Young African leaders submerged into Des Moines startup community

In the midst of a six-week excursion into the Des Moines startup community a group of young African business leaders spent their lunch on Wednesday at the Gravitate co-working office space in downtown Des Moines.

This program comes from President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative known as the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders. For the second consecutive year Drake University plays host to 25 business leaders between the ages of 25-35 from Sub-Sharan Africa.

Each spot in the program is competitive, with 1,000 applications being selected each year nationwide out of 40,000 applications. Each professional comes with established records of accomplishment and the 2017 cohort for Des Moines has 17 different countries represented.

40 Universities across the country participate in the program, which ends July 30.

Of the 25 participating in Des Moines some were doctors, engineers or successful entrepreneurs. They spent 90 minutes inside Gravitate on Wednesday and participated in a question and answer session with Gravitate founder Geoff Wood.

A few of the fellows were even owners of their own co-working spaces in Africa.

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Of the 25 professionals that partiicipated in the Mandella Washington Fellowship, 17 countries were represented

A non-traditional experience

Norman Matara of Zimbabwe is a medical doctor who says he wants to move into the entrepreneurship field because inside hospitals, “There is no room to think outside the box.”

“Coming here has been great exposure to learn how to start a business,” Matara, 30, said. “When you see these big companies and learning from their stories. Hearing that they only started with $10,000, it gives us hope. It’s not about how much money you have but how great the idea and the right people.”

Matara hopes to develop an app that will allow people in Africa to communicate with doctors and receive consultations. He just doesn’t know about app development.

“I cannot do that alone,” Matara says. “I have to network with people and by doing that you can help reach your goal.”

Fikiru Aragaw owns a book publishing business along with a driving training center for disabled people to get their drivers license back.

The leadership training is what attracted him to the program.

“It’s creating Africa’s next generation of leaders” Aragaw, 30, said. “It’s about leadership training and there are different tracks. There’s a business leadership track, public management, civic leadership.”

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Mauricette Kobozo Yadibert of Central Africa takes notes Wednesday.


Tom Swartwood is an Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship/Assistant Director for the William & Jean Buchanan Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at Drake University. He said this group has entrepreneurs that are already successful by American standards but in Africa it’s barely making a dent because the population is so large.

One entrepreneur Swartwood mentioned does human resources training and has 43 companies as clients with 35,000 registered participants.

“Rock star right?” Swartwood asks. “There’s 20 million people, he hasn’t moved the needle and it’s crazy. If he gets those numbers here, he’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year.”

But Swartwood says their ecosystem is on a different scale and has virtually no infrastructure. He just hopes this initiative will serve as a motivator to make a difference in their communities and stay connected to one-another.

“They have to play roles in the training and education of young teenagers,” Swartwood says. “They owe it back to the kids.”