My Experience of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa Program

When I was leaving Malawi, I made a decision that it was okay for me to miss on selfies, but not the knowledge, skills and experiences at the convening in Johannesburg. I guess this explains why I do not appear in many pictures shared on this blog. If I am to summarise the experience in Johannesburg, I will say ‘Learning and Therapy.’ This blog cannot do justice to the lessons acquired. I hope you learn from the blog.

(Delegates arrive and greet on the first day of the Obama Foundation Leaders meeting held at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa July 14, 2018)

Day One: Welcome to the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa Program

I was welcomed at the African Leadership Academy (ALA) campus, in Johannesburg South Africa, with a joyful, and friendly team. I received the welcome pack and was escorted to my room. I quickly dropped my luggage and rushed to the innovation centre to connect, learn and share with fellow African leaders. Knowing that the process of mingling is not always automatic, the Obama team developed a card with matrix called the Human Scavenger Hunt: meeting your peers and building shared culture. On the vertical side of the matrix were the seven values: team, humility, integrity, inclusivity, stewardship, fearlessness and imagination. The horizontal side had the regions where all the delegates came from. Through this matrix, I was able to meet and interact with 25 African leaders from south, west, east, north, central Africa and the islands. I found this approach to be innovative because it ensured that you just don’t interact with people from one region. Before leaving the innovation centre, I passed by a bookshop to redeem the book coupon that the foundation provided to all leaders. I used this coupon to redeem ‘Dreams from My Father’ by President Barack Obama.

Then we had a briefing in the auditorium where the Obama Fellowship team and the African Leadership welcomed us and gave us brief information about the Obama Fellowship and African Leadership Academy. The welcome session can be summarised as ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for’ which was the theme of the gathering. Thereafter, there was the dinner. On our table, we had people from Zambia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Algeria, and Malawi. Despite our different backgrounds and countries, we all connected through our shared values and vision of the Africa we want to see. It was like meeting your long-lost sibling. We ate, interacted, laughed, and exchanged numbers.

(Mo Ibrahim, Founder and Chair of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, and Uzodinma Iweala, Author and CEO of The Africa Center, participate in a conversation on the nature of ethical leadership in practice and the tough choices leaders can face as part of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa program in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 15, 2018)

Day Two: Ethical Leadership and Falling Forward

The second day of the inaugural gathering of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa Program started with a thought-provoking conversation with Dr. Mo Ibrahim, moderated by Ezodinma Iweala, Author and CEO of the Africa Center. The discussion delved into leadership and identity as the key to the development of Africa countries. Mo Ibrahim argued that the development or lack thereof of African countries is centred around leadership. To develop Africa, there is a need for the development of leaders at different levels. Dr. Mo Ibrahim also touched on the issue of the narrative of Africa.

‘It is high time that African countries started sharing stories about its heroes and not villains only.  A complete story of Africa cannot be told if we only focus on one narrative which sadly is the negative narrative promoted by us Africans.’- Dr. Mo Ibrahim

After the talk, I got into sessions that got me into more reflection, being vulnerable and learning from others. I began with a session on storytelling and leadership lead by Rob Burnet, CEO of Well Told Story. I learned how to tell my story by focusing on the following key questions: Who am I? How did I get started? What is the nature of the challenges I have faced? What have I learned? What is my story of success? What is my vision for the future?

Then we had two sessions on Leadership. One session on ‘the leadership of self’ by Hatim Eltayeb, Dean of Academy and Ryan Findley, Chief Operations Officer, African Leadership University School of Business. The second session was on ‘the leadership of others’ facilitated by Samantha Ngocolomba, Founder of Lady Liberty. The practical nature of the sessions got me to dig deeper, listen and reflect. One thing that stood out for me was the African Leadership Academy leadership model that focuses on vision, virtue and value. For more information on the model, as we were encouraged, I also encourage you to buy and read ‘Love Leadership: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World’ by John Hope Bryant.

After the breakaway sessions, the 200 leaders reconvened in the auditorium to join the panel discussion on ‘Risk-taking and Benefits of Failure’ by Jason Njoku, Founder and CEO of IROKO; Bina Maseno, Founder of Badili Africa; Patrick Awuah, Founder and President of Ashesi University; and Khanyi Dhlomo, CEO, Ndalo Media. I liked the honesty, authenticity, emotion, and the passion in the panel especially when sharing their stories of how they failed. The memorable speaker for me was Jason, who remained authentic and was willing to publicly talk about the failures and the lessons he draws from some of them.

Day two concluded with a regional exchange over dinner. We shared stories about our countries. One thing that was interesting for me, is how people passionately talk about their country both positively or negatively. To me, it reveals a strong connection that we have with our country without even realizing it.

(Graça Machel, Thulisile Madonsela, and Bogolo Kenewendo pariticpate in a session on “Leadership in the Face of Adversity” moderated by Nozipho Mbanjwa as part of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa program in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 16, 2018)

Day Three: Adversity and Disruption

Leadership in the face of adversity discussion opened day three at the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa Program. The discussion was led by a powerful panel of Graça Machel, an African Stateswoman; Bogolo Kenewendo, Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Botswana and Thulisile Madonsela, Former Public Protector of South Africa, facilitated by Nozipho Mbanjwa, CEO, The Talent Firm. A million lessons were shared as you can imagine the panel, however, the key points for me were:

1) Values and principles are important no matter what,

2) Developing a mindset of abundance within a system of scarcity,

3) Understanding that there is a new wave of independence in Africa that will be led by you and me as the youth,

4) History keeps providing us with lessons of youth and women who have been in leadership, therefore, the notion that the youth and women cannot lead is false because historical evidence suggests otherwise,

5) There is a need for a redesign of the system and adapt it to suit our African values present in history pre-colonialism.

I attended the two great sessions on Fundraising Fundamentals for NGOs and Scaling your Organisation. From the two sessions, I captured that recruitment process is important, development of organizational culture is key, and most importantly, you have to be willing to say ‘Yes!’ and ‘No’ to funding opportunities after assessing your vision and direction.

During the evening I attended a panel discussion on ‘Future Trends in Africa’ with Fred Swaniker, Founder and CEO, African Leadership University; Sangu Delle, Managing Director, Africa Health Holdings; Maryana Iskander, CEO, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator and Judy Sikuza, Deputy Executive Director, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation. Although the conversation focused on innovation and technology, the main issues were philosophical.

‘In a society where jobs are being lost because of automation, it is people who display humanity that will not be laid off from their jobs.’ – Maryana Iskander

Which takes us to the point of Fred, where he said ‘education is not only about facts and figures, but the development of the character of people.’ Still going back to philosophy.

We finished the day with music from Soweto Gospel Choir and interaction with special guests and supporters of the Obama foundation.

(Kofi Annan, Lakhdar Brahimi, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Patrick Gaspard participate in the session, “The Future of Africa: Elders Pass the Baton,” to share their thoughts and advice with the next generation as part of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa program in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 18, 2018)

Day Four: The Future of Africa, Elders Pass the Baton

Day four at the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa Program was filled with wisdom from Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Prime Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, President Ellen John Sirleaf, and Ambassador Patrick Gaspard. The interesting thing about these leaders is that they held a leadership position in their twenties. Agreeing with the sentiments made by Minister Bogolo Kenewendo that historically Africa has been led by young people who interestingly believe the youth cannot lead when they are old. The panel emphasized the power of connections of all young people in Africa. They are many things shared, but the following I believe are the key thoughts.

‘Realise that change is possible, even radical change’- Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan

‘We need to realise that radical change doesn’t come with no cost. The cost might be human lives. It is therefore important to analyse the cost before taking the steps needed.’- Lakhdar Brahimi, Former Prime Minister of Algeria

‘Leadership will demand that you have to make unpopular choices, for the common good. Upcoming leaders need to be aware of tough decisions leaders make and take steps to prepare for the time they will be required to make tough decisions’- Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, First Female President of Liberia and Nobel Peace Laureate

(Aliko Dangote, Strive Masiyiwa, and John Collison participate in the panel discussion, “Innovating for the Next Generation,” as part of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa program in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 18, 2018)

Day Five: Innovation, Town Hall and Mandela Service Project

Day four at the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa Program was filled with wisdom shared through a panel discussion on innovation for the next generation by Aliko Dangote CEO of Dangote Group; John Collins President of Stripe and Trevor Manuel former Cabinet minister in South Africa, and a town hall with President Barack Obama,

During the panel discussion, Aliko Dangote emphasized the need for the development of local production systems to ensure that countries in Africa reduce exports and save forex. He emphasized that this will require an enabling policy environment for the government to provide room for the development of industries to ensure that Africa is catching up with the next wave of industrial revolution.

‘For Africa, we need to ensure that we develop our basic industries first, thereafter, we can talk about the next step of industrialization’- Aliko Dangote, CEO of Dangote Group

Trevor Manuel emphasized the need for governments to ensure that they have people who are smart at different levels. Trevor argued that people who are smart are the ones who develop policies that ensure that lives are touched and at the end of the day nobody is left behind.

John Collison, President of Stripe talked about the power of self-belief for all people who are developing startups. John is optimistic that Africa has the potential to become the leader in the technological revolution because of its unique challenges.

(President Barack Obama participates in a town hall meeting as part of the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa program in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 18, 2018)

After the panel discussion, President Barack Obama, took the stage to discuss issues that bordered on brain drain in Africa, people shunning from holding political positions, the use of technology in government, and possibility of the united states of Africa.

President Obama argued that brain drain in African shall be addressed by governments and citizens. Governments need to ensure that they develop and implement sound policies. Citizens need to ask themselves ‘how big are our ambitions?’ The president went on to argue that young leaders in Africa have a high chance of bringing meaningful transformation in their countries, as compared to the industrialised countries.

On Politics, the president argued that change cannot be brought by politics alone, however, we cannot pretend that politics doesn’t matter because in one way or another everyone will have an encounter with politics. Young leaders considering political offices were encouraged to find ways where they won’t sell their soul through politics and consider collaborations because they can’t do it alone.

President Obama argued that the introduction of innovations in government becomes easier when you have a specific problem that you would like to address. This approach makes it easier to develop a team, or even get support from various stakeholders and partners.

‘Before people consider unity at continent level, people need to consider unity at country level. Then, and only then can the discussion of the united states of Africa be an option’- President Barack Obama

President Obama finished the Town hall with a profound statement, ‘Worry less about what you want to become and worry more about what you want to do.’ People who focus on getting a position have a challenge delivering once they get the position because the position was the end in itself. People who focus more on what they want to do, regardless of the position, will work to bring transformation in the lives of people.

(A volunteer during a service project to commemorate Mandela Day with Obama Foundation Leaders in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 18, 2018)

The Mandela Day Service Project provided me with an opportunity to serve and learn. I was part of the group that was working on canvas paintings that capture the Mandela values. As I was adding colour to the canvas with the value of empathy, it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the importance of empathy for all leaders. All the 200 young leaders present were driven to do all the work during Mandela day and at home because of their ability to understand and share the feelings of the people in their community.

Through the African Leader programme, I have found fellow leaders who are willing to provide both technical and financial support and improve my work. I have also had an opportunity to create partnerships with fellow leaders with whom we are going to be working on several projects at a multinational level. Most importantly, I have found a support system of mentors and peers who will be useful in my work going forward.

Picture Credit: Obama Foundation