In June 2012, more than 60 young African leaders, innovators and entrepeneurs will gather in Washington DC for The Innovation Summit and Mentoring Training program designed by the US government. A fantastic event with solid aims and outcomes. Question is – what’s in it for the US of A?

June 14, 2012 – Sixty of Africa’s brightest and most creative are right now huddled in the George C. Marshall Center at the Department of State in DC soaking in training, leadership and inspiration from America’s best business leaders and entrepreneurs – the start to a three week marathon of professional exchange and entrepreneurial hands-on training where they’ll  travel to business internships in Seattle, Charlotte, Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Miami, Huntsville, Denver, Chicago, and Cincinnati, culminating in a wrap up workshop and ceremony in Chicago on June 30.

The idea is to provide them with a hands-on experience in the American workplace and exposure them to cultural aspects of American life and aims to enhance U.S.-Africa collaboration to promote business innovation, investment, and social responsibility activities in Africa.

So what’s the story behind this venture?

The Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership is this year’s contribution to the Obama Administration’s President’s Young African Leaders’ Initiative - a long-term effort to develop an enduring and productive U.S.-Africa relationship with the continent’s youth. In August 2010, the initiative began with President Obama’s Forum with Young African Leaders which brought 115 young African leaders to Washington D.C. for interactive exchange and dialogue on themes of youth empowerment, good governance, and economic opportunity. In May 2011, the U.S. Government hosted “The Dialogue with Young Africa Leaders,” a month-long series of programs throughout sub-Saharan Africa featuring over 200 programs in 37 countries to expand leadership and social media skills. In June 2011, the First Lady’s Young African Women Leaders Forum was held in South Africa, bringing together 76 young African women leaders to discuss themes of leadership, women’s empowerment, and community service.

Why is the US so interested in Africa’s future leaders?

The U.S. State Government press release states that intent of this multi-year initiative is to advance U.S. understanding of and access to Africa’s youth population and enrich their potential to contribute to economic, political, and social development in Africa. Each forum showcases the new generation of young African leaders and reinforces the U.S. commitment to two-way dialogue with African youth. The Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership of 2012 is intended to stress entrepreneurship as a tool for harnessing Africa’s intellectual capital to create jobs and sustainable, equitable opportunities.

Michelle Obama and some of South Africa’s young leaders

Really why?

So I’m a sceptic by nature … and I know for sure that the West has never invested developing countries unless there’s something in it for them. Word of this summit triggered certain questions in me about our dear Obama’s real intentions for Africa – is nurturing Africa’s future leaders a purely altruistic and charitable act of America’s benevolence and longterm diplomatic goodwill or is it thinly disguised neo-colononialism?

Some have argued that America’s growing interest has to do with being able to mold the agenda for Africa’s future leaders – who will inevitably control Africa’s rich and diverse cache of natural resources and/or the industries that support them. Energy in particular is of interest to the current US administration and the recent discovery of even more oil fields in East Africa and particularly Kenya - considered one of Africa’s most stable nations – means great opportunities for the West.

Oil off the east and west coast of Africa has less of a threat of insurrection and local instability which hampers drilling efforts. This is because most oil drilling takes place off-shore. Additionally, African oil, especially West African oil has the added benefit of having shorter transport routes to US refineries without the need to transport it through politically sensitive or militarily vulnerable routes. This makes African oil very attractive to US oil interests. It also makes Africa’s future leaders great allies for when their support is needed to smooth along any resolution or policy and provide a friendly welcome when the time comes.

Others argue that the U.S. and its allies are not only formulating a new strategy to maintain and deepen their control over Africa, but are also working to push China and its allies out of Africa. The U.S. and many E.U. powers have watched China nervously throughout the years as it makes major inroads in Africa and continues to be a major strategic and economic rival and challenge to the U.S. and Western Europe in Africa.

The theories abound, however the point I’m trying to make is is that Africans need to be careful how quickly we embrace the help, aid, charity and benevolence of foreign countries with foreign agendas.

I’m not advocating we slam shut our doors and lock out our international diplomatic friends, (that would be a naive suggestion at the best); I believe mutual cooperation, trade and the exchange of ideas is an excellent key to Africa’s continued growth.

However we must also be, like the bible says, wily as foxes, and wise as serpents. Accepting any foreign aid in whatever gift-wrap it comes in without question, could be the posion chalice, where Africa, used just for our resources is caught between an international struggle for control between the world’s super powers, and comes out battered and bruised.

The cold fact is that exploitation of people and resources in Africa is a long and sordid history – we all know that. We’ve been plundered, raped, enslaved and colonised. We’ve talked about it ad nauseum, but we need to learn from the past in order to shape an empowered future for ourselves.

Much of the blame lies not only with Western nations and corporations but with corrupt, cynical and greedy African leadership who let the exploitation happen in the first place. Men who have used the proceeds from oil and other commodities to line their own pockets, letting their nations go into financial decay and even ruin in the process.

Africa’s young leaders need to be very aware of the lure of power, and ask hard questions about why they’re being courted and wooed by foreign powers – for what gain, both ways?

The world’s new found interest in Africa – its leaders, its resources and its development – needs to be explored with care and accuracy so as not to fall, as Mark Watson* put so well,  “into typical cliché’s and well-worn conclusions”.


 Interesting read below:

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton opening words at the Innovation Summit and Mentoring Partnership With Young African Leaders, Washington, D.C – June 13 2012.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, good morning, and it is wonderful to see all of you here today, and I’m delighted to welcome you to the State Department and to the United States. And I hope this is the beginning of what will be an unforgettable three weeks.

As Assistant Secretary Carson just said, we believe strongly in the future of Africa, of you as individuals, of your communities, and your countries. And our goal is to be a partner and a friend as you lead the way into the kind of future that is so well deserved. You’ve traveled here from more than 40 nations, and you are here because of what you have already achieved. You are leaders in many fields: the arts and business, technology, education, journalism, and civil society. And so we have a bet on you. And that bet is that you will use your talents and your skills to help bring greater prosperity, progress, and a better future to all of the people whose efforts so desperately need to be supported.

“You are here because of your potential. And as President Obama has said, Africa is not a world apart; it is a fundamental part of our interconnected world. And we want to do a better job of making those interconnections and then supporting and nurturing them, because we believe to strengthen the global economy we should look to Africa, one of the fastest growing regions in the world. There are so many opportunities for entrepreneurs and businesses, for trade and investment that would be beneficial for Africans and for Americans.

We want to support the rise of democracies and give more people the chance to live under governments of their own choosing. And to do that, we look to Africa, where new democracies are growing stronger every day and where citizens have found innovative methods to promote good governance and hold leaders accountable.

And to make progress on the defining challenges of our time, like climate change and clean energy, global health and education, preventing violent extremism, defending human rights, once again, we look to Africa, because African communities have been on the frontlines of these issues for years.

For all these reasons, President Obama and his Administration has made building strong partnerships with the nations and people of Africa a key element of our foreign policy, because we are convinced that the story of the 21st century will be written in large part by you and your fellow citizens. So we want to be of help to you on your journeys and to support you as you chart that new future.

And the fact is you are young leaders at a time when young people are increasingly at the heart of world events. In Africa, 60 percent of the population is under 25. Now, that can either be a daunting statistic or a cause for celebration. It will be daunting if they are not educated, if they don’t have healthcare, if there are no jobs, if they cannot participate in the political lives of their societies. But it will be cause for celebration if young people can begin to have their voices heard, their votes counted, and help to chart a new beginning. And we think success will depend upon whether or not the youth of Africa, like many places around the world, have a chance to contribute to their own countries.

Now, we have benefited greatly in the United States because of Africans who have left Africa to come here, who have then been business leaders, doctors and nurses and teachers, academics and have given so much to the United States. But we hope that that kind of emigration will reverse and that more and more people will return home.

When I had my daughter many years ago, the midwife who worked with my doctor was from Ghana, and I remember talking to her about why she would come so far away. And she said, “I can have a better opportunity for myself and my children.” Just recently, she returned to Ghana. We want to see that happen throughout the continent, where people with skills and education and experience and expertise go back home to join you in making a difference.

There are many people here who have already made a difference. One of the people here, just to cite a few examples, is Refiloe from South Africa – where is Refiloe? Ah, Refiloe – who created a nonprofit organization called 18twenty8, which provides young women from poor backgrounds with educational and personal development so they then can have the confidence and the skills to have the kind of future they deserve.

Erikson is here from Namibia. Where is Erikson? He started making homemade chili and barbeque sauces – I’m getting hungry. (Laughter.) – then created a company to market them. Now they’re sold in stores throughout your hometown, and soon, if all goes well, across your country.

Thierno is here from Guinea. Where is Thierno? Aww, Thierno. As a radio journalist, his investigations of drug trafficking made him known throughout the country. Now he is creating a farm radio station to broadcast the voices of Guinea’s many farmers.

Clarisse has joined us from Rwanda. Clarisse, hello. She is the CEO of HeHe Limited, one of East Africa’s leading mobile development companies, which Clarice helped found while she was a student at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology.

There are people here publishing books in Ethiopia, producing shoes in Ghana, promoting foreign investment in Tanzania, monitoring high school students in Nigeria, supporting agricultural diversity in Guinea-Bissau, making bead and paper craft products in Cameroon, and on and on. You get the idea. You are amongst high achievers. You are amongst people who are already making their marks. The initiative and ingenuity that you all share cannot be taught or imparted; it does come from within. You have a drive, a desire, to do something with your lives and to make that difference. But that can be nurtured, and that is what we hope to do in the next few weeks.

In Washington, Chicago, and other cities you will visit, you’ll have the chance to form relationships with each other and with professional mentors, and you’ll have the chance to see more of America. And I hope that you take it all in, because we want to see this group of young leaders turn into a thriving network that stretches across Africa, across the Atlantic, to America.

And we also want to learn from you. What can we do better to help you, to help your communities, to help your countries? Assistant Secretary Carson is a man of great wisdom and long experience. It has been an honor for me to be working with him as his colleague. We are very open to hearing what you believe we need to hear. This is not a one-way broadcast. We’re looking for the opportunity to get feedback at all levels, from the Assistant Secretary and myself to everyone with whom you will interact.

So let me close by saying this: In your time here in America, you’ll meet many Americans who have never been to Africa, let alone your home countries. Many of them will not know anything about what has been happening in Africa, all the changes that have been occurring, everything that you and so many others have worked so hard to achieve. They will not know about the rising prosperity, the explosion of new businesses and technologies, the new and more secure freedoms, the opportunities for women and girls. But they should know.

So in effect, I am deputizing you for the next three weeks to be ambassadors, to help educate those with whom you come into contact. As you learn, help others to learn so that we break down the walls of ignorance and indifference, because whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. And I believe strongly that you represent the promise and possibility of Africa’s present and future, and I believe that what we can do together truly will make the world a better place. Thank you and Godspeed.


Sources and excerpts: Photos show Young African leaders Forum in the East Room of the White House, Aug. 3, 2010.

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