Out of Africa

Sub-Saharan go-getters are now on a fellowship in the U.S., including 25 in Reno, picking up business ideas.

Neliswa Fente of South Africa, Bakang Palai of Botswana, and Lilian Wambua of Kenya have been meeting with business and culture leaders in Reno on a six-week fellowship as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, in cooperation with the University of Nevada, Reno.

Neliswa Fente of South Africa, Bakang Palai of Botswana, and Lilian Wambua of Kenya have been meeting with business and culture leaders in Reno on a six-week fellowship as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, in cooperation with the University of Nevada, Reno.

Photo/Kris Vagner

This summer, 25 young business leaders from Africa are visiting Reno to garner advice. They’re here as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, a U.S. Department of State program that’s hosting 500 young Africans. They attend classes in the mornings at the University of Nevada, Reno and meet with local business and culture leaders in the afternoons.

We invited a consultant, a business developer and a real estate developer to talk about their roles in building their own communities and what ideas they’ll bring back to Africa when they depart next week. Plus, each one held up a mirror to Reno and shared some advice from a visitor’s perspective.

Tomorrow land

“When you’re called ‘tomorrow’s leaders,’ it’s like, ‘Wait your turn,’” said Neliswa Fente. Her mission is to help usher young South African workers, especially the ones who come from tough circumstances, into positions of real leadership.

After trying for a year and a half to run an organization in Johannesburg that would create employment opportunities, Fente found a lot of her energy was instead going into fielding one question over and over again. Corporations kept asking, “Look, we’re trying to understand these millennials, this market. Could you help us out with some ideas?”

A fluid-thinking millennial herself at 29, Fente decided to go with the flow. Her company, Spring Age, now specializes in advising corporations on how to work with a younger clientele and a younger work force.

Fente grew up in a township among poverty and inequality, and later worked as a consultant in the Netherlands. There, she realized that a bright person from a challenging background could compete just fine with international colleagues—but she didn’t see many colleagues coming out of townships like hers.

“My job is to inspire people from the communities I came from,” she said. “Growing up there, young people, they don’t believe that about themselves. It’s my duty to say, ’Guys, you know what, we can do these things.’ … In South Africa, there are young people that are amazing, that are brilliant. We could compete with young people from Hong Kong, from Silicon Valley. We are the same. It’s just that we’re in a different space. … The inequality in South Africa is very wide.”

In Reno, her favorite stop has been the Generator. “We met with Matt [Schultz] and the guys there, and I was blown away. I’ve seen co-worker spaces, but I haven’t seen maker spaces where people make stuff. In South Africa, manufacturing plays a big role in the [gross domestic product], but the skill is dying.” She said she’s already started researching grants and thinking of proposals to start a maker space back home.

Fente said Reno’s friendliness and community spirit made her feel at home quickly. One thing she’d like to see improved is public transportation. And, after visiting a few nail salons before one could take a walk-in, she observed, “I felt like people are not hungry for opportunities,” she said. “That’s one thing you could learn from us. When the opportunity’s there, go for it.”

Career opportunities

Lilian Wambua, 26, lives in Mombasa, Kenya’s second largest city. She grew up in a small community outside the city, where not everyone has electricity and the unemployment rate is a whopping 44 percent.

“Most of the youth don’t get access to good education,” Wambua said. “They don’t get good jobs. They don’t get to go to good colleges.”

She earned a degree in electrical engineering in Nairobi, then moved back home to help develop small businesses. She looks for opportunities to get people into simple jobs such as delivering water from the river, selling groundnuts or making baskets.

“We tell them, ’You don’t need anybody to give you money,” she said. “’You have your hands. Do anything with your hands that lets you make money.’ We look for gaps, and if anybody can provide a service that is needed by the community, they should do that. We develop businesses around that.”

Once her clients achieve basic self-sufficiency, she encourages them to pursue the next step up, a technical or carpentry education, for example.

“We’ve had more than 150 young people start businesses and more that 30 go to technical skills,” she said.

Wambua is inspired by all the mentorship opportunities Reno’s youth have. She’s also a graphic artist, and she’s considering encouraging street artists in Mombasa to collaborate with corporate artists and graphic designers, so she’d like to meet more Reno street artists and muralists before she heads home.

Wambua’s main gripe with the United States is similar to Fente’s: When her shoe needed a repair, it was hard to find someone who wanted the business. “The only place I could fix my shoe was far away. I heard that most people don’t actually fix their shoe. They buy a new one.”

Real estate

Bakang Palai, 33, has his elevator pitch down. He explained his business in Gaborone, the capital city of Botswana, with conciseness and precision: “I’m a real estate developer. I develop retail centers, offices, hotels, student accommodation and housing. I’m also the co-founder and chairman for Botswana Green Building Council, which will foster sustainable building within Botswana. I’m also an independent creating assessor for Botswana Tourism Organization.”

Palai’s noticed some parallels between Reno and Gaborone. They’re similar in size, and, he said he sees a similar type of business-based growth.

“What you’re getting now in terms of your Tesla, there’s going to be a lot of movement of people.”

In Gaborone, the industry that’s creating population growth is diamond production.

In terms of real estate, he said, “The principle is the same. You’re focused on time, cost, quality. The major difference I’ve seen is, obviously America is a developed country, and I come from a developing country. The biggest challenge has been infrastructure: retail, schools, housing. … I think what Reno has done [is] great. This town has managed to really have a great energy, so you’re getting a lot of startups. You’re getting a lot of energy where people want to open businesses.”

Palai said he’s met several people in Reno he considers good future business contacts. He especially enjoyed meeting with Don Clark of Cathexes Architecture.

“We spoke a lot about how do you do developments that impact your community,” he said. “That’s the sort of developer that I want to be. I want to impact community. We have to make the numbers work, but at the same time make user-friendly buildings for people. We spoke a lot about that.”

As for what Reno could improve upon, Palai was diplomatic yet direct: “I don’t want to be too hard on the city. It obviously just came from a recession and it’s getting its eggs together as far as moving forward. I think you are doing exceptionally well in terms of moving forward.” However, he added, he’d like to see a central district that could better help tourists get their bearings, one that caters to a wide range of cultures and cuisines. “It’s important. You’re going to attract a lot of people coming here looking for investments. You’re going to want to make them feel at home.”