Dartmouth Grows a Network With Young Leaders in Africa

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The College partners with the State Department to support Mandela Washington Fellows.

a man taking a photo of two women outside
Mandela Washington Fellow Eyram Tawia of Ghana snaps a photo of fellow 2017 YALI participants Grace Ningejeje of Burundi and Guilene Assamoi of Cote d’Ivoire before a welcome reception at Dartmouth College in July. (Photo by Lars Blackmore) 

In the four years that Dartmouth has been hosting the Mandela Washington Fellowships of the State Department’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), a vast network has developed that connects entrepreneurs, artists, and civic leaders across the African continent with the College’s students, faculty, alumni, and residents of the Upper Valley.

“The YALI program has really exceeded all of our expectations regarding how much it would enrich campus life and the broader community,” says Daniel Benjamin, the Norman E. McCulloch Jr. Director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding.

The U.S. State Department’s Mandela Washington fellowships provide young business, cultural, and civic leaders from sub-Saharan Africa with an opportunity to study at one of 38 U.S. colleges or universities, and provides continued support for professional development after they return home.

Since the first class of fellows came to Hanover in 2014, Dartmouth has hosted 100 young African leaders from 37 African countries. The network that has developed has connected undergraduates with internships and collaborations with entrepreneurs, artists, and public policy leaders across Africa, established Dartmouth-designed business and entrepreneurship curricula at leadership training centers in East Africa, built connections between a new generation of leaders across Africa, and broadened the experience of many in the Dartmouth community.

“For faculty who teach these extraordinary young people, faculty and community members who host them in their homes, undergraduates who work to support the program or encounter them in class visits—and the large number of staff across the campus who interact with the fellows—these are transformative experiences,” says Benjamin.

Mpho Sekwele, a 2017 fellow from South Africa, has more than 10 years of experience in the retail buying industry and is co-founder of Bantu Hikers, an outreach hiking group connecting professionals with disadvantaged young people for mentorship. She says the connections she is making with leaders from other African nations are as important as the entrepreneurial skills she is learning at Dartmouth.

Sekwele also sees the YALI program as an opportunity to broaden the American understanding of the potential in Africa. “One of my primary goals here is to change the perception of what Africa looks like,” she says. “It is to show the diversity that’s there, the kind of talent that’s there. It is not the Africa you see where there’s a hungry child with a fly.”

The Mandela Washington Fellows are not in the United States to ask for grants, donations, or charity, Sekwele says. “We are here to say that this is what we are doing with the little that we have. We’re open for partnerships. If you have an opportunity to open up a business in South Africa, let’s talk. I understand the market.”

Sekwele was talking during a break from an investment seminar led by Melissa Cook ’82, managing director of African Sunrise Partners, which provides investment strategy advice on Africa to corporate and institutional investors. She was formerly an analyst for several large institutional investors and was named by President Barack Obama to his Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa. It was Obama who established the YALI program in 2010.

Cook started her company seven years ago in response to a significant knowledge gap. “My biggest investors are ignorant of Africa. You can’t be ignorant of Asia or Latin America and have self-respect in the investment world, but Africa is a different story,” she says.

She spoke with the fellows about the investment climate, the challenges of attracting capital, and the complications created by unstable political climates in some countries. She then invited the fellows to help her understand and promote their ventures. “You all are ambassadors for Africa. Give me your business cards. Email me. Hopefully when I come to your country we can connect.”

The six-week Dartmouth program involves intensive business and entrepreneurship training, instruction and practical work in design thinking led by Associate Professor of Engineering Peter Robbie, and workshops on building a business plan and pitching it to investors led by entrepreneur Rich Nadworny ’82 in collaboration with Professor Lorie Loeb, executive director of Dartmouth’s DALI Lab. The fellows also go on site visits to innovative area businesses, including King Arthur Flour, Timberland, and Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, and participate in many cultural, service, and teambuilding events.

Image removed.Members of the Tabu Flo dance company perform during a cultural connection at ONE Wheelock before a South House community dinner at House Professor Kathryn Lively’s home. (Photo by Lars Blackmore)

The business and entrepreneurship curriculum developed here has been so successful that Dartmouth was invited to implement it at the YALI East Africa Regional Leadership Center in Nairobi, Kenya. Nadworny and Dickey Center Program Officer Amy Newcomb, academic director for the Dartmouth program, have traveled to Nairobi to train the center’s staff on the curriculum and Dartmouth has hosted African YALI staff in Hanover for training. Newcomb has also visited the YALI Regional Leadership Center in South Africa.

Benjamin says the State Department’s YALI program not only supports economic development throughout sub-Saharan Africa, it forges bonds with the future leaders of many African nations.

“YALI is a powerful demonstration of the value of soft power and the advantages that we—at the College and in the nation more broadly—gain by bringing the next generation of change-makers here. Anyone who spent a half hour with the YALI fellows would see that,” Benjamin says.

Over the years, the bonds formed between the Mandela Washington Fellows and Dartmouth have remained strong. Abdul Kinyenya of Uganda, a 2016 fellow and director of the urban dance company Tabu Flo, returned to Dartmouth this summer for a tour organized by recent Dartmouth graduate Skye Herrick ’17, curriculum program assistant for YALI. Herrick, who met Kinyenya as a program assistant for YALI in 2016, arranged a schedule of events including class visits, house community events, dance workshops with the student dance group Street Soul, and a performance in Boston. The group also held a session with the Summer Enrichment at Dartmouth (SEAD) program, which brings high school students from underprivileged backgrounds to Dartmouth. At all these events, Kinyenya spoke about Batalo East, a nonprofit he founded to support Ugandan youth through traditional-urban dance education, theatre, and social entrepreneurship.

“I’m an alumnus of YALI 2016, and at the same time, I’m an alumnus of Dartmouth. I think Dartmouth is a special school. I know a lot of people who went to different universities through YALI, but I think those of us who come here are quite lucky in many different ways,” Kinyenya says. “The natural setting and the environment here is beautiful, and all the connections we have made with fellow Africans and with Dartmouth people are real. The environment here is very supportive.”

YALI is not a training program for African leaders to be schooled in American ideas, he says. “It’s not just coming to an American university and being told what to do. You come here and you have other young Africans who are really exceptional, who are influencers, coming together in one place and just talking about very important things, but with a global perspective. We are bringing our talent and ideas and strategies to Dartmouth to share. That’s really what YALI is.”

There are many opportunities through the Dickey Center to engage with the Mandela Washington Fellows during the annual July YALI program, and through a number of grants and programs that connect Dartmouth students with past fellows for internships and special projects in Africa. 

Bill Platt