Georgina Crouth. image: Twitter.
CAPE TOWN - As a Nigerian woman, born into a deeply patriarchal society where daughters are typically not entitled to an education, land and inheritance, Irene Ochem defies stereotyping by embracing the mantra: “The greatest pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.”

Raised by a lioness of a mother who encouraged her children to be courageous survivors and never to take no for an answer, Ochem realised at a young age that education gave you the upper hand.

Her indomitable mother, who was widowed at the age of 30 with five young mouths to feed, drummed into her only daughter that education wasn’t optional for a woman: it empowered them economically, giving them choices - “just in case”, because “you never know”.

“My mother had an obsession with us getting a great education, and emphasised how important it was to be self-reliant and independent as a woman,” Ochem explains.

“Growing up, I saw how difficult it was to be a single mother, trying to feed and educate five children.

“She went without, so that we could succeed in life. She put all of us through university and taught us that knowledge and education are powerful tools to help us prosper.”

Today, Ochem runs an events company out of offices in Cape Town and Lagos, and is the founder of the Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF), a pan-African women’s economic empowerment forum and business network.

She holds five degrees, including a BA in archaeology and history from the University of Nigeria in Nsukka; an MBA from the University of London and an honours degree in translation from the University of Trieste, Italy; as well as qualifications in project management, gender and trade.

After her first degree, she married and moved to Italy with her new husband, who was based at the UN in Trieste - a celebrated centre of scientific excellence in Europe. There she furthered her studies and later joined the UN herself, where she worked in administration and conferencing for the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation’s (Unido) offices in Italy and Ethiopia.

She has more than 25 years’ experience in international development and also worked as a consultant for the UN’s Economic Commission for Africa.

In 2008, Ochem relocated to Cape Town with her husband and worked for two years at UCT as a research administration manager at the institute of infectious diseases and molecular medicine.

By 2011, Ochem said, she needed “to breathe”, and consider her options. She was desperate for change and wanted to join her husband, who had been transferred to Ethiopia. “I finally had time to think and wanted to reinvent myself. I had travelled around a lot in Africa and I always wanted to do something to focus on women and help them be empowered.”

Five years later, when presented with the option of returning to Europe, she decided she wanted to stay in Africa, working to make a difference in women’s lives because, “given the right tools and inspiration, African women reinvest their income to lift up their families, their communities and their economies”, she says.

Settling back in Cape Town with her newly retired husband, she took the plunge as an entrepreneur by starting her international conference planning, production and events management company, ICO Conferences and Events Limited.

AWIEF, which she founded three years ago, was envisaged to be a mechanism for women’s economic empowerment. It drives networking among women entrepreneurs; provides mentoring, B2B linkage and skills development; and exhibits products, technologies, solutions and services.

“I have always wanted to do something to help empower women. I wanted to make a positive impact and leave a mark. I have invested so much in myself that I’ll be okay, ‘no matter what’ (as my mother would say), but I realised that women in Africa aren’t as fortunate and they have less access to almost everything.

“Women lack entrepreneurship skills; they don’t have collateral, because they can’t inherit - they don’t have land; there’s no focus on women’s education, and there are cultural biases shutting them out of the world of business.

“I wanted to bring together female entrepreneurs in Africa. Economies are losing out, because women are not participating to their full potential.”

And yet, she says, women comprise between 70 percent and 80 percent of the labour force in most sectors in Africa.

Those who do succeed do not receive the same credit and publicity as their male counterparts.

“This year, we launched our flagship AWIEF Growth Accelerator Programme for business linkages and investment readiness, which was sponsored by Mazars. We supported young women business-owners from South Africa with a business modelling and growth strategy to become investment-ready.”

In October, AWIEF’s conference and awards brought together more than 500 entrepreneurs, politicians, investors and other leaders.

“I looked at some of the photographs afterwards, showing powerful women who you never hear about: Jeanne Groenewald, who started Elgin Free-Range Chickens - a thriving chicken business - with just 100 chickens out of her back yard. Judy Dlamini, a medical doctor-turned-business tycoon, who is a self-made multimillionaire. Margaret Hirsch, the co-founder and chief executive of Hirsch’s Homestores, has property worth more than R1billion.

“How much recognition do they get for creating wealth and jobs? Why don’t we hear more about such women?”

It’s a question Ochem hopes to provide solutions for, by driving networking among established and upcoming entrepreneurs on the continent. And give mentoring and support to start-up ventures, so that there are more African women success stories to emulate and tell.

- BUSINESS REPORT