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.
Malawian President Joyce Banda (Photo: AFP)
The late president of Malawi, Bingu wa Mutharika, was fond of saying, “Lolani ntchito za manja anga zindichitire umboni,” or, in English, “Let the work of my hands speak for me.” These words were immortalized on billboards across the country. During my three and a half years working in Malawi as the program manager for H.E.L.P., the meaning behind the President’s words and the feelings they evoked changed radically.
President Mutharika accomplished much in his first term from 2004 to 2008. He received the Medal of Glory Award for bold reforms that were credited with spurring Malawi’s economic growth. The annual GDP growth rate increased from only 2.6% in 2005 to 8.6% in 2008. Additionally, President Mutharika championed The Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP) which increased the country’s maize production to levels of surplus. Progress was being made, or so it seemed.
President Mutharika’s record of good democratic governance and sound policy, however, would come to a tumultuous end. The situation in Malawi declined as the President became increasingly autocratic in his second term. In 2011 Malawi fell 67 places on the Worldwide Press Freedom Index, the largest drop of any nation. Facing bad governance and human rights violations, donors froze millions of dollars in aid money. This presented an uncertain future for a country which receives 40 percent of its government budget from external sources.