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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.”


  • Kevin Shikuku
    Posted July 16, 2017 at 10:01 pm

    So interesting to see this published indeed we are propelling Africa this is great am Kevin Shikuku one of the 25
    a public health officer who deals with communicable and non communicable disease countrol also switched to rear insects black soldier fly for poultry farmers and flying ants for protein for the community in Kenya

  • Laura Kinnard
    Posted July 25, 2017 at 10:49 am

    It has been an inspiration and blessing to meet and get to work with many if the Fellows this year at Drake. I can’t stress enough how meaningful this is also to the Des Moines businesses, individuals, entrpreneurs, educators and leaders who have had the opportunity to spend time with this group.

Comments are closed.

Young African leaders submerged into Des Moines startup community | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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