On April 7, 2012, entrepreneur and longtime women’s right activist Joyce Banda became Malawi’s first female president – and only second on the African continent – after the sudden death of President Bingu wa Mutharika propelled her from the vice presidency to the country’s highest office. In 2014, she placed 40th on the Forbes list of 100 Women Who Lead the World.
What path led her to that meteoric rise and how did she manage to capitalize on her strengths as a woman leader to both overcome personal challenges and face the challenges in front of her country? Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Banda for a candid interview where she talked about her story and its lessons for aspiring women leaders in Africa and around the world.
Before entering politics in 1999 to run for Parliament, Banda started a number of successful businesses and in 1990 founded the National Association of Business Women (NABW). With CIPE support, the organization grew to more than 15,000 members and made an important difference in the lives of women entrepreneurs in Malawi.
What inspired her to become active in business and then in politics? “In 1981, I walked out on an abusive marriage and looking back it became very clear to me that what had gone wrong is that I hadn’t been economically empowered. So I decided to set myself on a path that would ensure that abuse doesn’t happen again,” she said.
After a visit to the U.S. in 1985, where she saw first-hand examples of the transformative power of entrepreneurship and leadership, she returned home with a mission to look beyond the success of her own business and help other women live up to their full potential. “Although I had a successful business by then, what bothered me most was: what about those women who are locked up in abusive situations? … I decided to spend my life assisting fellow women gain social and political empowerment through business.”
She founded NABW to advance this vision and fondly remembered her partnership with CIPE, “What CIPE did was to help us strengthen the organization, strengthen the capacity of the women at individual level as well the leadership of the organization,” she said. “What I discovered while running the NABW and while growing my business myself is that you become independent, you get to a position where you can make decisions that affect your life.”
NABW has empowered many women: and impact study revealed that 73 percent of the women it supported had grown out of poverty, 84 percent of the women had gained respect in their households, and 40 percent had moved from informal sector to the formal economy. Yet, Banda felt that there was more to be done.
“What bothered me is that the status of women was not changing,” she said. “I felt that it was the laws that negatively impacted the women and children. And I felt that unless I go and sit where the laws are made, I shall never be able to change the situation for women.” That is why she decided to enter politics.
Once in government, she was appointed the Minister for Gender, Children’s Affairs and Community Services, where she championed passing of laws such as the Domestic Violence Bill, and later served as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2006 to 2009 and then as Vice-President from 2009 to 2012. All along the way, she was building her leadership skills, so that when she was called to assume the presidency she was prepared. Under her leadership, economic growth increased from 1.8 percent per year in 2012 to 6.3 percent per year when she left the office.
Over the years, Banda has also been a devoted philanthropist. In 1997 she started the Joyce Banda Foundation as a tool to empower women and youth at the village level in her country. She also remains an active advocate of women’s empowerment beyond Malawi, inspiring women to stand up and break the vicious cycle of poverty, and asking the international community to be partners in this endeavor.
“The time is now,” she said in conclusion of our interview. “Africa has positioned itself as a continent for the 21st century but it would be tragic if the women are left behind.”
It certainly was an inspiring conversation and an example of a lasting impact of a successful CIPE partnership. CIPE was happy to reconnect with Joyce Banda when she recently attended a CIPE-Freedom House event on advancing political and economic freedom in Africa ahead of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit. Read about that event here.
Anna Nadgrodkiewicz is Director of Multiregional Programs at CIPE.