Garissa — Young East African leaders, whose activism and entrepreneurship have improved the lives of those around them, are now being offered a chance to learn how to have an even greater impact through an upcoming educational programme in the United States.
The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) is being hailed as a positive step in nurturing leadership skills to help steer young African leaders as they spur growth and prosperity, strengthen democratic governance, and enhance peace and security across Africa.
Launched in 2010, the programme has held 15 exchanges for young African leaders and sponsored 1,283 scholars from sub-Saharan Africa through its educational and cultural affairs programs. US embassies have also awarded small grants totalling $750,000 to YALI alumni supporting youth development in Africa.
The new Washington Fellowship under the YALI will bring 500 participants between the ages of 25 and 35 to the United States each year for academic coursework and leadership training beginning in July. The deadline for the online applications is January 27th, and the programme will select participants from among 50 countries in Africa, including Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Djibouti.
YALI fellows will have the opportunity to meet President Barack Obama, attend a six-week academic program at a US institution, meet with US government, civic and business leaders, access internship, apprenticeship and small grant funding opportunities, and join a global alumni network of young leaders seeking innovative solutions to common problems.
Participants will choose one of three academic tracks: business and entrepreneurship, civic leadership, or public management.
Giving opportunities to excel
University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor George Magoha said the importance of an initiative such as this one is to give opportunities and help the growth of potential leaders who may not have the means to seek training on their own.
"Some leadership are inborn or inspired, but fellowships help one develop their coaching, mentorship and analytical skills," Magoha told Sabahi.
Magoha, who also served a two-year term as the President of the Association of African Universities until May 2013, said the fellowship should be replicated in Africa through local institutions of higher learning.
"The problems bedevilling Africa require programmes designed to enhance skills for people seeking to use their talents to solve [them]," said Magoha, a medical doctor by training. "It does not necessarily have to be governments," he said, praising African civil society initiatives such as the Mo Ibrahim Foundation to motivate people to uphold democracy.
Meanwhile, up-and-coming African leaders welcomed the YALI Washington Fellowship, saying it will create unique opportunities.
Abdikadir Hassan Aden, 25, an environmental activist in Kenya's Garissa County, said he is mobilising Kenyan youths through social media to apply for the fellowship.
Aden said the programme comes at a time when young people in Africa have a clearer understanding that they have both the right and responsibility to improve their own countries.
Aden captured the attention of the Kenyan government and the United Nations for his environmental efforts, such as educating community members on environmental conservation and encouraging them against deforestation for charcoal production. He said he has applied for the programme's civic leadership track.
"Although many of the youths know they have responsibilities, they lack expertise and this fellowship will be crucial in imparting that [expertise]," he told Sabahi.
Aden said many conflicts in Africa could be avoided if youths were empowered with the necessary skills and given an opportunity to lead, adding that leadership on the continent has failed in three crucial pillars: peace, security and democracy. Corruption and cronyism have also created challenges, he said.
Adan Mohammed, a 30-year-old research technologist at Kenya Medical Research Institute in Kilisi, became well known when he won the Uongozi (Leadership) Reality Show, which aired on privately owned NTV. In the six-month show, which ended last February, viewers were asked to judge young community activists on their leadership and implementation skills as they were presented challenging projects and tasks.
As the winner, Mohammed was given 3 million shillings ($34,884) to be used for a community project. He said he invested the money in irrigation projects in Mandera.
African youths desperately need a forum such as YALI to come together and discuss issues such as rule of law and integrity, which are particularly important to nurture in young nations, he said.
Mohammed said if he is selected he would like to know what "leadership really means and [what] kind of leadership does Africa need to achieve development goals".
Solomon Mulera Wanyama, 25, who was the runner up of the Uongozi Reality Show, said youths are not included sufficiently in matters of leadership in Africa, but they have untapped potential.
"Many youths may have leadership qualities that are hidden. Maybe that is the reason we are overlooked when we try to contest for leadership positions," he said, adding that YALI will provide passionate young leaders an opportunity to hone their skills and learn from colleagues across the continent and beyond.
"In Kenya and in other African countries, youths are only recognised as voting machines because they account for the greater percentage of the population," he said.
Also hoping to be selected for the programme is Abdi Ahmed Moalin, a 28-year-old resident of Hodan district in Mogadishu, who has worked on youth development and raising public awareness of various issues since 2004. He graduated from Ahmed Gurey High School in Mogadishu in 2007 and from Mogadishu University in 2012, where he studied politics and media.
As an activist in high school, he helped found the Benadir Student Union, connecting students across the Benadir region.
He is now the head of training at the Somali Media Training and Awareness Centre (SOMTAC) in Mogadishu, which he helped found in 2010. The centre was formed to produce quality journalists who work toward public development and public service.
"If I get this fellowship to expand my knowledge, it will give me a greater ability to overcome the obstacles that have been hampering my efforts," he said. "I will gain greater skills by meeting with hundreds of young people from more than 50 African countries. I will learn how they solve problems in their countries. Also, studying at prestigious universities will be an important key for me to opening the doors of progress in my country."
Ahmed Mohamed Mohamud, a 25-year-old college senior from Dhusamareb, capital of Somalia's Galgadud region, told Sabahi he is eager to participate in the programme.
Mohamud is the chairman of Garaad, a Dhusamareb-based organisation formed by local youth in 2011 to restore peace, foster reconciliation among the people of the central regions, improve education and participation in sports, and to fight tribalism.
"Somali youth are among the ones who have the most need for this opportunity because this country is among the lowest-ranking in Africa in good governance and development," Mohamud said. "Getting opportunities like this one gives Somali youth hope."
He said there are great obstacles facing the work of Garaad, including the low level of education among youth and the public's lack of awareness on the future potential of youth.
"If I get into this program, I would use the opportunity to gain knowledge that I can share with our young people when I come back," Mohamud said. "Similarly, I would share [my knowledge] about the problems in Somalia with the other young Africans I meet so that we can exchange ideas and general knowledge."
For activist Hasna Mohamed, a 27-year-old fellowship hopeful from Djibouti, the programme will provide the perfect platform to raise awareness on important human rights issues plaguing her country and the continent.
"[Djibouti] is lagging behind when it comes to the preservation of human rights compared to other African countries, particularly in the fight against female genital mutilation," she told Sabahi. "It is from the experience of other Africans, [those] who fight for the promotion of human rights, that I would like to benefit from," said Mohamed, who serves as the president of the Djibouti-based Association Against Female Genital Mutilation.
Mohamed said she also would like to remind powerful nations to support more "fervidly the struggle of African women for equal opportunity, access to education and health, and in the fight against poverty".