African solutions to African problems: Cultivating future leaders

The African small and medium enterprises

If there’s one complaint about doing business in Africa, it’s the perception that entrepreneurs see Africa’s public service leaders as having insufficient commitment to Africa’s development through private sector growth.

Most recently, U.S. President Barack Obama entered the fray by criticizing neocolonial arguments for Africa’s underdevelopment and calling on African countries to “stop looking somewhere else for solutions” and “start looking for solutions internally.” Regardless of your stance on the issue of neocolonialism, Obama’s message resonated when he explained that he is “a big believer that Africans are responsible for Africa.” He essentially made a call for strong African leadership.

So where are Africa’s future leaders going to come from?

The boon: Africa’s fourth generation

The good news is that Africans with enormous leadership potential already exist in abundance.

In June, Fred Swaniker alluded to the leadership potential when he wrote of Africa’s four post-independence generations. He sees the fourth post-colonial generation as tasked with building “large-scale prosperity for Africa for the first time in its post-colonial history,” and he documents the rise of fourth generation African entrepreneurs who are redefining the continent as a center of “opportunity, drive, and innovation.”

Swaniker got it right when he focused on the potential of the private sector to generate Africa’s strongest class of leaders to date. Africa’s entrepreneurial spirit is very real, as has been highlighted in a 2014 report by the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. The report showed that sub-Saharan Africa is the global region with the highest number of people involved in early-stage entrepreneurial activity. Africa is also the world leader in terms of the number of women starting businesses, and most importantly, African entrepreneurs report the lowest world’s levels of “fear of failure” (identified by responses to whether failure would stop an entrepreneur from starting a business or seizing business opportunities).

In addition to Swaniker’s comment is the important fact also that there are now a growing number of not-for profit organizations in the continent, like the Nigeria Leadership Initiative, that are committed and doing excellent work in developing the skills and capacity of future and current African leaders.

The risk: Missing Africa’s big opportunity

Swaniker is on the mark in recognizing that entrepreneurial energy can translate into broader leadership potential for the African continent — what remains to be done, however, is to ensure that that leadership potential is effectively mobilized and its promise for development is realized.

From a U.S. perspective, the Obama administration’s announcement of the expansion of the Mandela Washington Fellowship is a step toward mobilizing Africa’s leadership potential. As part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, the fellowship brings African entrepreneurs, activists and public officials who are between 25 and 35 years old to the United States for six weeks of intensive executive leadership training, networking, and skills building, followed by a Presidential Summit in Washington, D.C.

But it is just as important for that type of initiative to be carried out on the African continent. At our organization, the Nigeria Leadership Initiative, we bring together accomplished and mid-career professional Nigerians who have already been successful with the aim of actively integrating them into driving positive change for the continuous development of Nigeria. Accomplished, emerged, and emerging leaders in Nigeria and in the diaspora alike participate in our leadership seminars, symposia, social responsibility projects and other initiatives that recruit the talent and energy to confront the challenges facing Nigeria. The country can’t move forward if it does not harness its growing leadership pool.

International initiatives are also crucial. The Initiative for Global Development, with which NLI actively partners, brings together private sector leaders in Africa, the United States, Europe, and Asia with the aim of letting business fulfill its role as one of the strongest forces in poverty alleviation. Its growing network of African private sector leaders demonstrates the rise of African solutions to African problems.

Africa’s future will be determined by African leaders, and such leaders already exist. Now, Africa’s current success stories need to be involved in changing current affairs to make those successes more widespread. What we desperately need is to build leadership networks that can mutually reinforce each other with values: if responsible public sector leaders can mitigate corruption and create consistent rules for innovative private sector pioneers, Africa’s rise will be for a long time with attendant benefits for Africans.

Watch the fifth episode of IGD’s “Changing Perceptions” video series here. To learn more about the “Changing Perceptions through Digital Storytelling” project, click here.

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About the author

  • Yinka Oyinlola

    Yinka Oyinlola is CEO of the Nigeria Leadership Initiative. A seasoned international development leader with over 30 years experience in executive and management roles with the United Nations, the World Bank and USAID as well as in the private sector, his areas of expertise include public and government affairs, major project and strategic management, policy formulation and performance monitoring and evaluation.