The 50 Most Powerful Women in Africa, According to Forbes
Forbes Magazine Africa has released its list of the 50 most powerful and influential women from across the continent.
Ranging from media personalities to business women, artists, and political leaders, the list celebrates women who are changing the status quo in the continent and, in some cases, globally.
“They are reshaping history, closing inequalities, and pioneering new avenues of wealth creation and in turn, lifting others with them,” reads an editorial announcing the list in the March edition of the magazine.
Among the 50 incredible women on the list are the following formidable movers and shakers who continue to use their voices and platforms to champion girls and women’s rights, access to quality education, and economic opportunities.
1. Bonang Matheba, South Africa
“From moghel to mogul,” Bonang Matheba, 32, tweeted after the list was made public. Moghel is a South African slang word that loosely translates into homegirl.
It was popularised by Matheba’s reality TV show, Being Bonang. The show is just one of many hats that Matheba wears.
She’s an in-demand MC, presenter, speaker, and entrepreneur whose luxury beverage brand, the House of BNG, produces sparkling wine.
Being a powerful woman, Matheba tells Forbes, “means that you create your own narrative. It means that you are strong enough to make your own decisions, to be free and to break the status quo that people have set up for women.”
For Matheba, being a powerful woman also means using her voice to champion access to quality education, inspired by the historic #FeesMustFall protests that swept across South African universities in 2017.
The protests saw university students demand an end to the high cost of university education.
What an honour..🙏🏽❤️ @forbesafrica’s 50 Most Powerful Women..😍 March 2020 issue, on shelves! ( Pictured here, alongside Ugandan diplomat and Executive Director of UNAIDS Winnie Byanyima, South African Businesswoman Irene Charnley & Cameroonian Tech Entrepreneur Rebecca Enoncho) pic.twitter.com/6rX7H2Yidg— Bonang B* Matheba (@bonang_m) March 3, 2020
Matheba launched the Bonang Matheba Bursary Fund in 2017 to help educate girls by paying for their tuition fees, stationary, and accommodation for those who are in tertiary institutions.
As well as her fund, Matheba has also addressed the United Nations on the importance of prioritising girls’ education, and has leant her voice in support to Global Citizen campaigns.
Matheba was also one of the co-hosts of the historic Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 that was held in Johannesburg on Dec. 2, 2018.
Most recently, she was part ofACTIVATE: The Global Citizen Movement. The 6-part documentary series, a collaboration between National Geographic and Global Citizen, follows Global Citizen ambassadors and partners as they campaign for causes that range from criminal justice and ending extreme poverty, to education and sanitation.
2. Graça Machel, South Africa and Mozambique
Graça Machel, 74, is one of the most powerful and historic women in Africa. Her first platform was as the minister of education in Mozambique, a position she held from 1975 to 1989.
She has been an agent of change ever since, including her role at the helm of the Graça Machel Trust and a member of The Elders — a group of global leaders working together to promote peace, justice, and human rights.
The Graça Machel Trust promotes women’s empowerment and leadership, child rights, and good nutrition. Known affectionately as Mama Graça, Machel says impact is much more important than power.
“I struggle to understand this issue of power because, speaking for myself, I do not care [about] being powerful. I care more about impact,” Machel told Forbes.
She added: “What is important as a human being and a social being is [to ask] ‘how do I provoke a positive impact which will make life much better for the people that I work with and I work for?'”
Machel has a long history of backing causes that range from health to children's rights, education, leadership, and economic empowerment, and often lends her support to organisations that work to end extreme poverty and promote social justice.
In 2018, she attended Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 to mark what would have been her former husband Nelson Mandela's centenary. She also leant her support by presenting Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg with the inaugural Global Citizen Prize for a World Leader at the festival.
3. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigeria
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 40, caught the world’s attention with her novels, Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun, which were released to great critical acclaim in 2003 and 2006.
Purple Hibiscus was long-listed for the Man Booker, which is one of the most prominent global literary awards.
Meanwhile, Half of a Yellow Sun was in 2013 adapted into a film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Anika Noni Rose, and John Boyega.
However, it was her 2014 essay, We Should All Be Feminists, that truly cemented her place as a prominent thinker and voice of change.
We Should All Be Feminists questioned why girls are taught to aspire to marriage and traditional gender roles, and why girls are taught that marriage matters more than ambition, leadership, and success, while boys are given the opportunity to define their identity and encouraged to lead.
As well as featuring in Beyoncé’s song, “Flawless”, a copy of We Should All Be Feminists is currently also distributed to every 16-year-old student in Sweden. The essay was also referenced by Christian Dior’s line of slogan t-shirts.
About Adichie’s life and legacy, Forbes wrote in its latest issue: “In modern times, there isn’t a celebrated black female intellectual of international stature whose influence transcends written words as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.”
“Adichie is a woman who has been able to dissect, shape, and create social dialogues across the globe,” Forbes added.
When it comes to taking feminism to mainstream platforms like pop culture and fashion, Adichie told the Guardian: “This idea of feminism as a party to which only a select few people get to come: this is why so many women, particularly women of colour, feel alienated from mainstream western academic feminism.”
4. Aya Chebbi, Tunisia
Aya Chebbi, 32, is a blogger and activist from Tunisia. She rose to prominence in 2010 when she joined others in protesting for political change in her country.
The protests in Tunisia sparked similar revolutions across the Arab world; a historic political moment that is now known as the Arab Spring.
As a result of her activism and ability to use social media to inspire change, she’s founded multiple platforms that promote intergenerational leadership in Africa.
Our #TuesdayMotivation— THE NEW AFRICAN WOMAN Magazine (THE NAW) (@newafricanwoman) March 10, 2020
"With 65% of Africa’s population under the age of 30, we are changing the landscape in Africa –economically, politically, demographically, culturally & want to see and shape a new model of leadership in Africa." @aya_chebbihttps://t.co/oUrRBnT2kL
These include Afresist, which is a youth leadership programme and multimedia platform documenting youth work in Africa.
Another of Chebbi’s initiatives is the Youth Programme of Holistic Empowerment Mentoring (Y-PHEM), which coaches the next generation of social activists in Africa.
“Aya’s passion for youth empowerment intersects with a vision for peace,” her website, ayachebbi.com, states. “[She] has travelled to over 65 countries worldwide working with young people and has single-handedly transformed the youth participation space across the world, and strengthened the capacity of thousands of young people with a holistic focus on empowerment and well-being.”
Chebbi is also the youngest diplomat at the African Union, where she is part of the organisation’s youth envoy.
5. Lupita Nyong’o, Kenya
When Lupita Nyong’o won the Oscar for best supporting actress in 2014 for her performance in 12 Years a Slave, it wasn’t just a star being born. It also inspired a movement of self-love and of celebrating being unique.
Dark with natural hair that she doesn’t process or wear a weave over, Nyong’o spoke passionately about beauty, in particular, being very dark and not rejecting yourself over it.
“It’s actually extremely vital that we see Lupita Nyong’o — and faces like hers — as often as possible,” the Washington Post quotes writer Dodai Stewart. “Why? Because looks-wise, Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico and raised in Kenya, flies in the face of the traditional young Hollywood starlet. She is black. Her hair is short. Her skin is dark.”
Nyong’o has been using her voice and the global stages that she occupies to promote beauty ideals that are inclusive.
In her acceptance speech for the “Best Breakthrough Performance” award at Essence magazine’s annual Black Women in Hollywood lunch in 2014, Nyong’o recalled getting a letter from a young fan who had almost used cancer-causing skin lightening creams before being reached by Nyong’o’s message of self-love.
“I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself, and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of ‘The Color Purple’ were to me,” she said in her speech.
Nyong’o also made her debut as an author in 2019 with her children’s book, Sulwe — about a 5-year-old Kenyan girl who has the darkest complexion in her family. The book was inspired by Nyong'o’s childhood experiences, and became a New York Times best-seller.
You can find a full list of the 50 most powerful and influential women in Africa below.
- Winnie Byanyima, Uganda: Executive Director at UNAIDS
- Rebecca Enochong, Cameroon: Founder and CEO, AppsTech
- Irene Charnley, South Africa: Founder, Smile Communications
- Jennifer Riria, Kenya: Group CEO, Echo Network Africa and founding member, Kenya Women Finance Trust
- Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda: Secretary General, Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie (OIF)
- Charlize Theron, South Africa: Hollywood actor
- Phuti Mahanyele-Dabengwa. South Africa: CEO, Naspers South Africa
- Wendy Luhabe, South Africa: Co-founder of WIPHOLD
- Angélique Kidjo, Benin: Four-time Grammy award winner and humanitarian
- Clare Akamanzi, Rwanda: CEO, Rwanda Development Board
- Lesly Kanza, Tanzania: Head of Africa and member of the executive committee, World Economic Forum
- Ibukun Awosika, Nigeria: Founder and CEO, The Chair Centre Group
- Judy Dlamini, South Africa: Founder, Mbekani Group
- Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Nigeria: Chair, board of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI).
- Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, South Africa: Executive Director, UN Women
- Waris Dirie, Somalia: President and Founder, Desert Flower Foundation
- Obiageli Ezekwesili, Nigeria: Senior economic advisor, Africa Economic Development Policy Initiative (AEDPI)
- Glenda Gray, South Africa: President and CEO, South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC)
- Ilwad Elman, Somalia: Founder, Elman Peace Centre
- Wendy Applebaum, South Africa: Founder and Chairperson, De Morgezon Wine Estate
- Folorunso Alakija, Nigeria: Executive vice-chair, FAMFA Oil
- Bethlehem Tilahun Alemu, Ethiopia: Founder and CEO, Solerebels footwear garden of coffee and Tefftastic
- Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, South Africa: Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs
- Wendy Ackerman, South Africa: Executive Director, Pick ‘n Pay
- Caster Semenya, South Africa: Olympic champion
- Rawya Mansour, Egypt: Founder and CEO, RAMSCO
- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia: First female president of Liberia and Nobel Peace laureate
- Yvonne Chaka Chaka, South Africa: Musician and humanitarian
- Shale-Work Zewde, Ethiopia: President of Ethiopia
- Fatou Bedsouda, Gambia: Prosecutor, International Criminal Court
- Arunma Oteh, Nigeria: Academic scholar, University of Oxford and former treasurer and vice president, World Bank London Stock Exchange Africa Advisory Group Member
- Hajer Sharief, Libya: Human Rights Advocate
- Amina J. Mohammed, Nigeria: Deputy Secretary-General, United Nations
- Precious Motsepe, South Africa: Founder, African Fashion International and Philanthropist
- Vera Songwe, Cameroon: Executive Secretary, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa
- Tara Fela-Durotoye, Nigeria: Founder, House of Tara International
- Theresa Kachindamoto, Malawi: Chief od Dedza District, Malawi
- Magda Wierzycka, South Africa: Founder, Sygnia
- Manal Rostom, Egypt: Founder, Surviving Hijab and face of Nike Pro Hijab
- Olajumoke Adenowo, Nigeria: Founder, Ad Consulting
- Uchenna Pedro, Nigeria: Founder and CEO, Bella Naija
- Lydia Nsekera, Burundi: President, National Olympic Committee (NOC) of Burundi and member of FIFA Council
- Thuli Madonsela, South Africa: Law Trust Chair, Social Justice Research at Stellenbosch University
- Fatma Samoura, Senegal: Secretary-General, FIFA
- Mamokgethi Phakeng, South Africa: Vice-Chancellor, University of Cape Town