“It is almost impossible to find any young leader presently who hasn’t been influenced by The Future Awards” – Aziza Uko speaks on ‘Conversations with Mercy Abang’

by Mercy Abang


For the Conversations with Abang Mercy for the week, Aziza Uko, the Chief Operating Officer of the Future Awards Africa talks about the awards – In seven years, the Future Awards has produced over 150 winners and 1,200 nominees across the world – Aziza said the TFA is not an awards that any individual can influence the outcome either internally or externally.


The Future Awards has become one of the most respected private sector-driven development platforms. How has it been so far?

It has been an amazing ride. The Future Awards Africa began as a dream that became a reality. Then it became a phenomenon and has overtaken the imagination of a generation of Africans. When this idea was conceived by Chude (Jideonwo), Adebola (Williams) and partner, I don’t think any of them knew that in 8 years, this idea, a simple idea based which was to ‘present young leaders as role models to their generation’ would have been this big, taking on a life of its own. It just goes to demonstrate what can happen when you match a simple idea with focus, determination, hardwork, and execution.

The organizers above all are providing an opportunity for young people to converse with stakeholders. What have been the most challenging since the inception in 2010?

Most definitely, the execution. The most challenging part of any project or organisation is the ‘doing’.

Over the past year, The Future Project has gained some solid national and international recognition. What does it say?

It’s an inspiring narrative really – The Future Awards Africa is as much a success story of Africa Rising as the people and stories it has profiled over the past decade.  Unlike other Africa-wide projects you find, this is completely bottom-up; it’s a grassroots driven initiative that has now become an international phenomenon, purely by grit, by growing organically, and by sheer brilliance. From a project started by teenagers, it has first provided a platform for the expansion of businesses, projects and people – including Tolu Sangosanya, whose exposure through The Future Awards Africa led to associations and partnerships that have saved the lives of the Dustbin Estate children or the female farmer Mosunmola Umoru who has become the face of the Federal Government’s YouWiN! Programme, working with The Africa Union, amongst others.

It is almost impossible to find any young leader presently on the national stage who hasn’t been influenced by, produced from or associated with The Future Awards Africa. And that is in addition to organisations like Enough is Enough Nigeria which it founded, or the Youth Ministry’s DriveTheFutureNigeria campaign which it inspired. It is all this impact that has taken it to the international stage.

After 4 years of visiting Ethiopia, Morocco, Ghana, South Africa and other countries with town hall meetings, the team found out, there is a common thread across the continent’s problems and issues – young people without a voice, the inability to find platforms to scale and make impact.

The Future Awards Africa has now become an institution, and is continent’s most effective platform for young leaders – so this year’s international recognitions are a natural progression – the Africa Union Commission partnership, the International Young Media Entrepreneur Award held in conjunction with the British Council, hosting of the nominees by the US Consulate and other international institutions and the eventual hosting in October of the 50 Most Inspiring Young Africans under 35 in Ethiopia – are all the result of the strong brand that The Future Awards Africa has become. It’s no mean feat to be referred to as the Nobel Prize for Young Africans by the World Bank. It shows you the power of vision – and it’s the power of vision of the founders, who prove that, without seeking glory and with a relentless focus only on impact and on their generation, much is possible by Nigerians, in spite of Nigeria.

How is the selection process for the awards, do you limit the recognition process to those in the urban areas alone?

The award season opens with calls for nominations. This lasts for months. During this period, anyone who fits the age limit, and falls under any of the categories can be nominated (by self or by another). There’s no discrimination whatsoever. Location doesn’t in anyway impact our judging process. The only criteria for selection is achievement. The judging process is set up to be fair, transparent, and non-discriminatory.

There is even no way, anyone can decide that if a young person who has done amazing things in a rural area, the person should not be considered for the award. I can’t even picture a situation where such a thought would come up. Africa is more than 70% rural. So, such a position would be shutting out close to 70% of the population which wouldn’t even make sense. [Source: Nation Master]

This year, for instance, we have quite a number of nominees who are nominated for their work in rural communities or whose businesses operate in rural areas like Monica Onuoha, the youth corps member who built a corpers’ lodge in Kaduna, Dr. Kanayo Okeke, the youth corps member who built a medical clinic during his service year also in a rural community near Abuja. We also have Abraham Okoh who runs a farm in a rural community in Rivers.

For the Young Person of the Year – The Africa Prize, we have William Kamkwamba who invented a windmill solution in his rural community in Malawi, there is also Foglabenchi Lily Haritu, the young medical worker whose work is focused on providing crucial reproductive and sexual health care through mobile clinics to rural women in Cameroon. And there are more.

Have you had a situation where people turn down the Future Awards? If yes tell us about the occasion and how you felt as an organizer.

Nobody has ever turned down The Future Awards. And this is a testament to the strength of the brand and the power of the idea. As a matter of fact, The Future Awards Africa is a highly coveted award and the nominees are ever so excited to make the shortlist. So far, nominees have received their nominations with excitement and with high anticipation.

How transparent is the judging process for a nominee of the future award?

I thought of taking you down this process when you mentioned the urban-rural divide, as it were. I think it proper to let your readers know the full process for arriving at the winners for The Future Awards Africa.

Nominations are launched on May 29th and are collected online over a period of two months. Anybody can nominate anyone they think deserve the awards. The Central Working Committee reviews all the nominations, conducts independent research and selects 5 nominees per category; which is the long list. There is a 2-week period when this long list is published online and in the media so that people can formally make complaints about age, false claims, and public policy concerns amongst others. During this period, nomination forms are sent to all nominees to get details of their work and achievements. We also visit the offices of certain nominees, especially in the entrepreneurship categories, to inspect and confirm claims.

This list also goes to the Independent Audit Committee made up of 30 distinguished Nigerians. They look at the profiles, vet it from their professional distance, and select 3 nominees per category. The Board of Judges, made up of 25 young journalists – drawn from leading media organisations like The Guardian and ThisDay – assesses the profiles and decide the winners. Note that when any member of the board of judges is made a nominee, he/she immediately steps down from being a judge. This happens a week before the event, we want young people to be the ones to make the final .

This is a comprehensive, process that is time consuming and energy intensive – all for a reason. The reason for this process is to ensure that no one, not even the organisers, can tamper with the process. Checks and balances are available at all level, so that, even if there is an omission and one section of the process misses something out, the other process immediately corrects it.

So, you see, this is not an awards that any individual can influence the outcome either internally or externally.

Many people are of the view that the same selected group of people are awarded, more like a “cabal”.

This assertion is not true. Only one person in the history of this awards has won twice in one category, and it was deserved, I might add. In case you are wondering, his name is Ik Osakioduwa he has since winning for The Future Award for On-Air Personality (2006 and 2007) moved on to become the biggest TV host on the continent. So, we were right in identifying him as a young African leader. It was after his second win, that the board decided that if this project is about inspiration, presenting one person, year after year is not consistent with our core brand value of inspiring a new generation of leaders.

But, as you can see from the process above, it is difficult for a particular set of persons to influence the process to constantly emerge as winners of the awards.

But, let’s look at evidence for a moment. Let’s take a look at this year’s nominees. The Future Awards Prize in Public service for instance – We have Kaduna-born Nigeria’s first female fighter pilot, we have a magistrate in the service of the Cross River State Judiciary, we have a female architect working in the Federal Capital Territory, we have young lady making an incredible contribution in ending Nigeria’s energy crisis, and we have a young medical doctor working in the state of New Jersey to bring healthcare to disadvantaged people in the community. How is that a ‘cabal’? They don’t even know themselves.

But there’s more: Let’s look at the entertainment category. We have Omawumi, Iyanya, OC Ukeje, Ice Prince, and a relatively unknown artiste who is doing incredible exploits in the Scottish music industry, El Mafrex. Mercy, you know these persons – how is this a ‘cabal’? The artistes listed aren’t on the same label, have never done a collaboration together, or there is nothing that would indicate that they are in some sort of league whether with themselves or the organisers.

What about the business category? We have a young lady doing business exploits since her youth service days in Umuahia, we have a young 22-year-old who owns and runs a media/entertainment outfit in Lagos, we have a dentist who owns a dentistry in Kano, there is a young lady in Lagos who runs a recycling business, and a civil engineer who runs an award winning block making business in Abuja. How is that a ‘cabal’?

Okay, let me leave it to you. We have 15 categories aside from the Young Person of the Year – The Africa Prize. Mercy, choose any category at random, let us look at the make-up and determine if there is any indication of a cabal.

The facts speak for themselves. These nominees are chosen for the inspiring work and achievements that they have. Assertions will always be made, but the facts remain the best proof for what is or what is not.

Age controversies trailed some of the nominees for The Future Awards Africa, some argue that the nominees are older than they claim, how do you respond to this?

The Future Awards Africa is set up to involve members of the public in verifying claims made by nominees or the people who nominated them. This is because we know that sometimes, there would be honest mistakes as well as attempts to game the system.

And guess what? The system works. We have had in 8 years, 3 situations in which the ages of nominees were strongly contested this was prior to deciding on the final shortlist and so we were able to treat these cases and take informed decisions.

In any case, I am not aware of any age controversies trailing the award winners. But, I can see why some people would make up a story and throw out hoping someone in the media would catch it and give it life. We live in an environment where everything and everyone is questioned without evidence or proof. All our nominees are required to present the original proof of age which is the standard accepted globally. Anywhere you go in the world, a government issued driver’s license, travel passport, or birth certificate is accepted a proof of age. These, we require. If the Federal Government of Nigeria confirms to us the age of a citizen, does it make sense to listen to persons who probably don’t know the person, have never met them, never attended school with them, never worked with them, and were neither the midwife nor the doctor on duty at their birth?

No, my sister, let us look at these things again. Let us not give life to everything we hear.

Such claims are similar to the ones made by the disgraceful and discredited birther campaign against President Obama. Just yesterday, a nominee came with his original birth certificate which indicates he was born in 1984 in a Lagos Island Hospital. Now, how is it that 30 years ago, his mother would have known that one day his work providing free food to poor people in Nigeria would lead him to be nominated for The Future Awards Africa in 2013, so she would set up an elaborate birth certificate scam for this purpose?

Is the Future Award a cash and carry process?

What do you mean by this?

One of your awardees, Tonto Dikeh did criticize the awards and alleged that Nollywood engineers pay…  See tweet. {‘Itz another nomination (THE FUTURE AWARDZ) hopefully the Nollywood old desperate cargoz will not pay engineerz 2 Increaz their Votez this time. #shame’.} Did she win because she paid or she criticized the process?

Tonto Dikeh won the award for Screen Actor last year. She won based on her achievements during the year under review and nothing else. I only got to see this tweet after the awards and I was amused. The Future Award winners are not decided on the basis of votes, online or by sms, so it’s not a rig-able process, if you will. So ‘engineers’ don’t even come in. And as a matter of fact, she was criticizing a different platform not The Future Awards Africa. However, it was fun to see a pop of culture come out of the awards.

There is usually a high level of online buzz generated when the list of nominees are made public. For the 2013 list, many believe the awards are losing its credibility reasons for the general apathy, what do you make of it.

What apathy? The list of the nominees was released on July 10, and Twitter lit up with excitement. All relevant online blogs including Linda Ikeji, BellaNaija, Ladun Liadi, carried it. Online newspapers like Premium Times, YNaija, and so many others carried it. Check out the blogs and the level of community engagement on this project.

We released the names of nominees for The Future Awards Young Person of the Year – The Africa Prize last week, and people were tweeting about the list, congratulating the nominees from around the world. Online media carried the story from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Rwanda, South Africa, and Nigeria. In fact, leading online media in Africa carried the story. We are impressed by the reception the Awards has received from the media. So, rather than an apathy, reality reflects a renewed interest with what we are doing. We are receiving calls from around the world of requests on how we can include more organisations, sponsors, media in The Future Awards Africa. We are both humbled and grateful that what started as an idea 8 years ago, has grown to become an enduring brand, embraced by leading world organisations like the World Bank, The African Union Commission, and the British Council.

Talking about 2013, the organizing committee members of the Future Awards have expanded the award to accommodate other Africans. Tell us about the continental move.

As earlier said, this decision to take The Future Awards to the entire continent was a natural progression on the work we have been doing over the years. There just comes a time when you can’t stay where you were, the universe just pushes you onto a bigger stage and for us, this is the result.

Moving forward, where do you see the future awards in the coming years for young Africans.

The Future Awards Africa will continue to spotlight brilliance among young people on the continent. We will continue to showcase the best of us, happening in spite of the problems we face as a people. We will continue to build bridges for people to reach across and create relationships. We will continue to inspire a generation of young leaders. We will, because that is what we are committed to do. We will just keep getting better and better at what we do. We have no choice, we are on the path, there’s no turning back. That’s a promise.


Thank you so much for your take. God bless you.

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