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A place of dreams

funmi-captionKing’s work in Africa is a perfect example of how through the World questions|King’s answers campaign we are deploying our expertise regarding societies in transition. A unique collaboration between King’s and its African partners, the African Leadership Centre has already begun to contribute to Africa’s long term social, political and economic development by mentoring and training Fellows – the next generation of talented, young leaders, many of them women. 

A conversation with Dr 'Funmi Olonisakin, Director of the new African Leadership Centre (ALC) in Nairobi, about the success of rapidly becomes an inspirational tutorial in the transformative power of dreams. Launched last year, the Centre is still in what 'Funmi describes as the ‘buzz phase. Naturally we want to ride on that for while.’

What really resonates with an African audience, she says, is that this is the first time a peace, security and development centre has been opened on the continent in such a way. ‘While other European and US universities have opened campuses, we are deliberately seeking to put the centre on the ground in partnership with African institutions, so it will become autonomous. We have created a centre not just about awarding degrees but emphasising core values; emphasising the transformation of the African continent. That's why there’s a buzz.’

It’s early days, so evidence of its success so far tends to be anecdotal. ‘We look to the number of applications for fellowship programmes, numbers of partners who want to collaborate, etc  – many are interested.’ But she’s most excited about a single email from a young University of Nairobi graduate called Jacob, and she searches her BlackBerry to find and read it. Jacob explains that he’s put the ALC brochure on his vision board in his room. ‘And each time I wake up I flick through it and my desire to join the ALC grows stronger. I'm willing to join the ALC in any capacity and work hard to be an expert in peace, security and development just like you.’

It’s just one person, but that’s the point, says 'Funmi. ‘The ALC works on a case by case basis, literally. We want to transform individual lives and also help them through placements so they are better placed to transform the institutions in which they work.’ The ALC draws talented people from all walks of life all over Africa, who then often go on to work in areas of need such as Zimbabwe and Liberia. She cites a corporate banker from Ghana, who two years after leaving now heads an early warning programme at ECOWAS (Economic Community of West African States), and a food technologist from Kenya who is now putting the finishing touches on a report on women leaders at Nairobi’s Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue.

Ripples of change

Every graduate, every young leader, that leaves the ALC becomes a ripple of change, however small. ‘They have been empowered, not just with qualifications but with their own thinking so they can say, I have the capacity now; I can bring about change. It doesn't have to be the whole continent, it could just be their own community or a small organisation.’

alc-logoAfrica’s brain drain is a serious problem: do many take their new knowledge abroad? Some do but, says 'Funmi, most return. Of the 40-something students who trained in London before the Kenya centre opened, only one has never been back. ‘And it doesn’t matter where they go, their view of Africa has been changed. It’s no longer the place where they felt they couldn’t fulfil their potential, a place to escape from; it’s a land of possibilities.’

'Funmi freely admits that though the ALC is promoting a big dream, right now it’s small in size. The Nairobi centre took in just 14 fellows in the first year – but it’s growing. With more fund-raising, it will ramp up to around 50 per year. ‘We’re trying to generate critical mass. The odd African can be trained like me at King’s and move on. Or Africa can produce rare examples of exceptional individuals – your Desmond Tutus and Nelson Mandela. But we’re trying to make it systemic. We’re trying to construct a system that connects all these talented people.’


The network effect

alc-fellow-boardEvery ALC fellow is a vital new node on the network. Right now, 'Funmi sees two Africas: an Africa of the elite and privileged, and one far removed from leaders. It’s that second Africa she wants to tap into, where talent and innovation exists, because it’s only by thinking outside the box that people survive – especially at the margins of society which, she says, is where the most interesting things happen.

What really sets the two Africas apart is that one is networked while the other is not – and so is starved of opportunity. And that lack of opportunity is what’s stunting the development of a continent of a billion people. ‘Africa is diverse; it’s not homogenous. But the things that bind it are very powerful: shared historical experience and also leadership patterns.

‘The ruling elite has no incentive to change the status quo, and the rest of society hasn’t the power to force it. Conversations beween society and leadership are impossible because that space is closed. But every now and again opportunities occur that create triggers for transformation – for good or bad. Tunisia is a prime example. It would have stayed the same way as it had for 24 years, if that trigger hadn’t happened. But by connecting people you create magic. You create alternative centres of power where there can be frequent conversations – you don't have to wait 24 years! You don’t have to wait for a dictator to die – they never die early!’

Meanwhile, the reseach produced at the ALC is also helping to drive change, robustly challenging and influencing policy. 'Funmi cites how ALC research influenced the ECOWAS conflict prevention framework and the UN Economic Commission for Africa’s framework for the role of women in peace and security. It has become a resource that key regional and government bodies can draw in, the result of years of relationship building.

An amazing opportunity

But what 'Funmi is most excited about now is technology. On this trip to the UK, she is meeting up with Cisco to discuss a pilot of its Telepresence videoconferencing technology. ‘The main issue for us is, how can we transfer this knowledge, this programme to the continent without losing quality? This could be the answer. If we can manage to pull it off, it is going to be amazing.’ Thanks to improved connectivity in Africa and the development of digital technology, the potential for elearning is massively improved. A pilot is being implemented between the ALC in Nairobi and King's – a first for this state-of-the-art technology at the college, which might also profit as a result.

‘We’re already at the ementoring phase. We pay lots for guest lecturers and mentors to travel back and forth; this will cut down time and expense. If all goes well, we can roll out, depending on the connectivity and technology available to our education partners. It could be big, even if we just make it available across Kenya, let alone East Africa, West Africa…’

It’s hard not to be uplifted by the quiet enthusiasm of 'Funmi, who has the charisma and conviction of a true revolutionary. She, as she freely admits, is a case study in what’s possible. ‘I was raised by my grandmother in a village in Nigeria. The values she instilled in me, the love in that relationship was so powerful that I believed I could be anything I wanted to be. I have overcome many challenges to be sitting here at King’s. Truly I have lived it. So when Fellows tell me that the road is tough, I say, look at me! This is the story that I pass on.

‘The ALC is a place of dreams. And when you connect people and ideas, and you give people the freedom to test those ideas, it is a powerful thing and can ignite into almost anything. I can imagine when a thousand graduates have passed through the ALC. And even if only half or a third of them believe in those ideas and want to implement them, it will make magic for the continent. I believe it.’ And to hear 'Funmi tell it, it would take a hard heart indeed not to believe it too.

We are on our way to raising £5million to support the ALC through the ‘Leadership and Society’ strand of the World questions|King's answers campaign. We now need support to fund the ALC fellows bursaries and travel expenses.  For example £7,000 would cover the costs of four mentors to support the ALC’s programme. If you would like to know more please email or phone us . You can make a gift to support the Centre online or by post .

African Leadership Centre in World questions|King's answers campaign

Conflict, security and development group at King's

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ALC as one of King's global institutes

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