The 2018 Mandela Washington fellows pose for a photo with Governor Brian Sandoval outside of UNR’s Morrill Hall.
The 2018 Mandela Washington fellows pose for a photo with Governor Brian Sandoval outside of UNR’s Morrill Hall.

On a Friday morning in mid-July, a group of around 30 people from nearly two dozen different countries gathered in the Clark Room inside historical Morrill Hall on the University of Nevada, Reno campus. They’d come to speak with Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Looking around the room before the governor arrived, one of the people from the mostly African delegation asked to know who was portrayed in the portraits lining the walls—all of them of white men. But the answer had to wait. It wasn’t until after Sandoval departed, having discussed his educational and political history with the group, that an answer was given.

“Someone asked who all of the people in the portraits were,” said Dr. Dave Croasdell, a professor of in UNR’s College of Business Administration. “They’re the past presidents of the university.”

“No women then?” asked Fatouma Ahmed Abdallah—a citizen of Djibouti—with a raised eyebrow, before nodding in response to an answer of “not yet.”

Abdallah, like most of the people in the room that day, is an entrepreneur—one of 25 who came to Reno as a part of the 2018 Mandela Washington Fellowship.

The fellowship is the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative, begun in 2010 by President Barack Obama as a way to help African professionals ages 25 to 35 to get a leg up in the professional world. It offers three tracks for its 700 annual participants—civic leadership, public management, and business and entrepreneurship. Since 2014, this State Department-funded initiative has brought more than 3,000 people from across Sub-Saharan Africa to universities in the states to take part in six-week leadership programs that include academic work, community outreach and networking and collaboration with American professionals. And since 2015, UNR has hosted 25 fellows a year as one of several colleges on the business and entrepreneurship track.

In addition to working with professors like Croasdell and talks with academics, professionals and politicians, and community outreach that included reading to children at the Downtown Reno Library, this year’s fellows visited Lake Tahoe, toured Tesla and a mine in Winnemucca, and went as far afield as the Bay Area to visit tech giants there.

Different dreams

While UNR’s fellowship program is geared specifically toward entrepreneurs and business professionals, the fellows’ individual interests and business experiences vary widely. Among the 25 African leaders at UNR this year are a gemologist, a beekeeper and a commercial pilot. And what they intend to do with the knowledge they gain upon returning to their respective countries varies widely, as well.

Semakaleng Mothapo—whose background is in social work—is from the township of Bela-Bela in South Africa. Geothermal springs near the town are a popular destination for tourists. And, in recent years, Mothapo has worked to find new ways of engaging these visitors in the hopes of bringing their tourist dollars to the town.

“The area has been a tourist destination since the 1800s, and it has 112 lodges,” Mothapo said. “So when I looked at what was happening in the tourism market, it’s that the focus is around the mineral springs and the mountains and the wildlife around the area. … But there is so much beauty in the ghetto that is overlooked by the tourism industry.”

Last year, Mothapo began offering “ghetto tours” to tourists—taking them into the township to visit local restaurants, bars, schools and historical sites and interact with residents. The goal is to give visitors a glimpse into what life is like outside the area’s resorts—and to drum up some business for local shops and workers who’ve previously not had much engagement with tourists.

“I give tourists who come to the Bela-Bela area ghetto experiences using a walking tour, a public taxi ride and a donkey ride,” Mothapo said. “The tourists get to interact with the local people as they go about their daily lives. That is why I decided to introduce the three modes of transportation. Owning a car as a black person is life-changing in my country, so I wanted people to actually get a feel for what it’s like to be a black person in Bela-Bela township while experiencing the beauty of the township.”

After completing the fellowship, Mothapo will return home and begin work on another project designed to bring tourists to Bela-Bela—a hotel in the township proper where they can stay, rather than returning to the nearby resorts after their ghetto tours.

For Mothapo, the hotel will be a first venture into real estate. But for others among the cohort, it has been a primary business. For Osman Elbashier from Sudan, the hope is that his career in real estate will help him build the recognition and acumen he needs to accomplish his real dream.

“You’re looking at the future president of Sudan,” he said.

Elbashier holds a master’s in business administration from the European University in Barcelona, Spain. And while he’s currently the chairman and executive manager of OZ Real Estate based in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital city, he plans to return to school for a PhD in political science. Unlike many of his cohort in the fellowship, Elbashier’s business is well past its nascent stage.

“I have 23 staff,” he said. “I don’t have problems not being at home because I’ve been in Barcelona on and off for one and a half years, and my business is growing at the same time. I don’t have to be physically there—for the last two years—so it affords me flexibility. I like to travel around.”

When the fellowship concludes, he plans to spend three weeks traveling in the U.S.—in part for fun but also to see which American universities might appeal to him for his doctoral studies.

While Elbashier is engaged in one career and contemplating another in the future, many of the other fellows juggle multiple jobs and startups in unrelated fields.

Power players

Daniela Rakotomamonjy from Madagascar has more than a decade of experience in project development, business management and public relations. She holds an engineering degree, a certificate in international business management, and is chief executive officer for a group of five companies from different business sectors that work together on public-private partnership projects in ecotourism, agribusiness and renewable energy. She’s also the current fellowship cohort’s resident beekeeper.

“That is also my main interest in being in the United States,” she said. “I would like to learn more about the American experience in terms of beekeeping—and the business side.”

When she returns to Madagascar, she intends to work toward growing her beekeeping pastime into a business with an emphasis on organic honey and other bee products.

Like Rakotomamonjy, Safiatou Nana from Burkina Faso is an engineer. Her master’s is in energy engineering—and with her new startup, SG Energetics, she hopes to provide power solutions for rural residents in her country through off-the-grid solar systems.

“My country—our economy is based on agriculture,” Nana said. “Eighty percent of the population works in agriculture. So when you go to rural communities, like, 90 percent of rural communities are all farmers.”

And, she said, almost all of them face the problem of a lack of power and the related infrastructure needed to provide electricity to their farms.

“Some projects are coming to our country. NGOs are helping with solar pumping systems,” she said.

According to Nana, the big problem with the solar systems that are most often used to pull water from the ground for irrigation is that they’re not mobile.

“The big challenge with those fixed solar systems is that you’ll find a farmer who has a solar system on his farm, and he goes back home in the evening, and … he has no light in his house, so the children can’t even study in the evening,” she explained.

Her goal is to develop a solar pumping system with a trailer unit equipped with batteries farmers can charge during the day and take home with them to power their houses at night.

“The batteries are used to power electricity for his life,” she said. “He also can have a radio and a small TV. The children can now study in the evening. Women can also have extra activities late in the evening.”

Nana is another Mandela Washington Fellow with diverse business interests. In addition to her work in energy engineering, she’s the CEO of a small company called Yiri Accessories. It’s a fashion brand that designs, produces and sells handbags and accessories made in Burkina Faso with African materials.

During the fellowship, Nana said, she’s had the chance to make connections with professionals in both the energy and fashion professions, including Britton Murdock—owner of the Biggest Little Fashion Truck—to whom she hopes to supply Yiri Accessories in the future.

A particular boon for Nana was a tour of Tesla and the opportunity to learn more about its lithium batteries. It’s something for which many of the fellows, especially those in energy-related fields, expressed excitement. For three of the fellows, it was an opportunity to see a final product made from a resource their country, Zimbabwe, has in abundance.

Yours and mine

“Zimbabwe has the fifth largest deposit of lithium in the world,” said Garikai Chinake, who’s a certified gemologist and also runs several small mining operations. “But the story of Africa at large has been pretty sad when it comes to minerals—because we don’t add value to our minerals. We just export them as raw, and we don’t value-add them.”

For him and fellow Zimbabweans Nicola Grace Hove and Peter Kamurai Chibayamombe—both of whom also have experience in mining—the Tesla visit was an opportunity to see what might be done with their country’s lithium deposits were they not exported directly after being mined.

“What we have going on right now in Zimbabwe is a situation where the country is strategically positioned to become a leader, especially in value addition of lithium—beyond just merely exploring and exploiting it,” said Hove. “We have a vast opportunity as Zimbabweans to also become significant global players in the technology paths around lithium batteries.”

The trio also had the opportunity to speak with representatives from Barrick Gold Corporation and Nevada Mining Association when the fellows visited a Winnemucca mining site. And they’re hoping to keep those lines of communication open after their fellowships end.

“We want to create relationships between the Nevada mining community and the Zimbabwean mining community,” said Chibayamombe. “Our hope is that at some point in the future we might have some representatives coming from Zimbabwe to learn about the latest mining technologies and that we might also have people from Nevada coming to Zimbabwe to also teach us about the latest technologies that you have. We do have the deposits, but we don’t have the knowledge. We know that if we could start that proper dialogue, we would be able to learn more, and the relationship would be mutual.”

“Our ask is simple in Nevada,” said Hove. “We’ve come here. We’ve seen what is here. We’ve learned as much as we can. We’re so grateful for the opportunity, but we feel there’s a huge opportunity between the Nevada mining community and the Zimbabwean mining community. I think the low-hanging fruit here will be lithium. We hear there’s a shortage of lithium—and Zimbabwe is open for business. We have what you need. So how much more exciting can it get?”

Hove, Chibayamombe and Chinake—who’ve dubbed themselves “the Zim team”—intend to continue working together after they return to Zimbabwe. But, in the meantime, they’re preparing to finish their fellowships before heading with the rest of their cohort to Washington, D.C. on July 29—where they’ll attend a three-day summit that will include all 700 of this year’s Mandela Washington fellows. Hove has been selected to represent the UNR cohort during presentations to be given by fellows from each participating institution.

“I’m also grateful to the fellows at UNR for entrusting with the opportunity to represent them at the Washington, D.C. summit,” she said. “It’s been a great six weeks of learning and networking with the fellows and also the phenomenal people of Reno and Nevada at large.” Ω

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