WASHINGTON, DC —
It was an evening of celebration as the Corporate Council on Africa recognized four individuals as examples of positive leadership, perseverance and vision throughout the continent. The Washington-based organization also celebrated 20 years of promoting U.S.-Africa business relations -- especially private sector investment across the continent.
Those who made the cut at this year’s African Business Leaders gala came from Togo, Tanzania, Namibia and Kenya.
Doctor Gachao Kiuna was one of the recipients. He went from being a scientist to now running Trans-Century Limited – a company that not only works with power and transport infrastructure, but also construction and engineering in 14 African countries.
“I enjoyed science, but I left that about 10 years ago because the people who commercialize science are not always the ones who understand it; it’s more the people who have the business acumen to do it. I really wanted to build my business acumen, so I transitioned across into business and now into an entrepreneurial role, and it’s been great,” Kiuna says.
For young people, he offers simple advice: “You’ll never do it well if you are not passionate, so do what you are passionate about and try to excel in it.”
Another recipient was Meck Khalfan, a software engineer from Tanzania. He's also the CEO and co-founder of Puku LLC, a New York-based company that is revolutionizing the mobile charging industry. As an example of passion -- and creativity -- he told the crowd that “Apple didn’t invent the phone. They changed the way people see the phone, so why don’t I do the same thing with the chargers.”
An incident during the event proved that his product works. “Our ambassador from Tanzania came here today, and her phone was dead. Luckily, I had the Puku next to me and she had half a charge in 10 minutes. She said ‘Wow,’ ” Khalfan joked, drawing laughter.
Martha Namundjebo-Tilahun was the only woman among the recipients. She’s the CEO of United Africa Group, a multi-million dollar business empire that owns hotels and malls in her home country, Namibia. She says her father taught her to take risks in life and dedicated the award to the girl child in Africa.
She says, “if you see what’s happening in Central Africa today, those are the future leaders of tomorrow. I believe in women. Women can make a difference. Any agenda without women would not see economic success to it.”
Namundjebo-Tilahun studied in the United States and started her first venture in California where she had a shop selling African artifacts. She says she's travelled a long road but used simple values to achieve success: dedication, innovation, commitment and hard work.
Another award winner was Gervais Koffi Djondo, the chairman of ASKY airlines based in Togo. He couldn’t make the trip to Washington but sent a friend to accept the award on his behalf.
This year’s keynote speaker was South Sudan’s Foreign Minister, Dr. Barnaba Benjamin, who had been visiting the United States to meet with officials from the State Department and Congress. He says his country not only needs good friends but also business partners to develop Africa’s enormous natural resources.
Benjamin added he believes CCA and the U.S. government can help encourage businesses to go to his newly formed country.
Some remain cautious about investing in Africa.
“The problem is in the United States, a lot of businesses don’t realize the caliber of business that exists in Africa,” says Stephen Hayes, CCA’s president.
He adds that finding four special people in Africa is not hard. What’s hard is trying to change mentalities, noting that, “It takes a lot of time, probably longer than I would live. I think a lot of the frame of mind is that of Africa of old. It’s an uphill struggle, but it’s worth it; I don’t think the public sector regardless of political party gets the private sector or Africa to the extent they need to. Africa’s changed a lot.”
Hayes says this year’s award is special because “we asked embassies to nominate their own people. We had 25 nominees to choose from. Really this came from the Africans themselves.”