The Mandela Washington Fellows: Africa’s Outstanding Young Leaders

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Image source: The African Exponent
Image source: The African Exponent

Africa has many outstanding leaders. Of those leaders making a positive difference, the largest and most dynamic group can be found among the continent’s youths. In August 2015, 500 outstanding Africans, aged 25 to 35, completed a six-week Mandela Washington Fellowship program at one of 20 US universities. The Fellows were in the United States as part of President Obama’s Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI), created in 2010 to strengthen ties with African youths.

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is the flagship YALI program. Being selected as a Mandela Washington Fellow is quite a feat. Approximately 80,000 applicants have applied to be Fellows since the program began in 2014. Only 500 have been selected each year, a 1.25 percent acceptance rate on average. For comparative purposes, it would be much easier to gain admission to the very highly selective Harvard University, which has a six percent acceptance rate.

The Fellows obtain six weeks of intensive executive leadership training, skills building, and networking opportunities before meeting with President Obama at a three-day Presidential Summit in Washington. This year’s US host institutions that welcomed groups of 25 Fellows each were as follows:

  1. For Business and Entrepreneurship: Clark Atlanta University, Dartmouth College, Northwestern University, University of Nevada Reno, University of Notre Dame, University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Wisconsin-Stout;
  2. For Civic Leadership: Arizona State University, Presidential Precinct (College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia), Rutgers University, Tulane University, the University of California-Berkeley, University of Delaware and Wagner College; and
  3. For Public Management: Florida International University, Georgia State University, Howard University, Syracuse University, the University of Minnesota and Virginia Commonwealth University.

In 2015, 40 Fellows were selected from South Africa, in addition to 40 from Nigeria, 40 from Kenya, and 30 from Zimbabwe, including Sizwile Nyamande, who was able to spend her birthday with President Obama.

Sinazo Didiza from South Africa was hosted by Arizona State University. She teaches young people about HIV and teenage pregnancy prevention and is the co-founder of the Ulutsha Society Development Foundation, an organization which provides career guidance and information on sources of aid for students from financially-disenfranchised backgrounds.

Kelvin Macharia of Kenya was one of 25 Fellows hosted by Dartmouth College this year. He is the inventor of a patented, effective organic insecticide and the founder of Sunrise Tracking, a company at the forefront of security technology. Using a tracking device that Mr. Macharia invented, a customer can send a text that stops a thief by disabling a stolen vehicle.

Other countries, including Somalia, The Gambia, Guinea, and Namibia had fewer representatives (three, six, seven, and nine Fellows respectively), but no less impressive contingents of young leaders. Heinrich Hafeni returned from his Fellows experience at Clark Atlanta University to be inducted into the Namibian Business Hall of Fame.

Two Gambian Fellows were Momodou Inkeh Bah and Alieu Jallow. Momodou Inkeh Bah is a politician making a positive difference in his community and the youngest elected official in Gambian history. He is leading a range of effective initiatives, from mangrove seedling planting to securing grants from non-governmental organizations and the World Bank, to improve local farming and education. Alieu Jallow is the founder of the Young Entrepreneurs Association which seeks to improve young Gambians’ entrepreneurial capacities and move them from being job seekers to job providers.

Saliou Diao Barry was a Fellow from Guinea. He observed foreign volunteers assisting people in his home country of Guinea and determined that he too would make a positive difference. He launched Project Village Wellness in 2012, which enables the unemployed to bring palm kernels that can be freely collected along the coast to machines that press them into salable palm oil. Mr. Barry’s organization won a national Energy Global Award in 2014 and provided employment to 731 people—680 women and 51 men—by 2015.

The range of experiences across cohorts and areas of study is tremendous. 2015 Fellows being hosted by Howard University in Washington, DC enjoyed opportunities such as meeting with Nigeria’s President Buhari, attending a dinner at the U.S Chamber of Commerce hosted by the Corporate Council on Africa, and a Meet and Greet hosted by EbonyLife TV. A midwife from Nigeria, part of the 2015 Wagner College cohort, was able to assist with the delivery of two babies at Staten Island University Teaching Hospital. Hikmat Baba Dua and the other Fellows hosted by Rutgers University in New Jersey visited the United Nations, the National Defense University, Johnson & Johnson, and the Community Planning and Advocacy Council. They had opportunities to meet with leaders, including Congressman John Lewis, the Mayors of Newark and Camden, and one of Liberia’s Nobel Peace Prize winners, Ms. Leymah Gbowee.

The 2015 Fellows hosted by Northwestern University obtained Business and Entrepreneurship training. In addition to classroom time, the 25 Fellows were able to interact with and get advice from local political leaders including Elizabeth Tasdhl, Evanston’s Mayor. The group also met with business leaders in Chicago and its suburbs at social functions, the headquarters for McDonald’s, the McCormick Foundation and SRAM, one of the world’s largest bicycle component producers and a supporter of World Bicycle Relief initiatives in Africa and Asia. Fellows at the University of Texas-Austin learned about Business and Entrepreneurship from leaders in technology from Google, Capital factory, WeWork and Techstars. They like members of other cohorts, including those hosted by Tulane University, also had the opportunity to undertake home stays.

Professional Development Experiences

One hundred of the 500 Fellows recently completed an additional six weeks of specialized training in the form of a Professional Development Experience (PDE). Two of them were Jean Bosco Nzeyimana and Sara Idohou.

Jean Bosco Nzeyimana was one of the six Fellows from Rwanda selected from 800 applicants from that country. He under undertook his PDE at Wisconsin Biological Systems Engineering to strengthen the business skills he needs to run his company, Habona Biogas, which produces affordable and environmentally-friendly fuels from waste. The Wisconsin program will also enable Mr. Nzeyimana train other young Rwandans, expanding his positive impact beyond his own business.

Sara Idohou was raised in Benin. She founded the nonprofit organization Young Leaders Corporation (YLC) in 2012 that offers training and skills building to the youths of Benin. To date, YLC has impacted more than 10,000 people. Her six-week Professional Development Experience (PDE) in the USA after the university-hosted program was undertaken in the Baltimore, Maryland office of the International Youth Foundation.

Some Fellows create their own internship opportunities. Fombah Kanneh stayed on after the Fellows program ended to visit a man he had met in 2011 in Monrovia, Liberia and who he found very inspiring, Mr. Casirmiro of Florida. Mr. Kanneh interned at Mr. Casirmiro’s week-long mid-August 2015 BizNovator camp in Miami.

Post-Program Collaboration and Support

All of the 2015 Fellows will continue to obtain post-program benefits. Upon return to their home countries, Washington Mandela Fellows receive continued support from US Embassies, Regional Leadership Centers, and the YALI Network. They also receive customized ongoing professional development opportunities, mentoring, training, and programming from USAID and affiliated programs. In addition, seed funding is available to support Fellows’ ideas, businesses, and organizations

The 2014 Fellows, representing 49 African countries, including Amnah Ibuni of Tanzania and Saied Tafida Sulaiman of Nigeria, have already been making use of such opportunities. Seventy five percent of the 2014 Fellows, representing 48 countries, participated in the Regional Conferences that were hosted in West, East, and Southern Africa between April and June 2015. Thirty seven 2014 Fellows made use of Speaker Travel Grants to present at key industry events and conferences across Africa and beyond. One hundred thirty seven of the 2014 Fellows, 72 women and 65 men, participated in mentorship programs of at least six months with experts from banking, microfinance, investment and consulting firms, health, technology and non-profit organizations, to help them hone their leadership and professional abilities. In addition, 184 of the 2014 Fellows (108 men and 76 women) participated in professional practicums with organizations from Microsoft to Mercy Corps, the Peace Corps, the African Union, the United Nations Population Fund, and the World Food Programme.

Africa’s young leaders are looking for opportunities not hand outs and it is no wonder that enthusiasm for the Fellows program runs high. 2014 Fellows report that their fellowship was “life changing.” A 2014 Fellow noted that the program enabled her to take her agricultural consumer goods processing start-up to the distribution phase and to learn about service leadership which she is applying to the running of her NGO. In addition to such specific benefits, 2014 Fellows reported feeling “stronger and more confident,” more connected with other young leaders, and having “a greater sense of pride to be African.”

Amina Garuba Ahmed, a 2014 Fellow from Nigeria summed up the thoughts of many quite nicely when she noted that: “I believe the Mandela Washington Fellowship is one of the best investments in Africa and African youths. Through this fellowship, I see a new Africa and the emergence of a new crop of African leaders that care about their countries and the development of the African continent, where there is free movement, improved and increased trade, and the industrialization of Africa through collaboration among states and better control of Africa’s natural resources by Africans.”

The Mandela Washington Fellows are high achievers seeking to improve lives in their home communities and beyond. They are not a rare exception, but one group among many that include numerous impressive young African leaders. There are MasterCard Foundation Scholars, members of the A World at School Global Youth Ambassadors program, Global Alliance for Youth Leaders program and Queen’s Young Leaders program. Within the YALI network and beyond it there are many more young leaders with their own initiatives and startups that are making a positive difference without the support of a major international program.

Africa has long been home to civic-minded and innovative youths. Modern communication and supportive international programs are helping to raise global awareness of young African leaders’ initiatives and organizations. Africa’s leadership is changing for the better and the continent’s youths are leading the way.

Apply to become a 2016 Mandela Washington Fellow

Young African leaders interested in becoming 2016 Fellows should learn more about the program and, if eligible, submit an application. Applications were made available October 1, 2015 and will be due November 11, 2015.

Get Inspired

I have featured dozens of successful and inspiring African leaders including several Mandela Washington Fellows on my weekly African Development Successes blog. Visit or follow it. I will be featuring many more outstanding African leaders the coming months.


Versions of this story first appeared on on September 8, 2015 and Oxford University Press’s blog on September 10, 2015.


Heidi G. Frontani is a Professor of Geography at Elon University in the USA. She has taught classroom-based and study travel courses in the USA, UK, China, Ghana, and Kenya, where she was a Fulbright Scholar. She has numerous peer-reviewed articles on development and the social aspects of natural resource management near wildlife parks. Her most recent research interests include sustainable health sector aid to Africa, aid assessment, and Africans’ effective development initiatives in Africa.