Arrey Obenson, Secretary General of Junior Chamber International, a non-government international organization. Mr. Obenson hopes the #IAmAfrica campaign will mobilize Africans to participate in African development. /PHOTO COURTESY of
Mr. Obenson.


February 2019

You can call him an optimist, at least when it comes to developments in Africa. Arrey Obenson’s goal is nothing less than reframing Africa’s development into popular concepts that can easily translate into everyday colloqual using the power of social media to propagate awareness of issues beyond their immediate audience, and inspire people to take personal stake. Obenson thinks this kind of kinship can help demystify and democratize development goals and will in turn catalyze and leapfrog the continent’s development agenda.

Obenson is betting on Africans and the diaspora to embrace the #IamAfrica Campaign and its nuance to re-energize, unite and mobilize Africans, especially African youth, to work together on ideas that will drive the continent forward. The #IamAfrica campaign is a pan-African grassroots campaign, which aims to leverage the momentum and motivations of young people and their visions for the continent as well as mobilize all African citizens for the development of their continent.

During his visit to New York City last September, I sat down with Mr. Obenson, who is the Secretary General of Junior Chamber International, a non-profit international, non-government organization based in St. Louis, MO, for an interview for this publication, THE AFRICA BAZAAR MAGAZINE, to talk about his visions for the new campaign. Obenson believes that the #IamAfrica campaign has not only become more essential because of its ability to unite people and help African countries in achieving their development goals, he said it also has the power to help introduce new ideas into the network that may otherwise seem abstract or complex on its own.

Below is an edited version of the interview:

THEAFRICABAZAAR: Junior Chamber International, JCI, the non-profit organization that you work for and represent is an international organization whose mission is to empower young people around the world to create positive changes in their communities. Tell us how your organization go about doing this and the work you’re doing in Africa?

Obenson: We use a system that we designed, called JCI Active Citizen Framework, to provide our members, who are between the ages of 18-40 years old with the necessary tools that they need to identify and develop ideas that will create positive changes and opportunities in their local communities. During this process of identifying and creating opportunities, our members engage with the community, and all the stakeholders, including the government, businesses and the civil society. We believe the best way to create change in the community is to engage all the stakeholders.

The system teaches them the three phases of development: Health and wellness, Education and Economic empowerment, and finally Peace and stability. Focusing on and using these three phases in sequence allow them to begin to shape their ideas into actual plans and begin building a sustainable community. When people are healthy, then they can get an education, then they can become entrepreneurs, then they can invest back into their community. When those things have happened in that sequence, then you have to try to build a sustainable society – peace and stability – that’s the core. 

Often times during this process, as they measure and evaluate their plans, they may discover other relevant problems tag on to the initial challenge that weren’t anticipated in the beginning and would have to address those along the way to solving the real problems. Sometimes when you try to solve one problem, you find out that it creates another problem or find out that that’s not the real root of the problem.

An example of this is a project that we worked on in Bangladesh in 2013.  A clothing factory building collapsed leaving many people injured or dead. There was a blood supply shortage to help those who were critically injured. We went to Bangladesh to try to use this framework to try to solve the problem to ensure that in the future something like this, the blood supply shortage crisis, doesn’t happen again when there’s a crisis. In the process of doing the project, we found out the root cause of the shortage: The blood supply shortage crisis came about because all the blood that were collected following the factory building collapsed were destroyed due to lack of electricity. So was it wasn’t that there was a blood supply shortage, the real issue was lack of electricity to store the blood supply and keep them refrigerated until it’s needed. Without electricity and proper storage, the collected blood get destroyed. That was the root of the crisis and the real issue that needed to be addressed first. However, electricity shortage crisis couldn’t be solved on the short term, so we look at other solutions. By working with the community stakeholders, mobile telephone companies, and universities, we were able to come up with solutions that we never imagined.

What solutions did you come up with?

Obenson: In the case of Bangladesh, instead of collecting blood from people ahead of time, it was better to wait for a crisis to happen before collecting blood from people. What we did instead is build a database that collects everyone’s phonenumber along with their blood type. Now in Bangladesh, everyone’s phonenumber is associated with their blood type, meaning when there’s a blood supply shortage crisis, we know what blood types are needed and instead of collecting blood and just storing it, then destroying it because of lack of electricity, we only text people with the blood group that is needed at that time.

But what if there’s a network outage or the government decides to shut down the internet during a crisis, we’ve seen that happened a lot in developing countries. How then can people receive that text message asking them to come and donate blood during an emergency or a health crisis?

Obenson: The database contains million of people. During a crisis, people in Bangladesh are send text message with specific information about the blood group that is needed, the location and date when it will be collected. While this might not addressed some of the issues you raised, it has worked for Bangladesh in the short-term and give the country the opportunity to work on the long-term issue of fixing the electricity issue. But in the short-term they are solving the crisis they have at hand.

The idea here is to make young people take ownership of development. It changes the way you think. This system that I just talked about, any young person that goes through this process becomes totally transformed. 

We don’t want young people to just do a project because it makes them feel good, or because they will be getting community hours or be a part of a network – do it because of the impact it would create in your community. 

Let’s talk about your work in Africa. You have several local organizations across the continent that work in tandem on national issues as well as nationwide campaigns tapping into the network’s resources. During the last election in Nigeria in 2015, you ran a campaign in the country called “Your Voice, Your Vote” to encourage a peaceful Electoral process by engaging people to participate in voting and making sure their votes counts and making sure they respect the outcome. Tell us about your newest campaign, #IamAfrica, and what you hope to achieve through this campaign?

Obenson: #IamAfrica is a pan-African campaign that we are doing across Africa to mobilize young people across the continent to accept and assume responsibilities for the development of Africa.

For far too long, Africa and Africans have waited for their governments, waited for foreign aid and tailored-made executives to provide solutions or be the answers to their problems, whereas  Africans have existing solutions and answers to their challenges. We just have to change our mindsets about how we think of these challenges to come up with solutions that are organic and indigenous to Africa. 

For example, Cameroon, in West Africa, where I grew up, 80 percent of outpatients’ consultations is for malaria. Growing up there, I, like everyone else, didn’t think or see malaria as a crisis or a health issue, or the impact it has on the nation’s economy because I was in the midst of it and had other things to worry about. But now that I live in the U.S., that I have stepped out of [the continent], I can now see the huge impact it has on the continent’s overall economy and development, and that it’s a huge problem. 

Like I was, most people living in Africa don’t see malaria as a major health crisis or as an economic crisis because they have other things that they are worrying about like feeding their family. But I wish they knew [malaria] has an enormous impact on the economy; and this is the education that people in Africa don’t necessary have. We have to find a way to sensitize these issues so people can address them in their own community by doing simple but practical things to keep malaria at bay. For example, by making sure that there’s no standing water and cutting the bushes. 

Even the way we build houses in Africa do not help us address the issue of malaria in Africa: The architects don’t build high enough roofs that enable free air circulation and the carpenters don’t build beds that enable people to have mosquito nets on them. These are just some examples that can be addressed by Africans if they understand what the challenges are and what they mean for them.

If I can paraphrase, you’re saying one of the major challenges and impediment to development in Africa is lack of awareness or lack of understanding of the economic costs as well as the social impact of certain issues. If that’s correct, how would you go about ensuring that people in Africa and the African diasporas, in general, become more cognizant of these challenges, and issues affecting them so they can proactively addressed them?

Obenson: You start by engaging [people]. By engaging the young people, the communities and the African diasporas to take a stake in Africa’s development so we can build the future we want.

We can change the young people’s mindsets by making them responsible. By giving them the opportunity to participate in development. By teaching them how to solve problems on their own. The educational system teaches us to get a degree, to graduate from schools and look for jobs. But we have to do something else to be able to communicate effectively what their challenges are, to be able to mobilize people so developing leadership skills in our young people. To be able to manage projects, integrity and lead people, and team dynamic. All of that cannot be studied in a classroom. It’s actionable and has to be done in the streets of our countries.

That’s why this campaign started and that’s why it’s very important. It’s about taking ownership: ownership of our concepts. ownership of finding solutions to our challenges, ownership in who we are as Africans, ownership of our languages and cultures.

I walk around with this campaign card to remind every African that I see that it’s our responsibility: we are responsible for the future of the continent. Unless we change that mindset, in the next generation of young people, Africa is going to be behind.

Let’s talk about youth unemployment. How would you convince the young people to get involved in development on the continent, to get involved in civil society when there’s a high-level of youth unemployment and many are living in poverty? It seems that most people have given up, and are fed-up with their government, especially in regards of corruption and mismanagement of national funds and resources?

Obenson: For the last sixteen years that I have traveled extensively across the continent, I have arrived at the conclusion that Africans, like most human being, are inherently good and that our instinct is to care for one another. Unfortunately, we live in a world where it is drama that’s actually attractive. For example the news industry, the media has the power to transform the world, but the consumers are usually attracted to sensational news. That’s what most people want to read, and that’s what we see. And so we end up with the conclusion that’s it’s difficult. But I’m telling you based on what I have seen and based on the experience in the field, if you give young people a roadmap, if you give them the opportunity to participate, they do rise to the occasion and make a difference.

Another example, in mid-September, a simple idea that started in the JCI organization in Estonia to mobilize people in the community to go out and clean their community ended up mobilizing more than half of the population of Estonia to clean up their communities. That idea grew and we decided to make it into a global campaign and last week, September 22, more than 15 million young people around the world, Nigeria was a leader in this initiative, came out to clean their communities. It was done in Cameroon, Ghana, Niger, Senegal, South Africa and all over the African continent. That right there tells me that if young people are given the opportunity to participate, they will do so in ways that cannot be imagined. 

By a simple idea of this campaign, #IamAfrica, people are coming out to do things in ways that was never imagined.

It’s accurate to say some of what you’re talking about falls under the auspice of human capital. The others touch on cultural heritage, which also are important issues.  When we talk about skills development, job creations and enterprises to spur socioeconomic development, we’re talking about human capital. How can the private sector help and what can businesses do to incorporate the #IamAfrica campaign into their business strategies of doing business in Africa? 

Obenson: I have been running around the continent trying to talk to businesses. The circumstances that we face in Africa – in 2018 alone, 12 million youth will graduate from universities across the continent and join the labor force. If you combine all the businesses, and governments in Africa and add the NGOs, only 3 million jobs will be created in total by both the private and public sector in Africa. Whether we like it or not, 9 million youth will go unemployed in 2018. The global economy is changing in ways we never imagined. African companies have not been able to effectively adjust to this new economy and neither are our governments. We are not ready for the Uber and Lyft of the world. We’re still struggling to find ways to cope with the nonconventional businesses, the informal markets. But those businesses are all designed to solve structural problems in communities. Lyft for example originated from a simple idea in Zimbabwe. In Zimbabwe, when people leave the village to go to the city, the owner of a car usually tell people, ‘I’m leaving to go to the city to buy products,’ those who usually want to go to the city will book a seat in the car. So the driver takes four people from the village to the city. What they pay will cover his fuel to the city and back. Those who cannot go but need things from the city would give the driver money to buy them kerosene or fertilizer that they need, so the driver brings those things back. That driver becomes a huge business, so that’s exactly what Lyft does, expect it doesn’t buy kerosene or fertilizers for farmers.

What you’re saying is that Africans have the ideas and solutions to their problems, they just don’t know how to tap into the source and how to scale-it up to reap the economic benefits. Foreigners, on the other hand, are able to tap into these ideas and scale them up and then sell those ideas as products back to Africans at a marked up price. Essentially, lack of awareness is costing Africa and Africans tremendously. We are basically paying foreigners who in fact, for diplomacy sake I’ll say, “borrow our ideas”?

Obenson: And the reasons that happen across the continent is that we dont have the infrastructure or capital to scale up those ideas. There are Africans on the continent with great ideas, what they lack is the capacities  to scale up. Also, we don’t have the people that are seeing it on the microlevel. 

Most young people in Africa, if you have an idea, to get an investment is a challenge. Why?  Because banks ask for collateral. Where does collateral comes from?  Young people don’t have that. There’s no institutional guarantees for loans that young people can get. But the most important thing, we created this project, a small form, it’s called the Global Youth Empowerment Form, which is basically trying to get young people to not come up with an idea that they do alone. If we can mobilize young people to work together, we can start to think – how can we solve this issue – there’s so many things that you can see just walking down the streets, that are tons of opportunities. Every time I walk through a street in Africa, I see an opportunity: the garbage heap on the streets, that’s an opportunity to put in place a system that can ensure that we don’t have the garbage heap, and not only through the government.

For example, the event industry is exploding all across the continent now. Two years ago, it was non-existent. That tells you there’s opportunities that we can think about. We know that farmers have to get their products from the village to the city, they need supplies. How can we enhance that? In EU for example, there’s a car sharing thing. The amount of traffic that we have in Lagos, in Accra, in Cameroon- creative things that you can do to make changes but we need people who can 1) identify what the real challenges are, who can work together because individually, we don’t have all the resources but if you can make people, five young people work together, you have a lot more collateral that they will succeed than if one person is doing it. 

So we’re trying to get the youth to identify these needs, work with community stakeholders, let the community own the initiative and based on that, you’re more likely to get results and maybe through that we can begin to attract investors.

Africa has a lot of challenges that are enormous opportunities for investors but we need to get our people thinking differently by changing their mindsets. We need to get young people ready. They have to work, money is not easy but they have to know what the outcomes are.

How would go about changing those mindsets?

Obenson: I’m trying to change the mindset because everywhere I go, everybody is expecting something. I tell people to work on thing, they want me to bring the money. I don’t have the money to give to everybody. What I have is a cool concept: Making development cool. Putting development in the hand of youth and telling them they are responsible for Africa’s future and asking them to identify with the #IamAfria’s campaign. As a result of this we’re beginning to see people take initiatives in their communities.

So this campaign is about changing mindsets?

Obenson: That’s really the key, changing the mindset and taking pride in ownership. The world has always been transformed by simple ideas. Simple ideas that are not complex. Talking about decolonization, when Kwame started talking about an Africa that was independent, everybody thought he was crazy. But it happened. I believe we will build an Africa that is prosperous, maybe it would not happened during my lifetime but it will happen because the youth will start thinking differently.

So you believe in the youth of Africa?

Obenson: I’m betting everything I have on the youth of Africa.

Let’s talk about the recent crisis going on in Cameroon between the Anglophones and the Francophones regarding the national language. It seems ludicrous to be fighting over an adopted language, yet this occurs sporadically across Africa, and often can turn into a full blown civil war, and is part of the residuals of colonization.

Obenson: We’re suffering from the residual of colonization where lines were drawn between people that essentially were brothers and sisters and fifty years after independence from the colonial masters, people are still drawing those lines drawn for them. Unfortunately in the case of Cameroon, the case was unique because Cameroon was a spoiled of the first World War I and the country was partitioned between French and English. The French part of the country had independence. The English, in granting the Cameroon independent granted the independence on the condition that they either join the french speaking Cameroon or Nigeria. Northern Cameroon chose to join Nigeria, while the southern Cameroon chose to join the French. Since then they agreed to form a federation wherein the participation on governance and development would be guaranteed for the minority as well as the majority, which is the french speaking Cameroon. 

Unfortunately, over a period of time, the french speaking government with the backing of France dominated the English speaking people. I’m not one of those who think the English speaking people should give in. I’m actually one of those who has identified myself as a Cameroonian, not Anglophone or Francophone. I’m actually taking action to avoid a crisis like this because I saw it coming.

A few years ago, I started a movement in Cameroon similar to the #IamAfrica campaign. This is probably the only movement now in Cameroon that is not picking sides, whether it’s anglophone or Francophone. We have about 15,000 people that were mobilized in this campaign. Now we’re trying to work on a peace initiative to solve the problem. It’s a simple problem. It’s not an Anglophone or Francophone issue. It’s respect for human dignity that each one of us, Africans, have to learn to respect our brothers and sisters.

The hangover of colonization is not that lines were drawn, we were taught that some people would be masters and others would be servants and that’s really the problem. It exists in Nigeria, Togo, Senegal, and all over the continent because we see some people more human that others or we see some people as less human than others. If the francophone speaking Cameroonians have just seen every Cameroonians as the same and try to create equal opportunity for development, equals opportunity for participation, there’s wont be this problem. That’s the crisis in Cameroon and now, the world that we live in today, and the Africa that we live in today, we have seen Cameroonians who are on asylum, who resides in Nigeria being abducted with the complicity of the Nigerian government and handed-over to the Cameroon government. 

These are people that were simply asking their government for their share of development. 

It’s Africa’s problem that we don’t think of people as equal. Who tells us that we’re Nigerians or Cameroonians or from Benin or Togo? A partition that took place outside of Africa that determined who we are and 50 years later we still can’t figure it out!

Brazil recently announced that they will make Yoruba, one of Nigerian languages, an official language. In Africa, most of the countries speak adopted languages – English or French or both. The African languages, like Swahili, are not being taught in schools across Africa or use as an official national language by any country. The IamAfrica campaign explicitly touches on this issue of taking pride in one’s identity and African cultural heritage. How can Africans incorporate this idea, campaign because a lot of these divisions and not seeing each other as one unity arise from the residual of colonization. The diaspora has a lot to do with this also. What can the diaspora do in terms of owning this campaign and owning our own identity and be more prideful in who we are as people?

Obenson: This is really important, I have asked for help. I think you touched the key element here – Those Lupita NYong’o, Danai Gurira and David Oyelowo of the world have to embrace a campaign like this. We hope, this is my plan, I’m talking to Akon, Emmanuel Jal and other celebrities to see whether they can help us do a campaign across the continent where we can travel from the West all the way to the East from the South to the North and at every stop do a rally, a concert, and other activities to make young people think differently.

Celebrities are very influential. Also in terms of the remittance to Africa, the Moneygrams and Western Union that we send, we are all responsible for that. We already have leverage, we in the diaspora have leverage to be able to condition the way people back home think. I know young people in Africa want to travel outside of the continent.

Often under risky and perilous conditions that leave many of them dying along the way to their destination.

Obenson: They want to look for greener pasture. There’s a saying that the only thing greater than fear is hope. The reason that they go on this journey is because they hope on the other side, if they can make it to the other side, life would be better. But if we can instill in them that hope where they are, it could be a different future for them. It will stop them from embarking on these dangerous trips in the Mediterranean sea.

Currently there’s no hope or much to hope for many people living in Africa. There is no deliberate effort on the part of the government to bring hope to the hopeless in Africa and that’s what this campaign is for because I have seen people who have wanted to travel outside of the continent, who I have talked to and engaged them and see the work that they are now doing on the continent that they no longer think about leaving but one person or one organization can not do it. 

I would like to get the Ghanian President Nana Akufo-Addo involved, he has brought fresh aspiration to the youth on the continent, to see if he can stand behind a campaign like this. I’m also trying to meet other African leaders and business leaders to tell this story.

We don’t have any thing to lose. All we have is something to gain.

We have identified youth leaders in countries and those leaders, we are bringing them and will teach them vocational skills so they can go back to mobilize other young people. And we’re going to do this by ways of concerts and community fairs, festivals that will bring out a lot more young people.

We can get the business community engaged to support these events.

Are you planning to run for office sometime in the future?

Obenson: In Cameroon today, the government is worried that I’m planning to run for office and I hope they have gotten over it. I’m not a candidate. But I know that my path will invariably go through politics, one way or the other. I do not think that only by being the leader or President of a country can one actually bring change. By doing little things, by reaching out to people can actually be a lot more transformational. Whether I become President or not, depends on the people.