Category Archives: Amazing African Women

Using Twitter to be (more) Successful

During the recent #WiredWomen’s conference, one of the major discussions that occurred on and off-line revolved around the use of social media platforms (mainly twitter) to develop and enhance a brand, personal or as an organisation. Delegates wanted clear and specific guide lines on best practise and so, instead of just talking about being ‘good’ at twitter, I decided to measure who was getting Twitter right during the conference by monitoring the hash tag. I did this by using a variety of tools (including tweetreach and NodeXL) and in so doing was able to establish exactly which tweets and tweeps were successful. This then allowed me, to identify common characteristics of success.

Before we get to those though, it is important to clarify exactly what is meant by being good or successful at Twitter.  Twitter is about people, connections, networks between these connections and influence within networks and among connections. Why should you care about this? Personally or professionally, it is a quick and easy way to connect with like-mind people all over the world. This has, and does, turn into business, travel and growth opportunities if managed correctly – I wouldn’t have been a panellist at this conference if it hadn’t been for Twitter! With only 140 characters you can reach hundreds, even thousands, of people in seconds at the same time, and if you’re connected enough there is no quicker way (electronically or otherwise) to disseminate information. Twitter is THE crowdsourcing tool and anything from IT problems to a need for directions to a specific location can be found almost immediately through your connection’s varied locations, knowledge and interest areas. There is also no quicker way to stay up to date with news and events from around the world, often information is released on Twitter even before the press picks it up. Beyond this, live tweeting can allow you access to conferences and the like that you never would even have known about before. This is of particular value because access to early industry news disseminated intelligently will enhance your position within your industry. I could go on and on but these are the main reasons I believe it’s worth spending a little time on understanding how to ensure you maximise the benefits received from Twitter, which was after all the point of this exercise!

The most evident characteristic of successful #wiredwomen tweeps was engagement. Those at the centre of the #wiredwomen twitter network not only engaged with others the most at the actual conference, but also had engaged so broadly in their general pre-conference twitter activity that they had already come into contact with many network members long before the network was even formed. This also meant that they were automatically the most influential in the network, as they had already built trust, rapport and established their position as experts. This sounds simple, obvious even, but is definitely a case of easier said than done! The key was a combination of the clear demonstration of expertise, including (very importantly) the offering of this freely, with being human! By that I mean: joining the conversation rather than preaching from a pedestal, not talking exclusively about one subject (even if you are a business) while simultaneously maintaining a consistent persona, responding to others calls for help, asking for help, sharing success and exciting news, admitting to failure or a gap in knowledge and in general sharing more of yourself. If you want someone specific to join a conversation or see specific information mention them directly – that’s how conversations get started.

To ensure you are part of relevant conversations you need to use hash tags, as they enable you to join or even start conversations.  Hash tags are the easiest and most commonly used way to find conversations that you’re interested in and ensure that your voice is heard in this conversation. You may have much to contribute, but not making use of the relevant hash tag is like putting yourself on mute. It also limits your potential to connect to only those currently in your network, as opposed to the entire twitter network. There were some very informative and important tweets that went unnoticed at the #wiredwomen conference because the authors didn’t use the hash tag and as such excluded themselves from delegate’s radars. This may – again – sound like rather obvious advice, but I think you’d be surprised at the number of tweets directly related to the conference but not containing the hash tag, and there must have been many more I have missed since they are by their very nature disconnected and so difficult to find.

Whether you’re using a hashtag or not, the more you tweet the more likely you are to be heard. There is however a very fine line between creating a high profile account and alienating respondents who will get bored with too many tweets. Those that tweeted the most at #wiredwomen were among the most connected in the network, but were not the most retweeted or mentioned. Those that were among the most retweeted and mentioned did tweet more than average but, more importantly, seemed to have found the balance between frequency, relevant content and timing. For example, successful #wiredwomen tweeps allowed others time to respond in between tweets or before sharing the next bit of the story/information. Not only does this engage those involved more, but, also, by lengthening the time over which the conversation occurs, increases the likelihood that other connections will be exposed to it.  There is no magic number of how often you should tweet – it depends completely on the subject involved, relevancy of issue etc. but good advice is to use the same filter you do in normal conversation and life where you wouldn’t dominate completely but rather listen too.

When analysing the content of specific successful #wiredwomentweets it was immediately noticeable that:

  • Tweets that pointed to links, videos, infographics, pictures, etc. enhanced tweeps experience and as such engaged them more and for a longer period of time. Not surprisingly, funny tweets had the same effect.
  • Tweets containing simply a headline and link were much less mentioned, commented on or retweeted than those that also included insightful comments or thoughtful responses.
  • Tweets that were 120 characters or less were retweeted and commented on much more than longer ones, simply because space was left to do so! Tweeps love sharing breaking news, interesting and useful information – it only increases their profile -and are much more likely to do so if they can add their own two cents too.
  • Tweets specifically mentioning tweeps by username where more often responded to than those not, as people are much more likely to respond when they feel like the message is directed specifically at them.
  • Statements that were backed up with a source were mentioned and retweeted at a significantly higher rate than those that appeared to be opinion only.

Since the #wiredwomen were such an incredibly connected group (as was evident when the hash tag trended nationally in South Africa) it would be safe to say that these tips for successful tweets are not only relevant for users within this network but much more broadly too. As such, following this advice will ensure your twitter account yields all the benefits discussed and more!



Any #wiredwomen wanting specific information on their personal twitter performance during the conference (retweet rates, number of mentions etc.) are welcome to contact me on twitter (@TraceAdjoa) or e-mail (

#wiredwomen reach

Most retweeted tweets and tweeps

Most mentioned tweeps during the 2012 #wiredwomen conference


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TEDxRhodesU: The Tea Stop that taught me to listen

This is the transcript of the talk I gave at TEDxRhodesU – a summary version of this story already exists on the blog but this one expands the story as well as makes reference to new examples from other countries. Would love to hear your thoughts!

I was born in Port Elizabeth, studied at Rhodes and as all good BA students do when I graduated I went out to save the world. Being proudly South African I was keen on starting at home in my continent of birth and so off I went naively into the world. 10 years on I’ve travelled in Europe, the UK and all over Africa and these are some of the places that surprised me most. Can you guess where they are?

Surprised? So was I, but I was in for a lot of surprises working across Africa. The next surprise was less shock and more dawning realization that contrary to what I had been taught, Africa’s most valuable resources are in fact not its wildlife or minerals but rather its people. I have learnt that the most unrecognized and under-utilised resource in Africa is its people – particularly its women. Even today as the narrative of Africa is changing, the tales of the next great investment frontier focus on our gold, oil, diamonds, coal and gas. Maybe it’s just the “curse of the commodities”, but the people of our continent are as undervalued as ever. This manifests itself in our exclusion in the formation and management of aid programs, financial systems and even the monitoring of governance in our own countries.

However the few who have recognized this, and unleashed as well as nurtured this potential are reaping rewards, far greater than could ever have been expected. And so today I will be sharing with you this very simple lesson: if you want to work in a place (in any capacity: NGO, start-up, whatever) you need to listen to its people. I’m sure you’d all agree that all of us in this room are much more empowered than your average African.  But when last were you asked what needed to be done to improve infrastructure in your neighbourhood? Asked to rate your postal service? When last were you given the opportunity to nominate a Nobel Prize laureate? When last did one of the multitude of NGOs who regularly ask you for money, ask you how you would like it spent?  Or even account to you for how they spend it?

Sure, it sounds really simple. Obvious, even.  And yet so few governments, NGOs, corporations, anyone is doing so? Our continent is full of dynamic, strong, innovative, entrepreneurial people and yet we don’t seem to listen to one another. And of course this lesson applies globally – but I believe more so in Africa where the people are more often than not treated as nothing more than a source of labour – much as it was centuries ago.

The people who taught me to listen?  Their names are Anastasia and Esther, a Ugandan and a Kenyan who were my neighbours in Ngong, Kenya in 2008/2009.  Ngong is a township just outside Nairobi – about 25-30km from the city centre.  We lived in a ginormous 6 bedroom house, ironically a small house by Ngong standards.  Now don’t get me wrong, there were and are plenty of poor people living in tin shacks in Ngong – our neighbours across the road were 4 families sharing 3 shacks – BUT our neighbour to the right was a politician living in an 18 bedroom house.  It was all shacks and mansions, with nothing in between.…

So, sadly, we were living in a vastly unjust society where those who were trapped in poverty had very few options or opportunities to free themselves from its grip.  When a friend of mine came to visit us in Kenya, and wanted to do some volunteer work while there, I decided it was time to at least attempt to make some sort of difference in our neighbourhood.  My friend agreed, and a few days after she arrived we were sitting down to lunch with the two women I knew best in the community.  Enter Anastasia and Esther.  Both women were mothers and did not have jobs, yet they never described themselves as unemployed.  No Kenyan does, because even if you don’t have a job, you are always trying to start a business, sell something or do whatever piecemeal work you can find to keep you and your family alive.  Anastasia and Esther were no different.

The researcher in me quickly turned our lunch into a qualitative focus group, and the first surprising thing we learnt was that the primary barrier to employment or starting a business for these women was…any guesses? It wasn’t because of a lack of ideas, or a lack of access to funding.  Even though they lived in shacks it was not infrastructure issues that stopped them – it was a lack of affordable and trustworthy childcare.  Neither of these women had any family in Ngong, and any of their plans or activities needed to take this into account above everything else.  We explained that we each had R500 (Ksh5,000) to contribute to a business for them, and quite quickly they identified a gap in the market as well as some ideas on how to take advantage of this opportunity.  But before I tell you about all this there are a few things you need to know…

  1. Kenyans drink huge amounts of tea, as often as a cup is available
  2. This tea must be made in a very specific way to be considered proper tea by Kenyans.  Start with a pot of half water, half milk, add the teabags while this is still cold and then bring it all to the boil.  Once boiled add plenty of sugar – and there you go, the perfect cuppa!

Despite these two cultural characteristics the only place really to buy tea on the go was Nairobi Java House (the Kenyan equivalent of Mugg & Bean), and at a cost equivalent to about 40% of the monthly minimum wage per cup!  So the average Kenyan could not get tea on the go at all.  Anastasia and Esther suggested selling proper Kenyan tea, firstly from Esther’s home which was halfway up a long hill and close to several construction sites (and, we thought, thirsty construction workers) and secondly from mobile sites at taxi and bus ranks early in the morning and in the evenings to catch rush hour commuters. We even came up with a name, ‘The Tea Stop’ all before our first lunch together had even ended.

A week later the 3 of us were off on a bus to Karen circle, where a large gathering of commuters could be found, to give the mobile tea stand its first go. In the week leading up to this point we’d designed a logo, printed stickers for all equipment; bought trays and bags to transport everything around in, enough ingredients for about 1000 cups of tea, the equipment to make it in and finally a secure trunk for all this to be stored in. The permanent stand had also been set up outside of Esther’s home and so while we headed off to Karen, Esther stayed at home running this store and importantly looking after Anastasia’s children.

We only stayed 30 minutes that first session – we had a few logistical issues that made staying any longer not worth the time – but despite the limited time and despite the logistical issues Anastasia sold 35 cups at Ksh40 each, just 2 silver coins and made Ksh1400. Considering the minimum monthly wage for Kenya at the time was Ksh5500 (R550) this was a mind-blowing amount even when divided by two.

Each day was then split into two two hour shifts, one for each  rush hour, and each woman did one shift per day. This meant they were never away from their children for too long; had trustworthy and free child care in each other close by, and could continue their small home-based vegetable businesses as before.

Three months later they were earning R1200 (Ksh12000) per month working 2 hours a day each. This was more than twice the minimum wage then, and much more than both them and their employed husbands combined had earned before. And all this from a really small start-up investment and a willingness to treat the people involved as experts of their own context.

Anastasia and Esther continued to run ‘The Tea Stop’ for a further 2 years until they both moved out of Ngong. Their families average income increased by R70 per month during this time, not only because of ‘The Tea Stop’ but also because of the resources of time and seed money they could draw on  to embark on other endeavours, now that basic needs were taken care of.  Both were still running businesses when we last had contact in early 2011 – Esther was running a tailor and ‘design studio’ in the Lake Victoria region and Anastasia was a farmer in the Aberdares.

The project was a success overall, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. There were challenges and failures. One that stands out is that the project did not continue beyond Anastasia and Esther. We as a group failed to share or pass on our learnings, ideas and success. We proved it could be done with them but we didn’t take it beyond them. The permanent stand outside of Esther’s home did not work and soon closed and so we had wasted money on equipment for the permanent stand, which in hindsight was unnecessary. Yes despite all this the project still proves that the most important resource was not the cash available, nor any sort of corporate backing nor an extensive marketing machine, but rather the people involved. The key to this project’s success lay in understanding the beneficiary’s actual circumstances and tapping into their extensive local knowledge and insight.

One story is not enough to prove the point though and so let’s look at another…from Ghana. When the local knowledge and insight of the employees of Blue Skies Ghana was accessed they not only saved the company, diversified the product line and created a new market but also increased revenues to record highs. In 2007 Blue Skies Ghana was a fruit juice and canned fruit company who, because of their focus on exports to Europe, were suffering massive financial losses as the recession withered up their market. After several failed turnaround attempts management called the staff together to inform them that the company would have to close.  The staff, consisting mainly of fruit processors and machine operators, asked management to hold off on this for 3 weeks while they attempted to find a solution. The next day they came back suggesting that the company scale down on their tinned fruit and juice production for Europe and instead sell fresh fruit locally.  Management said this would never work – ‘we have no local distribution network, no drivers, no trucks…’, so that day each employee took home two boxes of fruit and sold them in their local neighbourhoods.  They did this for a week before collecting together all the cash accumulated and handing it over to an astonished management, who now had not only more cash in hand than they had had in months but also a new business model and market! This type of success lies waiting for all who work in Africa and are prepared to listen.

The consequences for failing to listen go far beyond the possible closure of businesses – it can cost human lives.  This has been seen throughout Africa in the fight against malaria.  Nets are distributed but are turned into fishing nets and animal traps almost as soon as they are handed over and so the very well-intended fundraising and distribution of these anti-malarial products have very little effect on rates of infection at all. Because as 45 year old Kenyan Duncan Nyambega puts it: “Dying from Malaria is much quicker and less painful than dying from hunger.”  The exact figures vary from country to country,  but use of mosquito nets for their intended purpose ranges from 26% – 51% at very most. And let’s be honest here, they’re not the best way to spend money if you’re trying to enhance food security either.

So by not taking the time to understand the beneficiaries or their local context, millions of dollars in equipment and hours worked are wasted, which in turn means unnecessary lives are lost – just because nobody listened.

There is a Swahili proverb that says ‘Listening is the most difficult skill to learn and the most important to have.’ I’d go further and say without it no project can be truly sustainable nor impactful.  It’s important to be clear that when I talk of listening I mean the broad definition of ‘to pay attention, to heed’ and not simply the biological process of hearing sound. It involves gaining an extensive understanding of the specific local context you will be working in. This would preferably be gained first hand by living local (local local not expat local –  that means not living in the one expat subrubs with all the other foreigners, it means buying your food where everyone else does, using public transport even just occasionally, socialising with your neighbours, consulting the local news and learning at least the basics of the local language/languages). If you really can’t do all this yourself then at least recognize the need heavily to involve local expertise.

Make sure you take the time to involve beneficiaries at every level,and really talk to them, so you understand their actual circumstances and the real barriers they encounter to overcoming these circumstances.  If you do these two simple things, the potential for progress and success is massive, but even bigger will be the new opportunities for you also to learn and grow at a personal level.


Why the World Bank needs an African Woman as its President

Yesterday the Board of Executive Directors of the World Bank confirmed that the period for submitting nominations for the next President was officially closed and the 3 nominations received within this period were:

  • Jim Yong Kim, a US national and President of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire
  • José Antonio Ocampo, a Colombian national and Professor at Columbia University, New York
  • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian national, Co-ordinating Minister of the Economy and Minister of Finance, Nigeria

Individual candidate interviews will take place in Washington DC in the next few weeks and a new supposedly merit-based president is expected to be announced shortly thereafter. There has been a large amount of pressure from developing nations to appoint a President from one of our countries, and considering that since the inception of the World Bank in 1944 only US citizens have held the position, our lobby is justifiably receiving widespread support. This argument could be taken even further though, to the point where we say that it’s time for an African Woman specifically to sit in the position, and this is why:

It is almost universally accepted, although not yet universally acted upon, that Africa is the world’s current GDP growth rate leader, has a rapidly expanding (and profitable) middle class, is the continent offering the greatest investment returns,  and  all this is expected to continue and grow as governance and infrastructure constantly improve. The global economy of the future is one in which Africa is going to play a substantially larger and more important role. It follows that since our continent’s people and the management of our resources will have a larger impact on economies beyond our shores than ever before that our involvement in global financial systems and organisations should be larger than ever before too.

The people of Africa and the developing world have the most at stake when it comes to global financial decisions/systems, yet to date have had the least input into these. The World Bank’s primary customer base is the developing world and yet we have never been represented at the top of this organisation. To be successful the organisation needs to understand clearly and be directed by these realities – what better way to do this than through representation of this group at the very top?  Ignoring these realities in the past has evidently neither served us nor the developed world well and the time for fresh perspectives and approaches seems to be upon us. In the business world for a company in this position a customer-centric approach is generally the most accepted and successful business practice. Why should this logic not apply to the World Bank?

From a more ideological stand-point and as a believer in the principal of democracy, even at a global level, it needs to be noted that Africans account for a 6th of all people living on the planet. Our representation at global levels of organisations such as the World Bank specifically but also the IMF, WHO, UN and so on is not even close and this needs to change, simple. Our fair share of influence needs to be apportioned and placing an African Woman as president of the World Bank would be a great start.

It could very easily be argued that African Women are the most marginalised, under-represented and disadvantaged people on the planet, yet despite this a constant stream of almost miraculous tales of business success and community impact can be found all around the continent.  There’s Prisca Tshabalala, the South African founder and manager of the Nkanyezi Stimulation centre for children with multiple disabilities; Bethlehem Alemu, the Ethiopian founder of Sole Rebels, an eco-sensitive footwear brand; Kenyan-born Ory Okolloh who spearheaded the founding of Ushahidi, the many women who manage and run the award-winning Swazi Secrets, a Swazi company making beauty products from natural resources and completely managed by the local women themselves. I literally could fill pages with such inspiring examples but my point is not to list but rather illustrate the massive and growing impact women are making across the continent (especially as they realize they do not need permission to do so.) Imagine then what these incredible people could do if considered, for the first time, and represented at the level of global financial policy formulation, aid distribution and investment direction?

As far as inspiring women go Nigerian-born Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is about as inspiring as they come. She is a former World Bank Vice-President and Corporate Secretary, posts she left to take up arguably the most challenging finance position in the world: Minister of Finance in Nigeria. During her first term (2003 – 2006) she increased the country’s reserves from US$7bn to US$30bn, brought inflation down from 28% to 11%, increased average GDP growth from 2.3% p/a in the previous decade to 6.5% p/a in this one and focused on rooting out corruption despite the fact that this pursuit often endangered her life. Importantly, I believe,  she is an ardent advocate of the ‘Trade not Aid’ movement and can be seen presenting motivating, incredibly well delivered speeches encouraging and helping others to see Africa, and  particularly its women, differently.  She has also already indicated that there would be no ‘business as usual’ if she took charge, “I share the World Bank vision of fighting poverty with passion. The issue is in what direction one must take this to make this the most beneficial” she has said, and this only strengthens her candidacy.

“She has eminent academic qualifications and would be, I think, a candidate of choice not only on the African continent but well beyond as well,” South Africa’s Pravin Gordhan said this week. His position is also supported by Nigeria and Angola in a rare display of unity between these countries, usually battling for dominance of the continent. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala’s individual credentials alone would be impressive but add to this her position as an African Woman who is capable of and uniquely positioned to truly represent Africans, Women and the developing world. She truly is the strongest candidate, possibly even the organisation’s only hope of survival.


Ernst & Young. 2011 Africa Attractiveness Survey. ‘It’s time for Africa’

Mfonobong Nsehe. 2012. ‘Africa’s Most Successful Women: Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu’

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. 2007. ‘Want to help Africa? Do business here’