Stephen Sacca, SF ’90
Director, MIT Sloan Fellows Program
Of all the continents on Earth, Africa is particularly blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and resources. Often, it is heralded as the cradle of civilization. There is no dearth of human talent in any sector of this, the world’s second largest and second most populous continent. But for all its vast potential, Africa seems to be beset by the greatest number of challenges—poverty, inadequate infrastructure, substandard education, poor health systems, and an overall lack of good governance and principled leadership.
Many MIT Sloan Fellows alumni and faculty have dedicated their careers to the search for answers. Kofi Annan, SF ’72, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, has set up a foundation to investigate solutions. Funke Michaels, SF ’13, now a Mason Fellow at Harvard, recently hosted a panel of the Council of Young African Leaders. Claude Grunitzky, SF ’12, was right there along with her. Ezekiel Odiogo, SF ’13; Bolaji Finnih, SF ’15; and David Machingaidze, SF ’15, played key roles in the 2015 MIT Africa Innovate conference, now in its fifth year and attracting global attention.
All agree that so much hinges on the skill of African leaders to innovate and drive progress forward. So what are the qualities of an effective leader in contemporary Africa and the key challenges those leaders must address? In this issue of the newsletter, we put that pivotal question to members of the MIT Sloan Fellows community, including alumni from across Africa. We polled MIT Leadership Center Director Hal Gregersen. We even had a chance to talk with Alan Doss, head of the Kofi Annan Foundation and a former UN peacekeeper. I think you’ll find their perspectives both provocative and illuminating.
“Most African leaders exhibit very little understanding of the systems and power bases that sustain the problems that plague their nations,” Xoli Kakana observes. They do not commit boldly to tackling all components of those systems with the persistence and focus necessary and supported by the appropriate mechanisms that enable monitoring and evaluation.”
Clarity of vision is something that Kakana knows a thing or two about. Founder and Group CEO of ICT-Works, Kakana has overcome myriad cultural and technological challenges to raise the standard of IT and telecom services in South Africa and boost career opportunities for women in her country.
Kakana concedes that given the sheer enormity of Africa with its 54 individual nations, it becomes very difficult to generalize about leadership challenges. That said, she believes that most African countries are plagued by a few common failings, including poor governance, weak institutions, a lack of infrastructure, and a reluctance to own any of those crippling problems.
She points to the public education in South Africa as a discouraging example. “Over the past 20 years our education system has been dogged by deep problems of ineffectiveness and inefficiency. At the same time, the government frequently effects costly changes to pedagogy and school curricula, knee-jerk interventions not adequately informed by a holistic understanding of the challenges. South African leaders are not examining the real issues, the deep-seated problems such as the psychosocial impediments affecting teachers, learners, and managers of the system and the communities to which they belong.”
But with all these wrongs righted, Kakana notes that progress will be difficult to make outside a climate of peace. Leaders, she contends, cannot truly move forward without it. “Africa needs leaders who are passionate visionaries for peace. Conflict, whether declared or undeclared, and the lasting psychological and other societal impacts of violence and instability continue to have a devastating effect on the ability of African people and their institutions to thrive. Advocates for peace at all levels will change the course of Africa in the foreseeable future.”
“Many of the crises facing Africa are first and foremost leadership crises—lack of vision, concerns about legitimacy, and misalignment of interests between leaders and their people,” believes Yaya Moussa, SF ’10. “Those deficiencies are only compounded by the sense of exclusion and by the enduring injustice felt by large chunks of the population—the root cause of political, social, and military unrest.”
A native of Cameroon who spent two decades in Europe and now lives in the US, Moussa has the ability to dissect African leadership from multicultural perspectives. CEO of Kontinent, an investment company that specializes in African extractive resources, Moussa believes that the leadership of individual African countries must think in regional and continental terms. And they must collaborate with and leverage the strengths of neighbors.
In Moussa’s view, the question of the sustainability of many African nations can no longer be avoided. “If African countries are to survive and compete in the global arena, their leaders must transcend narrow nationalism and think in terms of the continent as a whole. Raising that awareness is of survival-level urgency. African countries need to collectively build a critical mass to have some weight on the global stage. A divided Africa is a weak Africa, an Africa with no future.”
But Moussa cites a number of inspiring African leaders who don’t get much press but have led exemplary careers. “A few weeks ago, Hifikepunye Pohamba, the outgoing president of Namibia, received the African Governance Award from the Mo Ibrahim Foundation,” he notes. Hailed for promoting gender equality and for generous spending on housing and education, Pohamba was enormously popular, but term limits prevented him from running again.
Moussa also cites Botswana as a success story in terms of democracy and resource management—in fact, the country has been the subject of a Harvard Business School case study. Fifty years ago, Botswana was one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita GDP of approximately US $70. Today, it has become one of the fastest growing economies in the world, with a per capita GDP of about $16,400 per year. While the standard of living is considered modest in the context of the Human Development Index, Botswana is the top country in continental Sub-Saharan Africa.
Moussa hopes that such success stories will serve as a model and an inspiration for African leaders. “This is what it takes to be a leader in Africa. This is what works,” he adds. “Africa needs enlightened and benevolent leaders like these who love their people and have a vision for their countries.”
“East Africa is very green ground for basic entrepreneurship,” says Flavian Marwa. “You don’t have to be a sophisticated technologist to take advantage of this environment. It’s much more important to execute a simple idea well than to come up with an idea that no one has thought of.” As a consultant with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), part of the World Bank Group, Marwa uses his insights into the continent to advise the IFC on how African countries can implement policies that stimulate the creation and growth of small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
“The idea,” Marwa explains, “is to bring in the private sector as much as possible. We know this approach leads to sustainable development. To be effective, however, policies to support SMEs also must address impediments in the value chain of targeted sectors.” Impediments like the skills gap, lack of mentorship, and information asymmetry. “Leaders who are committed to a robust education system—from primary to secondary to university levels—will enable their citizens to develop a keen eye for opportunities and empower them with the skills to launch businesses.” He notes that in Tanzania and other East African countries, the IFC is encouraging multinational companies to collaborate with universities to develop curricula that are relevant to what is actually happening in industries.
Mentorship is equally important in Marwa’s eyes. Marwa himself serves as a lecturer and mentor at the Legatum Center for Development & Entrepreneurship at MIT. “Beyond having a good educational foundation, young African entrepreneurs also benefit greatly from the guidance of someone with a little more experience,” he says. “Successful business leaders can make a huge impact in Africa by sharing what they’ve learned about building partnerships, for example, or creating effective business models.” He also notes that incubators along the lines of the Cambridge Innovation Center can be game changing. “Providing a professional office infrastructure with flexible, month-to-month rent—not to mention reliable electricity—can make the difference between success and failure for an African software developer.”
Marwa’s concern about information asymmetry on the continent transcends the particulars of various national development policies and education infrastructures. “Whether in agriculture, tech sectors, or oil and gas development, there’s very little information sharing between countries about what’s going on in these areas,” Marwa says. “As a result, we lose in two ways. First, entrepreneurs can’t participate in opportunities through a simple lack of awareness. Second, individual countries can’t benefit from the experiences of their neighbors. Tanzania, for example, recently discovered huge oil and gas reserves. It could learn a lot from countries like Ghana and Nigeria about best and worst practices for developing those industries. This is something that strong pan-African leadership could bring to the table with significant impact.”
“You often hear in the media and in development circles that Africa is rising,” says Ezekiel Odiogo, SF ’13, “but I disagree. Africa has risen.” Odiogo, a principal investment officer in the Transport and ICT Department of the African Development Bank Group, supports his assertion with the fact that several African nations rank among the fastest growing economies in the world. “Various countries are grappling with serious challenges—infrastructure, security, corruption—but the overall balance has shifted to where we see many more checkmarks on the positive side of the ledger.”
Odiogo also points to some important demographic shifts to support his view. “In the past,” he explains, “many young Africans would expatriate after receiving educations abroad. Now, we are seeing a whole new generation of sophisticated, globally exposed professionals who want to return from their overseas educations and start businesses.” The continent is indeed young—50% of the population is below the age of 50—and Africa is projected to have the world’s largest workforce by 2040.
This new generation, in Odiogo’s experience, is tech savvy and ambitious. “They want to be the change and lead the change. The task for the present generation of leaders is to unleash their enthusiasm and capabilities.” Odiogo’s efforts include developing public-private partnerships to address the continent’s infrastructure deficits. He also leads a new initiative called the Africa Innovation Fund. The initial aim of the fund is to support the growth of innovative, technology-enabled ventures at their seed and early growth stages. In the long term, the goal is to establish a robust venture capital market. “We are inspired by the notion that innovation has no state of origin. We know that if we can keep capital flowing to growth-stage enterprises, we can support ventures that have continental relevance and the ability to compete globally.”
Although the private sector has been the primary driver of growth in countries like Nigeria, Odiogo sees an important evolution taking place in the public sector, too. “In the past,” he says, “It was unusual for young people to be engaged in politics. Now, young Africans see politics as a means of driving progress. They expect more transparency, and they want their governments to allow entrepreneurship to flourish. And aging political leaders see the writing on the wall. They see that they have little to gain by clinging to power.
“Many of the challenges we are tackling today are challenges we may never have to face again,” predicts Odiogo. “The next 50 years will look very different for Africans. That’s why I’m very bullish about the future of the continent.”
Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and senior lecturer in leadership and innovation, places a great deal of stock in the transformative potential of African inventiveness. “The specific nature of the challenges vary from country to country,” he says, “but everyday life in most regions requires innovative responses to unexpected challenges. You have to be able to think on your feet and develop creative workarounds to get things done.”
While such conditions may seem disadvantageous to leaders in developed countries, Gregersen believes this challenging environment could prove ideal for producing the next generation of innovators. In Africa, for example, business leaders have few opportunities for complacency. “Leaders hoping to create new markets and develop business opportunities have to be open to surprises,” he says. “They also must be able to take setbacks in stride. In temperament, nearly all successful innovators are very present in the world around them. Operating in a somewhat unstable environment commands your attention and delivers opportunities you might overlook if everything is running smoothly.”
That’s not to say that uncertainty and turmoil are desirable conditions for sustainable development. In fact, Gregersen views these as profound constraints on developing a generation of creative entrepreneurs in African countries. “One of the great tasks of present-day leaders,” says Gregersen, “is establishing trust-based environments for teaching and learning in communities across the continent.” Gregersen cites the transnational art education initiative Room 13 as one example of how this can be accomplished.
Created in the mid-1990s at Caol Primary School near Fort William in Scotland, Room 13 is a voluntary, student-run, self-funded enterprise that supports free-form art instruction. Twenty years of organic growth has resulted in a network of nearly 20 studio locations around the world, including Botswana and South Africa. A recent study of the Room 13 phenomenon noted that participants in Soweto achieved significantly improved academic performance after becoming involved in a Room 13 studio.
Key to the model’s success, in Gregersen’s view, is its non-prescriptive, supportive, and egalitarian framework. “This is an adaptable environment in which young people can experiment, take risks, learn from their failures—all in the company of an experienced mentor. It not only boosts their confidence and powers of concentration, it provides a springboard to some very successful business ventures.”
Kofi Annan Foundation Executive Director Alan Doss has devoted much of his career to the African continent promoting peace, sustainable development, and human rights. Before taking the reins of the Geneva-based foundation established by Kofi Annan, SF ’72, Doss was the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the UN in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and head of the peacekeeping mission there. Before the DRC, Doss had similar roles in Liberia.
In countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ivory Coast, Doss sees reason for optimism on the political front. “These are nations that have only recently emerged from periods of terrible violence and enormous human suffering,” he says. “To create a dynamic of sustainable progress, they need to rebuild sound governance and avoid slipping back into conflict.” Doss is encouraged by the fact that in Liberia and Sierra Leone, new leaders have been elected in a transparent manner. “These officials have come in with the confidence of the people,” Doss says. “Now they have to build productive partnerships—locally and globally—to produce the sustainable results their citizens are expecting.”
For nations with more established democratic practices, such as South Africa and Nigeria, Doss believes a key leadership challenge is building on these foundations to make them more inclusive. “On the economic side,” he says, “Nigeria and Angola have struggled to expand and improve their human development indicators. Creating a broader benefit for the people hinges, to a great extent, on the decisions made at the top.” For areas mired in conflict—like Mali and the Central African Republic—humanitarian challenges are paramount. “Establishing and sustaining a modicum of life-supporting systems has to be every leader’s top priority,” Doss says.
Unemployment looms as one of the most urgent issues across the continent. Doss notes that millions of young Africans are coming into the labor market and that the absence of opportunities will only exacerbate current difficulties. “Part of the response,” he says, “must include improving the general skills base. So in tandem with attracting investment from the private sector, government policies must expand education—that’s key to expanding opportunity and choice.”
Doss acknowledges that addressing these challenges takes time. “To be successful going forward,” he says, “African leaders must be quick to comprehend the scale of each problem and willing to implement decisive measures. They must be economically literate and aware of the concerns of the international community. And they must be able to forge partnerships—locally and globally. That’s how they will engender the goodwill and patience of their people, attract investors, and achieve sustainable success.”
We’re already at work on the next MIT Sloan Fellows Program Newsletter. Please drop us a line at email@example.com if you have ideas about themes and news items for future issues.
Stephen Sacca, Director
Laurel Aroian, Associate Director
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Michelle Pierce, Program Coordinator
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