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Young African Leaders Mandela Fellows 

A Star Program at CAU

By Editor Cynthia L. Blandford & Mesfin Bezuneh, CAU

First, tell us about yourself and walk us through your background. 

Currently, I’m Carnegie Endowed Professor of Economics & Business, in addition to my responsibilities as the Director of the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program at Clark Atlanta University.

I have been trained as an Agricultural Economist at a Land Grant Institution in U.S. My specialty varies from Agricultural/Development Economics to Food Security and Environmental/Resource Economics. Since I completed my PhD, I have been working on large development agricultural projects – USAID funded – in different developing countries of Africa, and in recent years in the Caribbean countries as well. These activities are in addition to my primary responsibilities of teaching/training, research, and administration of varies federal government sponsored programs at Clark Atlanta University. These included chairing the Department of Economics for over 15 years.

Prior to my appointment at Clark Atlanta University, and right after completing my PhD at Virginia Tech, I was an Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics, and International Agriculture at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champagne.

More on my contributions: I have been conducting applied research in Africa and the Caribbean for over 30 years. Some of my most notable accomplishments include leading a multi-million-dollar Agricultural Development projects of USAID that has impacted almost 26 African countries, lecturer fellow, and consultant under USAID, World Bank, and UN/FAO auspices. I have published, and continue to publish, numerous journal articles, and abstracts, monographs, and research reports; all are empirical research based on primary-field work. More specifically, I have been PI and/or Co-PI on numerous multiyear grants focused on research/extension/training, food security, income diversification, poverty alleviation, project evaluation, farming systems research, and food aid and nutrition projects in various countries in Africa as well as in the Caribbean. 

I was a Fullbright Fellow in the Dominican Republic where I provided research training and lecture on environmental and sustainable system in the agricultural sector. 

 What do you do in your capacity on a daily basis?

Although my overall activities as both the Director of The Mandela Washington Fellowship Program for Young African Leaders and Carnegie Endowed Professor of Economics & Business depend on the specific department, school and university wide assignments at the time, my research, teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses, and advising responsibilities dominate my daily focus. 

Share with me what the YALI program is and what your roles and responsibilities are?

The Mandela Washington Fellowship program for Young African Leaders, which is more conveniently & simply referred as YALI, is a long term effort to invest in the next generation of young African leaders and strengthen partnerships between the U.S. and Africa. More specifically, to empower young leaders through academic coursework, leadership training, mentoring, networking, experiential training opportunities, and community engagement. 

Fortunately, I’m the person who some of my colleagues, who are familiar with my earlier work on this project, refer to as a founding father (no, I do not use this term to refer to my efforts). I must say, however, I single handedly wrote the original proposal in 2013/14 that won a competitive grant from the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) of the Department of the State; and since then, I design, plan and implement the program at Clark Atlanta University. As a director, I’m not only responsible in planning and designing, but also in finding additional resources, financial as well as non- financial to implement it.

I must say that we have been implementing it successfully since its inception in 2014. Our continued selection by ECA since 2014 is a testament of our success. This is due to unwavering support received from the faculty, staff and the Dean of the Business School of CAU.

What are some past, present, and future goals of YALI?

As you know, the program is now in its 9th year of being implemented as Mandela Washington Fellowship Program in about 27 U.S. institutions of higher education (Universities). And, we are beginning to see impacts on the Individual Fellows as well as on their communities. Although its full impacts are yet to be quantified, experts in this area (including myself) who have been a critic of previous development efforts have a positive outlook for this program. As a result, today, there is a unanimous belief that it is the Youth that can transform Africa’s future through the development of innovative solutions to the challenges and opportunities faced. And, this has been the focus of the Mandela Washington Fellowship program, and the YALI initiative throughout Africa. 

Looking Ahead to Future Impacts: It’s not just the six weeks the Fellows spend on the campuses of America’s Universities – but what matters is what they do when they return. And this will remain the focus of our assessment of YALI. As of now, this program is expected to be impactful and transformative. As President Obama said in his 2014 speech to the Fellows, “from these young leaders may well come the next Nelson Mandela and/or Steve Jobs.”

Tell us about your perspective on international trade and development.

Theoretically, development and trade are considered to be the twin forces of transforming a country from a traditional approach of production and distribution to a much more modern and productive society. Development & trade are inseparable concepts since it is almost impossible to achieve one without the other. Think of the UN 17 Development Goals. These goals, for example, cannot be achieved by only “developing” an economy as it is defined traditionally. It requires trading between countries – which simply means export those goods and services for which you have a comparative advantage and import those goods & services for which you do not have such advantage. In my book, international trade is one of the basic and necessary ingredients for achieving development. For example, ending hunger, achieving food security, and improving nutrition, which are signs of economic development, can easily be achieved and sustained with international trade. Using a business terminology, trade will allow development events to “scale-up”. 

As one of the only HBCUs in the USA with a YALI program, what are some big picture issues facing the YALI program today?

As your question suggests, yes, we have been the longest HBCU implementing the program since its inception in 2014. I’m going to assume that this question is attempting to ask this question: Why aren’t other HBCUs participating in implementing this program? 

I’m sure there are a number of reasons; and the reasons vary from university to university. I personally think that two of those are major: lack of relevant information on the program, and cost of implementing the program. In order to address the first obstacle, we (CAU) under Congressman Hank Johnson’s sponsorship, we organized a high level YALI- HBCU information/exchange session in September 2021 where over 16 HBCUs participated. And, we plan to continue such sessions in the future. The cost constraints for participation is still a concern for many HBCUs. In other words, resources as well as infrastructures that this program requires in order to compete with all U.S. Universities is not a small task for most HBCUs. 

The challenges of YALI ( i.e. not including the Mandela Washington Fellowship Program of YALI) is keeping the earlier enthusiasm alive and keep organizing the YALI in-country organizations/clubs alive and sustain throughout each individual countries of Africa. And, yes, how to organize the Mandela Washington Fellow Alumni organize in such a way as to give back to the YALI organization itself throughout Africa as to sustain itself for years to come.

What partners are you currently working with and what do you see as most promising relationships moving forward? 

We have been fortunate to be located in the city of Atlanta where we have access to be in partnership with international as well as national corporate and community organizations. Since inception, our corporate partners included, the Coca Cola Company, the UPS, IBM, the Allen Institute of Entrepreneurship, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, etc. And, the Atlanta Food Bank, MedShare International, the Carter Center, Trees Atlanta, the Atlanta Urban Farm, etc. have continued to participate and work with us. Also, academic institutions such as Emory University, more notably the Goizueta Business School, have been a part and parcel of our program since inception. 

As a result of these active participations and support, we are beginning to see some collaborative business and non- business relationships between Fellows and these corporate non corporate organizations. Fellows have been visiting some of these organizations to learn more, and individuals have visited Fellows in their countries to learn more of their environments. Such collaborative exchanges is expected to grow and expand. Of course, the jury, on this, is still out. 

I understand that you there is a signed MOU between CAU and the University of Liberia to put a YALI program at UL. Please share with us what you hope to achieve and if there is a timeline to develop and launch YALI at UL? 

Yes, Clark Atlanta and the University of Liberia had a virtual MOU signing ceremony – just about one year ago. One of the activities that is considered as being a higher priority is to establish a Mandela Washington Fellowship like program at the University of Liberia. In this regard, a preliminary site visit to the University of Liberia, by the Dean of our Business School and myself, has taken place. Then, COVID took over. This initiative remains as a high priority for me personally as well as for Dean of CAU’s Business School Dr. Silvanus Udoka, and the presidents of both Universities to make it happen in the next few years.  We are also working very closely with our partner the University Consortium for Liberia (UCL), to help facilitate this initiative and are seeking financial and resource support in order to implement this important work.  

Is there anything we have not discussed that you would like to mention?

 Yes, I have one item to add: Expanding the program in Africa. One of the many areas that we would like to see moving forward is the expansion of the Mandela Washington Fellowship-like program in Universities & Colleges in Africa, in addition to the existing Regional –YALI – centers, as discussed above.

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