Stephanie Kimou is changing the discourse on international development in Africa.
Stephanie Kimou, 30, was tired — tired of the stereotypical rhetoric and imagery about Africa; tired of not seeing Africans in leadership positions; and was very tired of hearing the racist microaggressions from her white colleagues in the international development sector about Africa and African people. Tired of being sick and tired, Kimou (who hails from Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire) took a courageous chance to change her dilemma: she quit her job and created PopWorks Africa, an organization that empowers Africa’s most precious resource — its population — from the perspectives and politics of its people. Serving as lead consultant and CEO, Kimou works to address Africa’s most pressing challenges by crafting effective programs that support the socio-economic advancement of African people.
Partnering with leaders in the community, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and government sectors, PopWorks Africa collaborates with francophone African populations to create development programs that are innovative and sustainable in their support of healthy and economically empowered communities. Focusing on youth and social movements on the African continent, Kimou’s mission is to break silos and address Africa’s most pressing development hurdles, all the while highlighting the innovative work and activism being done on the African continent.
I spoke with Kimou about why she created PopWorks Africa; how her work and her organization are dismantling stereotypical narratives about Africa in international development; and why it is imperative that Black women own their own creative ventures and businesses.
Tell us more about PopWorks. What is it about and what do you do?
“PopWorks Africa is an international development consulting firm working to support and nurture African driven solutions to our continent’s health, economic, and social hurdles. In essence, PopWorks hopes to be the bridge between major donors and development agencies that not only want but also need to better understand the African realities; as they plan, budget, and allocate millions of dollars in international aid every year. In many ways, PopWorks is highlighting the fact African professionals do not need antiquated development solutions cut and paste from country to country (i.e. malaria, AIDs, gender based violence). African development professionals need partnerships and collaborative engagement with donors because they know the problems intimately, and thus will be able to craft solutions that no one in D.C., New York, or London could ever think of.”
“What PopWorks does is we leverage our expertise in arena’s like international donor relations, advocacy and policy messaging, and project management to work with African NGOs, and civil society organizations, to better plan, execute, and monitor the solutions they are developing on the continent. We travel a lot and we put on workshops (particularly with youth led organization) on how they can build consensus, advocate, and get funding for their ideas — essentially equipping African professionals with the skillset and capacities they need to be thought leaders, and influencers who are given the space to speak, but also the funds to execute their solutions.”
For so long, social movements and organizations on the African continent are used by many NGOS and INGOS for propaganda and profit, but are discarded soon after. Usually, those organizations are left without a plan for sustainability. How is PopWorks Africa creating a space where youth-led organizations in Africa can thrive on their own terms?
“You’ve hit the nail completely on the head! International development spaces have historically been very exploitative to the suffering of African people. It has always been “Oh, look at the starving children; look at these sad women; look at all of this war and disease.” NGOs and INGOs are around because they thrive and profit from continuously failing to provide formerly colonized nations any real solutions, but instead recycle the same projects and programs from country to country without truly allowing the people to weigh in. This is a broken system and PopWorks truly believes that when African innovators — particularly young African innovators leading youth organizations — are given the tools to better understand how to prioritize, plan, and implement the many brilliant ideas they come up with, change will and does happen.”
“This is more than just tradition building capacity — its leveraging the playing field. When western NGOs apply for funding, they understand the language of proposals, they understand how to craft budgets, they know how to use data to bolster their advocacy message, how to talk the talk and walk the walk, which opens the doors for funding opportunities and collaborative spaces. PopWorks wants to decrease this comparative advantage and show African youth-led organizations how they can be more than assistants in executing projects on behalf of others. We want to show them how to be main actors and leaders in implementing African grown solutions.”
Please tell me more about the organizations you work with. How are they catalyzing change in Africa and beyond?
“I work with some amazing young people who are true leaders in their fields. Right now, PopWorks is focusing our efforts on youth-led organizations who are advocating for better reproductive health services — particularly access to free and consistent contraceptives and family planning counseling. The organizations we work with include the Young Ambassadors of Family Planning in francophone Africa (this network of ambassadors spans across 9 countries from Senegal to Niger). They are pressing their governments to change restrictive laws that ban unmarried women from accessing family planning. They are also fighting for sexuality education to be incorporated into national curriculums and they are relentless in demanding free contraceptive supplies like condoms and birth control pills for young people. What I love about them is there are so many young men who lead these fights! Family planning and reproductive health issues are so often labeled a “woman’s thing”, but these organizations are shattering traditional gender norms as young men and women stand at the forefront; fighting together to protect a woman’s right to choose, and for couples’ rights to plan and space their pregnancies. It is amazing.”
You quit your job. You took a chance on your own creative business venture. Now, you are the CEO and founder of your own company. What has been the most rewarding part about your path to entrepreneurship? Why did you decide to take that risk?
“Some of the most rewarding parts of being at the head of PopWorks are the young people who have enveloped me into their movements. I fly across West Africa every month; doing trainings, engaging in dialogues, helping to shape their advocacy plans, brainstorming, and I’ve become so invested in their fight. As I work to equip them with these new skillsets, they have taught me so much about what it means to be a woman of the African diaspora. I was educated in the United States, with all of these years of experience in INGOs, and I never knew how much I could uplift other African innovators just by sharing what I’ve learned in my almost 10 years in this field. I had to take the risk to start PopWorks because it was my responsibility. I couldn’t just try to work my way up from one D.C. firm to another, sitting perched in my Connecticut Avenue office. I needed to get back to the continent, to those young people, to nurture and cultivate Africa’s next great leaders.”
What advice would you give to Black women who want to start their own business?
“If it doesn’t keep you up at night, if you don’t daydream about it, if you can’t vocalize the specific impact you want to have on our community, go back to the drawing board. Starting a business is 24/7 and your passion has to keep you going during those days when you are jet- lagged, ashy, and just missed your connecting flight. Your passion has to keep you going when people you trust throw you under the bus; when your vision is torn apart by people much whiter and more powerful than you; and even when funds aren’t adding up. This life isn’t easy, and unless you have a strong sense of self and purpose, you’ll burn the hell out early.”
What are some of the microaggressions that you had to overcome while working for someone else? Why is it imperative that Black women who are entrepreneurs know their worth?
“The international development sector is quite homogeneous — mostly white women who have worked and lived all over the world and who pride themselves in being culturally aware and holistically sensitive to suffering. With that said, I’ve been asked to take a photo for a presentation on Malawian women because my colleague didn’t want to purchase an expensive stock image of an actual Malawian woman. I’ve been in meetings where everyone around me is venting about how unorganized and unproductive our African colleagues have become. The list of microaggressions wouldn’t end and it was surprising that I was dealing with these things amongst the United States’ “most conscious groups of white people.” They were the ones who lived in Mozambique for two years and even spoke fluent Swahili. It didn’t make any sense, so I created my own space.”
“I didn’t give up on the international development sector — I carved out a piece of it for myself, where I decided who to work with, where to work, and how my image would be used. If I didn’t know my worth, I’d still be working in those environments; I’d still be busting my butt for a two percent raise; and I’d still be wondering if I could do it. Black women MUST understand their power and influence in this world — from the beauty industry, to law, to science, to the arts —we are so important and are the agents of change across the world. We not only start trends but we innovate, we create, and if you feel like you don’t have the space to spread out, take that space, create that space, and never apologize for it.”
For more information about PopWorks Africa, please visit http://popworksafrica.org.