The Black Death that ravaged Europe in the 14th Century reduced the population by over 30% and signalled the death of the Feudal System, but also the growth of a new socio-economic and political reality. The feudal structures and systems in every sphere of life were completely incapable of dealing with the crisis and crumbled under the pressure. Nations had to reimagine themselves, their purpose, their methods of governing, of doing business and creating a new society. They had to rebuild from the ashes of the Plague. COVID-19 has had limited impact in terms of the death rate, with fewer than 1 000 000 recorded deaths worldwide, but its repercussions on the world we knew have been astronomical, and eminently more far-reaching than the Black Death. Not a sector has been left untouched. All are aware that there will never be a “back-to-normal”. There must be a total reimagining of how business and life in general are conducted if we are to rebuild from the rubble of COVID-19.

This is the theme and the aim of the 6th edition of the annual Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF). #AWIEF2020 is Virtual Conference to be held on 2nd and 3rd December, 2020. Irene Ochem, founder of AWIEF, and a sought-after international speaker on entrepreneurship, empowerment and women, explains that there is an urgency for leaders in government and business, entrepreneurs and professionals from the private sector to come to grips with the new socio-economic realities emerging from the pandemic and find effective and practical solutions.

“In every crisis there is a seed of recovery. Entrepreneurs and pioneering leaders have always come to the forefront in times of national and international crisis, and it is up to them to unearth those seeds that will produce future growth,” she points out. “The conference presents us with an invaluable opportunity to mine the experiences undergone by many different nations, their societies and economies. We need to understand where balances have shifted and try to plot a way forward that can have valid principles for each, while remaining flexible for different local conditions and circumstances.”

Analysts worldwide have already pinpointed some common trends: the significant acceleration towards digital technology, with many more online services being created; the accentuated shift to remote work; the devastating effect on SMEs; the changes in consumer behaviour; growing social unrest; cracks and flaws that have been exposed in traditional governing and business structures.

However, it is women who are suffering disproportionately. In South Africa, for example, almost 40% of the households are headed by women. With massive job losses caused by the pandemic, they were left without support. Under lockdown they frequently had to care for extended families, were more subject to domestic violence and saw hard-won gender and equality rights being eroded. 

“These are some of the aspects that must be explored,” Ochem continues. “We have to be prepared to throw traditions and the ‘business-as-usual’ mindset out the window and embrace this new unknown, but with ingenuity, and with the resilience that comes from deeply-held beliefs.”

The SME sector, the real engine room of the economy, has been severely affected, with analysts predicting that up to 60% might be compelled to close doors. According to McKinsey (July 2020), they represent more than 98% of business in South Africa alone, where they employ 50-60% of the country’s workforce across all sectors and are responsible for a quarter of the job growth in the private sector.

“We have to reimagine these sectors, especially with regard to women empowerment and equality” stresses Ochem. “Conference will highlight these issues so that they can be rebuilt and restructured. Investment and funding, access to markets, technology, with an emphasis on the digital and on-line explosion, trade and industry, tourism and hospitality, agriculture and the supply chain: all have immediate short-term as well as long-term challenges that must be confronted now.”

High-level delegates from many African nations and globally will be among the government and business leaders attending. Experts and professionals from different walks of life will be contributing their insights. And naturally, there will be a strong representation of entrepreneurs, SMEs, diplomatic missions and financial gurus. Internationally acclaimed speakers from financial institutions, government, the development sector, embassies, corporate business and the wider private sector will be presenting thought-provoking and challenging scenarios.

This is the sixth annual AWIEF conference and is set to reach an ever wider global audience thanks to its virtual nature. The conference plays a hugely important role in promoting and fast-tracking women empowerment, entrepreneurship and innovation in Africa. Over the years it has united the best minds, the thought leaders and the grassroot practitioners to share their experiences and their creative solutions to find new pathways into the future.