Some time ago, I was part of a global initiative that involved organizations in the US and developed economies as well as participants from the developing world.
A Story of Africa’s Image in the World Today
The following remarks illustrated two images of how Africa is perceived in the world today.
The first image was articulated in interviews and closed-door deliberations with individuals who led the effort. Noting the complexity of the topic, it was stated that the companies needed to be educated about the topic. A related view went as follows: The future of Africa is Africans holding out their hands for decades, and begging the world for aid.
A second, contrasting viewpoint, which I expressed is as follows: When you take the best global brands and companies of the developed world and combine them with people and companies at the grassroots in the developing world who truly understand problems and the best solutions, you create magic.
The Dual Mandate for Africa’s Global Ambassadors
How do you define Africa’s future? If you disagree with the view that Africans need to be educated about our continent’s challenges and that the future of Africa is aid, you have to change the narrative. You are uniquely positioned to change that narrative. You are Igbo culture carriers, Africa culture carriers, ambassadors of the continent in the diaspora and in the world. You are uniquely positioned to take the best of the developed world and apply it to Africa and questions of interest to Africa.
With this in mind, I’d like to serve you a dual mandate:
1) The First Mandate. What question, challenge, product, or service do you care about enough that you are willing to commit yourself to in order to change Africa’s trajectory, and indeed change the trajectory of the world?
I have taken on (among others) the challenges of bribery and corruption. As Nigerians and Africans, we have a precarious relationship with this topic. We are not sure we want to acknowledge it exists, yet its effects on our economies are undeniable.
According to the World Economic Forum, close to 50 percent of the world’s economies have identified corruption as one of their top challenges. Bribery, an example of corruption, totals $1 trillion annually, which could otherwise be directed to other sustainable development goals (such as eradicating hunger and disease).
An Africa where integrity is paramount is a prosperous and empowered Africa. Stated differently, unless Africa overcomes its bribery and corruption challenges, it cannot become prosperous and empowered.
I choose to acknowledge bribery and corruption exist, and I choose to be part of the conversation to change the trajectory of Africa and the world. I choose to create a prosperous and empowered Africa.
2) The Second Mandate. How will you invest in yourself and position yourself to earn a seat at the table and earn the ability to change the perception of Africans and change Africa’s future? I have done this through continually developing and building my expertise in anti-bribery, and by investing in my personal growth and development. I invest in relationships with mentors, and have invested in a coach who has walked the path I seek to walk. These hold me accountable and challenge me to attain higher levels of excellence.
Three Tools to Embrace the Mandates
To help contribute to your consideration of the mandates, I’ll share three ideas.
1. How We Define Ourselves: You Are Magnificent.
Our theme for this year’s convention is “Igbo di Egwu; Level Up.”
I’d like to thank Umu Igbo Unite for identifying such a powerful vision for our gathering. Because how we define ourselves is directly related to who we are and what we accomplish in the world, we must continually elevate our definition of ourselves.
The Igbo language is profound. Our words are not limited to literal expressions. Our words have depth and symbolic meanings as well. The word “egwu” instills awe. It should instill a sense of pride. Igbo is awesome. Igbo is magnificent. To me, “Igbo di egwu” means Igbo is magnificent. You are magnificent.
If Igbo is magnificent and you are magnificent, how will you bring that magnificence to the world and to society? How will you live according to that highest vision of yourself?
2. The World, Your Canvas.
The world will tell you that as Nigerians and Africans, being the most educated population and commanding a high percentage of spending power in the US is a badge of honor. I’d like us to reframe that.
Education. According to a January 2018 study by the New American Economy, Sub-Saharan African immigrants were significantly more likely to hold graduate degrees, with 16 percent having a master’s degree, medical degree, law degree or doctorate, compared with 11 percent of the U.S.-born population.
According to a 2017 US Bureau of Statistics and Census study of select immigrant populations from countries in Africa and the Caribbean, Nigerians had the highest educational attainment at 61.4 percent, followed by Ethiopians (27 percent), Trinidadians and Tobagonians (25.7 percent), Jamaicans (24.8 percent) and Haitians (19.2 percent).
Spending Power. According to the New American Economy, African immigrants contribute more than $10.1 billion in federal taxes, $4.7 billion in state and local taxes, and most important, with significant economic clout of $40.3 billion in spending power.
My take on these studies is as follows: If your highest vision of yourself is obtaining a graduate degree, you are thinking too small. Resist the urge to believe that your greatest accomplishment is the degree you hold. Yes, education is power, but it must be viewed as a tool. What you do with your education is infinitely more important than the education itself. You need to fundamentally alter the composition of what you touch. You must leave your mark in the work that you do and on the canvas of life.
With regard to spending power, we must challenge ourselves to continually consider how we can harness that spending power and translate it into a voice that fundamentally changes the African narrative, the image of Africa in the world, and Africa’s future.
3. Give your dreams the gifts of your time and focus.
An undeniable component of your lives is the centrality of technology—the digital age. Time and focus are highly valuable commodities in today’s interconnected world.
According to an Igbo proverb, “nwata rie awo, o gaghi acho anu.” Translation: “When a child eats a toad, it kills his or her appetite for meat.”
If your time is consumed by things that don’t matter, you leave little room for what’s truly important or desired. I urge you to give your dreams the gift of your focus. Give the gifts of upliftment and empowerment within our community in order to strengthen our collective voice.
The Future of Africa
In conclusion, and returning to our central question, how will you define the future of Africa?
Let me share how I define the future of Africa. It is the view I expressed to that small group of global decision-makers and in contrast to the view that Africa’s future is aid.
I fully embrace this contrasting vision, and I have committed myself to building it:
The future of Africa is innovation.
The future of Africa is entrepreneurship.
The future of Africa is sustainable legal systems.
The future of Africa is ethical cultures and societies that produce ethical leaders.
The future of Africa is individuals and countries who realize and live their full potential.
The future of Africa is strong and loving families.
The vision of an empowered Africa can only be brought to life by those who deeply believe in and embrace Africa’s magnificence. The future of Africa is you and me.
Chinwe Esimai is Managing Director and Chief Anti-Bribery Officer at Citigroup, where she oversees the firm’s global anti-bribery program. She was born in Nigeria and is passionate about inspiring immigrant women leaders. She shares leadership insights for immigrant women at chinweesimai.com and at Forbes.
A version of this talk was originally delivered as a keynote speech to 1,000 professionals at the 2018 Umu Igbo Unite (UIU) Convention held in New Orleans. UIU is an organization that promotes cultural preservation and appreciation, professional development, entrepreneurship, and civic engagement among Igbos in the diaspora.