Like many of us, I’ve logged far more hours on videocalls the past two years than I would’ve cared to. In a normal year, I spend a significant amount of time traveling internationally for my work with the Gates Foundation. When the pandemic hit and travel ground to a halt, I really missed it.
In the more than two decades since the Gates Foundation opened its doors, I’ve learned that it’s much harder to gain a real understanding of global health and development if you never leave a conference room in Seattle. My best chance to be effective, I’ve found, is when I spend time hearing directly from the people who are experiencing the problems I’m working to help solve. It’s no surprise that the most insightful ideas often come from people with firsthand knowledge of the issues.
In June, I returned to Senegal and Rwanda, my first trip to Africa since the pandemic began. I met a number of extraordinary women—entrepreneurs, scientists, advocates, and healthcare leaders—whose vision and ingenuity are creating new possibilities for their countries and industries. Each of these women spoke of the barriers they’ve overcome to reach the position they’re in today. And many of them shared their hope that their example will make it easier for the women who come after them.
Here are some of the stories I carried home with me.
Binta Diao: Reclaiming Her Future—and Rewriting It for Others
When Binta Diao was 14 years old, her life took a sharp turn: She was forced to leave school and marry a man twice her age. But she didn’t let her story end there.
More than a decade later, an organization called Tostan came to her village in southern Senegal, and Binta was the first to sign up. In doing so, she began to reclaim her future.
Through Tostan, Binta learned that she had rights as a human being and as a woman. What’s more, she learned that her rights had been violated—both when she was forced into child marriage and when, in accordance with local tradition, she was subjected to genital cutting as a little girl. Binta put this knowledge into action and brought together women in her community to begin raising awareness about the harmful effects of these practices.
In addition to becoming an activist, Binta used her newfound confidence to start a small business selling vegetables and dairy products. Binta says that her entire view of herself changed once she began making her own money, and so did the way her community saw her. Not only were they impressed that she was earning an income, they saw how she used her money to improve the lives of her children. “Before, I was just an ordinary woman, nobody,” she said. “But then I became somebody.”
Today, Binta is the host of an educational radio program, which she uses to support other women in their quest to earn incomes of their own. She sometimes goes out into villages and asks women about the things they care about—like their challenges with their gardens or their peanut-selling businesses—and invites listeners to call in with advice and helpful tips.
Though Binta has no daughters, she does have a son. And she is proud that because of efforts by “ordinary” women like she once was, his daughter, now 12 years old, has never been cut.
Eden Gatesi: Bringing Expert Medical Care to Every Rwandan
Eden Gatesi, 21, is an undergraduate at Rwanda’s University of Global Health Equity, founded in 2015 to train a new generation of medical professionals to provide high-quality care to patients in even the most impoverished and remote areas.
Eden entered the medical field after experiencing the costs of Africa’s doctor shortage firsthand. Her mother, a nurse, has always worked long hours in an understaffed health center, with little time left for family. Eden’s high school friend Tabitha died of a heart condition that went undiagnosed, in part because of a lack of cardiac specialists. After learning there was only one cardiothoracic surgeon in all of Rwanda, Eden set her sights on becoming the second.
Eden always thought medical school would be about becoming a “genius nerd,” as she puts it—all books and memorization. But the founder of the University of Global Health Equity, global health pioneer Dr. Paul Farmer, helped her see something different: Medicine isn’t just about science. It’s about community.
Paul instilled in Eden and her classmates the importance of treating patients with dignity and connecting with them as people. He also taught them that there are no bounds to what women—who make up 70 percent of UGHE’s student body—can accomplish.
In February, Paul—a friend of mine—died suddenly, leaving a huge void for all of us who loved him. It’s a big responsibility, Eden told me, to pick up where Paul left off. But she and her classmates are deeply committed.
“In the future I am going to be the person who makes quality health accessible even to vulnerable communities,” Eden says, “and also to keep on inspiring younger generations, so that at the end of the day, it’s going to be a better world.”
Dr. Marie-Angelique Sene: Fighting Discrimination as an ‘Unapologetic’ Leader
Dr. Marie-Angelique Sene is used to being underestimated. At only 28 years old, she serves as the Head of the Microbiology and Analytical Development Lab at the Institut Pasteur de Dakar, a prestigious research facility in Senegal. But her path there wasn’t easy.
When she was 18 years old, she moved from her home in Dakar to study abroad in Paris. She had already faced gender discrimination growing up in Senegal, but now she was forced to contend with racial and ethnic discrimination as well. Her European colleagues joked that she was not “a typical African” and didn’t bother to hide their surprise that she’d graduated from an elite program.
After four years in Paris, she was almost ready to give up on her dreams of being a scientist. But her mother encouraged her to persevere. “Be grateful people are trying to break you,” she said. “It means you are doing something right.”
Now that she is back in Senegal, Dr. Sene consistently witnesses people underestimate Africa just as she herself was underestimated. “Innovating, developing, producing vaccines, launching satellites—everything that is being done in other countries, it can happen in Africa,” she said. “Sometimes I like to think about Africa as a startup, with different departments in health, in agriculture, in IT. And they are all working together to make Africa go from a startup to a Fortune 500 company.”
In addition to showing the world what Africa is capable of, Dr. Sene is passionate about helping women and girls realize their potential, once again offering words of wisdom her mother once shared with her: “You have to be unapologetic about your leadership.” Dr. Sene wants them to know that, by living out their own dreams, girls can grow up to inspire others, telling them: “Whatever you do, it will not be insignificant.”
Yaye Souadou Fall: Creating Jobs, Helping the Environment—One Recycled Tire at a Time
As a 20-year-old business student in Dakar, Yaye Souadou Fall knew she wouldn’t be able to find work when she graduated. The labor market in Senegal was just too grim. So instead of spending her energy looking for a job that didn’t exist, she and her classmate, Khady Diallo, decided to create their own.
Inspiration struck from the unlikeliest of places: the abandoned tires strewn around Dakar, marring the city’s landscape. The tires were more than just unsightly—they were breeding grounds for mosquitos that spread malaria, and they often ended up ablaze, exposing millions of people to toxic fumes.
In 2015, Yaye and Khady founded the country’s first and only tire-recycling company, E-cover. E-cover turns discarded truck tires into three major products: AstroTurf filler (specifically, the FIFA-certified crumb rubber used for soccer fields), tire chips that cement factories use as a lower-emission form of fuel, and metal rods that get melted down and used in construction.
Starting a company is rarely glamorous work, and Yaye’s experience was no different. In the early days, the two women worked in Yaye’s backyard, breaking down tires using a meat grinder and spoons. They entered competitions and applied for grants, eventually pulling in the funding they needed to get off the ground.
“We were often told that, ‘You are too young, you’re a woman, it’s too big,’” Yaye said. But eventually, they found an investor—the women-founded and women-led Women’s Investment Club—who saw the company’s potential and helped Yaye and Khady prove that these two young women were precisely the right people to bring their big idea to life.
Dr. Shivon Byamukama: Delivering Lifesaving Care Through Mobile Phones
Dr. Shivon Byamukama was working as a banking executive in 2017 when she learned about Babyl Rwanda. In a largely rural country where getting to a health clinic can be an insurmountable challenge, Babyl Rwanda is helping millions of people across the country connect to doctors and nurses through their phones.
At the time, Dr. Byamukama, now 43, had just finished a fellowship in the United States that got her excited about the speed at which technology was expanding possibilities. She knew right away just how transformative a company like Babyl could be—and she wanted to play a part. “Oh my goodness,” she recalls thinking. “I can contribute to the future of how health care is going to be consumed.’”
So Dr. Byamukama made a career pivot and became Babyl’s managing director. Today, she leads 650 employees in delivering health care via mobile phone to 3,000 Rwandans each day. That’s 3,000 people who can talk with a doctor or nurse without trekking to a village health clinic. Who wait on average 14 minutes for an appointment rather than lining up for hours. Who can describe the symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection to an anonymous, nonjudgmental professional instead of a community health worker who might also be their neighbor.
More than half of Babyl’s senior leaders are women, something Dr. Byamukama believes is simply common sense. “In Rwanda, women are the caretakers of their families; they are the primary users of health care,” she says. “So they should be at the forefront of finding solutions.”
This article has been updated.
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Melinda French Gates is a philanthropist, businesswoman, and global advocate for women and girls.
As the co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Melinda sets the direction and priorities of one of the world’s largest philanthropies. In 2015, Melinda founded Pivotal Ventures, a company working to accelerate the pace of social progress in the United States. Melinda is also the author of the bestselling book The Moment of Lift.
Melinda grew up in Dallas, Texas. She received a bachelor’s degree in computer science and economics and an MBA, both from Duke University. Melinda spent the first decade of her career developing multimedia products at Microsoft before leaving the company to focus on her family and philanthropic work. She has three children—Jenn, Rory, and Phoebe—and lives in Seattle, Washington.
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