Africa Look beyond the US

Published on 11th October 2005

On September 18-24, 2005, The University of Nairobi (U.O.N) Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE) team, who emerged First Runners Up during the SIFE Kenya National Exposition, participated in the Africa Entrepreneurship Program Exchange Visit in Washington DC, USA. The U.O.N SIFE team comprised of 4 students, Mrs. Mary Kimonye (Faculty Advisor) and Jacqueline Sungu (SIFE Kenya program manager). Jacqueline Sungu shared some of her experiences during the visit with the African Executive.

A.E. What exactly had you gone to do?

A. We had been invited by the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs of the U.S government to participate in their Africa Entrepreneurship Exchange Program, courtesy of SIFE Global. The visit was dubbed ‘Spotlight on Africa’ focusing on what SIFE teams are doing in Africa to develop their communities and countries into self-sustaining economically flourishing regions despite the numerous challenges the continent faces.

A.E. Was this the first time SIFE Kenya had such a trip?

A. No. In 2003 SIFE Kenya was represented at the SIFE World Cup in Germany by United States International University (USIU) which was the National Champion then. USIU SIFE represented Kenya again in 2004 in Spain, having successfully defended their title. Moi University took the lead this year, hence representing Kenya in Canada.  It was the first time when we got the First Runners Up participating in such a program.

A.E. How many SIFE teams from Africa had been invited?

A. Two. SIFE Kenya and SIFE Ghana. SIFE Kenya represented East Africa while SIFE Ghana represented West Africa.

A.E. What were some of your activities?

A. We had meetings with a number of Congressmen and also got to interact with leaders of the African American community in meetings organized by the Constituency For Africa Network. We also toured the White House and several historical sites.

A.E. What was the purpose of your meetings?

A. The main focus of our meetings with the congressmen was to promote SIFE through getting the people in government to know what SIFE Global is doing. The students got to share their experiences on how they had impacted their communities as a team and the benefits of being in SIFE. The meetings organized by the Constituency For Africa Network focused on Alleviating Africa’s problems. New Orleans also got to feature strongly in the discussions having been hit by the Katrina hurricane. There was an outcry over the government slow response and the need for African Americans to come together and assist each other.

A.E. Please describe some bit of your personal experience?

A. All the meetings served as an eye opener to me. I got to see the amount of lobbying that goes on in Washington City! It was the SIFE Global lobbying firm based in Washington that secured us meetings with the congressmen. Getting to meet politicians here at home is hard. Maybe we could try employing a lobbying firm! In one of the meetings organized by leaders of the African American community, I met an African American lady who had visited Ghana and taken photographs of the beautiful buildings and roads. When she went back to USA, her friends could not believe that Ghana was beautiful. They didn’t expect to see the buildings and the roads! The image that people out there have about Africa is an Africa with malnourished people, no roads, sick and other negative things. The great focus on Africa in these meetings left me wondering who an African is at the end of the day. Is it the white who is so much into the issues affecting Africa? Is it the African who lives in Africa and knows nothing about it? Or is it the African in Diaspora who visited his country thirty years ago and his only contact with Africa is the media?

A.E. What impressed you most in the meetings?

A. The high level of organization and focus. My best seminar was one that focused on Entrepreneurship. It was organized by the Congressional Black Caucus. What impressed me was that a congresswoman had brought together a whole panel of African American millionaires ‘who had made it’ to share with their brothers and sisters how they had done it. It was interesting to hear how they got started, their challenges, victories and their dreams. The focus wasn’t on how much money we could get from them but how we can make our own money. I found it very basic and practical.

A.E.  What would you say about Washington DC?

A. It is a very clean, beautiful, secure city with functioning systems. It has no sky scrappers. Traffic lights are not only working but obeyed by both the pedestrians and drivers. The Washington folk is courteous and willing to assist. However, I found communication with the rest of the world difficult partly because I had no cell phone and there were no cyber cafes. Since the American currency is strong and Washington DC an administrative city, commodities were relatively more expensive here.

A.E. What else?

A. Washington City is full of history, both written and oral and left behind as a legacy in form of buildings and monuments. They told us how places, monuments and buildings came about. I wish the same would apply to Kenya. Most Kenyans do not know their history. I am ignorant of the history of Nairobi City. During the time I was there I met some people who had visited Mombasa (Kenya) in the hope of learning its history but left without it.

A.E. Did anything surprise you?

A. The China mark. I couldn’t believe that most of the commodities I came across were marked “Made in China.” Even basic things like pens and sewing thread. This was much like Kenya. I was left wondering what really developed a country. Is it exports or imports? I expected to see more of America’s products being a developed country. I was also surprised to meet people who were more conversant about my country than I did. That was so upsetting considering the fact that they had lived in Kenya for only three years.

A.E. What do you think Africa should do to get where the US is today?

A. In as much as we cannot wish away globalization I don’t want to look at it from the perspective of Africa chasing after the US. I strongly believe in Africa and its potential. We can do much more than just get to where the developed nations are. Our goal should be higher than that. It is therefore important for us to get back to the basics. Do we really know who we are in terms of our strengths and weaknesses? Do we truly understand our needs? From there we can come up with the best ways of tackling those needs. It’s not just an issue of being like the US but an issue of doing what is best for us as Africans. If China has a business mark everywhere, it is time we erased the African mark of begging and replaced it with a positive one. On the doing bit, we could start with the basics like cleaning our cities. Surely we can collect garbage and put into place systems that work for starters!

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