We sat in the room in silence—20 stares and 20 new faces, bound by curiosity. The facilitator asked the group, “Why are we here?” — the Fellows smiled, their eyes fired up, and our journey began.
It is the first day of the West Africa Fellows program, where 20 individuals, from all across West Africa have come together in service of strengthening their organizations, communities and countries. Each of them is changing Africa’s narrative by tackling problems of poverty and injustice in myriad ways: Maryam is the founder of a leadership school for girls in Northern Nigeria, Kwabena is the CEO of a company providing farm services to cocoa farmers in Ghana, and Dominic works to create a pipeline of female candidates for government positions in Sierra Leone. They’re not here to refine their financial models, their marketing strategies nor even to incubate new ideas—instead, they’ve come to reaffirm the values that bond them, to apply a different set of tools to influencing people and systems and, most importantly to learn more about themselves and each other.
But don’t let us spoil it for you. Read in their own words what they took away from this journey with us – what they are taking back into their work, and into the world. Join us in celebrating their reflections as #20days20Fellows unfolds for #AcumenWestAfrica:
Fellow: Avril Pratt
National Project Officer, International Labour Organisation
Reflection: My Acumen journey has been a life-changing experience that challenges me to always be accountable for my values, and live my sense of purpose by ways of giving strength and hope to the hopeless.
I’ve unravelled the unique power in my authentic voice which will be used not only to inspire and motivate but call to action to collectively change narratives. Taking on life’s journey comes with the question: “To what extent am I willing to anchor this journey of social change? To live for or die for?” It is exciting to collaborate with an army of changemakers forming a community to achieve a common goal.
Message to West Africa: We are the changemakers now
Fellow: Buffy Okeke-Ojiudu
CEO, Zebra Agro-Industries Ltd.
Reflection: The greatest power we can harness is that which lies within us. Therefore the greatest tool-kit one can develop is that which helps us dig deep within ourselves, to discover, understand and grow the best and most AUTHENTIC version of ourselves.
It is this deep understanding that equips and emboldens us to navigate through obstacles in our quest for positive change; and It is our AUTHENTICITY that inspires others to do the same.
The Acumen fellowship has helped me develop and utilize this tool-kit…in service of the communities I and my organization serve.
Message to West Africa: Dream. Dare. Create.
Fellow: Christine Sesay
VP Operations and Administration, Kepler
Reflection: For a long time, I have wondered how I can make change happen in a more impactful manner. Since being an Acumen Fellow, I realized that I need to look deep within to find that story which I can turn into something capable of transforming lives for the better. I understand that my voice, my story, and the stories of others can be used to serve a greater purpose. Storytelling for change has become my mantra, I intend to continue finding my voice by telling more stories and creating change at the workplace, in my community, and through my organization.
Message to West Africa: Show up for the team!
Fellow: Crystal Chigbu
Executive Director, The IREDE Foundation
Reflection Since my Acumen journey began, I have learnt that I am not alone in working/walking with moral courage. Doing this My journey with other Fellows has taught that it is okay not to have all the answers and all I need to do is trust the process. Trusting the process gets difficult when you want to make change happen and there are no answers to realize the passion which drives your work. However, in this beautiful year of Acumen, I have learned to enjoy each day as it comes and live my questions. This has helped because, as I live daily the questions, the answers come. I now have the courage to live each day as I trust the process.
Message to West Africa: Keep doing, daring, everyday.
Fellow: Dominic Andrew Boima
Technical Adviser, Trocaire Sierra Leone
Reflection: Joining Acumen has been a changing moment of my leadership journey. I have been able to confidently share my own story, but most significantly learnt the need to share our stories with the people around us. Sharing our individual stories during seminar one has brought me to a realization that everyone comes to the table with a different story, but every story in itself is unique and helps us to connect beyond the surface level. Therefore, everyone’s story has helped me to connect and more importantly harness my power within and to further leverage on the power-with from each and every fellow on this cohort.
Message to West Africa: Let’s tell our stories! Our story, our real identity!!
Fellow: Ebo Ferguson Yankson
Organizational and Learning Development Specialist
Reflection: Having started off with providing solar energy to off-grid communities, the fellowship has on a higher level helped me to learn, unlearn and relearn. The Acumen journey has helped me to connect with people based on common values and not just common interest; has helped me to build deeper relationships and not just transactional relationships. With extensive experience in workforce development, currently building leadership and workforce development project in different industries for young professionals to prepare them for the business world, nothing gives me great joy knowing that as change-makers, we are changing the single story about Africa and making generational impact.
Message to West Africa: Be deliberate with your actions.
Fellow: Elizabeth Akowuge
Reflection: As a change maker, I encounter diverse people with diverse perspectives, values and belief systems. I, therefore, used to struggle with the polarity of my identity as a Christian and other non-biblical concepts on diversity and inclusion. However, the GSR discussion around Amin Maalouf’s book “In The Name of Identity” stirred up the murky waters of identity, the instinct for self-preservation, and the human tendency to assert one’s belief in terms of unrelenting negation of others. The lesson is, being human means above any other distinctive trait, being a carrier of undisputed human rights that prevail over any other component of identity and can’t be overlooked by tradition, ideology, religion or any other piece that compounds the multiplicity of identity.
Message to West Africa: Our individual successes will not immune us from our collective failure, therefore our actions must be strategic and deliberate.
Fellow: Fatou Touray Cham
National Coordinator, Buzz Gambia
Reflection: My work as a Changemaker with Buzz Gambia connects me directly with rural women and youth who do not have the opportunity to unleash their inner talent. Some have reached a point thinking that’s the end of the journey. This has kept me thinking about what, how and when will it happen/change? The Acumen journey has given me lenses to see issues deeply thus enabling me to leave the questions for now and trust the process. With this approach, I am able to take more deliberate actions in my work and daily activities and this has given me inner peace. #feeling empowered@Acumen#. Above all, the 2019 Cohort is an amazing family which also provided me with a safe space to be deliberate with what I do.
Message to West Africa: Moral leadership starts from within.
Fellow: Habiba Ali
Managing Director, Sosai Renewables
Reflection: I was not in a healthy place emotionally and business-wise when I started the fellowship. I was all over the place and not even sure what I was doing anymore.. I simply slept and woke up and went on. From the first day, we did our life maps to some of the seminars where we rediscovered ourselves and our values, I kept making adjustments sometimes consciously and others subconsciously. I am now better focused, more deliberate, delegate more, respect myself enough to respect others while all this bring together someone who is rounded enough to impact on bigger projects in the communities I work with. I leave the seminars with bigger plans and with better ideas on the solutions to living life for me and the way I manage the space I work in that will bring about a better society than I left it before the seminars. I will make bigger impacts I know.
Message to West Africa: Bring your whole self, leave with your true self!
Fellow Isata Kabia
Reflection I feel part of a bigger mission; hopeful that there are more people in service of positive action. This #Acumen year helped me see what I could do differently in my organization, #afrilosophy, in building economic empowerment for women and youth in a rural community.
Who gets to decide who lives in poverty or dignity? What is my role in oppression, bureaucracy, permissions? There are countless opportunities to stand up for, to stand up against, to stand up with: we all have the power. Oh, and question everything!
Message to West Africa: Forming-storming-norming-performing.
Fellow: Kelvin Hughes
CEO, Clean Team Ghana Ltd
Reflection: It sounds so cliche, but I will have friends for life from this group. It has been a humbling experience to sit with people that may well never have met and learn from them. And I am not talking about just learning tools and frameworks, but learning what strength, and weakness, looks like and understanding the person that sits behind the polished initial impression. I have been moved to tears more than once and inspired more times than I can remember. We have been reminded that the changes we are trying to make will be tough, maybe even impossible, but also of why not trying is not an option. We have seen the power of being vulnerable and asking for help. When we have asked for help, it has been abundant. We have pushed each other to be better, to do more, whilst also taking better care of ourselves. We have (almost) put aside debates about whose jollof is best and we have grown; we are greater than the sum of our parts and that is the lesson I commit to taking forward in life and work.
Message to West Africa: Listen deeply enough to understand others.
Fellow: Kwabena Mends
CEO, Emfed Farms and Trading Company Ltd.
Reflection: Me being in Acumen has lit up my life. Now I see clearly what I stand for. I now work with great passion because I am doing what I desire. I have the understanding to move people along with motivation, courage and authentic voice as my free gift. I was alone before the light, but now that I can count on support from over four hundred co- fellows. ha…
Message to West Africa: Let’s see our ourselves as one people.
Fellow: Maryam Mutallab
Founder/Director, Noble Hall Leadership Academy for Girls
Reflection: In my Acumen journey, I have learnt that to help others, I must first discover myself. Who am I? Why am I here? How did I get here? Why do I do what I do? Why do I want to see a better world? Navigating these questions has made me realise, I did not get here by accident, and the Acumen Family has given me the hope I need to trust the process. Together, each of us is doing our bit in contributing to make the world a better place. I have been empowered and encouraged through utilising the energy map, discovering the power in my stories, and allowing myself to be vulnerable by showing emotion. My organisation has evolved for the better and my growth as a leader has contributed to this. The beauty of this journey is knowing that I am not alone and I have a network of Fellows across the world doing this with me.
Message to West Africa: Trust the process.
Fellow: Mohammed Wurie
Private Sector Development Manager, Cordaid
Reflection: Often as leaders we are taught to be perfect, and act without emotions. Through the fellowship, I understood the power of using emotions to drive change and its usefulness in understanding problems and empathizing with others, as it is through emotions we can fully manage the polarities that may exist within a particular situation and work together in finding solutions.
Message to West Africa: There are acts of leadership.
Fellow: Niniola Soleye
Managing Director, DRASA (Dr. Ameyo Stella Adadevoh) Health Trust
Reflection: Tackling big, systemic, adaptive challenges isn’t easy. But being part of
the #Acumen family of #changemakers makes it easier. My work in public health – tackling issues of water, hygiene, sanitation, and disease and engaging communities and government in the process can be complex. Acumen has taught me to embrace the tensions and difficulties, own my power, and be okay when there are no answers. One of my favorite #WAAcumen quotes (an important reminder for us all): “When the passion is greater than the fear, there is no stopping you.”
Message to West Africa: Remember why you started.
Fellow: Prince Agbata
CEO, Coliba Recycling Ghana
Reflection: Here’s my big time experience, that over 90% of success is based on just showing up. The understanding of showing up has gotten a deeper meaning to me. It is to be present, to trust the process, and most of all, to be available even when you have lost all, or have no clue of your current state. In any such situation, never stop showing up for in so doing we get new perspective and continual opportunity to have a taste of new wine even on rare occasions because we trust the process and have shown up, be it at work, family, friends and in relationships.
Message to West Africa: Let us remain very consistent and show up even more often.
Fellow: Queen Nwokonneya
Manager, Adam Smith International
Reflection: Achieving the ambitious goal of creating the #AfricaWeWant requires bold partnerships. Whilst daunting, I draw strength from being an #Acumen Fellow as our stories are intricately connected. Acumen has supported me to leverage the power of my voice in harnessing lines of differences to mobilise change, build trust and show up for others even when it is not easy. I have learnt to be more confident in my questions, understanding that they may not lead to immediate answers but to better questions. That in itself, is progress.
Message to West Africa: Faster alone, further together.
Fellow: Tsema Ede
Human Rights Lawyer, Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA)
Reflection: I have come to understand how powerful my voice is and how it is important for it to be heard. I am no longer afraid to speak the truth to power and to have difficult honest conversations, especially when those conversations enshrine human dignity. The most awesome thing about the Acumen journey is how my work in the human rights space has been strengthened because the Fellows and Acumen have supported me to use my voice. Moving on, I choose to be more deliberate about showing up for other Fellows and I believe I can do that with my voice.
Message to West Africa: There is greatness within us.
Fellow: Uche Uzoebo
Executive Head, Distribution & Engagement, Shared Agent Network Facilities Limited (SANEF)
Reflection: Implementing change and being changed in the process. Seeing financial inclusion from all sides has sharpened my focus from delivery of financial inclusion to its facilitation. My #Acumen journey has led to a total disruption to not just my thinking but my whole financial inclusion strategy and the way I go about implementing change, so it has reshaped me.
This disruption has meant seeing with new eyes and realizing the actual reason for why I do what I do. #Acumen was the glue that held it together for me. Having been on both sides of financial inclusion, I am able to understand and manage the challenges that go with it better
Message to West Africa: Adapt, evolve, be determined.
Fellow: Wole Odetayo
Managing Director, Pronov
Reflection: “Dignity is the opposite of poverty, not wealth” – Jacqueline Novogratz
My journey as an Acumen Fellow over the last few months reverberates the importance of the values I hold and their significance in my life’s vision. I have learnt that leadership is a calling to authenticity; a calling meant for “the compassionates” hell-bent on giving meaning to as many lives as possible. For Africa to be a better place we need Compassionate Leadership. Therefore, I commit to holding other fellows accountable to our commitment to fighting Poverty & Injustice
Message to West Africa: Hate breeds Poverty, Compassion dignifies
If you or someone you know might be interested in becoming an Acumen Fellow in West Africa or in one of our regional programs, learn more about the programs here.