Entrepreneur and businesswoman Isabel dos Santos Examines the obstacles to empowering African people in the 21st century… and the potential solutions.

Empowerment, particularly as it relates to leadership, economics and gender, is a word we hear used a lot. And it is certainly a theme that is very close to my heart. Talking to audiences about how we can empower more and more ordinary Africans is a big concern of mine.

What does empowering African people mean in the 21st century?

Dramatic social and economic change defines our era. The opportunities (and challenges) presented by technology are transforming our lives. Our world is more connected than ever. And yet at the same time it is also divided by questions of how we should go about dealing with dramatic global challenges like climate change.

So, in the face of all of this, what does it really mean to be empowering African people in the 21st century?

When I talk about empowerment, it goes beyond narrow definitions involving economics, or gender, or ideas of power. Instead, it is something more all encompassing, and at the same time deeply personal.

For me, empowerment simply means having control over your own future. And of course, this means different things for different people. For some, the route to that freedom, that source of control, lies in simply having more money.

For others, it might be about having the chance to train yourself in a new skill, that helps you to start a business that can support your family. And for others still it might be about breaking through the societal discrimination that they face.

Everyone has a dream of how they would like to live their lives in the future. And for me empowerment is simply about giving people back the ability to make the choices that will help them to realise those dreams.

Obstacles to empowerment

Before I go deeper into this however, it’s worth talking about the factors that stand in that stand in the way of personal empowerment. If empowerment means giving people control over their lives, what is currently standing in the way of this happening?

For me, one of the biggest obstacles to empowering Africans in the 21st century that I see is poverty and economic isolation. In the course of my work I’m lucky to have met many people who are trying to set up and run their own successful businesses, particularly in Angola.

These range from small agricultural companies in remote rural communities, to creative entrepreneurs in busy urban areas like Luanda. But more often than not, in both (very different) environments, I see people facing the same challenges.

Poverty might mean that they may be operating at or below subsistence level, barely making enough simply to survive month to month. Or they might simply be too isolated from other markets or opportunities to be able to grow and expand their businesses to the next level. Again, this problem of economic isolation can be an issue both for urban and rural entrepreneurs.

An unequal environment

Another challenge, of course, is discrimination – particularly for women. There are huge obstacles in the way of women when it comes to economic empowerment in Africa. They have less access to a full education than their male counterparts. They are less likely to get the financing they require to start their own business. And even when they are employed, face discrimination in the workplace.

Most importantly, the final obstacle to personal and economic empowerment for many ordinary Africans is simply a lack of belief.

When you grow up in a community where people don’t expect to be able to realise their dreams, it is hard to feel in control of your own destiny. When you work for a company that doesn’t put trust in its own people to make decisions and develop themselves, it is tough to progress professionally. And when you have no role models to look up to, it is hard to imagine how someone like you might one day achieve their dreams.

Routes to empowerment

As I see it, there are at least a couple of potential ways out of this – potential routes to empowerment that we can all contribute to.

One of the most important of these is enabled by something I mentioned earlier – technology.

If empowerment is about having control over own learning and development, tech can help to meet this challenge. If empowerment is about bringing people out of economic isolation, and connecting them with other communities and other markets, technology can do this too. And if technology can help us to build movements of like-minded, inspirational role models, then that too can lead to greater empowerment.

But of course, feeling empowered also means knowing that you’re being judged purely on your abilities, not your gender or your ethnic background. Overriding the kind of societal and institutional discrimination that so many people face, every day, is a huge challenge. But this is something that we can all make a huge difference to as leaders.

We can recruit and develop fairly and transparently, of course. But most importantly, as leaders, we can also help individuals to feel more empowered simply by putting our faith in our own people. In my experience, it is critical that we give our teams the authority to make their own decisions.

This kind of empowering leadership means we have to give them the leeway to make mistakes tooand learn from them. And that’s where it differs from delegation – as a leader or a manager it’s not about just giving people below you jobs to do.

It’s about empowering them to be involved in the running of the business and to make important decisions on their own.The research agrees with what most of us know intuitively: that being empowered in this way leads to higher employee engagement.

And when employees are more engaged, and feel empowered to shape their own futures, that is good for all of us.

Read more about my thoughts on how to accelerate Africa’s potential.