Building a genuinely pan-African brand can be a challenge, but it is one that entrepreneur Irene Ochem is more than ready for, as her company, ICO Conferences & Events Limited, is building a great reputation for organising successful and high profile events across the continent. She is also creating a great network for women decision-makers and opinion-formers to come together and help to foster the empowerment of African women.
LoA chatted to Irene Ochem about her entrepreneurial journey, her passion for women’s empowerment and entrepreneurship, and her goals for the future.
"I had always desired to make a positive difference, no matter how small, and suddenly it dawned on me like a revelation that I wanted to make a difference in Africa."
What does your company do?
ICO Conferences & Events Limited is a young international and professional conference, exhibition and event management company. We are based in Nigeria and South Africa but we operate across Africa. We create, design and produce world-class, high-profile business-to-business, multi-stakeholder conferences and corporate events. We own our conferences, exhibitions and events. We take the process from creating the idea ourselves to concept development, production and execution. We organize trade and investment forums but we also specialize in organizing, on behalf of industry and professional bodies, Association Meetings, Congresses and Conferences.
Two flagship events, owned and produced by ICO Conferences & Events are: Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF) and Power Distribution & Metering West Africa (PDM-WA).
Upon setting up ICO, I immediately founded the Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF), a pan-African forum created and exclusively designed to highlight the important but unrecognized roles women play in Africa’s economic development and transformation, the challenges they encounter, and with an emphasis on proffering sustainable solutions. AWIEF annually brings together female entrepreneurs from all levels and sectors including grassroots, social entrepreneurs, innovators, MSMEs, NGOs, foundations, governments and the private sector to deliberate on innovative approaches and technologies to better foster the empowerment of African women and unleash their full potential for economic growth.
AWIEF also offers an exhibition platform for exceptional companies, organizations and women-owned businesses to showcase their projects and innovations, products, roles and contributions to the economy and society. By bringing together international representation of women in business, AWIEF promotes intra-Africa trade, reveals and celebratesachievements, and acts as a catalyst to network, share knowledge, dialogue and learn across the Continent’s borders.
In a nutshell, AWIEF is a platform for:
• African women-owned SMEs and MSMEs to gather and share perspectives for business growth
• Mentorship, inspiring and igniting next-generation of African women entrepreneurs
• Reconnection with like-minded individuals who desire to see African women empowered for the common goal of greater economic growth across the Continent
• B2B linkage and learning from best practices across African borders
• Reconnection with like-minded and fellow business women and the peer-learning that comes with this
• Capacity building and entrepreneurial skills development through the AWIEF Pre-Conference Workshops
• Exhibition of business products, technologies, solutions and services from across Africa
"I fell in love with the concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation and how powerful they can be as the engine of economic growth and development when combined together. By the time I finished my MBA studies, I had already started thinking, operating and analyzing everything with an entrepreneurial mindset."
What inspired you to start your company?
A couple of things inspired me to start my Company. I am a product of my experiences from when I was a young girl, a product of the people I have interacted with, and a product of all the places where I have lived or travelled to. I have predominantly lived an international lifestyle which has meant a lot of exposure, an open mindset and personal growth. I am of Nigerian origin but I spent decades living and working in Europe where I also carried out my post-graduate studies. In Europe, I worked for many years at a UN Agency and before that also in the private sector in the professional conference industry.
In 2008, I had an opportunity to relocate back to Africa and lived and worked in South Africa and Ethiopia. In 2013 when it was time to go back to Europe, I realized, and very delightfully so, that it was not what I really wanted to do. I had always desired to make a positive difference, no matter how small, and suddenly it dawned on me like a revelation that I wanted to make a difference in Africa.
These are exciting times for Africa, it is not mere rhetoric of Africa Rising; so much is really happening and so much is changing. But, as women, are we empowered to be part of this transformation? Living and travelling across different African countries, I have observed that women have not attained the same level of societal recognition as their male counterparts for their equally fundamental role and contribution to nation building and socio-economic development.
All my life, I have always been inspired by my mother who, as a young widow had to be strong, and equally raised me into a strong woman. I have also been inspired by some other exceptional and successful women who have positively impacted my life along the way. Where they have been economically empowered, African women have been able to excel in small and medium scale enterprises (SMEs). Clearly, if empowered with the right tools and inspiration to be economically and financially capable through business and innovation, African women, by their very nature, will readily reinvest their income to lift up their families, their communities, their nations and, ultimately, the African continent.
Having taken the decision not to go back to the Diaspora, I felt the time was ripe to give voice to this imbalance and bring the situation to limelight by founding and creating the Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum - AWIEF. I had to do this first by leaving a paid career to start myself as an Entrepreneur. I have the passion and decades of international experience in leading the organization and execution of large-scale, high-level, quality and high-profile professional conferences and forums, and it made sense for me to start a conference production and management company – ICO Conferences & Events – through which we produce the annual AWIEF and our other events in the power and energy sector.
"Clearly, if empowered with the right tools and inspiration to be economically and financially capable through business and innovation, African women, by their very nature, will readily reinvest their income to lift up their families, their communities, their nations and, ultimately, the African continent."
Why should anyone use your service or product?
We are an indigenous African company providing European standard conference production and management services. ICO enhances the quality and standard of professional conference production and management in Africa. We have a reputation for excellence in what we do. I leverage on my decades of international experience, professional skills and expertise acquired in the private conference sector and with the UN in Europe to ensure the same Western level of standard and quality not readily available across the Continent. Across Africa, almost all the available world-standard B2B conferences and exhibitions are owned by large and long-standing UK and American conference and event management conglomerates.
Tell us a little about your team
ICO Conferences & Events is a very young start-up, with a small team of dedicated and passionate people. We have people working from our Lagos office in Nigeria and others based in Cape Town.
Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey. And, do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
I did not think I was cut out for entrepreneurship. Over the years I loved my career in Italy until I started studying for my MBA in the UK. I immediately fell in love with the concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation and how powerful they can be as the engine of economic growth and development when combined together. By the time I finished my MBA studies, I had already started thinking, operating and analyzing everything with an entrepreneurial mindset, doing little side things while still carrying on with my jobs.
I would also say that I come from an entrepreneurial background. I have three brothers and they are all entrepreneurs. My elder and second brother has been a strong support base and business mentor since I started ICO. Every time I come across a challenge, I find myself always picking the phone and asking him “How do you think I should do this?” He has been very successful as an entrepreneur and has got incredible business acumen that I trust. So, I would say entrepreneurship runs in the family.
What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?
My plan is to grow the ICO Conferences & Events brand to one of the biggest, proudly African and highly reputable professional conference production and management firms. In the next five years, I would like to expand the ICO portfolio of events into other sectors. Currently, we are into business events, women empowerment and the power sector. My future plan is also to grow the brand through strategic partnerships and to expand into sector-related areas such as supplying conference and event management technologies and training.
As the Founder of AWIEF, in the very near future, I would like the initiative to have effectively influenced policy making and policy change on women’s equality of rights and economic opportunities across African countries. The long-term plan is that AWIEF develops and implements programmes and projects that effectively impact the lives of the African woman across all strata of the society.
"These are exciting times for Africa, it is not mere rhetoric of Africa Rising; so much is really happening and so much is changing."
What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?
I am two things: Business Owner of ICO Conferences & Events and Founder & Convener of Africa Women Innovation & Entrepreneurship Forum (AWIEF). I find a lot of fulfilment in what I am doing especially as the Founder of AWIEF and a strong advocate of African women empowerment and equality of economic opportunities. In just one year alone, I have had the opportunity of meeting so many great and successful African women including some from the Diaspora. Most of these women are doing awesome work, some as social entrepreneurs, and all of that work is targeted at uplifting the African woman and youth. Each of these women inspires me and helps me keep my AWIEF dream alive. I am so proud to know and be associated with them.
We have recently announced the AWIEF Advisory Board with membership made up of outstanding and impactful African women who have not only been the winds of change and architects for women empowerment and development advocacy in their own rights across Africa, but they have taken the command of the boardroom in large corporate firms and made important executive decisions that positively affected revenue and growth.
As an entrepreneur, I get great satisfaction each time I overcome every business challenge that had previously appeared so daunting. Sometimes I go to bed feeling defeated but then I wake up early in the morning with already a different idea running inside my head on how to go about the challenge, and I see myself smiling right into the shower with renewed enthusiasm and zeal.
"When you come across the road blocks .... do not turn back; persistence and resilience are key factors for success."
- Irene Ochem @awieforum
What's the biggest piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start-up?
To turn your idea into reality, you must keep alive that initial strong burning desire and will; stay in tune with technology and the new media and network extensively.
When you come across the road blocks, for you surely will, do not turn back; persistence and resilience are key factors for success. And, yes, you can make mistakes, but try to learn from your mistakes.
Contact or follow ICO Conferences
Why LoA loves it….
At LoA, we love those women entrepreneurs who think big, and who are driven to make a difference in the world. In the case of Irene Ochem, she is a real change-maker and a powerhouse of activity, driven by her passion for the empowerment of women through entrepreneurship, and creating events that get people talking about the societal changes in attitudes that need to take place if women are to thrive across the continent. Africa needs more women like her! --- Melanie Hawken, founder and editor-in-chief of Lionesses of Africa