by Wilfred Okiche
It is The Future Awards season and recently nominees of the Future Awards Africa Young Person of the Year were hosted to an exclusive reception by Tony Elumelu, serial entrepreneur and CEO, Heirs Holdings. We sat down with 3 of the nominees, representing a cross section of Africa’s finest young minds. Kenya’s Kariuki Gathitu a software developer, Grace Ihejiamaizu, a social entrepreneur from Nigeria and Foglabenchi Lily Haritu a nurse and community health worker.
Enjoy excerpts from the conversation.
Take us through your feelings about The Future Awards, right from the announcement of nominations to the reception by Tony Elumelu. What is your current state of mind?
Kariuki Gathitu: It came as a surprise to me because I am from Kenya and had never heard of The Future Awards before. What it means to me is that people are watching, listening and expecting great things from me.
Grace Ihejiamaizu: I am humbled and excited about the fact that young people like us who do things without the motive of being recognised are getting a motivation like this. For me it just reminds me of the fact that there is a responsibility of continuing to make change and inspire people. I have no reason to stop now and this for me means continue to do the good work of bringing up other young people.
Foglabenchi Lily Haritu: I kind of feel encouraged and motivated to do more. It helps me realise that somebody is noticing and I feel I should sit up and do what I need to do because every recognition comes with responsibility.
Between the 3 of you, there are already so many awards won. Has award fatigue set in yet or are you still excited by these things?
Grace Ihejiamaizu: Most of the awards I have been privileged to receive are from international bodies and organizations. For me this is unique because it is coming from home and I can look back and say finally people back home appreciate the work I do. it is a good thing that helps to encourage more Africans become the solution to our problems.
But Lily, Nigeria isn’t home for you, how would you respond to Grace?
Foglabenchi Lily Haritu: I feel the same way because a prophet is never recognised in their home so this is something that is different and is causing me to think and look back at my work. It is different because once you tell someone you are a nominee for Young Person of the Year from Africa, it brings out a kind of reaction from them, one that is a joy to watch.
Kariuki Gathitu: Awards are kind of becoming a bit normal to me. After so many wins and recognition, you begin to ask yourself ‘’what is your measure of success?’’ and that is really what makes me to do more because as a business, the measure of success isn’t award plaques. They are good but it still boils down to this, are you creating the impact, are you creating jobs, is your product or service doing what you need it to do? For me, awards have become like a vanity matrix. In tech, someone starts a blog and they get 10,000 clicks and 5,000 users and all those things that sort of add hype to the blog. But attaching that to money coming in is a different thing entirely. Recognition is good but the bottom line remains, am I making a difference?
Are you making a difference?
Kariuki Gathitu: on a general landscape, the first big difference that happens is a change of mind set in young peoples’ lives such that people look at Lily or Grace and say these are lovely young women doing amazing stuff in their countries and long to be like them. Personally and for my own company, I can see that I have employed people and every day I look at them I think, these are my responsibility. Also to the customers we serve, it is important to keep pushing because what I am doing has a very big connection to the development of Africa. It may be small now but there is an opportunity to do so much more.
Do you think that Africans tend to overlook our success stories only to wake up when the West has recognised them for us?
Foglabenchi Lily Haritu: Yes. Because the West tries to make news out of Africa by highlighting some of these stories but with social media coming in, the narrative is changing and people are more visible and available to be recognised. Before now, that initiative to celebrate our own successes has been lacking and that is what gives us strength and hope in TFA because 5 years from now people doing even bigger stuff than all of us here can be recognised independent of the West.
Grace a lot of your work has to do with inspiration and building dreams. Why do you choose to do this, what drives you?
Grace Ihejiamaizu: The fact that I don’t want to be like everyone else, I wake up every morning and I just want to do something different. I don’t care how old I am or what schools I have attended or even what I have, I just want to create value, make an impact and a difference. But I have learnt that the passion alone isn’t enough so I am trying to develop skills to be able to do stuff that is both profitable and sustainable. I want to generate income so we can continue to do what we are doing. We cannot continue to depend on grants and donations from international bodies, we Africans have to learn to bring something to the table.
Kariuki there is an interesting story about you turning down the chance to work with Google, tell us about this
Kariuki Gathitu i: I studied computer science at the university in Nairobi and every young scientist’s dream is to work at Apple or Google or Microsoft. I worked in a bank and after 2 years I built something that is really revolutionary called MPAYER so I set up this business that is about providing unique financial solutions to banks and micro finance institutions and that got me on CNN. About 2years ago I got a mail from a recruiter at Google and they offered a chance to work at their Zurich office in Switzerland. Right there I could see my life flash before me. I saw a Range Rover sports, 3 children, lovely wife but I had started this baby that was my company, I had partners, and I thought about it a lot. If it were just about me, I would go no doubt but I am not doing this just for me but also for people who need me to do it. I want a situation where by the time I die, every innovation I can possibly remove from my head is out. I still think it has been worth it but time will tell if it was a stupid or genuis move.
Talk to us briefly about your business and what you do that got you on the TFA radar
Kariuki Gathitu: It is the vision of where I see Africa. As a young person after campus, I started a business and suffered very many challenges. I also know that many young people will suffer the same so the vision behind our company is to innovate for life and we are targeting SMEs for growth. We are trying to provide solutions that would allow you as a business man to monitor and grow your company, to know if you are making money or not because many times in entrepreneurship, the problem is you cannot move past a step. Failure is as a result of lack of knowledge. We are trying to give to small businesses the stuff that makes big businesses thrive so they can become big too. And also to leverage on the power of mobile devices. We are starting with Kenya and our solutions can work anywhere in the world. The company is called Zege technologies which is a Swahili word for concrete.
Lily, there is Primary Health Care now but as a Doctor, I am aware that health workers would rather avoid living and working in rural communities. What is the attraction for you?
Foglabenchi Lily Haritu: I studied Nursing and was interning in bedside Nursing and it became boring, the routine stuff like giving injections, following doctors’ orders. I wanted something that would make me think, something innovative. When I left school, the government was recruiting nurses but I told my parents I wasn’t really interested in working with government and they thought I was crazy. I don’t know about Nigeria but in Cameroun, a government worker has it all; steady salary, job security. I took up this job with a faith-based organization, the Cameroun Baptist Convention health services, in a rural area and with the very first mobile clinic I participated in, I was encouraged because I realised these clients were willing to receive these services. I could see the joy in their faces, women thanking us for our services because they never believed they would ever have access to decent health care. The demand that we generated from these women in rural communities was encouraging, some even willing to pay money to be screened for different diseases. They saw the need and came to us.
Grace you are a social entrepreneur. I am confused by those words, what do they mean exactly?
Grace Ihejiamaizu: I look out for challenges, think about solutions and profit. It is closely related to Tony Elumelu’s impact investment idea. I think it is the same concept. As a social entrepreneur, you apply entrepreneurial skills in your social impact projects. I have lots of non-profit socially inclined projects that also have a business model and I encourage young people to begin to think about this side. It is beyond wanting to do something and testing the feasibility of the project. Social entrepreneurs have a head for business but a heart for the world. So I am thinking, how can I make more deals, get more partners, who can I get to do this but I am also asking, is my heart ready to change the world? There are so many ways to it. For me, I identify projects that I want to use a problem and instead of depending on grants, I also think about how to take that initiative and generate enough income to sustain it.
There is a common thread that runs across all your stories and the word is ‘crazy’. Do you think you are crazy to be on your different paths?
Grace Ihejiamaizu: I think I am stupid, because some people said that to me. Till now they don’t understand why I am not like other 22 year olds. I should be engaged to get married, I should have one of the hottest jobs in town but I don’t want all of that. So stupid, crazy, it doesn’t matter because for us there is some sense in this stupidity. There is an organization called unreasonable institute that tries to identify individuals who are thinking differently because these are the people that will make a difference. I am sure the guy who invented the airplane must have started out being very stupid.
Foglabenchi Lily Haritu: for me the word was ‘naïve’. They said I was naïve because I could be in the city, visit nice places, use the internet and stuff but it has been through this that all these changes have come into my life. I have been able to do some amazing things, develop confidence that I can put pressure on government to deliver, mobilize communities, fight ghost health workers. The city is crowded and for me, there is more space in the rural places. Don’t be mistaken, I am also gaining, so it is not like I am this martyr just giving my life to help the poor. No. I have received some rewards, maybe not financially but enough that matters.
Kariuki Gathitu: I definitely know that there is a loose nut somewhere. I am just happy that the craziness is going towards something positive. One of the slogans Apple wrote is ‘think different’ and it is directed at the crazy ones, the rebels and the misfits because it is those who think they can change the world that actually do. Most times change is against the grain.
How do you fancy your chances, who do you think will win the ultimate prize?
Grace Ihejiamaizu: The one with the greatest impact
Foglabenchi Lily Haritu: with TFA, I am quite at peace with the whole process maybe because of the way the organisers have arranged it. It is not competitive and so I am comfortable in my own skin, with the work that I am doing in health care. Grace here is creating her impact in a field that cuts across to affect me, Kariuki has made me more confident in trying out the entrepreneur thing so it is already a big deal for me, not just that one recognition. So winning is not the ultimate target for me.
Kariuki Gathitu: so there’s me, Lily from Cameroun, Grace from Nigeria, Patrick from Tanzania, Ashish from Uganda, P-Square and all the other guys. It is tough. It is anybody’s guess who will win but the question is what is being given to the winner? A big million dollar prize would make me worry at night but I don’t think that there is so the biggest thing is the recognition of an African person who is really amazing so in that case everybody is a winner. Having said that, I think that every finalist should get at least 10,000 US dollars because we are the people who know how best to spend the money.