Introducing the 2023 Cohort of the African Visionary Fellowship
by Sylvia K. Ilahuka, Writer & Editor
It is no secret in the philanthropy universe that Segal Family Foundation is home to a sweet portfolio of excellent African organizations. Our partners embody various aspects of our values while putting in the hard work of serving their communities, and they look good doing it too. Among them is a smaller cluster of particularly remarkable visionaries; this suite of high-performers is centered in the spotlight, mentored, encouraged to lift each other up, and is privy to higher and broader types of funding. As word gets around among African local organizations about this inner circle we call the African Visionary Fellowship (AVF), the program has become more desirable among the vision-bearers of grassroots initiatives. We are hereby proud to announce to you all the freshest group of Fellows!
For many an African founder, the early years are fraught with striving to sustain the organization. The vision of growth persists, but the beginning is usually just about keeping things afloat and keeping the dream alive. Using the example of how he ran Media Challenge Initiative without significant external funding for the first four years, Abaas Mpindi — who describes himself as an “accidental leader” — maintains that African grassroots founders take on challenges less for an income and more to better their lives and those of their communities. Funding is hard to come by, tougher still for African-led nonprofits than foreign-led ones (more on that later), which we took stock of in 2017 and realized that closer attention needed to be paid to this disparity. This is actually how AVF was born. So, when an opportunity like it comes around for the selected leaders, it signals strong hope for their organization’s future. Some of the cohort have been keeping tabs on AVF for a long time, waiting for the chance to vie for a spot; Jackie Bomboma of Young Strong Mothers Foundation had unsuccessfully applied for two years prior but did not stop trying, never giving up hope because she comprehended what stood to be gained. According to a 2020 evaluation we had done, over 90% of the Fellows who were interviewed reported significant transformation in their overall leadership capability and style, along with organizational capacity, plus an increase in funding — double and in some cases triple — and resultant budgetary expansion and program reach. When this new cohort was asked separately how they felt about being part of the AVF, the acceptance was widely described as “a dream come true.”
The extent of the Fellows’ elation reveals the measure of value ascribed to the Fellowship by those who know of it. For most, reception of the acceptance email from AVF Manager Beatrice Onyango resulted in some form of jumping or shouting. The same way these exceptional leaders’ work has ripple effects in their communities, so did the joy of their AVF selection spill over. In his disbelief, Aaron Kirunda of enjuba assumed from the email preview that it was a rejection message; Armand Ijimbere of Nacham Africa celebrated by taking his wife out to dinner at her favorite restaurant. He voiced that it was a milestone not only for Nacham but also for the people the organization serves, who will benefit even more from the fruits of the connections to be made with donors and implementing counterparts. In fact, the new Fellows have started building community: some of those whose organizations are based in a shared country had already forged friendships, turning to one other for reassurance when they felt uncertain about their prospects in the application process, as Ijimbere did with Hardy Ruremesha of Jeunesse au Service d’un Burundi Meilleur (JSBM). Some had already made their acquaintance across borders, similar to the cross-cohort mutual learning visit earlier this year and will continue to develop an even wider and stronger network. As Delphine Uwamahoro of Our Sisters’ Opportunity puts it, the leadership journey can at times feel lonely; the Fellowship creates a community of changemakers who can support each other through mutual learning and exchange of ideas. Views are expanded by connecting with people who think differently and have different perspectives, affirms Patience Khembo of Ladder to Learning, and it becomes a whole new level of invigorating when in a space with people that are both similar yet diverse.
The visionaries of AVF already carry a fire within them, which is what makes them stand out brighter in a pool of outstanding organizations. This fire is further stoked by the goodies that await: introductions to larger funders (with the bonus ability to accept tax-exempt donations in the U.S. via fiscal sponsorship through our partners One World Children’s Fund and KBFUS), organizational management skilling, network strengthening, fun times. The new Fellows share a desire to grow as leaders, as expressed by Jackie Bomboma, a goal also voiced by Evodius Kikarugaha who is expecting to grow his career and capacity for positive impact on the community that Hakizetu Organization serves. He hopes the AVF platform will shape his leadership style such that he can mold many others in his wake. It is important to identify and resolve gaps like these because, Abaas Mpindi asserts, local initiatives often hold the most sustainable solutions for communities’ needs given their leaders are part of the culture and systems in question. After all, as one African proverb goes, the pain of a shoe is known most intimately by the one who wears it; by this logic, it is also the wearer who is best positioned to address the problem spots. Foreign goodwill comes and goes, but personal ties to a region and its issues endure, so it is necessary for others from within the same area to be equipped to take over in due course. The Fellows have known of their selection for a few weeks now, but have been sitting on it (with much difficulty, as Kikarugaha and Uwamahoro admit). So everyone — ourselves included! — is delighted and relieved to finally share the news publicly. We wish the 2023 cohort the very best; to echo sentiments from enjuba’s Aaron Kirunda, you are all here at just the right time.