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Nadworny: Innovating Africa

Last summer, President Obama made a triumphal visit to Kenya and declared that “Africa is on the Move”, praising the spirit of entrepreneurship. In fact, Africa accounts for 7 of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world, with Ethiopia on top.

One of Obama’s signature efforts to support this growth is his Young African Leaders Initiative, or YALI. The Mandela Fellowship brings Africans to the U.S. and places them at various universities to study business and entrepreneurship, public management, and civic leadership. Last summer I had the pleasure of teaching a part of this initiative at Dartmouth College.

But to increase exposure to this program in 2015, Obama launched a number of Regional Learning Centers to bring that same experience to Africans, in Africa.

Together with Dartmouth’s Dickey Center for International Understanding, I’ve had the extreme good fortune to participate in one of the first centers in Nairobi, Kenya. From December through April, I’m teaching cohorts of young professionals on how to use Human Centered Design to innovate, launch new startups, and inspire new initiatives in the companies and NGOs where they presently work. In short, we’re trying to bring a little bit of Dartmouth to Africa.

And these are remarkable groups of people. Mariatheresa is working with street children in Tanzania to help them develop entrepreneurial skills. Joel from Uganda is trying to solve the problem of lack of public toilets in Kampala while trying to turn the waste product into renewable energy. Yvette is an 18-year-old entrepreneur from Rwanda who developed an innovative water delivery service.

I’m someone who’s mostly prioritized “fun” in my career over money, and I have to admit this is the most fun I’ve ever had. The impact is immediate and visible. Within days, the students are already spreading what they’ve learned to students in other tracks. When they travel back home for their group/distance learning, they both practice and teach these new design approaches to their networks and workmates.

The feedback is both exciting and humbling. “I’ve learned a lot that’s changed my life” said James from Kenya, “but the most valuable thing I have are the emails of my Dartmouth teachers, contacts that I will use and treasure for a long time.”

It’s also inspiring. And I’m left thinking: Bet on Africa.

Despite the constraints there are amazing young people doing truly amazing things.

Rich Nadworny is a designer who resides in Burlington and Stockholm.
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