The Significance Of Transforming Africa Through Leadership And Diversity – Acha Leke

Seven years ago, Fred Swaniker and Acha Leke formed the African Leadership Network (ALN) to place Africa at the center of the global summit landscape. Swaniker and Leke observed that at summits such as the World Economic Forum in Davos, most of the experts discussing Africa- related issues were not African.
Today, ALN provides a necessary platform to harness the voices and perspectives of the next generation of African leaders. This past November, the ALN concluded its seventh annual leadership gathering, where renowned leaders such as Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala gathered to discuss the
“Art of Leading.”
In conversation with Ventures Africa, Acha Leke, Co-Founder of the African Leadership Network underscores the significance of transforming Africa through leadership and diversity.
Idil Issa for Ventures Africa (VA): The guest list for the African Leadership
Network’s (ALN) Annual Gathering is
always replete with powerful and
impactful speakers. What are the factors
you at ALN consider while curating the
list of speakers?
Acha Leke (AL): What we’ve tried to do
at ALN is assemble, what we call, the
current generation of African leaders.
These are leaders who, like my Co-
Founder Fred Swaniker and I, want to
bring prosperity to the continent. And
so we have, over the years, selected
members who share that vision and
passion, and invited these members to
invite like-minded colleagues and
friends to join the network. We
currently have over 2000 members in
our database, and over the last two
years, we’ve opened up the gathering
to more than just members. As a
result, folks who have come to the
gathering have experienced it,
realised what it’s all about, and we
then rely on them to recommend
other like-minded friends and
colleagues to join the gathering.
VA: Specifically regarding speakers, as
the people you describe are those who
attend the gathering, in terms of
speakers, how do you find and identify
people who can create content for the
gathering?
AL : For us, the gathering is not a
conference, so it’s not about the
speakers. When you go to regular
conferences, it’s about putting
speakers on stage and everyone wants
to listen to them. We believe the most
important people in the gathering are
the attendees, and so, we structure it
around the attendees. And these are
all amazing Africans and friends of
Africa who in their own rights are
doing quite incredible things. We also
believe in learning from people who
have been there ahead of us, so we
invite a few. This year we had Ngozi
Okonjo-Iweala, we had Strive
Masiyiwa, we had ABC Orjiakor,
Wendy Luhabe. We invite them so
that we can learn from them. We also
invite the next generation, typically
students or alums from the African
Leadership Academy, to join. But the
way we really think about it, is that
the gathering is about the attendees
and not about the speakers.
VA: What is the big picture that ALN is
trying to create, and what other factors
must work in tandem for this picture to
become a reality?
AL : Overall, the African leadership
Group, which is a network of a
number of institutions, is trying to
transform Africa through leadership.
That’s what we’re trying to do. ALN,
in particular, is a network of the
current generation of leaders. We
have, for example, African Leadership
Academy, which is a network of
future leaders; these are typically 15
to 18-year-olds. We have the African
Leadership University, which is a
university, so its students are a bit
older. We have the ALU School of
Business, where the first program is
an Executive MBA Program, where the
students are again a bit older. But at
the end of the day, what ALN is trying
to do is bring African leaders
together, of typically 30 to 45 years,
who aspire to do one thing: to bring
prosperity to Africa.
Because we believe we’ve had 3
generations of leaders on the
continent, we had the
Kwame Nkrumahs and the
Julius Nyereres, who brought us
independence. We then had a
generation of leaders who we believe
destroyed all those gains. I won’t
name them, but we know who they
are. We then had the generation of
leaders, or we have today, who’ve
brought back growth to the continent.
Whatever we may say about them,
whether it’s an Obasanjo, or a
Kagame, or a Kaberuka, people like
that have brought growth, even
Nelson Mandela and what he did for
the continent. We believe, as we
foster the 4th generation of African
leaders, that our role is and should be,
to bring prosperity. And so what we
do is assemble leaders who share that
vision and passion, and we are
working to make that happen.
VA: During one of the sessions on day
one of ALN 2016, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala
was asked what sort of governance do we
need in our countries to give us the
staying power to diversify. For you
personally, what would your answer to
that question be?
AL : The problem with our continent,
the issue with Africa, has been a
failure of leadership. We believe,
either we can wait for a good leader
to emerge, the next Dr Ngozi Okonjo-
Iweala, the next Kagame; or we can
create the leaders Africa needs. And
we believe that the future of Africa as
a continent is too important to leave
the emergence of good leaders to
chance. And so what we strive to do is
actually create these leaders that
Africa needs. For me, what’s
absolutely critical for the continent is
execution. We have plans, we’ve
developed plans, and we have leaders
who have plans; where we fail is
where the rubber hits the road: on
execution. We need a lot more leaders
who know how to execute, who are
held accountable, who know how to
track and monitor, and who know
what’s happening with the execution
of their plans. But also, we need
followers who can hold leaders
accountable, and say, if you don’t
deliver, then we’ll, for example, vote
you out. I think one of the big issues
for me on the continent is leadership,
but in particular actually executing
and delivering on promises.
VA: Diversity of people and resources is
an important but often under-discussed
topic in Africa, and oftentimes has led to
divisions within societies. How do you
think our leaders can use diversity to the
continent’s advantage instead?
AL : Diversity is extremely important.
In my day job, I work at McKinsey,
and we just put out a report called
Women Matter Africa. What we show
there is that diverse teams, in
particular gender diverse teams, are
much more successful. We can now
show that companies that have more
women in senior management
positions and on boards perform
better, and are 20 percent more
profitable overall, than the average.
We had long discussions, actually,
during the gathering these past few
days, about gender diversity, and
about what we need to do to improve
it in Africa today. Relative to the
global average, Africa is doing quite
well. The continent is doing better
than the global average: five percent
of CEOs, 22 percent of executives,
14-15 percent of boards, 22-24
percent of parliamentarians, are
women. But we have a long way to go
to achieve gender equality. And so,
we always say, it’s the right thing to
do, but the business case also shows
that gender equality is important to
improve and increase profitability for
companies. There’s a lot more that
needs to be done and we are still far
from where we need to be. This is
something that requires, not just
women, but men and women to work
together to make it happen.
VA: That’s a perfect segue to the next
question. This year’s ALN Annual
Gathering saw the introduction of a new
initiative, ALN Women. What are your
aspirations for this initiative, and what
do you hope it will achieve?
AL : When we set up ALN, we wanted
it to be a platform; a platform to
bring amazing people together, while
we step out of the way and let the
magic happen. And we’ve seen magic
happen across many dimensions. This
year, a few women got together and
said we want to create ALN Women,
which we are hugely excited about
and very supportive of. What we’d
like to see is a platform emerge. We
don’t know which direction it’s going
to go, and we think there are a
number of areas that the group can
focus on.
But we’ve said, you get together, tell
us what you want to do, and tell us
how ALN can support you. There are
already a number of ideas around
creating a mentorship program and
creating a separate ALN Annual
Gathering session where we really
discuss in-depth some of the issues
women face across the board. But the
one thing we’ve said in these
conversations is, we want to make
sure that the men are included. This is
not just an issue for women to resolve;
men have to be part and parcel of the
solution. Fred and I are looking
forward to seeing how this new
initiative evolves, and we are very,
very excited about it.

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