Learning from Young Leaders Who Are Transforming Africa

Post originally written by Reeta Roy and published on Skoll World Forum and Forbes as part of an ongoing series at the Skoll World Forum titled “Our Theory of Change.”

“As young African leaders, we need patience, but every day we must do what we can. I realized that waiting for others to solve my problems was not going to happen so I worked on my own solutions.” This piece of wisdom was shared with me by Joseph Munyabanza. He fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo when he was seven years old and grew up in the Kyangwali refugee camp in Uganda. Despite many hardships, when he was 14 years old, Joseph and some friends started an organization, CORBUWAS, to support the education of young people in the camp. Joseph also pursued his own education. He won a scholarship and graduated from African Leadership Academy in South Africa. Today, he is a MasterCard Foundation Scholar studying medicine at Westminster University with dreams of making a difference in Africa.

How do individuals change the course of their lives and emerge from grinding poverty with dignity?

Joseph embodies the resilience and indomitable spirit I often see in young people in Africa. When I reflect on his extraordinary story, it reinforces the simple belief that guides us at The MasterCard Foundation:  That is, each of us has the potential to change our own life and the lives of those around us. It only takes an opportunity. Hence, our Foundation’s vision is a world where all people have opportunities to learn and to prosper.

We focus on expanding access to two basic tools that people living in poverty require to improve their own lives: financial services such as savings, business credit, and crop insurance; and education to enable young people to acquire marketable skills so they can enter the workforce. Change occurs when people have opportunities to learn, acquire skills, build assets, deploy capital to start a business, and create social networks. More than just acquiring knowledge, people also gain the confidence to pursue their dreams.

It sounds so simple. Yet, how do we create opportunities for millions of Josephs? Poverty is a complex problem. It tests our values and our imagination to interrupt its pernicious inter-generational cycle. Philanthropy is not a solution, but a catalyst for change. Deployed well, it complements the scaling power of markets and public policy.

The MasterCard Foundation was created in 2006. Early on, we made strategic choices about where, with whom, and how we would work. We decided to work in close collaboration with partner organizations in Africa, the second-fastest growing region in the world that also shoulders the highest burden of poverty. Eighty percent of the population is unbanked and enrollment in secondary and higher education lags well behind the rest of the world. In order to sustain the continent’s growth and make that growth equitable, people will need increased access to financial services and education.

We collaborate with African and other organizations with a history and commitment to the region, and with the capacity to innovate. We also decided to invest deeply in a smaller number of partners and to take a long-term view on how change happens. On average, projects we fund run over five years, and our largest initiatives extend to 10 years. These projects are accompanied by a significant investment in evaluation and a commitment to measure change in order to learn what is working and what should be improved. As of December 2012, we have committed $830 million to 75 projects.

We have learned that how we collaborate with others matters as much as what we do. Some lessons we have learned over the past six years include:

Listen to those well-placed to understand the problem. Listen carefully to microfinance clients, young people, staff of partner organizations, and community leaders, about how they would design and implement solutions. Create space for people closest to the problem to lead change. Philanthropy has a role to empower them and ensure their voices are heard. But African leadership, ownership of solutions, and the capacity to execute are essential.

Make learning an intentional part of how we work. Before beginning a project, understand what matters and agree on how it will be measured. Recognize that wrong assumptions, false starts, and course corrections are part of the learning journey. A measure of learning is whether we are making new mistakes, not the same old ones.

Align with those who share your values. Invest time upfront to understand an organization, its people, its values and culture, its unique strengths, how it makes decisions, and how we might learn and solve problems together.

One example of how we apply these lessons is through our Youth Think Tank. This is a group of inspirational young men and women who have participated in projects that we support across Africa. They advise us on strategies, provide ideas on how we expand opportunities for education and employment, as well as review proposals under consideration. One of them, Olivia Kyomuhendo from Uganda advises, “Emphasize creativity and innovation in young people because creativity and innovation will lead to entrepreneurship.”

Today, through the work of our partners thousands of young people are being educated and equipped with the skills they need to be successfully employed. Young women are starting their businesses with new expertise and capital. More African entrepreneurs are implementing their ideas. Currently, the projects we support benefit close to five million people in 49 countries.

Perhaps change happens when organizations like the African Leadership Academy listen and respond to the aspirations of people they serve like Joseph Munyabanza. When speaking about his future, Joseph told me, “I feel excited about my dreams for my country and my continent. I accept the challenges and the responsibilities of making these dreams come true.” At The MasterCard Foundation, we share his excitement about Africa and are excited to be a part of the social and economic transformation of the continent led by leaders like Joseph.