Nneoma Nwankwo was raised in Africa, but after coming to the US to attend university, felt both a disconnect from news about her home country as well as a need to do more to help women there.
That led her to found Empower46, a website and newsletter aimed at sharing news, research and stories of female education and empowerment across Africa. In addition to her busy day job at Citi in New York, Nwankwo is devoted to "writing her own story" and helping the women of Africa rewrite theirs.
She shared with WiC the challenges that women in Africa face that are both universal and unique -- and how technology can help solve both.
Women in Comms: Tell us a little about your background and personal story.
Nneoma Nwankwo: I was raised in Nigeria, and then moved to the US at 17 for university. While at university, I won the Cloyd Fellowship, a grant which supported me to conduct extensive research on menstrual hygiene across west Africa. This naturally piqued my interest in female development and empowerment in the continent and even after graduating last summer, I decided to find a way to contribute meaningfully in the field. As a Nigerian woman, I have always been interested in ways to further women's rights at home and across Africa, but having the research under my belt made me feel even more comfortable and confident to push forward. I do love my job in financial services in NYC, but when I'm not in the office, I work on my gold project, Empower46, sharing news, research and stories of female education and empowerment across Africa.
WiC: What inspired you to start Empower46, and what has been the response?
NN: Working on menstrual hygiene research really exposed me to the intrinsic relationship between sanitation rights and economic rights, particularly for young girls. I found that in my spare time, I was voraciously seeking stories or news on women and girls across Africa, and it felt really hard to find. I remember thinking that if it was hard for me, a Nigerian woman (although in the diaspora) and a researcher no less, it must be pretty difficult for everyone else too. I wanted accessible stories that were both easy to read but also engaging and informative -- and after conducting focus groups with friends (it's that researcher bug), I realized I wasn't alone. I always say it was a little bit like the Toni Morrison quote, "If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it."
Right now, the "minimum viable product" is our bi-weekly newsletter compiled from different research, news sites, documentaries etc., and highlights top stories of what you wish you knew -- it's everything from African Development Bank studies on the link between climate change and rural African women’s rights to music reviews on the growing female music scene in the Republic of Niger. Furthermore, we have a Community Blog, where we encourage our readers to share their experiences.
The response has been overwhelming, and we have quite an engaging audience, who provide feedback on stories -- even my dad called me last week to tell me that he felt "really encouraged" by one of the stories in last month's newsletter, of men in South Africa marching to end violence against women.
WiC: What are your goals with the initiative?
NN: We are aiming to continue growing our readership, and since our first issue on May 5 2017, we've had an uptick in subscribers for every following issue. So, between the May 5 issue and the June 16 issue, we saw a 42% increase in subscribers, which is absolutely amazing to me. But of course, we are pushing to grow and appeal to people who don't realize how much they care these topics -- often times, a lot of our subscribers fall into that bucket where they're like, "Wow, that story on female boxers in Zambia was fascinating," and they forward it to their friends, who then end up subscribing as well.
Beyond just subscriber count though, we are hoping to evolve to a site that also offers best practices and recommendations for government policies centered on women’s economic empowerment. Through our Community Blog, we are aiming to provide more opportunities for women to engage about different topics, and hopefully, through different forms of media, be it video or podcast. Really, the opportunities for growth are endless, but are firmly rooted in our core goal of educating the world about women's rights in Africa.
WiC: What are the issues that women face in Africa today that are universal to all women, and what are some of their unique challenges?
NN: Gender bias, discrimination against women and violence of all sorts against women is definitely a universal challenge. Womanhood can definitely feel like an uphill battle, no matter where in the world you are. However, thanks to growing awareness, hard-fought activism and advocacy and allies, feminism is gaining a more concrete presence across the world.
I'd say two unique challenges to the developing world as a whole are lack of infrastructure and a "one-size-fits-all" approach from external organizations. Lack of infrastructure is a major problem as it grinds everything else to a halt -- how does one improve the issue of clean and accessible water if pipes and plumbing are not present? How can we reduce menstrual-related absenteeism if there aren't safe and private toilets in schools for girls to change their pads? It can really get quite maddening … but perhaps, because of that, there is the room for innovation in solving these issues. Secondly, African nations and a lot of the developing world are often presented with generic solutions to complex issues, and we know that a one-size-fits-all approach, whether in microfinance strategy or reproductive health policies, simply does not work. But I'm so excited for the progress we're making and how much the continent is growing, whether it's the entertainment industry or growing female participation in parliament (24% in sub-Saharan Africa), I believe the sun will shine, if we let it.
WiC: How can technology/connectivity help empower and support women in Africa?
NN: The world is changing so rapidly, and technology is the key to staying competitive. To me, technology will primarily empower women with access to information, which is really crucial to success in the world. Furthermore, in every field, from agriculture to medicine, technology can aid with both basic and complex tasks and transform productivity rates, meaning that farmers, for example, can leave money transfers, crop irrigation, crop growth and distribution, to technology. From the Empower46 perspective, technology and connectivity can also link people across the world, thus encouraging knowledge-sharing, network-building, and innovation -- none of which can be underestimated.
— Sarah Thomas, , Director, Women in Comms