International Women's Day, observed worldwide on March 8, is primarily to recognize and highlight women's role, achievements and challenges in society. A number of Russian women have been on the frontline, driving some significant aspects of Russia's foreign policy with Africa.
These efforts, stretching from academic research through consultation of business and investment to culture directions have helped shape the current diplomatic relationship with the region, and have had considerable positive impact from East to West, from Algeria to Zimbabwe.
In an exclusive interview, Professor Irina Abramova, Director of the Institute for African Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, spoke highly how Russia has steadily raised its profile from abnormally low level after Soviet collapse in 1991.
Abramova was appointed as the first female director in 2016. Under her directorship and guidance, the Institute for African Studies (IAS) has provided the necessary research in many spheres that formed the basis for formulating strategic policy implemented in Africa.
This role also includes forging cooperation with Africa in the international arena that means establishing closeness of positions on the formation of a new international order, the possibility of consolidating Russia's position as an influential center of world politics.
"There is currently a different Africa – Africa with rapid economic growth and profitable spheres of investment operations. As a result, building mutually beneficial cooperation remains one of the main priorities of Russia. An important area of work in this regard is the improvement of the legal framework of our relations with the African states," she told me during the interview discussion.
With regard to challenges, Abramova noted that Africans have been poorly informed about the possibilities of Russian partnership. "It is necessary to establish an effective exchange of information on the investment potential of the business and on how to focus efforts on expanding partnerships with Africa."
The media should more actively inform Russians about the prospects for the development of the African continent, its history and culture. For majority of Africans, Russia is associated with the Soviet Union, although they still have very warm feelings towards Russia.
In general, the Russian Federation in Africa and Africa in the Russian Federation are very poorly presented in the media.
In her views, Russian technology can be successfully promoted in Africa. It's not just about industries but also exploration, transportation, infrastructure, energy and the construction of nuclear power plants.
For her role as a female director, who is partly involved in pushing for an admirable relationship between Russia and Africa, amounts to the role of a mother or curator, the essence of recognizing women and March 8.
Men have historically view women with high skepticism, often interpreting their roles synonymously with childcare at home. But women are now at the frontline fighting for equality – equal roles with men and social status.
According to Nataliya Zaiser, Head of Africa Business Initiative (ABI) – a business lobbying NGO, March 8 solidifies women's energy and brings them closer to work with their men counterparts in unison, create a better society.
Since March 2016, Zaiser has been the Head of Africa Business Initiative (ABI), created with the support of Russian businesses as a platform for the humanitarian, economic and legal expertise, and it also aimed at strengthening relations between Russia and Africa. The main goal of this organization - to unite the efforts in promoting and supporting the interests of Russian businesses within the framework of broader international cooperation on the territory of the African continent.
"Times have changed significantly. There is a new economic and political environment providing different opportunities for women to take up roles in developing relations between Russia and Africa. What remains the same is a will, a very loyal mutual attitude between Russia and African countries and strong desire to push forward these mutual efforts," she told me during an interview.
On Russia and Africa relationship, she noted that Russia has developed a number of business councils for cooperation both with individual African countries as well as with its own regions and with its neighbors.
For Africa in particular, the Africa Business Initiative (ABI) offers the chance of a consolidated approach, and as an independent organization, it can work with the business community in Russia and at the same time combine the interests of the state, the diplomatic community, the academic institutions and the African business diaspora.
"In my view, Russia is open. Africa has much to offer Russia, which is a large country and has excellent prospects in the regions, many of which are developing very rapidly and are ready to accept new partnerships, and discuss forms of cooperation," Nataliya Zaiser said while stressing her previous efforts and huge-accumulated experience working in this direction as a female policy decision-maker.
Russian women in the regions are also on the frontline. Polina Slyusarchuk, Head of Intexpertise (St. Petersburg-based African focused Consultancy Group), questioned whether Russia has a broader Africa policy or long-term strategy in there. "Today, Russia wants to deepen its understanding of the business climate and explore trade and partnership opportunities in Africa," she underlined.
While meetings organised between Russia and Africa have to discuss thoroughly how to trade, efforts should be made to remove or lessen some of the barriers for mutual benefits. Now Russia's main goal is to decide what it can offer that foreign players haven’t yet been made available in the African market.
Acknowledging the huge untapped economic potentials in the relations between Russia and Africa, Ekaterina Dyachenko founded the B2B Export Group of Companies.
Kenya-based Dyachenko has more than 10 years of tremendous experience working and facilitating Russian business issues in Africa.
After the previous Russia-African Forums (RAF) that were successfully organized in South Africa and East Africa, the B2B Group of Companies has received positive responses from African business community indicating enormous interest in goods and services Russian companies can offer and export to Africa.
Her dream was to make the Russian-African Forum (RAF) as one of the effective platforms for building an efficient business-to-business dialogue between Russia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Dyachenko last held her RAF in July as part of the INNOPROM-2016 international industrial trade fair in Yekaterinburg (Urals), that business gathering has attempted to outline diversified ways for strengthening economic cooperation between Russia and Africa.
According to the organizing committee, the Yekaterinburg forum attracted delegations from different countries including Algeria, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Namibia, Rwanda, Senegal, Cameroon, Chad, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Egypt, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
In addition to above efforts by women, Lyubov Demidova, Deputy Chairperson of the Regional Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Moscow Region, has created the Regional Council for the Development of Relations with African countries (abbreviated RCDRAC) which serves as a good platform for the development of fruitful cooperation in various fields between Russia and Africa.
The primary task of RCDRAC is to make the cooperation as comfortable, convenient and safe for both parties. It all depends not only on Russia but also on African States, and for its part, the RCDRAC has been making efforts to establish large-scale, long-term and mutually beneficial cooperation, and there would be some positive results on the part of African States.
In some areas would cooperate fast enough, and in some other areas require years of hard work to get effective and positive results, according to Demidova.
There are key challenges and problems facing Russian companies and investors that wanted business in Africa. The obstacle is insufficient knowledge of the economic potential on the part of Russian entrepreneurs, the needs and business opportunities in the African region. The RCDRAC plans to help members of the business community of all countries to address issues for effective and mutual economic cooperation.
She reassured thus: “I think African companies in Russia face the same problems similar to that of the Russian companies face in Africa. On the question of activities, we hope that our future advice will help to build business confidence for the African entrepreneurs and potential exporters to the Russian market.”
The gender imbalance in the African diplomatic community is glaring. In the Russian Federation, there are female African Ambassadors from Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Burundi, Rwanda and South Africa.
In fact, being a woman in a country like Russia presents a unique opportunity to be easily recognized, stand tall among fellow men. As top female diplomats, their presence vividly exemplifies women role in such high-level positions, and a reminder of equal rights for women as we celebrate March 8th, International Women's Day.
In conclusion, International Women's Day has a clear simple message: the global struggle for gender equality, advancement women's rights and making sure that women are consistently offered the opportunity to play significant roles in the society.
By Kester Kenn Klomegah
The author writes frequently on Russia, Africa and the BRICS.