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Maïmouna Diatta: Rising quietly to the challenge of leading COVID-19 working group at AfricaRice

At the beginning of the challenging period of COVID-19 pandemic, AfricaRice appointed Maïmouna Diatta to lead the institution’s COVID-19 working group that helped the Center to make informed decisions regarding the pandemic. On this International Women’s Day 2021, as we celebrate women’s leadership in the COVID-19 pandemic and salute their joint efforts to manage an unprecedented health crisis, we share the inspiring story of Maïmouna Diatta, who rose quietly to the challenge of helping AfricaRice cope with the crisis using her unique participative leadership style.

Maïmouna Diatta, who works as a French Translator-Editor at AfricaRice, was appointed as the institute’s focal point for the COVID-19 working group at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. In this new role, she had to collect information and follow up on the evolution and impact of the pandemic based on data received from her team members – the COVID-19 focal points in AfricaRice outstations (Bouaké in Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Senegal, Madagascar, Nigeria and Uganda). That information was organized and used to make informed recommendations to AfricaRice leadership. Together with the other CGIAR focal points and in meetings with the CGIAR System Management Office and other CGIAR Centers, best practices and updates were shared.

The actions taken at AfricaRice following the recommendations of the COVID-19 working group included the development of context-specific protocols (e.g., bans on international travels, rules of conduct in case of infection, raising awareness about the COVID-19 preventive measures, such as physical distancing, strict hygiene rules, wearing of masks, etc.); the implementation of the home-office policy in April 2020 and adjustments in the workplace operations when AfricaRice decided to resume the office work in early July 2020 (activities included the production of a sensitization video for AfricaRice staff featuring the Director General speaking on the measures taken by the Center; the drafting of official advisory notes and reports regarding the pandemic situation at the headquarters and in the outstations.)

At the onset of the pandemic, the first case of COVID-19 in countries where AfricaRice headquarters and regional and country stations are located, was declared in Nigeria on 27 February, and soon after, most countries reported cases in their territory. From then onwards, the number of daily new cases kept increasing and peaked in all countries. Fortunately, most governments put in place travel restrictions, night curfews and eventually lockdowns were imposed in all countries (Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda, Nigeria, Liberia, Madagascar).

Given the economic structure of these countries (with a high proportion of people working in the informal sector) and the adverse effects of the restrictions on the economies and populations’ livelihoods and the risk of civil unrest in several countries led the governments to ease or lift the lockdown measures, while continuing the awareness campaigns on the virus and urging their populations to respect the preventive measures.

Then the number of daily new cases started going down in August 2020 in most countries, a phenomenon that seems to defy any rational explanation. In October, low numbers of active cases, high numbers of recoveries (over 80% in all countries) and stable numbers of deaths were recorded. The second wave of infection, however, mercilessly hit at the end of the year and in early 2021. It started at the end of November 2020 in some West and East African countries including Senegal, Uganda and Nigeria. By January 2021, all countries where AfricaRice operates were experiencing a second spike in the number of daily new contaminations. Although the death rates were still low and the recoveries high, the health systems in these countries were starting to be overwhelmed.

AfricaRice shares with the world “one common hope” -- namely the anti-COVID-19 vaccine. Through the WHO-led COVAX global partnership initiative and through bilateral negotiations, some African countries have started the first phases of vaccination targeting health workers and vulnerable people.

As a leader, Maïmouna has learnt a lot of things. She has realized that “leadership is about communication and the relationship which a leader develops with her team members”. Maïmouna’s approach was participative: “for instance, I asked my team members at the beginning of the pandemic if they wanted us to meet weekly. But as the COVID19 news reports were grim and anxiety-inducing, the members suggested that we interact on a one-to-one basis even more frequently. We updated information the pandemic situation daily on Microsoft Team platform and we kept interacting through the WhatsApp group and calling virtual meetings only when necessary.” Maïmouna shares an important lesson here that leadership is about caring and paying attention to our collaborators’ opinions and expectations.

As a woman, a leader in a COVID-19 pandemic period, and more importantly, a leader of COVID-19 management team, Maïmouna faced the challenge of working from home during the lockdown., To her surprise, she found herself with much more work “at her home desk” in addition to her usual portion of household work. “My days started earlier and ended later, and more importantly my children did not understand why their mother was at home and yet not available,” says Maïmouna.

Her female qualities were particularly useful in this leadership role: Maïmouna is very patient and takes time to process situations before acting. Even when given a negative answer, she would usually not insist but rather think about finding another way of making the same suggestion and have it validated in time. These qualities have made her accomplish the above challenging task in a role where many would not have preferred to take up. AfricaRice leadership and the entire staff members are grateful to Maïmouna and the team under her leadership for their timely and pertinent recommendations and support.

Maïmouna, who used to like to work behind the scene such as in her principal function as a translator, found the experience in her new role enriching and certainly rewarding. In her words, she describes, “this experience has taught me that more responsibilities and stepping out of your comfort zone are correlated”. She advised the women leaders in this COVID-19 period, to “take good care of your family, your loved ones and most importantly of yourself, especially of your mental health.”

The world concurs with Maïmouna that women are the backbone of their families because they are expected to respond to the emotional needs of their family members. “But then people rarely ask us how we are, yet we are not invincible,” she adds. Her advice is that “women leaders should also take time for themselves to release the tension accumulated at work and at home.”

Also, according to Maïmouna, who is a former winner of AfricaRice’s prestigious Dr Robert Carsky Award for her dedicated service and commitment to excellence, “while women tend to be perfectionists, there is nothing like perfection. In this process, we might lose many opportunities because we deem ourselves not fit to compete. The only thing we have to do is step out of our comfort zone, be ourselves and shine.” This is another profound word of wisdom, that every woman in leadership position and every female aspiring leader will readily embrace and preserve. Cheers to Maïmouna Diatta! Happy International Women’s Day 2021!!!


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