In Niger, a country with one of the highest fertility rates in the world, the topic of infertility is taboo. Aïcha Macky, a young Nigerien documentarian, is undeterred by taboos. Catalyzed by her own infertility, Macky produced The Fruitless Tree, a documentary weaving together the stories of Nigerien woman confronting the stigma of childlessness. The groundbreaking work was awarded the prize for best documentary at the 12th African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) in Nigeria. Macky is part of a bourgeoning generation of young Nigerien leaders, undeterred by status quo and committed to mobilizing their unique skills and limited resources to transform their local communities. As an alumna of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), Macky is part of an esteemed network of over 40 young leaders in Niger. Their stories underscore the importance of nurturing young leaders and highlighting the power of these investments to positively shape development outcomes.
YALI, funded by USAID and implemented by Counterpart and IREX, has supported over 4,000 youth across the African continent. YALI was initially launched to invest in the next generation of young African leaders between the ages of 25 and 35. This flagship leadership program imparts the skills and tools necessary to help African youth expand businesses and projects aligned to their personal ambitions. Ultimately, these activities aim to serve and uplift their communities. In 2014, the first cohort of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders arrived in the United States to complete academic coursework and participate in leadership training. In 2019, the Fellowship was awarded to 700 young leaders across Sub-Saharan Africa, including seven leaders from Niger. For participants of the Fellowship, the skills and competencies gained have fostered both personal and professional growth. Moreover, being part of a network of youth changemakers has enabled peer learning, and increased participants’ drive to lead positive changes in their communities.
Another YALI alumna, Rabiatou “Rabia” Harouna Moussa cites greater confidence in herself as an important takeaway from the program. Rabia explained that participation in the Fellowship strengthened her communications skills – particularly listening, a skill she has found essential for her social impact work in local communities across Niger. These days, she spends her time consulting with organizations such as Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the World Food Program, UNICEF, and Google about the importance of digital literacy among young people. For Rabia, digital literacy is the gateway to expanded social development and greater job prospects for youth in an increasingly digitalized world. When not engaged in these efforts, she serves as a part-time Project Manager and Business Developer at OASIS, an organization committed to equipping young women for career opportunities in the technology sector. In Niger, over half the population is unemployed. For women, livelihood opportunities are limited, worsened by low educational attainment, high rates of dropout, and the prevalence of early marriage and motherhood. Rabia’s work on behalf of young women in Niger lays the groundwork for a new generation of young Nigerien women ready to actively engage in an evolving professional context.
Fellows chosen to participate in the YALI program already have an established track record of promoting innovation and positive impact in their communities and countries. Yet, for many fellows, the program cultivates an even greater desire to support their local communities in tangible ways well beyond the program duration. Amadou Boukar, a Private Sector Specialist at the Cellule d’Analyse des Politiques publiques et d’Évaluation de l’action Gouvernementale (CAPEG), was inspired by the Fellowship to establish the Good Citizen Campaign. Led jointly with alumni of the Fellowship in Niger, the campaign aimed to equip 2,000 youths across eight regions with skills in entrepreneurship and to foster habits of good governance. The campaign exceeded expectations, reaching over 3,000 young people and garnering high-level attention from ministry officials. The success of this event points to the significance of relationships developed through the program. Fellows are able to build key connections with other highly qualified and resourceful African leaders. Yet, beyond this, it is worth pointing out that these Nigerien Fellows are part of a global community that fosters continued cultural exchange both among Africans at regional events and with the global community at large during their exchange program at American universities. As Fellows discussed the possibility of a similar campaign at a regional level, they spoke about tapping into this global network to “collaborate across borders and sharpen their leadership skills.”
“The connections that we have made are much more powerful than the grant funding. We [YALI fellows] are our own community.” –Fellow at West African Convening
With each achievement, this network of young Nigeriens highlights the undeniable agency of youth and the centrality of these young actors in building a future of their choice. For these Nigeriens, the Fellowship afforded them the “audacity to dream of a better tomorrow” and the skills to achieve it. The global nature of the program provides a platform that facilitates the transfer of knowledge and tangible skills across borders, industries, and sectors for the benefit of Fellows’ communities. Fellows also acknowledged that the credibility afforded by the program was as a huge benefit. Their businesses benefited from greater visibility and the Fellows themselves felt that they were taken more seriously when advocating for themselves and their communities. Quoting the late Nelson Mandela, one Nigerien Fellow mused: “[It] always seems impossible, until it is done.” Clearly, for these young Nigerien leaders, the sky is truly the limit.