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African fellows learn new business skills at the University of Iowa

Young leaders also get the chance to experience the state

Modou Lamin Fatty from the Gambia in West Africa takes a selfie June 30 during a Cedar Rapids Kernels baseball game against the Kane County Cougars at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids. (David Harmantas/Freelance)
Modou Lamin Fatty from the Gambia in West Africa takes a selfie June 30 during a Cedar Rapids Kernels baseball game against the Kane County Cougars at Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids. (David Harmantas/Freelance)
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Though they’ve got only a few weeks left in Iowa, about two dozen business leaders and entrepreneurs from sub-Saharan Africa are making the most of it.

Hailing from 19 countries, the 25 visitors were chosen through the six-week Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative, funded with a $150,000 U.S. State Department grant.

Since June 19, the fellows have lived at the University of Iowa and studied American business and economics, undergoing an accelerated version of its Venture School program through the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center.

This year marks the university’s fourth as a host school and its first implementing a strengths-based leadership approach in coursework — a federal addition to the curriculum for all 28 universities and colleges participating in the fellowship program.

The fellows, ages 21 to 36, all already are leaders in their own right, with businesses, not-for-profits or government in their home countries, said Dimy Doresca, director of the fellowship program at the UI.

“They are people with experience already, but the training for the most part is new for them,” he said, later adding, “You can see the progress every week. They are like a sponge, really soaking in the knowledge and applying it.”

Atem Ernest Lefu, 34, is co-founder and chief executive officer of AGRO-HUB in Cameroon, which helps farmers access new markets and processes its own starchy cassava plant.

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Once he returns home, Lefu said he intends to use a talents-measuring assessment he and other fellows used in the UI training to better determine placement for his 112 current employees.

Phyllis Kyomuhendo, 25, said business models that fellows completed could come in handy at M-SCAN Uganda, a startup she founded in 2017 to develop low-cost, mobile ultrasound devices and reduce maternal mortality in rural settings.

“As a startup that only has four people, there’s so much that’s up in the air — you’re making so many ideas, coming up with so many things, but you have not streamlined,” she said.

Lefu said he plans to remain in touch with business professionals he meets through the fellowship, whom he said can serve as mentors as he expands his business and also help connect him with grants and investors.

Doresca also said the fellows can serve as “ambassadors” for Iowa, opening the door for in-state businesses to pursue ventures in their home countries.

The businesses “have a contact in sub-Saharan Africa if they want to go and test the waters and see what is developable,” he said.

And for the Mandela Washington fellows, there’s more to their U.S. experience than the inside of a classroom.

Cultural excursions for the fellows have entailed taking in a Cedar Rapids Kernels game, visiting with Iowa City government officials and touring an Amish farm in Kalona.

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Kyomuhendo said the fellowship gave her the opportunity to visit the United States for the first time. So far, it has exceeded her expectations.

“In my head, I always had this picture of New York — busy, too much,” she said, adding that Iowa was different and “pleasantly surprising.”

“Literally everyone on the street will smile at you and say ‘hi.’ I was so happy; it felt like I was at home.”

Nationwide, a total of 700 Mandela Washington fellows, hailing from 49 sub-Saharan countries, were selected from a pool of more than 38,000 program applicants.

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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