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, between 25 and 35 years of age, 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,” said 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, Selam Robi, 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 said. “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.
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