By Elizabeth S. Liu
The Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), the U.S. government’s signature initiative to engage the next generation of leaders across Sub-Saharan Africa, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
“With the right policies and leadership, we (the United States) believe that true economic liberation will happen here in Africa,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo while visiting Ethiopia in February.
For the past decade, YALI has supported economic growth in Africa by empowering youth to take control of their future. YALI promotes effective public administration, grows networks that connect people, creates conditions for peace, prosperity, and security, and provides investment opportunities for U.S. businesses. These key U.S. priorities take on extra urgency on the world’s youngest continent—approximately 60 percent of Africa’s total population is under the age of 35.
In 2010, the inaugural Forum for Young African Leaders brought 115 young leaders from 46 Sub-Saharan African nations to Washington for a summit that highlighted several African nations’ 50th anniversaries of independence. Fast forward to 2020 and YALI boasts more than 21,000 alumni between the Mandela Washington Fellowship exchange program and the Regional Leadership Centers (RLCs) based on the continent, with a virtual YALI Network community of more than 650,000 members.
Today’s YALI is a movement inspiring youth across the continent to be a force for positive change. By equipping a new generation of leaders with the skills and values that are helping to shape the future of the continent and build cross-cultural and economic ties with the United States, YALI sets the United States apart from malign actors by demonstrating America invests not only in Africa but in Africans themselves.
The flagship Mandela Washington Fellowship hones participant’s skills through leadership institutes hosted by U.S. colleges and universities, a summit in Washington, and professional development experiences. Upon returning home, alumni continue to cultivate the connections made during the U.S.-based program to broaden their networks, advance their professional objectives, and strengthen their home communities. Fellows apply along one of three tracks: business/entrepreneurship, civic engagement, or public management.
More than 17,000 Africans have completed courses at four USAID-sponsored RLCs at leading higher-education and partner institutions in South Africa, Ghana, Senegal, and Kenya. The RLCs provide in-person and online training, networking, and professional development opportunities focusing on YALI’s three tracks and other policy themes. Recently, the RLCs partnered with USAID’s Power Africa to train female leaders in Africa’s energy sector.
The virtual YALI Network engages alumni and hundreds of thousands of other youth across Sub-Saharan Africa. It has taken on even greater significance as the COVID-19 pandemic has limited the Department of State’s exchange and outreach capacity. Through its digital campaigns, the YALI Network develops members’ capacity to advocate for U.S. policy priorities in a local context on topics such as media literacy, human rights, and entrepreneurship. For example, the 2019 NaijaVotes campaign promoted positive youth participation in Nigeria’s fiercely contested elections and contributed to a peaceful electoral outcome. To support these campaigns, the Network’s website provides vital online resources, content, and courses. In addition to online activities, campaigns inspire offline advocacy by encouraging members to lead service activities and to hold “YALILearns” events, where members facilitate discussions on Network courses or community dialogues on campaign topics. To date, members have earned more than 550,000 online course certificates, taken over 400,000 campaign pledges to support U.S. policy priorities, and organized almost 16,000 YALILearns events. These member-led events bring Network content to audiences beyond an embassy’s normal sphere of influence, including people who only speak a local language, cannot read, or are located in remote villages or security no-go zones for U.S. personnel, without expending any post resources.
Additionally, the U.S. African Development Foundation offers grants on a competitive basis and provides seed capital and technical support to YALI entrepreneurs. Many have leveraged relationships cultivated during their programs to grow their businesses. For instance, a Togolese Fellowship alumna worked with American businesses to support the growth of her chocolate company, Choco Togo, while simultaneously driving U.S. exports of machinery to Togo.
YALI alumni have risen to high-ranking leadership positions and have been recognized with international awards. Five alumni have held or currently hold cabinet-level positions, a Ghanaian Fellowship alumnus was named 2017 Daily Trust African of the Year, and a Somali Fellowship alumna was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019. YALI alumni feel a strong connection to the United States and consistently give embassy outreach a credible voice. Since 2014, U.S. missions have provided more than $5.5 million to YALI alumni to lead more than 230 grassroots initiatives that foster civic engagement, mentoring, and community service.
But YALI’s impressive numbers, programs, or even the long list of awards alumni have received are not what makes YALI special. That honor belongs to the young leaders themselves, who embody YALI’s spirit of servant leadership, a leadership philosophy in which the main goal of the leader is to serve others. The annual YALIServes campaign inspires Network members to uphold these principals and give back to their communities around International Nelson Mandela Day in July. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of members still found a way to give back this year by holding digital events.
“The YALIServes campaign,” said one Network member, “has developed me into a leader who is prepared to fight for all social issues in my community. It has also prepared me to be an entrepreneur and a leading example. It has improved both my confidence and commitment to my community.”
This decade’s YALI alumni and Network members are a generation that is holding their leaders accountable, serving their communities, and breaking barriers.
One may ask, “Who is the YALI generation?” It is exemplified in 2011 alumna Robyn Kriel, a Zimbabwean reporter who has written about corruption and human rights abuses. She was beaten by police, her mother was imprisoned, but Kriel continued reporting because the people of Zimbabwe “want their stories to be told.”
Nice Nailantei Leng’ete, 2016 Fellowship alumna from Kenya, escaped female genital mutilation as a child and has since saved more than 15,000 girls from the cut and child marriage.
The YALI generation also includes Sierra Leonean Network member Sam Sheka Moi, who regularly leads service projects in his community. Sheka Moi has completed 21 YALI Network online courses and organized several “YALILearns” events using materials from Network campaigns.
RLC alumna Jemiama Tschetter Dassen, a Liberian social entrepreneur, pivoted her company to manufacture hand sanitizer when the COVID-19 pandemic struck. In addition to selling low-cost hand sanitizer, her company also donates hand sanitizer to vulnerable populations, such as people with disabilities, the elderly, and prison inmates.
“The YALI network could be the greatest asset to any young African who knows how to utilize the strength, power, leadership, and growth that’s embedded within it,” said Tschetter Dassen.
And the list of influential members goes on. YALI’s impact is evident as participants rise to leadership positions in business, government, and civil society. From a worldwide pandemic, the locust plague in East Africa, and a global reckoning on social justice, the YALI generation is rising to meet today’s challenges. As they celebrate the past decade and look ahead to the future, one thing is clear—the future of not only Africa but the world is in good hands.
Elizabeth Liu is the special coordinator for the Young African Leaders Initiative in the Bureau of African Affairs.