- Through her foundation, Zawadi Africa, Kenya’s Dr. Susan Mboya is helping talented schoolgirls study in the United States and then return home to help lead their country.
- Mboya believes that Africa does not have a work ethic problem but rather a “vicious cycle” where people don’t have anything they can use to pull themselves out of poverty.
- The former first lady of Nairobi, Mboya believes that government would benefit from reforming its reward system: “There is very little reward for a job well done and there are very few incentives.”
Economic development, philanthropy, female empowerment, business acumen – such are the myriad threads that run through Dr Susan Mboya’s career. It’s a career that has taken her around the world in senior leadership roles, but it’s clear that her heart and soul belong to her beloved Kenya.
Maybe this partly down to her DNA – her late father, Thomas Mboya, was one of the founding fathers of the country. Among his dazzling array of accomplishments was a collaboration with then US Senator John F. Kennedy, which resulted in new education scholarships for African students to study at American universities in the 1950s and 1960s. And it’s a case of like father, like daughter.
“As Kenya was moving towards independence, my father realised there wasn’t enough home-grown talent to run the country,” she explains. “And so the airlift provided scholarships to very bright Kenyans – more than 1,000 in total – to go to university in the US, one of whom was Barack Obama’s father. It was when he was the first African student to study at the University of Hawaii that he met and married a young American woman, Ann Dunham, and their son grew up to be President.
“As I grew up, I heard a lot about the airlift and met many of the beneficiaries, but I realised that most were men. And that’s why I decided to set up the Zawadi Africa Education Fund, which aims to help create the next generation of African women leaders.”
Next stop, America
Mboya is herself no stranger to an American education. She received a PhD in industrial pharmacy from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences before embarking on a business career that saw her rise to senior leadership positions with The Coca-Cola Company. These included serving as president of its African Foundation and leading its efforts for women’s economic empowerment in Eurasia and Africa – where she secured more than US$115 million in partner funding.
It was during this business ascent that she launched Zawadi, following in her father’s footsteps but with the explicit aim of helping girls receive a good education and develop the leadership skills that can help propel Africa forward. But it’s not open to everyone.
“We have strict criteria,” explains Mboya. “The girls need to be very bright, have shown some leadership capability, and also come from a disadvantaged background. We have about 100-plus applicants every year and can only give out about 20 scholarships – it’s strict because they are not that easy to come by.”
Once selected, the successful applicants receive a wealth of support from Zawadi. This ranges from help in navigating the maze of American paperwork to identifying suitable schools and paying their visa fees. The fund also provides more extensive preparation that is tailored to girls who may not even have visited a city before, let alone gone overseas to a faraway foreign land.
“For Zawadi girls, transitioning to the US can be a very steep learning curve,” Mboya points out. “Moving to the US can be daunting for even the most sophisticated person, and even more so for a young girl who has never lived in a city, boarded a plane, and so on. The food, technology and etiquette is very different and takes getting used to, even something as simple as an escalator can be challenging when you see it for the first time. It’s a totally new world they are entering.”
Zawadi – which is funded by a range of different donors and partners – also seeks to instil in each recipient a sense that those to whom much has been given, have to give something back. The good news is that they do.
“The majority of them are coming back to Africa,” says Mboya. “Interestingly, many are choosing not to go down the corporate route and are instead going to work for NGOs, because they want to work at the community level. It’s been 15 years and we’ve sent nearly 500 girls through the programme.”
She goes on to highlight that those in the programme have also picked up the baton – without waiting to come back from their education in America. “The girls themselves have created their own project, called ‘Beyond the classroom’, which aims to help high school girls,” explains Mboya.
“They go and speak to them about the choices they have to make – such as staying in education or getting married – as well as things like the importance of self-discipline and the reality of job-hunting. This programme has reached more than 10,000 girls already, all across the country. It shows how powerful this type of ripple effect is, because you find that if one girl goes to the US, it kind of changes the perspective of the whole school – not just that one girl. It shows the whole school what is possible – it raises their expectations and it inspires them.”
Such activity is obviously to be welcomed, but in a continent as diverse as Africa there is always more to do. For instance, she goes on to say that if she had a magic wand she would ensure that every African would have some form of leverage to help lift themselves up.
“We don’t have a work ethic problem in Africa, but what we do have is a vicious cycle where people have nothing they can use to pull themselves out of poverty, such as their own property. It’s like a car which is just spinning its wheels. We need to put something under the car to enable it to move forward. This is different to social security or handouts on an ongoing basis. If you look at the differences between the developed and developing world, a lot has to do with leverage – the ability to take what you have and get more out of what you have. If you can’t do that, then you’re basically stuck in one place, spinning your wheels.”
Today, Mboya continues to juggle a variety of responsibilities. She has moved on from Coca-Cola and is now working as a principal and international advisor to Washington DC-based consultancy, Navigators Global. Most of her time, though, is spent in Kenya, where her husband Evans Kidero is the former governor of Nairobi.
Her residence in Kenya, together with her continued exchanges with leaders and influencers from business, government and NGOs, leaves her well placed to comment on the challenges and strengths of the African continent. Asked whether she remains an optimist, she quickly replies in the affirmative.
“There are so many things, but what gives me hope about the continent is the youth,” she says. “I believe that we are seeing a generation that is benefiting from the continent being more linked and connected to the rest of the world than it has ever been, and it is better educated than it has ever been. The millennial mindset is that they aren’t motivated by money, they’re very practical and more driven by purpose. So we have a very self-aware and educated young population who are not afraid to get their hands dirty in order to move the continent forward.”
She does, however, have a word of warning. “The risk is when you don’t have a place to channel that energy, it can then turn to things that are not positive,” she admits. “Many of Africa’s problems occur when the young’s energy is harnessed in the wrong way, such as with Boko Haram.”
The governance of governments
Although her time as first lady of Nairobi has come to an end, Mboya still keeps a close eye on all things political, and it’s clear that her time in and around government made a lasting impression – so much so that she is quick to identify how she thinks it could be strengthened.
“I would look at the reward system,” she says. “I think this is an issue around the world, but maybe more so in Africa. Having come from the private sector and having seen government up close, there is very little reward for a job well done and there are very few incentives. So I would look at the rewards system and emulate the private sector by keeping the performers and losing those who are not.”
Leadership, too, is something close to Mboya’s heart – both in and out of government. For her, leadership comes down to certain key traits. “Some are obvious – like discipline,” she says. “If I was hiring someone and had a choice between a person who was very bright and a person who was less bright but more disciplined, I’d choose the person with more discipline and perseverance – this is what moves people forward, being able to stick with things and solve problems.”
She also says that leaders need to think beyond the horizon. “The best leaders think beyond the immediate reward and don’t get caught up in the here and now,” she says. “And leaders are also people who can see opportunities and harness people’s talent in new and positive ways.”
Much like Mboya herself, in fact.
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