This past May, I traveled to Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania to produce “Mind the Gap: Gender Equality and Trade in Africa” with a Nairobi-based film crew. As I headed off on my first official trip, I read and re-read the chapters that this film was designed to complement — all part of a fantastic new book, “Women and Trade in Africa: Realizing the Potential.” I felt very comfortable with the facts and figures — tourism in Kenya accounts for 12.5 percent of GDP; cotton is the third largest export in Uganda; small business owners are a huge part of Tanzania’s export economy, etc. — but did not fully understand the situation we were trying to explore until I met Mary.
Mary was our first interview subject. Going in to our meeting, I knew that she was a successful mountain guide and business owner, one of a growing number of women who are trying to make their way into the booming tourism sector in Kenya, which generates around $1 billion yearly, according to the book. What I could not know until I met her was the incredibly high hurdles she had overcome to get where she is, and the barriers that she continues to face simply because she is a woman — from surviving a rape at a young age and insisting on continuing her schooling and training, to facing harassment from her colleagues on the mountain (virtually all male), to being asked out for dinner or coffee every time she attempts to apply for a loan or a permit to expand the number of foreign clients she can serve each year.
It struck me as I listened to her story, and the stories of the many other women I met along this journey — from rural farmers to urban small business owners — that to fully use and understand the numbers we produce, it is important to know who is behind them, where they live, and how they live, in order to provide better services and more sound policy advice. This will not preclude me from furiously studying the newest facts and figures as they come out, but it definitely pushes me to want to know more and dig a little deeper to understand what, and more importantly, whom they represent.