The inspirational potential of Africa’s young leaders

By October 23, 20192,546 Comments
africa's young leaders in discusssion

Leadership in Africa is often reduced to a caricature of old male dictators destroying their countries through patronage, greed, violence and abuse of the state. This is often the sole focus of international news reports about Africa in particular.   Africa’s young leaders have a chance to change this. 

While this depressing picture can reflect one kind of African reality, it tends to obscure the many different kinds of positive leadership demonstrated by thousands of African citizens working at a number of levels in society. Taking Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s warning seriously, it is important to challenge the single story of failed African leadership at the elite political level, with counter-narratives of multiple kinds of leadership emerging on the continent. 

The role of the youth

Perhaps if we could continue to build and harness this multi-faceted leadership potential, true democracy might start to loosen the grip of entrenched negative political leadership patterns. The younger generations are particularly important in this endeavour.     


The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) was launched in 2010 by President Barack Obama. It seeks to invest in the next generation of African leaders. Funded by the U.S. Department of State, it introduced the now widely respected Mandela-Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders (MWF). Every year since 2014, hundreds of young people (ages 25-35) already demonstrating leadership potential have been selected from across Sub-Saharan Africa to participate in a six week “Leadership Institute” at a U.S college. 

This “Institute” is an intensive academic and practical leadership course informed by the Social Change Model of leadership. It is aimed at developing values-based and servant leadership among participants. Fellows are selected to participate from three areas: Business, Civic Engagement and Public Management. Alongside the many activities during the six-week course, Fellows also attend a Summit and are expected to develop a Leadership Development Plan (LDP) for implementation on their return to their home countries. 

youth at yali

To add value to these U.S.-based activities, USAID has sponsored several Africa-based “follow-on” activities which can be completed during the year-long Fellowship. These include

  • Professional Practicums (high-level internships at suitable companies);
  • Mentorships;
  • Speaker Travel Grants;
  • Continued Networking and Learning Events;
  • Collaboration Fund Grants; and
  • involvement in the Regional Advisory Boards.

Fellows have also gone on to form alumni associations in their respective countries and collaborate in various ways. 

Development Works Changemakers

In early 2019, Development Works Changemakers was commissioned to conduct an evaluation of the Africa-based follow-on activities. Along with an electronic questionnaire, and one-on-one Skype interviews, Development Works Changemakers conducted several country visits to meet with Mandela-Washington Fellows and learn about the impact of the follow-on activities on them.

We visited Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and Zimbabwe, conducting in-depth focus group discussions and one-on-one interviews with Fellows and Practicum hosts. Broadly, the evaluation found that the Africa-based follow-on activities added significantly to the value of the U.S.-based Leadership Institute, cementing lessons through practical experience and building networks with graduates in Fellows’ home countries and elsewhere. 

Andrew Hartnack, a senior Evaluator with Development Works Changemakers Evaluator, visited Accra, Nairobi and Harare. He met with over 40 Mandela-Washington Fellows in the course of this evaluation. What stood out for Andrew in meeting these Fellows was their incredible energy, vision, integrity and passion to make a difference in their own sectors. 

Yali event

Kenyan Mandela-Washington Fellows collaborate by advising each other on projects they are working on. Here a Fellow trying to build a community hospital is getting important advice on her plans from a Fellow who is an architect, and a Fellow who works for the Ministry of Health in a Public Hospital.

The potential of Africa’s young leaders

Andrew met Fellows working in government Ministries who were positively influencing their colleagues and participating in various ways in building the institutional capacity of their units. He also met many young entrepreneurs who, through their MWF experience, had decided to apply their talents not just to money-making, but to the social issues they saw around them. For example, one fashion designer in Zimbabwe partnered with a local rural empowerment organisation to work with rural women in designing, making and marketing local products for sale. 

Other Fellows shifted their focus towards activism and lobbying on behalf of various constituencies which are under threat in their countries. In Zimbabwe and elsewhere, incredible bravery has been shown by a number of Fellows as they try to speak truth to power and make a difference in their countries. Fellows are building hospitals and orphanages, founding companies and non-profits, registering companies offering innovative solutions in areas such as climate change mitigation, and reforming government policy and practice in various ways. 

This crop of Africa’s young leaders – half of whom are women – are beginning to show what can be achieved with a little bit of support, and through networking and collaborating with other young people committed to making a difference. If Africa’s potential is to be realised, it is young people like this who must be the next leaders of economic, political and human development efforts on the continent. There is certainly cause for great hope if all this human potential can be fully harnessed.   

By Andrew Hartnack