Three to Watch: Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs Come to UT

 

Self-possessed, extremely articulate, and unfailingly positive even as they describe serious obstacles, Milton Dumbuya, Florence Kamaitha, and Lombola Lombola are clearly determined to change the world. They have the air of people on their way to, say, meet the President of the United States.

Which, in fact, they are.

Dumbuya, Kamaitha, and Lombola are three of the 25 Young African Leaders Initiative fellows who just spent six weeks on the Forty Acres, developing their entrepreneurial skills so they can return to their home countries better armed to improve their communities. Now they’re headed to a summit at the White House.

The White House Administration created the Young African Leaders Initiative to invest in rising leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has an overwhelmingly young population. YALI’s major step this year was to host 500 African entrepreneurs, 25 each at 20 universities, for a six-week institute on business and entrepreneurship.

The competition was stiff. Instead of the expected 5,000 applications, the program got a staggering 50,000 applications for 500 spaces.

“These are really the best and the brightest,” says Teri Albrecht, UT’s director of International Student & Scholar Services. “They’ve got the passionate fire and drive to make countries and communities better, and they’re embarking on enterprises that could both be profitable and create social change.”

This ethos is at the heart of each fellow’s project. Below, get to know three of them.

Lombola Lombola: Building Furniture With Heart

Lombola

When asked what motivates him, Lombola Lombola is very clear: “I want to change other peoples’ lives.” Lombola, who is from Malawi, created Bamboo Express a year ago. Always interested in art, he knew he could make something both beautiful and sustainable when he came up with the idea for handmade bamboo furniture. “There’s lots of bamboo in Malawi, so it’s eco-friendly and renewable. Bamboo takes three years to regenerate whereas timber typically takes 10.”

Bamboo Express has been very successful. So far, the small company hasn’t been able to keep up with the demand, but Lombola dreams of eventually exporting his products to other countries.

Beyond crafting handsome, high-quality products, Lombola is interested in seeing a new generation of entrepreneurs follow suit. His company has an internship position in the hopes of teaching skills and knowledge that can be used elsewhere, and he “would love to see a new crop of entrepreneurs making bamboo products.”

Sensitive to Malawi’s high unemployment rate, Lombola also runs a program that connects college graduates to employers. The YALI experience has convinced him even more of the power entrepreneurship could have in his country, he says: “I believe we need to shift our paradigm to starting businesses and creating employment and wealth with a human value.”

Milton Dumbuya: Finding the Keys to Financial Freedom

Milton

Milton Dumbuya is also addressing the high rate of unemployment in his country, Sierra Leone, through entrepreneurship. His microfinancing program teaches young mothers basic entrepreneurship skills so that the women can avoid prostitution and their children can stay in school. Remarkably, Dumbuya’s company began with helping nine women a year ago but is now offering microfinancing aid to 3,500 women.

Dumbuya also runs a program called “Empowering the Physically Challenged Children and Youths,” with which he aims to change the deplorable treatment of the disabled in Sierra Leone. Dumbuya’s own father abandoned the family once it became clear that his infant son was physically disabled. “I don’t remember him at all. People say that I look just like him, that if I wanted to know what he looked like, I’d find him in the mirror.”

The disabled make up 19 percent of the population of Sierra Leone, and begging on the streets is the only option for most of them. “In Africa, those with disabilities are seen as a burden,” says Dumbuya. “I grew up knowing that if I didn’t have an education, I would become a beggar, too.” Dumbuya saw many of his disabled friends end up that way, but he knew he had the potential to make something of himself.

But Dumbuya is aware of the many challenges ahead. Having internalized prevalent cultural attitudes, the disabled “see themselves as nothing, unwilling to come out and show their capabilities.” Dumbuya himself faced much discrimination as an ambitious young man. Intending to study medicine, Dumbuya was withdrawn from the program when a professor doubted his abilities to perform surgical tasks. “I wasn’t even planning on becoming a surgeon, but still, they couldn’t overcome their mentality that the disabled are capable of nothing.”

Dumbuya aims to change both the self-defeating mentalities of the disabled and then move outward to change the close-minded mentalities of the able-bodied about the disabled.

As of now, Dumbuya is working closely with 10 young disabled people. He is lobbying with the government to create a center where the disabled could receive training in different disciplines, have all their needs met, and be introduced into the job market. Even better, Dumbuya wants to show the disabled community that if the job market won’t have them, they’re better off creating their own jobs anyway—just as Dumbuya himself has done.

Florence Kamaitha: Getting Girls to School

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Three years ago, Florence Kamaitha was delivering desks to an elementary school classroom in rural Kenya when she noticed that almost all the girls were missing. The teacher told her that without sanitary pads or even underwear, the girls’ menstrual cycles were keeping them home. “It’s a taboo for Africans to talk about menstruation and sexual health,” says Kamaitha, and so the problem had gone largely unaddressed.

Ever since, Kamaitha has been trying to get girls the supplies they need to stay in school. School absenteeism boosts dropout rates, increasing the probability that these girls will be forced to take factory jobs or, worse, go into prostitution. But “for every year that a girl stays in school,” Kamaitha says, “her chances at a better-paying job increase.”

Supplying these girls with sanitary napkins—which aren’t affordable in Kenya—hasn’t been as simple as one might think. After a gauntlet of unsustainable donations, cheaply made imported pads, and ineffective reusable cloth pads, Kamaitha has been looking for creative solutions.

The most recent promising idea is a banana fiber developed at MIT. “Kenya produces 1.4 million pounds of bananas every year; much of that gets wasted,” Kamaitha explains. She would be the first person to use the new fiber in Kenya, and is currently campaigning to make use of the fiber.

Kamaitha plans on staying in Kenya to come up with different innovations for improving the lives of girls. “Since we’ve started helping out, the girls are participating more in class, and their self-esteem is boosted.”

When the YALI fellows arrive at the White House this week, Kamaitha will not only be shaking hands with President Obama. She’ll also meet privately with First Lady Michelle Obama to discuss her Pad Heaven initiative. As exciting as that is, she adds that her time in Austin has already exceeded her expectations.

“Meeting entrepreneurs in Austin and knowing that they go through the same challenges we go through back in Africa is pretty encouraging,” says Kamaitha. “All we have to do is to never give up.”

Photos by Sara Combs, courtesy the International Office.

 

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