Ochem – Empowering African Women for Economic Growth Across the Globe (

IRENE Ochem is the founder of African Women Innovation and Enterprise Forum (AWIEF) and the Managing Director of ICO Conferences and Events Ltd., a full-service professional conference producing, event management and training company that operates across Africa and globally.

Before venturing into this field, she had worked for over 10 years with United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) in Italy, where she held various positions in administration management.

Subsequently, she was a Research Administration Manager at University of Cape Town, South Africa. She also worked as an International Consultant for United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and African Union Commission (AUC) in Ethiopia.

More recently, she was a Conference Producer and Programme Director with a leading South African-based conference and event management company, where she has produced Africa’s largest power and utilities conferences and exhibitions.

Irene has produced and managed numerous large international and high profile conferences, conventions, summits and forums in Europe and Africa in various industry sectors, including health, natural sciences, energy and power, international development, education, agriculture, high technology, and entrepreneurship. She is passionate about excellence and quality, and is a strong believer in Africa’s transformation.

She is a member of Southern African Association of the Conference Industry (SAACI) and the South African Translation Institute (SATI). She holds an MBA from the University of London and a Diploma in Translation from Scuola Superiore di Lingue Moderne per Interpreti e Traduttori (SSLMIT) of the University of Trieste, Italy.

She received her undergraduate degree in Archaeology/History from University of Nigeria, Nsukka and holds certificates in Project Management from University of Cape Town and Istituto per gli Studi di Politica Internazionale (ISPI), Milan. A seasoned international civil servant, she has diverse expertise and an extensive international experience in the conference sector.

Presently, Irene is set to host one of the biggest women gathering of all times, tagged “The African Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF),” which holds in the second week of September at Lagos Oriental Hotel.

According to her, that will take the entrepreneurial empowerment tangent a bit further beyond highlighting and fostering a cross pollination of information and experiential testimonies for skill and financial empowerment of African women.

AWIEF, she said, is poised to provide an enabling platform for stakeholders and individuals, who desire to see African women empowered for the common goal of greater economic growth across the continent, to meet and deliberate on the roles women play in shaping the continent’s economic future and address the challenges to startups, growth or scaling businesses, with an emphasis on proffering sustainable solutions.

The forum is expected to distill innovative ideas that will be more efficient and give better impact, through expository lectures and discussions, born out of research, ideas, experiences and trends, gathered from across Africa, by some of the best minds among accomplished African female entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, innovators, academia and policymakers.

Going down memory lane, she recounts that despite constituting 50 percent of the world population and making substantial contribution to socio-economic development, women’s contributions remain largely unrecognised and unnoticed in most developing countries with a particular magnitude across Africa.

Thus, African women have unequal and little opportunities to enter into formal economic activities. “Women have continued to face more challenges and obstacles than their male counterparts when trying to start businesses,” Irene says. “The inequality in economic opportunity is extreme and disheartening in most parts of Africa.

The question is not only about gender parity in economic participation, but also about economic and global competitiveness.” She agreed that the issue of women empowerment is a global one.

Recently, at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi, the US President, Barack Obama, aptly identified the issue when he said, “If half of your team is not playing, you’ve got a problem.

Therefore, empowering women has become the key element in the development of any economy and a global agenda.” Corroborating this view, Irene says the world is having problems today because, women, who are half of the world’s population, are not allowed to play, as they should.

In her view, African women, by their very nature and being the fundamental basis of the African society, have the natural tendency to use their earnings and bargaining power to improve their family wellbeing.

As such, if adequately empowered with the right things, tools, and societal mechanisms, they would reinvest their income to lift up their families, communities, nations and ultimately, the African continent at large.

According to her, African women, where they have been empowered, have been known to excel in small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs). “Empowering women, therefore, makes good economic sense and represents the greatest potential for the socio-economic development of African societies.

Africa is rising and is on the move to economic development and transformation. No doubt, the continent has become the new investment frontier.

And despite the gloomy global market conditions, one continues to see, in the last decade, companies scrambling into Africa from China, North America and Europe,” she says.

Irene explains that where women are concerned, there are abundant opportunities ready to be harnessed and these opportunities should be made available in an equal manner to both men and women.

She states that women should be made able to participate fully for enhanced impact in their societies. “Many African governments are responding responsibly to this situation by integrating youth and female entrepreneurship into the economy.

It is against this backdrop that the African Union has declared 2015 the Year of Women’s Empowerment and Development Towards Africa’s Agenda 2063.

But despite these significant gains, more needs to be done to improve the lives and livelihood of the African woman, including at the rural and grassroots level,” she says.

The need to improve women’s access to finance, through capacity building and participation in economic opportunities is the reason AWIEF was birth. “A key objective of AWIEF is to create awareness and opportunities for self-employment, facilitate job creation and poverty reduction.

The Forum is a premier, pan-African conference and exhibition event that will bring together an exclusive group of thought leaders, women entrepreneurs and women in business, investors, MSMEs, international development organisations, NGOs, CSOs, trade missions, foundations, governments and policy makers, the private sector and media.

It will provide a platform showcasing deliberations around the role that African women play in shaping the continent’s economic future, the challenges and constraints they face, and to proffer solutions. “It is an organisation that provides an opportunity to explore approaches, share perspectives and best practices in building bridges and creating linkages.

An important outcome of the Conference will be to promote intra-Africa and inter-continental trade and collaborations and link the informal rural productive sectors with formal business environments.

It will shift the bar higher, taking the African woman to new heights in becoming more economically influential and impactful,” she says. AWIEF’s 2015 conference is going to be a three-day of innovative and brain storming session.

Emphasising the need to impact the lives of women positively, Irene says that AWIEF is the first conference of its kind on the continent that will gather high-achieving, real-turf women entrepreneurs and thought leaders together with young, emerging and aspiring business owners, including the grassroots, under one roof for enhanced networking, mentorship and potential business partnerships across African borders.

The Forum, which is sponsored by MTN Business, St. Rita Tomatoes, GE, Diamond Woman, Northwest Petroleum and Gas, Falcon Corporation and Detail, would fashion out solutions and create communiqués that will influence policy and decision-making within government and corporate sectors for women empowerment.

AWIEF is the first conference of its kind on the continent that will gather high-achieving, real-turf women entrepreneurs and thought leaders together with young, emerging and aspiring business owners, including the grassroots, under one roof for enhanced networking, mentorship and potential business partnerships across African borders

It would seek to instigate new paradigms by diffusing innovations that were evolved during the deliberations across the continent, through a carefully developed grassroots network, with the ultimate goal of improving women’s socio-economic status and closing the gender gap in economic opportunities and participation across the African continent,” she explains.

The conference is being organised by ICO Conferences and Events Ltd., in partnership with International Women’s Society (IWS) Lagos and International Centre for Microfinance and Social Enterprises (ICSME) Nigeria Ltd., and with the support of various partners, including LEAP Africa and Business School Netherlands (BSN Nigeria).

Those to speak include: Pat Utomi, Obiageli Ezekwesili, Ndidi Nwuneli, Lucia Quachey (Ghana), Lilian Asomugha (USA), Sabetha M. J. Mwanbenja (Tanzania), Zainab Saleh (IWS President), Mostaq Ahmeed (Bangladesh). “Others are Candide Bamezon-Leguede (Togo), Shimite Katung (President, Quintessential Business Women Association), Lere Baale, Njideka Harry (USA), Dolapo Kukoyi, Grace Ongile (UN Women), Nathalie Chinje (South Africa), Divine Nduhlukula (Zimbabwe), Oluremi Aribisala, Jide Akintunde, Audrey Joe-Ezigbo, Onyeka Onwenu, Onari Duke and Jide Akintunde among others.