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The Next Generation of African Business Leaders Comes to Iowa

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Drake University

Some of the African continent’s most promising young professionals are in Iowa for the next several weeks picking up tips on how to run businesses. They are part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program run by the U.S. State Department.

The founder of Kemin Industries, R.W. Nelson, recently greeted the 25 young people from 19 countries at his corporate headquarters in southeast Des Moines.

“This building here, this one over here, we’re going to take a tour of that," he tells them.  "You’ll be able to see how we process lutein and we process potatoes there, believe it or not.”

The Africans, aged between 25-and-35, are just beginning an intense period during which they’ll study the business and entrepreneurial practices of American companies. The Mandela Washington Fellowship is part of the flagship program in President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative.

“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for young people across Africa,” says Peter Nyamai, a chemical engineer from Kenya who has launched a startup company in Nairobi that harvests and stores rainwater. “It’s going to give me the basics required for me to think globally first, to think beyond starting a small company, to think about that which can be called global.”

Nyamai is one of a thousand young African professionals working this summer with 36 colleges and universities nationwide. Two of the schools are in Iowa: Drake University and the University of Iowa. Another of the participants, SelamRobi, is an urban planner in Ethiopia. She also owns a small laser cutting and engraving business. She’s listening for suggestions from U.S. entrepreneurs on how to deal with the problems she faces back home.

“Importing one machine into the country took me about a year," she says. "That can give you an idea of the difference, so it takes a lot more patience.”

It’s the first time Drake has been involved in the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program. The school was prompted to apply by 1965 Drake graduate Johnnie Carson. He’s a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and was an ambassador to Uganda, Zimbabwe and Kenya.

“I think this is an extraordinary opportunity for these young professionals to enhance and strengthen their leadership and management skills,” he says from his office in Washington, D.C..

A phone call from Carson to Drake’s interim executive director for global engagement and international programs got the ball rolling. Annique Kiel was at the Des Moines Airport about to board a plane to Uganda when Carson suggested she ask the ambassador there about the Young African Leaders Initiative. She says the idea fit right into Drake’s goal for more international collaborations.

“This is going to become a lifelong partnership and lifelong relationships for us and for them," she says. "And it’s really exciting.”

Kiel says she needed the support from Des Moines’ corporate community for the program to work. She got it from internationally-connected companies such as Kemin Industries, which saw the benefits of meeting the Africans. Libby Nelson is the vice president and general counsel for Kemin, and daughter of its founders.

“We want Kemin to be known in Africa," she says. "We think it’s our next best market, and so if we have people who know what we do, then we think it’s an advantage for our brand.”

The African contingent will meet other companies who are thriving in the global market before it leaves Des Moines. Its members will quiz small business owners on the secrets to their success. In a few weeks, they hope to have a foundation on which to build the future of Africa.