‘Young Nigerian creatives are integral towards achieving SDG goals’

Femi Taiwo is the Executive Director of LEAP Africa, a non-profit organization that is committed to developing dynamic innovative and principled African Leaders. The foundation’s name was shaped from Leadership, Effectiveness, Accountability and Professionalism.

After the recent 17th edition of the Social Innovators Programme and Awards (SIPA) by LEAP Africa, an annual ceremony organized to recognise and reward the creative and innovative ideas of individuals that have concluded the foundation’s one year Fellowship, the Executive Director of LEAP Africa, in this interview with BusinessDay’s Endurance Okafor shares insight on how the foundation is providing solutions and tackling pressing community social needs and promoting social inclusion through its annual support to young creatives. Excerpts:

What is the idea behind LEAP Africa and how did it come about?

LEAP Africa is a youth and a leadership development organisation or we like to say a youth development organisation. Our mission is to inspire, equip and enable a new trader of leaders that will transform Africa. So, we believe so much that for Africa and Nigeria to realise their full potential we’ll need a new crop of leaders and so we are trying to raise a new crop of leaders, we are trying to equip these crops of leaders and enable them.

All our work in education, in social innovation along with the SDGs and all the other areas that we work in is all about raising dynamic, innovative, and principal leaders, so that’s really what we stand for.

LEAP is 19 years old and one of the things that we’ve always done is, we know how beautiful it is to spotlight the good work that people are doing and how that inspires other people to action, and how that ignites a journey with other people to participate in solving problems in our community.

So, more than a decade ago, LEAP Africa started something called the annual Nigeria youth Leadership Award. It was a way to just showcase young people leading and making a change in their communities across Nigeria and to celebrate their work, to elevate the work they do, and use that to inspire other young people to act, and to solve problems in their community because we believe in LEAP Africa, that leadership is doing, leadership is problem solving, and the summary of leadership is service.

To really elevate these ideals, we were celebrating those who stood for that, those principles and those who represented those principles. So, the annual Nigeria leadership award ran for a couple of years. We basically would do a conference and give the awards to young people to inspire them along the lines of leadership, community development and being part of the change they want to see in their country. It was while we’ve done that for years, that LEAP Africa decided that, you know what, it’s not enough to just put a plaque in the hands of people, we have to enable them, actually be able to put a structure around this kind of people and help them to build structures and systems that would institutionalize what they’re trying to do, so that they can be more sustainable and can be more systematic and strategic in the way they work, and also so that they can be able to scale their work and become the next LEAP Africa, and even bigger than next LEAP Africa.

That’s what gave birth to the SEPA program. So SEPA was a child of the annual Nigeria Youth Leadership award. The annual Nigeria Youth Leadership award basically used to award young people and do like a quick workshop for them around the time of their award, but SEPA was created out from that to build a one-year fellowship, a one-year support system around change makers, young change makers, young social entrepreneurs, young nonprofit leaders, and help them to build capacity and build confidence. So there are five Cs that are critical when we design SEPA. One is confidence building. One of the 2021 awardee has shared how SEPA helped his confidence. One of the things we tend to do or one of the things we know that fellowships do or accelerators do is that when you bring young people in like minds, like communities and you bring them amongst their peers, amongst mentors, amongst veterans, the endorsement builds their confidence, and you know every entrepreneur needs a dose of confidence and courage to face the impossible. So confidence building is one of the things that we’re doing is we are implementing the SIPA program

The second is capacity building. We are building capacity in different areas. We are building capacity on how to build a sustainable organization. The principles are similar, whether you want to run a successful profit, non-profit, or hybrid organization (social enterprise).

We know that there is a gap because young people start some of these things because they have ideas and they are energetic but they need to be able to translate from the start-up stage to a growth stage and to scale stage and they need to build structures around their business. That is one of the things that has helped LEAP Africa over the years and it has helped us to grow so we are building capacity in that area of sustainable business practices and all of that.

Secondly, we are building capacity in terms of business model innovation and social impact innovation. The coaching and mentoring cut across system thinking, program design and things that would be very useful for them to understand how they want to solve problems.

The third is connection building. For young change makers to go far, they need to be connected to a support system of peers, mentors, potential funders, potential partners, and press people just like what is happening in this hall right now. That is one of the things we want to do during the fellowship year. More importantly, during the post fellowship year we support a lot of connections. For instance, one of the partners that have sustained SIPA for the past seven years is Union Bank and we are not just the only one getting support, quite a number of our fellows have become vendors to Union Bank or have become grantees of Union Bank through the CSR effort. Quite a number of our fellows have become grantees of other companies.

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We try to just bring them into the spaces of where we are. When we spot an opportunity, we push it to our community by nominating people for travel, connecting them with the opportunities. We have a partner called World Connect who over the past five years gives mid-level grants to our alumni community.

The fourth C is Capital Building. Not just financial capital, we are striving to increase our ability to be able to provide and attract more resources to be able to see the great things that our fellows and alumni are doing and that is one of the things we have been working on.

We have gained some traction recently but beyond the financial capital, social capital is one big thing that we give to our community and the last is credibility. I was speaking with one of the awardee after the conference when she was saying she has applied for several fellowship and I have gotten a lot of no and that she was glad that she got a yes, which is the SIPA program and I told her to go back and reapply to those she had gotten no from, because one major thing we always hear year in year out is that the doors they have been knocking on now start opening up to them because extra credibility has been tracked to them because there is a big brand like LEAP Africa that believes in them.

Sometimes it takes the first person to believe in you in the industry and many more people will be like, we practically can believe in this person if this person can get this award. Those extra accolades on their profile with the LEAP Africa opens doors for them.

We have a little above 200 including this present class in the community of social entrepreneurs that we have been supporting. As at last year, one of the major things that was at the back of our mind is amplifying the work that our fellows and our alumni communities are doing and have done. We have some new partners that are on board that are providing resources for us to be able to seed more capital to our alumni community.

We have seen people that have grown heaps of bound within the fellowship year and post the fellowship year rapidly. We would continue to provide support to the communities and we even want to structure that support we provide to the sip and alumni community even much more and we also want to start a second level fellowship for those who have gone to the initial fellowship or impact program and have advance in the principles and impact they are making and are ready for skill. We are going to be coming to them with a much shorter focused targeted program that brings extra capital and connection that can help to take them to the next level and that is where we are right now.

Our goal is that by 2030 we want to have a minimum of 700 in the community. Typically, we used to take 20 fellows in a year and last year we increased it for the first time to 40 fellows, this year we maintained the same number, as we are entering next year, we would probably be increasing to 50 to 60 in that fellowship year. The goal is that we want to have a community of 500 to 600 organizations that can also be celebrating 10 years.

For us at Leap Africa, our four bottom lines that we use to measure growth is something we call PIII (People, Impact, Influence and Income) . Those are very key for us to measure growth and impact. For us we want to enable more of this organization and through them we accelerate the achievement of the SDGs in Nigeria. Counting from now we are less than a decade, just nine years and we know that for that to happen, it is not really in the hands of the public sector, private sector or even the third sector. It is all in our hands equally and we know that the young people are very integral towards achieving the sustainable development goals in Nigeria and the ideas, creativity, energy, vision, resilience, grit of the young Africans is key. We are making a big birth of young people. So that is what we do and stand for at Leap Africa.

Are there plans for Leap Africa to engage the Nigeria government to deepen the development of the nation’s young exceptional talents?

We are very much open to working with the government. In the last phase of our life cycle in the organization, we were very focused on private sector and development partners and we are not saying that we don’t work with the government. As we are approaching the 20th year, we want to work even much more closely with the government, obviously as much as we can, and support their work.

In Leap Africa, when we think of government, we think of how we can support with our top leadership, expertise and how we can collaborate in some instances and that is how it has always been for us but the collaboration is not necessarily us receiving funds from government but us supporting with trainings and all of that.

We definitely want to work more with the government and we would be working more with the government. I think most of our support has been in the education programs.

You ask a very big interesting question about the SIP; we would be working more with the government as much as we can to accelerate the effort towards the sustainable development goals and youth participation in that process.

What are some of the key challenges that LEAP Africa has faced in trying to impact and touch the lives of youth through SIPA and the annual fellowship?

I think challenges are the reason why we have jobs, right? Because that is what we do. Typically, to sustain a program like SIPA for seven years, you definitely need partners that believe in you, partners that bring resources to the table and we have been blessed to have Union Bank, like I said over the past seven years, but as the work expand and grows, definitely one major challenge we always have to work around and pay attention to is the growth and sustainability of initiative like this. I was saying that some years back we were just taking 20 people but now we are taking 40 people and not just in Nigeria alone but across west Africa. Our intention is to make Pan African work to move forward, that signals a multiplying effect to the resources we would need.

Any advice for young Nigerian creatives out there?

A direct thing I want to say to anyone that end up with the piece that you are going to put out is that if you are looking to enable young people and through young people you can inspire and ignite the hope, resilience and the livelihood in communities and across the country, you can work through LEAP Africa SIPA program. We have a big community of people tackling the SDGs in very creative and sustainable ways, be it education, agriculture, energy, environment in as much as it coincides with the 17 goals of the SDG.

The second thing is that we also need people to support us as mentors. One of the things we have been blessed with over the couple of years are the outstanding mentors who have also brought up their experience and network into the fellowship experience and that is what we do for our fellows.

If you have gained some form of mastery in whatever field, industry or technical area, you can use that to coach other young people by applying as a mentor or volunteer as a facilitator for a session when we put out a call for mentorship. In LEAP Africa, we have about five Ts that are essential for effective contribution and volunteering.

You can bring any of those five Ts to come and work with us. Those five Ts would help in solving one thing or the other. You can bring your talent, tools, etc. for instance, for the past six years of running SIPA, Nigerian Breweries Star Academy has provided their workshop venue for us to use at zero cost. There are many tools that are required, be it facilities such as hotels and different things that would be useful in running this fellowship at scale. Flying tickets can also be provided as we always fly people around for workshops and conferences. I think it is fine to put an email at the end of this interview for people that want to assist to be able to reach us.

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