A Network of African Business Influencers, Minted in Atlanta

By Trevor Williams

The Mandela Washington Fellows who visited Atlanta for six weeks in June and July were emphatically positive about the leadership program that brought them across the Atlantic.

The U.S. State Department’s Young African Leaders Initiative touched down in the city for the sixth straight year, once again bringing cohorts of 25 leaders each to three Atlanta universities. These 75 were the cream of the crop in the continent’s startup, civic and nonprofit scenes. Only 700 participants were chosen out of 38,000-plus applications.

But for all their immersion with the local community — from volunteering to hand out water at the Peachtree Road Race to business meetings at AGCO Corp., IBM, UPS, Coca-Cola Co. and even Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms‘ office — one of the aspects these young luminaries valued most was the ability to interact with each other.

Software entrepreneur Nana Prempeh of Ghana wants to build pan-African companies, but forging a network across a vast land of 54 nations would require a hefty helping of venture funding and a whole lot of time. 

“For me that’s one of the biggest highlights (of the program) — to know that I can go to Senegal and Lesothoand have a friend, not just a friend but a business partner,” Mr. Prempeh told Global Atlanta during an interview while touring Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport with a group of fellows in the Leadership in Business track hosted by Clark Atlanta University.

Mr. Prempeh co-founded Asoriba, a software platform helping churches better connect with their members via digital devotionals, tithe collections and more. He’s now team lead for Grow for Me Africawhich lets investors fund small farms and reap financial returns at harvest. He believes an African free-trade agreement enacted in May will help him target a broader audience on a continent of 1.2 billion people. In comparison, Ghana (which hosts the secretariat of the African Continental Free Trade Area) has a population of 26 million. 

“It means that I can produce and sell to a million people; I can’t do that in Ghana,” he said.

Tying African influencers better together was a key goal of the U.S. government-funded project, which was launched under the Obama administration with a heavy emphasis on fostering intra-Africa trade and entrepreneurship. 

Clark Atlanta, which focuses heavily on helping its MBA graduates start their own companies, has taken the same approach toward the Mandela Fellows.

The university wanted “expose them to the systems we use, the resources and tools that we use and help them go back to start a business, grow and scale their current business or impact the community in a positive way,” Darlita Moye, an administrator at Clark Atlanta’s business school who started volunteering with the program in 2014 and now helps run it. 

Many previous participants have gone back and started new programs affecting thousands of lives and giving Clark Atlanta a link to the dynamism of Africa’s economies. 

“For Clark Atlanta University, hands down it gives us more of an international presence. It gives our students more exposure of what’s happening globally, so they become better global citizens. In terms of our faculty, it opens up the possibility of reciprocal exchange, research and further collaborations, so it is a win-win all the way around for everyone,” Ms. Moye said. 

Those tangible connections are important, even in a world where technology has supposedly erased borders and smoothed out communication flows, the Mandela fellows learned on the trip. 

Neo Sekhesa, who founded the Linford Vodka micro-distillery in Lesotho and is aiming to establish an autism school, said that social media and digital communications only go so far in generating support. Emails often aren’t returned without a personal connection already established. 

“You write to them through that normal ‘info at’ and then you put in your email, but they don’t get back to you until somebody is able to link you directly to them,” Ms. Sekhesa told Global Atlanta. “It all is overrated.”

Mr. Prempeh agreed. “There is no way I could have made the connections I made here through LinkedIn or Facebook. It would just not happen,” he said. 

Some in Atlanta have aimed to position the city as prime real estate for connecting with the continent, given its strong African American business community, diaspora links, civil rights history historically black colleges and direct Delta Air Lines flights to key cities like Lagos, Nigeria, and Johannesburg. 

Indeed, the fellows met many in Atlanta who had traveled to Africa on multiple occasions — something they didn’t expect. 

“I think that alone is a factor that can bring us together,” said Fatima Zahra Ba, who founded her clothing brand So’Fatoo in Senegal in 2012 and organized the Doyna (“Enough” in the Wolof language) campaign to stem violence against women. 

Fatima Zahra Ba of Senegal

“You connect easily with those people. They know your realities, and most certainly they know what they can get out of that,” she added, noting that connecting with Africa will be good for Atlanta’s business prospects in the long run.

“Nobody’s blind: We all know that Africa is the future. We know how the growth is going to happen there. Everybody knows the opportunities that people will have there,” said Ms. Ba, a designer who focuses on African styles and ensuring that Africans benefit from the sale of woven fabric designs that originated on the continent. 

Indeed, many of Atlanta’s largest companies are already engaged on the continent. Coca-Cola is found in every African. Tractor maker AGCO has production bases, parts warehouses and even a farm in Zambia focused on training farmers on mechanization and future growing techniques. Smaller firms are also getting in on the act, from AdEdge Technologies’ water filtration systems to Yellowcard Financial,which is targeting the remittance market with cryptocurrency gift cards in Nigeria. 

While touring Hartsfield-Jackson, the fellows learned about the business operation that keeps an airport that hosted more than 107 million passengers last year humming. They also heard about $6 billion in capital improvements, from new cargo facilities to parking decks, steel canopies, train stations and beyond. 

But their questions revolved mainly around the nuts and bolts of global business — how airlines decide where to launch new flights and how to ensure products like shea butter will pass agricultural inspection. 

Elliott Paige, who handles both cargo and passenger route development for ATL, told the fellows how important it is to be open to opportunities presented by the global economy as they improve their strategies to hedge against risks. 

“There is nothing that is happening internationally that is not impacting you today, even if it’s in a minor way,” Mr. Paige said. 

Ms. Sesekha agreed, saying part of her mission is to educate people in Lesotho about the opportunities in the wider world, even when many are focused on simple subsistence. With a degree in biotechnology, she also helps run an aquaponics operation a local high school. 

“Your ability is constrained by your knowledge and education,” she said. “When we improve, we need to improve from the bottom up and it needs to be an interchangeable cycle.” 

For Mr. Prempeh from Ghana, the trip showed that even a country as advanced as the U.S. has its share of problems too. Just as in Africa, he could see that generating wealth through new business activity, especially for the black community, should be paramount. 

“We are very connected, and the failure for one affects everybody, and success for one benefits everybody, and if everybody begins to look at the world that way, it would change everything.” 

Editor’s note: This story was made possible through the sponsorship of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, which supports Global Atlanta through its international affairs department. 

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