Work with us for real change, say West African youth leaders

By Jillian Slutzker

A generation of young West African social entrepreneurs is eager to take on some of the toughest challenges in their communities, from gender discrimination to crop loss. In fact, they are already doing it and are ready to partner with the global development community to amplify their results.

That was the message delivered by a panel of student leaders from Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal during a discussion with youth and development experts at Creative Associates International headquarters.

The students are visiting the U.S. for nearly a month as part of the State Department-funded Study of U.S. Institute on Social Entrepreneurship and are hosted by California State University, Chico.

“If you want to know Africa, you have to talk to people like me, the [youth] leaders. Because we know the problems of our countries” said Marie Ndieguene, a writer, activist and CEO of a start-up specializing in recycled construction materials called Eco-Builders Made in Senegal.

Through her work, she has raised awareness about harassment at school, homelessness and women’s health, among other issues. She encouraged foreign development implementers to reach out to young civil society leaders like herself and to take the time to study the country’s problems from the ground up.

Other panelists added that while governments can sometimes be roadblocks or at least speed bumps to social innovation to solve problems, youth entrepreneurs have practice in being agile, adaptive and operating in sometimes bureaucratic, restrictive or other difficult environments.

“Youth have a lot of ideas which could impact a lot of people,” said Gilbert Mukoko from Cameroon, who advocates for increased youth volunteerism and internships as a way to gain job skills. “These are people who will take you to the right places. These are people who have business ideas. We know the right way to do things.”

Hailing from Mali, panelist Babady Alhadj Sember, who founded an organic soap company, agreed.

“Work with youth leaders. They know the problems well,” he said.

Learning from shared problems

During their visit to the United States, the 20 youth delegates studied social entrepreneurship at Chico State University and developed their own “lean” business plans to reach their social entrepreneurship goals back home.

They visited start-ups and established businesses in San Francisco and Kansas City, learning best practices for social entrepreneurship, from design thinking to financing, and seeing social enterprises at work in the United States.

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Creative staff and the panelists pose after their discussion. Photo by Jillian Slutzker.

“For me this is a good experience learning about people, other cultures and to discover the world. It is a life-changing experience,” said Ndieguene.

In addition to her eco-friendly construction business, she would like to develop an approach to help stem crop loss in Senegal. During her visit to Kansas City, she spoke with a farmer encountering the same challenge and discussed possible solutions.

Fellow youth leader Joy Egbiri from Nigeria says she came to the United States with the goal of learning ways to grow her network of advocates and partners to support her causes, girls’ education and maternal and child health.

She says she can’t wait to go back to her community “to talk to my peers and to my fellow students and see how together we can rise up and push our nation to the point we want it to be.”

Committed to the cause

As they round out their program, the youth leaders say have redoubled their commitment to creating positive social change in their communities and countries.

“You can actually do something about [the problems],” said panelist David Jonathan Donkoh of Ghana, an advocate for young people in his community who runs youth basketball camps. “We have to be determined. Obstacles will come your way but learning how to defeat those obstacles makes you a greater person and a greater entrepreneur.”

Creative’s Katy Vickland, Director of Workforce Development and Youth, said that these young leaders can count Creative as a partner in their endeavors.

“Creative is honored and committed to engaging with youth at the center of our programming,” she said. “We look forward to keeping in touch with each of you, serving as a resource and intentionally looking for opportunities to partner and collaborate. Your ideas, commitment and persistence are already creating value for your communities, and we know you will continue to do so.”

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