The first U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit concluded on Wednesday afternoon with a speech by President Obama. In his closing remarks, he stated:

“Ultimately, Africa’s prosperity depends on Africa’s greatest resource — its people. And I’ve been very encouraged by the desire of leaders here to partner with us in supporting young entrepreneurs, including through our Young African Leaders Initiative. I think there’s an increasing recognition that if countries are going to reach their full economic potential, then they have to invest in women — their education, their skills, and protect them from gender-based violence.”

Counterpart International has 12 programs in Africa focusing on food security and nutrition, economic development and effective governance and institutions in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Niger and Senegal.

Counterpart’s Vice President for Programs Alex Sardar discussed some of Counterpart’s current projects in Africa and the importance of undertaking these initiatives.

Q: One of Counterpart’s main programs in Africa is a Food for Education program in Cameroon. Why is keeping girls in school in Africa so important?

AS: Cameroon is an excellent example of how Counterpart takes a holistic approach to everything we do in Africa. In addition to providing badly-needed food rations to families in rural communities, we work with individual leaders in school communities to build PTA-style associations around schools, which are traditionally not well-attended by girls. We work with citizen leaders to launch the PTAs, which then undertake initiatives like establishing school farms and learning about good nutritional practices, how to grow food that can be used at the school for the students and the larger community, and how to continue to leverage meager community resources with other funding to create the know-how to continue feeding and raising a healthy community. The anchor of this program, however, is that we do all this by encouraging the larger community—for example—to send their young girls to schools. Girls who attend school are incentivized with family portions of grains and other food. We know from research that when girls and women are in engaged in a community, whether through early education or economic development activities, a higher proportion of their home communities benefit from their success. More girls in school also lead to fewer early marriages and early pregnancies and a decrease in infant mortality.

Q: Another one of Counterpart’s current programs is a Young African Leaders Program. What makes this program a focus for CPI?

AS: We all agree that Africa’s future is in the hands of its emerging generation of young leaders who personify the leadership characteristics of the 21st century. They are versatile, entrepreneurial, move between sectors (public, private, social) easily, and are courageous enough to know that they are part of the solution for their home communities. Most importantly they have stepped up to be counted. The Young African Leadership Initiative is a program that we are working on with our partners at IREX. It’s a collaborative to create opportunities for cohorts of young African leaders to participate in intensive fellowship programs in the U.S. across a variety of industries and sectors. The skills and networks that they generate during the fellowship become the touchstone of their contribution to major initiatives in Africa. More importantly, by networking with the alumni of the program in Africa, we are able to create a cross-border platform of social sector leaders and business figures that will be leading the future of the continent.

Q: How hopeful are you that local communities in Africa will be able to “control their own destiny”?

AS: Africa has all of the requisites needed to positively impact the future globally, well beyond its own borders. The astonishing human talent and intellectual capacity that resides on the continent paired with the leaps of technological progress that is occurring as a result of the continuously burgeoning business sector and the major effort and political will fostered by the social sector to resolve conflicts and fight deadly diseases creates communities of hope in Africa. All of these are reasons why I’m most hopeful that Africa not only will be able to, but already is, controlling its own destiny—and we’re privileged to be along for the ride.

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