Meet Irene Ochem, a woman who has exactly what it takes to break boundaries in a society that holds women back.
Ochem was born in Nigeria, a traditionally patriarchal society where women generally cannot own land, pursue education, or receive an inheritance. Women are commonly seen as “second-class citizen[s],” Godiya Allamana Makama wrote in the abstract of “Patriarchy and Gender Equality in Nigeria: The Way Forward.”
Even so, Ochem followed her dreams and her intuition instead of letting societal norms hold her back. She was the only daughter out of five children and her widowed mother constantly encouraged her (and her brothers) to be brave and to never take no for an answer.
“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 told IOL. “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.”
Ochem ultimately took her mother’s advice and went to receive not one, but five degrees. She has bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees from two schools, the University of Nigeria, Nsukka and the University of Trieste, as well as an MBA in International Management from the University of London. She also holds qualifications in gender- and trade-related issues and project management.
All of these qualifications have been channeled into time spent working with the United Nations, conducting research on infectious diseases and molecular medicine, and 25 years’ worth of experience in international development. Ochem has lived in all different areas, such as Italy, Ethiopia, and South Africa, with her husband who worked with the UN.
When her husband retired, the couple decided to put down roots in Cape Town, South Africa. And, for Ochem, those roots included finding a way to empower women.
“I have always wanted to do something to help empower women,” she said. “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.”
In 2015, Ochem started the African Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF), a non-profit organization that aims to empower girls and women across the African continent through networking, mentoring, skill development, and information. An annual conference is also held.
“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,” Ochem said. “I wanted to bring together female entrepreneurs in Africa. Economies are losing out, because women are not participating to their full potential.”
With the programs that Ochem and her colleagues are putting together, such as the AWIEF’s new Growth Accelerator Programme which fosters business connections, there are strong hopes that we will soon see even more badass African women with inspiring success stories.
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