Obama praises young Africans for driving progress

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An attendee reacts to President Obama during the Young African Leaders Initiative summit. (White House)

“Africans are beginning to leapfrog old technologies into new prosperity,” President Obama recently told a gathering of young African leaders in Washington. “The continent [of Africa] has achieved historic gains in health, from fighting HIV/AIDS to making childbirth safer for women and babies. Millions have been lifted from extreme poverty. So this is extraordinary progress,” Obama said.

He was speaking to members of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, who had traveled to the nation’s capital where they networked with business leaders, officials and each other. The fellowship brings promising young African adults to U.S. universities for six weeks of study in business, civic leadership and public management.

Among the fellows was Brian Bwembya from Zimbabwe, whose music fights gender-based violence and educates youth about HIV/AIDS, and Jamila Mayanja from Uganda, who started a door-to-door laundry company to give teens jobs and teach them entrepreneurial skills.

(© AP Images)
Obama (left) meets some of the young African leaders whom he spoke to August 3 in Washington. (© AP Images)

The president announced plans to double the number of Mandela Washington Fellows for 2016 from 500 to 1,000. He also said that, as part of the Young African Leaders program, up to 80 Americans would answer the suggestion of a young participant from Senegal who believes young Americans would benefit from traveling to Africa. Such travel would not be to help poor communities, the president said, “but to learn from other societies, with humility.”

The president observed that a country’s economic development depends on the opportunities it offers women. “I married someone who is strong and is my equal,” he said.

A generation’s critical issue

Answering a question about the environment, the president said climate change “is going to be one of the critical issues of your time.” This generation of leaders, he said, must “learn from our mistakes and find new, sustainable ways of generating energy that don’t produce carbon.”

The president’s meeting with the young Africans fell on the day that the Obama administration’s plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from U.S. power plants was formally adopted.

A growing and influential network

The Mandela Washington Fellows, from sub-Saharan Africa, are part of the 140,000-strong, and growing, YALI Network.  Members access free online courses and have so far earned more than 13,000 course certificates.

His greatest hope for the YALI Network, Obama said, is that in 10 or 20 years its members — at that point business and political leaders — will be “reaching back and helping the next generation, that you’ll not only be making a difference in your own countries but you’ll be the foundation of a new generation of global leadership.”