Q & A: What Young African Leaders Are Saying About Obama’s Summit

Written by Veronica Pamoukaghlian

Last week at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, U.S. President Barack Obama told the world the U.S. is investing in young African leaders.

He’s putting U.S. dollars behind training with leadership centers, new grants, existing grants and online programs.

Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative, aka the Mandela Washington Fellowship, brought 500 African business leaders under the age of 35 — selected from a pool of 50,000 applicants — to top U.S. universities to network and develop business and leadership skills.

Participants met Obama and many key industry players in the U.S. as part of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, held Aug. 4-6 in Washington, D.C.

AFKInsider spoke to three of the young African leaders — stakeholders in the theory and practice of the summit. While their views are cautious and realistic, these African business leaders seem optimistic about Obama’s commitment to African development.

Mara Foundation’s Ashish J. Thakkar described the summit as, “history in the
making.” Thakkar is a founder of this organization which plays a key role in empowering young Africans and bringing their business initiatives to market. He believes the world is waking up to the abundant trade and investment opportunities Africa has to offer.

The young African leaders were asked to develop a set of recommendations which were presented at the summit. Companies such as IBM have expressed an interest in the young leaders’ abilities to use their experience in the U.S. for change in Africa.

Obama announced $33 billion of investments in private and public funds; the Trade Africa Initiative which aims at facilitating African countries’ trade with each other; and he raised the bar for programs like the successful Power Africa, promising to bring electricity to 60 million African homes and businesses.

With an emphasis on leadership, creativity, and social technology, the YALI program shows potential to have a long-lasting effect.

Taurai Chinyamakobvu is a Zimbabwean e-commerce leader and one of the Mandela Fellowship alumni.

Naike Moshi was mentored by the Mara Foundation and is Tanzanian head of CV People Africa, a multi-country recruitment agency.

Eyram Taiwa is CEO of LETI Arts, an African leader in game design and interactive media with offices in Ghana and Kenya.

AFKInsider: How far into the future do you think the consequences
of President Obama’s announcements will go for the African continent?

Taurai Chinyamakobvu: It was a pleasure meeting President Obama, and the summit is a milestone in the relations between U.S. and Africa’s young people. If there is long term stakeholder support, these announcements will have very long term benefits. They should be supported by both politicians and business people across the Atlantic.

That there is potential for the U.S. and Africa to collaborate for mutual benefit is not in doubt. The fact that President Obama noted that U.S.’s trade with the continent is presently only equal to its trade with Brazil means that there is strong upside potential.

AFKInsider: What are the areas in which Africa might benefit most from partnerships with the U.S.?

Naike Moshi: Africa will benefit from technology transfer and foreign direct investment. Funds for aid and peacekeeping will increase, and research and innovation will flourish. Crucially, the job market for young peaople will expand, reducing the continent’s critical
unemployment problems.

Taurai Chinyamakobvu: By empowering young leaders, President Obama is spot on. Our youths in Africa need to roll up their sleeves, get involved and work hard. Only we can build the continent. I agree that technology transfer and technical collaboration are key. Americans will find commercial value in extending their technical know-how to African partners, for example, through licensing. Many African countries are ready to take off, and technology transfer helps them leapfrog the technology gap. This is nothing new for American businesses, as they have shared know-how in the past with companies
from growing Asian economies.

Eyram Tawia: Software tech entrepreneurs will certainly benefit from these initiatives. However, we need more direct investment from American investors, since they tend to back out when it comes to software companies due to the challenging ecosystem. Fortunately, a few brave ones like Meltwater and Google have started taking advantage
of opportunities.

AFKInsider: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of
goals set by President Obama?

Eyram Tawia: Efficiency in execution of the goals. Getting the right people to help execute this great course.

Taurai Chinyamakobvu: The most daunting goal is developing the energy sector. I consult for a top Japanese corporation exploring electrical power plant projects in Africa, and I understand the sector’s challenges. We have a huge power deficit on the continent. All African countries, including South Africa, have power deficits. Most Nigerian businesses, for example, run on generators. Africa’s growing middle class and growing productivity in extractive, manufacturing, and tertiary industries need reliable and cost-effective power to ensure that African businesses are reliable partners in the global supply chain.

Opportunities exist. The Grand Inga Dams project in the DRC has the potential to generate over 50,000 megawatts of power. That’s enough to meet over half of the continent’s requirements. Yet it requires tens of billions of dollars to get it off the ground. Many electricity infrastructure projects require substantial funding. The question is, will American partners and financiers be up to the task?

Naike Moshi: Corruption also hinders progress for many U.S. programs in Africa, costing African economies tens of billions of dollars every year. Thus, another challenge is whether all the gains will reach the intended beneficiaries in Africa.

AFKInsider: What do you think will happen if Republicans win the
next U.S. election? Do you envisage a sustained commitment to African
development beyond the Obama administration?

Eyram Tawia: I believe everyone is committed to support a good cause. If Republicans fail to support this, they will remain in the past. Africa is the future, not because Obama says so, but because it is true. Tech giants have already started migrating quickly into the
continent to serve the rapidly rising middle class. Intel, Microsoft, Google — they definitely see something. Investors like the Meltwater Foundation have already gotten the ball rolling. Google has started empowering young Africans, not because Obama said so.

Taurai Chinyamakobvu: It remains a risk that Republicans may backpedal on some of these initiatives. But I am sure that American businesses see opportunities in the African continent. This century is an African century. That is why there are so many summits aimed at building partnerships with Africa, for example, TICAD, the China-Africa Summit,
and the E.U.-Africa Summit.

I also think the renaming of the Young African Leaders Initiative as Mandela Washington Fellowship has ensured its continuity, as I don’t see any politician discontinuing an initiative named after Mandela at this stage.

Naike Moshi: I don’t see a risk. The U.S. government has signed commitments for more than five years. Let us not forget that it was a Republican president who launched the largest U.S. global health aid program in history — the president’s emergency plan for AIDS relief.

AFKInsider: What is your perception of the success or failure of U.S.-led initiatives for the development of Africa in the last 10 years?

Eyram Tawia: USAID (The U.S. Agency for International Development was founded in 1961) and other funds have concentrated on improving health and agriculture, and their impact is apparent. However there’s still a lot to be done. I believe these funds should be investing more in technology and growing tech entrepreneurs. In the private sector, Google Ghana has been empowering young entrepreneurs by recruiting Google ambassadors from schools and supporting local innovations that could change the face of Africa. The Meltwater foundation is also investing in the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.

Naike Moshi: The President’s Malaria Initiative (launched in 2005 by President George W. Bush) is a good example, in that it has been instrumental in dramatically reducing the burden of malaria across the continent, especially among the most vulnerable populations.

Taurai Chinyamakobvu: American initiatives have not been as successful as they should. China still leads the way in terms of trade with Africa. Initiatives such as AGOA (African Growth and Opportunity Act) have met with limited success, and critics say AGOA-led exports have been dominated by raw materials and oil. American businesses need to realize that Africa is not one country, but a continent with 54 sovereign countries. American firms will need a specific strategy for each African country. Their success will come from partnering with locals who have a better understanding of local circumstances, for example, the Mandela Washington Fellows and the wider YALI membership.