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  • My Journey as an Obama Foundation Leader: Learning the Pathways to Develop our African Future

    My Journey as an Obama Foundation Leader: Learning the Pathways to Develop our African Future

    On 12 June 2019, the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa announced its second cohort of 200 emerging leaders from 45 countries across the continent who were selected after a rigorous selection process of 21,000 applicants. I was thrilled to be named one of the cohort’s members who would receive leadership development with U.S. President Barack Obama’s Foundation as preparation for taking on the biggest challenges in our communities. The Obama Foundation’s mission is to inspire, empower and connect people to change their world, so I felt that this was a call to action that spoke directly to me.

    I applied to the Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa program because I am on a mission to improve the quality of education in Nigeria and beyond through my social impact project, Sustainable Education and Enterprise Development (SEED). I began SEED as a passion project in 2016 to extend my development consulting practice to the education sector. SEED has since become the trusted brand that supports and advocates for schools serving children from low-income families in Nigeria.

    For a short, but memorable week in July 2019, I was invited to join my new Obama Foundation Leaders: Africa colleagues in Johannesburg, South Africa, where I met other emerging African leaders. This gathering brought together participants and speakers from a variety of sectors and issue areas to engage in workshops, discussions, and activities focused on emboldening us to spearhead grassroots change in our communities.


    While we understand the need for governments in developing countries to commit to ensuring quality public education for all, we are resolute that ‘education cannot wait’. We cannot leave our children devoid of an education while we continue to advocate for free public education. Private schools for the poor exist and these schools can serve as an unconventional pathway to ensuring education for all.

    Olanrewaju Oniyitan, 2019 Obama Foundation African Leader

    It Has Been Four Months ……

    In the four months since the Johannesburg gathering, my reflections on the personal and professional growth I have since experienced directly reflect the three themes within the Obama Foundation’s mission:

    INSPIRE: At the convening in South Africa, I was inspired after meeting groundbreaking individuals that reflect the diversity, strength, and passion for change that can be found across Africa. Listening to their stories of overcoming obstacles and how they use their leadership positions to harness and nurture the talent of their fellow-countrymen, I am further driven to take on the challenge of ensuring all children in my community, country, continent and the world have access to good quality education. Through discussions in the plenary sessions, skill-building workshops, and leadership development trainings, my colleagues and I grappled with ethical dilemmas, worked on creative, values-driven approaches to problem solving, and explored how our personal narratives are tools to support and enhance our leadership.

    EMPOWER: In the time since returning home to Lagos, Nigeria, I have remained connected with my colleagues from Obama Foundation Leaders as we navigate this new leadership journey. The webinars, trainings and other virtual programming enable us to continue learning about overcoming the challenges of changing the world. The Action Plan we developed during the convening has been a guide to help me keep my eyes on the prize. When it seems like things are getting too tough to handle, I can turn to my Accountability Group where we provide support to each other and remind ourselves about the lessons we learned together in Johannesburg.

    CONNECT: It has been affirming to be a part of this network of innovative and ethical change makers. Being an Obama Foundation Leader has led me to organisations and individuals that have helped open doors to greater impact. Partnerships have emerged even within the network itself such as a recent partnership between SEED and a fellow Nigerian Obama Leader’s organisation, the Lagos Food Bank Initiative. I am also confident that wherever my travels across Africa take me, I will likely find an Obama Leader there to catch up with. I am truly lucky to have a strong, motivated network that is indeed Pan-African.

    As someone who has dedicated herself trying to change the world for the better, I have made it my life’s mission to lift up others and celebrate the victories that make children’s futures more secure. Within the Obama Leaders network, we celebrate ourselves every day and hold ourselves up when things are tough. In one of the recent conversations between the Nigerian delegation of Obama Leaders, one member opened the discussion by asking whether anyone else has ever felt as if the problems we are trying to tackle are too big to handle and even if those are solved, there are a million more waiting: needless to say, everyone felt the same way.

    At the end of the discussion, the Leader who asked the question concluded saying “I am glad it’s not just me”. I too was happy to feel solidarity with others who felt both overwhelmed and motivated to change the world too. I know there is much more in store for me over the next eight months of my leadership development program, but so far it has been life-changing to have this experience as an Obama Leader: Africa, and I look forward to taking these lessons along every stage of SEED’s growth to improve the quality of education for millions of children.

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