me over the years is always yearning to learn new skills and capabilities, being resilient and consistent. Having conversations with people that have been there before me, that I look up to, that mentor me, has been very impactful as well. Learning to uphold my boundaries at the workplace, speak my mind and pursue what I’m passionate about has been instrumental. So much so that sometimes I don’t feel like I’m working, but living my dreams.

What would you tell women that want a seat at the table?
Every day you wake up, be ready to compete with who you were yesterday. Don’t compete with other people, because comparison is the thief of joy. But challenge and empower yourself with other people’s stories of resilience and accomplishments. As young women, we have often been sold this narrative that we must ask for power or for a seat at the table. We have the power and the numbers; we don’t need seats, we are the table. 

Life at this level can be hectic and stressful. How do you cope?
I love to farm; taking a drive to my farm, overseeing and tending to my vegetables excites me. I love gardening too. Cooking is often my go-to stress reliever. Spending time with my family and friends is something I enjoy very much as well. 

Where do you get inspiration and how do you stay motivated when things aren’t going well?
I draw my inspiration from reading mostly autobiographies of people who have been there before me or watching films based on true life that have happy endings. Listening to music is quite motivating; the lyrics often speak to me.