We recently spoke to Alice Ruhweza, Africa Region Director for the Worldwide Fund for Nature. In this spotlight interview, she shares a thought-provoking account of her experience as a female sustainable development leader. She gives us insight into some of the challenges that she has faced and explains how UNSSC’s Sustainable Development Leaders Mastermind Group has changed her perspectives and approaches on leadership for sustainable development.

Can you tell us about yourself and some of the challenges that you see as a sustainable development leader?

I am a Sustainable Development practitioner and thought leader with over 25 years experience working at the nexus of development, the environment and conservation.

In my current role, I lead the work of the Worldwide Fund for Nature in Africa. Our work is very much aligned to the 2030 global development agenda and the sustainable development goals (SDGs). Our conservation strategy focuses on six major goals: Food, Forests, Freshwater, Oceans, Climate and Energy and Wildlife– and three key drivers of environmental degradation – markets, finance and governance.

Before I talk about the  challenges, I would like to acknowledge that Africa has made considerable gains towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the aspirations of the African Union’s Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want. The Africa SDG report shows an average score across all African member States of 53.82 in 2020, which is slightly higher than the 2019 average.

The challenge I see is that progress in several areas is not advancing at the scale nor speed required. After six years of SDG implementation, the African continent is only halfway towards achieving the SDGs and targets by 2030. Poverty remains high and climate change and nature loss pose serious threats to current and future wellbeing. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war threaten to reverse progress, hitting the most vulnerable hardest, and risking them being left even further behind.

But I also see many opportunities, I see the glass as “half full”.

Africa’s young, entrepreneurial, and increasingly educated population is amongst the continent’s greatest assets. Africa is the fastest urbanising continent. With so much as yet unbuilt infrastructure, Africans have an opportunity to build their energy system using modern green technologies, without the costly task of dismantling existing fossil fuel infrastructure. A green energy transition also fits African resource endowments: Africa has 17.7% of the world’s population but has an estimated 28% of the world’s solar electric potential, and despite its large deserts, 18% of the world’s hydroelectric potential. Digital technologies have brought solutions that are well adapted to African conditions. Mobile payments and fintech have developed more rapidly in parts of Africa than elsewhere in the world, due to the greater demand for such tools in places with a less developed financial industry.

Achieving the SDGs could open $12 trillion in market opportunities and 380 million jobs by 2030. For Africa, the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) provides a unique opportunity to implement the SDGs and Agenda 2063.

Last but by no means least, people across Africa and the rest of the world are showing an unprecedented interest in nature. Governments and industry are taking steps towards a net zero and carbon neutral, nature-positive future.

What are your most significant leadership challenges in the context of the 2030 Agenda?

The Sustainable Development Goals which form part of the2030 Agenda are intended to be integrated, indivisible and balance the three dimensions of sustainable development: the economic, social and environmental. However, experience shows that the integrated approach is still being hindered by: 

  1. A lack of synergistic and systematic framing and thinking about development problems; 
  2. A Lack of a framework for integrated planning in many countries—possibly due to siloed governance and lack of technical capability; 
  3. Limited data and understanding of trade-offs and co-benefits (connectivity and complementarity of actions). Trade-offs are not measured, tracked or understood in most countries—underestimating the effect of actions that could benefit multiple realms; 
  4. Countries are overwhelmed with the sheer number and seemingly competing demands of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and indicators. Most are already beginning to be siloed, with some countries and donors already singling out only one or a few SDGs to focus on. This goes against the intended purpose  of the SDGs as a universal and integrated agenda that was adopted by all countries. 

Addressing the competing priorities of the 17 SDGs will require us to explicitly address trade-offs and synergies among stakeholders and build collaborative relationships. It is worth noting that this can also be very costly. The UN has estimated that monitoring and reporting on the SDGs will cost at least US$ 1 billion per year.  This cannot be met by one sector alone. We need a whole-of-government approach.

WWF just launched a new strategy for Africa that is focused on “making nature everyone’s business. This strategy seeks to reframe the narrative by demonstrating that goals to conserve nature and Africa’s economic aspirations can co-exist in “shared spaces”. Furthermore, protecting, sustainably managing, and restoring nature is not just the business of conservation organizations. It is the shared business of everyone, everywhere – and we need all hands on deck.

How did the Sustainable Development Leaders Mastermind Group at UNSSC help you become a better leader?

One of the best things about the Mastermind Group is that it brings together leaders from diverse backgrounds and organisations facing common challenges. The one thing that holds us together is our desire to create a better world. Mastermind created a safe space for all of us to brainstorm together. For example, one of the areas we talked about most was how to fix the financing model.  I talked about the challenge of silos. Financing is very much part of it because money is going towards siloes. There are no incentives to fund the much-needed integrated approach. So, what can we do?

We started exploring how we can go about creating such incentives. We talked about engagement and influencing differently, because it is all about influence at this point in our leadership journey. There is nothing else you can do. It is about how you use your influence and how you bring others to your side.

One discussion that stood out for me was the one where we looked into how we can bring others to our side by understanding where they are coming from.  We resolved that in order to influence others, we would need to understand their losses. What do they stand to lose when we change the status quo? If we can reduce their losses, our chances of influencing them increase.

Even though the duration of the course was not long enough for us to find immediate solutions, we created a community of practice and a compact to continue engaging with each other.

Given your experience, what are your reflections on women’s leadership in Africa? How can women contribute to ensuring that they are better represented?

Women’s leadership in Africa is not a new phenomenon. Throughout Africa’s history, women have been  critical problem solvers, leading militaries during the pre-colonial period, fighting for freedom during independence movements, being transitional leaders during post-conflict periods, and leading during some of the worst economic, political, and health crises of the 21st century.

There is a growing body of research that shows that women bring skills that make organizations better. And frankly, women’s leadership is becoming more recognised now than ever. African women’s growing presence as public leaders is not confined to national institutions, and African women now hold leadership positions in the World Trade Organization, African Union, and the United Nations, among others.

Many African countries have come a long way, but the majority still fall far behind the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action’s goal of 30 per cent and the African Union Agenda 2063 goal of 50 per cent women’s representation. In Africa, women occupy about 24 per cent of the parliamentary seats which is significantly close to the global average. Unfortunately, only two subregions, Southern Africa and East Africa, largely account for Africa’s high rates of women’s representation. They boast 31 per cent and 32.4 per cent of women’s parliamentary representation, respectively. The other three subregions fall over 10 percentage points behind.

In 2018, I joined Homeward Bound - an all-women expedition in Antarctica to increase women’s leadership in shaping our planet. I learned a lot from the women on this voyage. First, women tend to be reluctant leaders. We are not always willing to be visible because we don't want to be vulnerable. Yet to lead and support meaningful change, one must be willing to be visible and vulnerable. Another exciting thing is that while women have strong values, they are sometimes left behind in the workplace. We stick to what is practical. We do the work that needs to be done and then we go back home and practice our values in our safe spaces.

Research has shown that visibility often eclipses all other criteria as the most crucial factor for women’s advancement. But visibility is not a straightforward proposition. For women everywhere, glass ceilings, embedded cultural misogyny, unconscious bias, the gender pay gap, and the lack of affordable childcare are just a few on a long list of structural barriers. And we are scared to be visible because it makes us vulnerable. We have seen what happens to those who dared to be visible. So why should we dare?

We were challenged during this voyage to practice values-based leadership. We learned that we need to bring those values into the workplace and if it means quitting the job because it does not reflect your values, so be it. Of course, it is not easy. We all have families to feed, and this is why we are practical.

So, what is the middle ground?  As a sustainable development female leader, I advocate for a development model that benefits all strata of society, from households to local communities, as well as national and regional levels. It is important to ensure measures that are taken by governments and partners do not undermine the rights of women, youth, indigenous peoples and local communities. And most important of all, I would like girl education to be recognized as the biggest game changer for Africa in achieving its SDGs and Agenda 2063.

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What is your message to aspiring women leaders?

Be brave, be visible and embrace vulnerability.

First, we must be visible to ourselves: This means self-reflection. Who am I? Why am I here? How did I end up here? What makes me different? How do I shape the environment around me? Research has shown that “structured reflection”, or those conscious hours and effort spent on genuine introspection and self-examination - has a highly positive impact on leadership development. Knowing your story gives you purpose.

Next, we must be visible to others: for this, we need to know who the most important people to engage with are. Is it just one key person or a million people? Is it one courageous conversation or more?

And finally, we must pursue collective visibility: using the visible leadership platform we build for ourselves to support a cause, issue or movement bigger than ourselves.

Even when things get tough, you will always go back to your story and remind yourself why you are where you are, and that will keep you going forward.

As Marie Curie says, “we must have perseverance and above all, confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”  

What was the most memorable part of the Sustainable Development Leadership Mastermind Group?

I have to say the most memorable lesson was personal branding because I don’t think this is something we had ever thought about. When the instructor asked, “what is your personal brand?”, we all had different answers. Then she said, “your personal brand is what people say about you when you're not in the room. Do you know what that is? Because if you do not, then you need to begin that process as soon as possible”. I thought that lesson was extremely important.

I love learning. I am very curious, and I believe there is always something new to learn from someone. It doesn't always have to be people at the same level as you. Anybody can teach you something new.

I would encourage everybody to take the Mastermind Group because it is a great place to network and meet like-minded leaders, share experiences and explore solutions to some of the world’s greatest challenges. You develop a network. You create new relationships with people you can call later talk to. I am grateful that we continued the discussions. I follow my group on LinkedIn, and we celebrate each other’s achievements. We even have a WhatsApp group where we can engage with each other.

Join the next Mastermind Groups

The next cohort of the Sustainable Development Leaders Mastermind Group will start on 26 August. If you are interested in applying please email sustainable-development@unssc.org.