A common perception is that Africa’s problems are caused by its leaders. In 2007, Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim even created a major cash prize through his charitable foundation as an incentive to African heads of state to treat their people fairly and equitably and not use their countries’ coffers for their personal enrichment. The Ibrahim Prize was intended to be an annual award, but was not dispersed in 2009, 2010, 2012, or 2013, because the prize committee could find no African Presidents worthy of it.
Although those at the highest levels in African politics often make the press for their foibles, one would be mistaken to conclude that Africa is bereft of excellent leaders. There are impressive innovators in the provision of healthcare, from Liberia’s Last Mile Health founder Raj Panjabi, to Nigeria’s inventor of the ‘hospital in a box,’ to Dr. Seyi Oyesola, and Somalia’s provider of healthcare to 90,000 in Mogadishu, Nobel Laureate nominee, Dr. Hawa Abdi. There are outstanding successes in education, from millionaire Ashesi University founder Patrick Awuah of Ghana to Fred Swaniker, founder of the excellent African Leadership Academy in South Africa. Ethiopian business leaders are exporting shoes, handbags, and injera (traditional flat bread) of the highest quality around the world. In the field of environmental conservation, leaders from Somalia’s Fatima Jibrell to Kenya’s Wangari Maathai and the DRC’s Corneille Ewango, have made lasting contributions to the protection of Africa’s flora and fauna.
Of those leaders making a positive difference, the largest and most dynamic group can be found among the continent’s youths. In August, 500 outstanding Africans, aged 25 to 35, completed a six-week Mandela Washington Fellowship program at one of 20 US universities. The Fellows were in the United States as part of President Obama’s Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), created in 2010 to strengthen ties with African youths.
Africa’s leadership is changing for the better, and young people are leading the way.
This year, 40 of the Fellows came from South Africa, in addition to 40 from Nigeria and 30 from Zimbabwe, including Sizwile Nyamande, who was able to spend her birthday with President Obama. Other countries, including Somalia and The Gambia, had fewer representatives (three and six Fellows respectively), but no less impressive contingents of young leaders.
- Saliou Diao Barry observed foreign volunteers assisting people in his home country of Guinea and determined that he too would make a positive difference. He launched Project Village Wellness in 2012, which enables the unemployed to bring palm kernels that can be freely collected along the coast to machines that press them into salable palm oil. Mr. Barry’s organization won a national Energy Global Award in 2014 and provided employment to 731 people—680 women and 51 men—by 2015.
- Amnah Ibuni was one of 21 Tanzanian Fellows. Ms. Ibuni grew up distressed by the number of young women in Zanzibar who were dropping out of school when they became pregnant. As a solution, she founded Sure Steps Nursery School, a place for young mothers to leave their children for half a day while they continued their education.
- Momodou Inkeh Bah is a politician making a positive difference in his community and the youngest elected official in Gambian history. He is leading a range of effective initiatives, from mangrove seedling planting to securing grants from non-governmental organizations and the World Bank, to improve local farming and education.
- Kelvin Macharia, one of 25 Fellows hosted by Dartmouth College this year, is the inventor of a patented, effective organic insecticide and the founder of Sunrise Tracking, a company at the forefront of security technology. Using a tracking device that Mr. Macharia invented, a customer can send a text that stops a thief by disabling a stolen vehicle.
Whereas most of the Fellows return to their home countries after the initial six-week program, 20 percent of the Mandela Washington Fellows remain in the United States for additional specialized training. Jean Bosco Nzeyimana, one of six 2015 Fellows from Rwanda, is currently undertaking a professional development program at Wisconsin Biological Systems Engineering to strengthen his skills to effectively lead his company, Habona Biogas, which produces affordable and environmentally-friendly fuels from waste.
Africa has long been home to innovative and civic-minded youths. Supportive international programs and modern communication are helping to raise global awareness of young African leaders’ initiatives and organizations. Africa’s leadership is changing for the better, and young people are leading the way.
To learn more about other talented young leaders, follow or visit my weekly blog, African Development Successes. I will be featuring several of the Mandela Washington Fellows individually over the coming months.
Learn more by exploring the following Oxford Bibliographies entries, which have been made freely available for a short time:
Image Credit: “Mandela Washington Fellows.” Public Domain via US Government.