Nigerian system identifies with you only after you’ve succeeded —Cynthia Mene, social innovator and founder of IAGI initiative
Cynthia Mene is an entrepreneur, a social innovator, a Mandela Washington fellow, and the founder of Inspire Africa for Global Impacts initiative. Passionate about start-up development and innovation, she has created thousands of job and business opportunities for youths and women in Nigeria and Africa. In this interview by Kingsley Alumona, she speaks about who she wanted to be as a child, about her work and NGO, and among others.
As a child, what did you imagine yourself to be when you grew up?
As a child, there were many opportunities I lacked and I thought working as a banker would afford me the opportunity to help people grow financially. Today, however, I’m a social entrepreneur passionate about start-up development, entrepreneurship and innovation. I’m using this as a platform to build a new league of design-thinking savvy entrepreneurs across Africa that are creating product innovations and businesses to foster the development of the continent. This, I always wanted to do as a child.
As someone who studied textile science and polymer technology, one expects you to work in the textile or polymer business, but you currently do not. Why?
I got a merit admission at Ahmadu Bello University. However, I was on the list for a course (Textile Science and Polymer Technology) different from the course I applied for. I went for it anyway, because I’m of the mindset that my university degree doesn’t define who I am. I practiced entrepreneurship in school while studying textile because I never intended to work in the industry. I knew what I wanted from day one, and I pursued it. I’m grateful for the people I met and the network I built in the course of my study.
You are the co-founder and CEO of Inspire Africa for Global Impact (IAGI) initiative. Tell us about the initiative and the impact it is making so far in the society.
The initiative is a non-profit social enterprise. Its mission is to uplift young Africans through education and mentoring. We deliver entrepreneurial leadership education. Since 2017, we’ve trained over 4,000 youth, launched 250 new enterprise innovations and created 1,500 jobs.
In August 2020, through our digital transformation program (virtual hackathon), we brought together 300 young talents from fifteen African countries to innovate and collaborate on solutions to some of Africa’s most pressing challenges. Inspire Africa’s Ignite Lab Digital Transformation is a unique way of up-skilling and re-skilling African youth (age 19 – 28) in the age of COVID-19, through the combination of an online start-up incubator, digital learning platform, and virtual hackathon.
What three things would you say are hindering Africa and Africans from making meaningful global impact, and how could these hindrances be reduced or eliminated?
First is mismatch of content taught in schools. Nations become rich not by wealth, but by their citizens, and contributing citizens are moulded by the education system. Having a university degree in Africa doesn’t seem to make a difference. The mismatch between content taught in universities and the needs of employers leave graduates trapped and employers struggling to find talent.
Second is late adoption of technology. Start-ups that innovate consistently outpace established businesses. The same applies to nations that quickly adopt innovative approaches to development and problem-solving. Digital skills must also function alongside other abilities such as strong literacy and numeracy skills, critical and innovative thinking, etc. Also, policies and infrastructure play a crucial role in fostering our success as a continent.
Third is poor leadership. Let people who’re qualified lead. We need to raise the bar for leadership position. John Maxwell said, “Leadership is influence.” Let people who can influence others positively and are qualified to do so, lead us.
Tell us about your engagement with the United States African Development Foundation (USADF) and how you expended the grant the foundation awarded you?
At the time that I won the USADF grant, I was running a company called Kadosh Production which was a social enterprise that supported women to process cassava in Sapele, Delta State. The major sources of livelihood for most of the women there were cassava farming and processing it to garri and starch. This was a tedious process which yielded little income for them. My goal was to provide an opportunity to increase productivity among the women and one way to do that was to provide machines which aided them achieve a lot more. This automated process didn’t only increase productivity, but it was also beneficial to their health. The grant was used for these purposes, as well as the daily running of the factory and payment of staff.
What qualities/strengths of yours would you say earned you your 2015 Mandela Washington Fellowship? And how was your Dartmouth College experience in the USA like?
I’ve always been concerned about leadership, and have exhibited leadership capacities and influence people positively wherever I find myself. I believe this’s what earned me the Mandela Washington Fellowship, which further encouraged me to always provoke people to become the best versions of themselves.
My experience in the USA was transformational. The lessons I learned and the exposure to the quality of education I had during my time at Dartmouth College was far more enriching and educating than the entire five years I spent at a Nigerian university. It was also a 360-degree complete education which paid attention to all round development of students.
During your time in the USA, what three things, in terms of creative and social innovation, did you notice that US youth were doing that their Nigerian counterparts were not? And how could these be addressed in Nigeria?
At Dartmouth College, I noticed that social innovation starts from school. The university encourages students to identify problems and to create solutions. Rapid prototyping is another thing. The American education system is set up in a way that encourages students to try new things and not be afraid of failing, unlike the Nigerian system that offers little or no encouragement, and only identifies with you after you’ve succeeded.
It’s important to note that, although the Nigerian system doesn’t give as much encouragement, Nigerian youths are resilient and always find a way to solve their problems. Despite challenges such as poor electricity and lack of basic infrastructure, we’re hardworking and find a way to survive, innovate and build successful enterprises.
For decades, it is almost a consensus that the major problem of Nigeria is leadership. If you were the president of Nigeria, how would you address this problem?
Leadership, as mentioned earlier, is very vital to ensure that only people who’re physically, mentally, and academically qualified to lead Nigeria are voted into positions of power. We need to set a standard that ensures that we don’t have under-qualified leaders, and equally pay heed to educating the electorates so that they’re not swayed into voting people except they’re deserving of the positions and are able to handle the responsibilities involved.
If I were the president of Nigeria, I would focus majorly on education and strengthening our education system as a wholesome solution to many of the problems we face as a nation. In addition to education, I’ll create policies that combat corruption.
Apart from Inspire Africa, what other business(es) or endeavours demand your time and energy?
I’m involved in two other programmes apart from Inspire Africa. They’re Cascador—a programme designed to help mid-scale entrepreneurs whose annual revenues are over N100 million per annum and equipping the founders of these companies in growing their businesses to become ten times more productive. I’m also a freelance facilitator for Ashoka ChangemakersXchange Global Programme. Through ChangemakersXchange, I facilitate capacity building programmes across Africa, MENA, and Europe.
What new business idea or humanitarian programme are you currently working on?
During the COVID-19 outbreak, my team launched a program in August called the Ignite Innovation Lab where youths were equipped with digital business skills to create product innovations. The program engaged over 300 youth aged between 19 – 28 across Africa via a virtual innovation programme. They learned from experts in various industries, which helped them improve their capacities.
We’re currently working on equipping undergraduate students and recent graduates in Africa with design-thinking, digital and business innovation skills to prepare them to function more effectively as problem solvers in their careers and businesses. Our aim is to support them with the knowledge and resources that they’ll need to compete effectively in the 21st century global workforce and contribute to economic growth.
What are the major challenges you face in your line of work?
The biggest challenge with running a non-profit is funding. So, we constantly have to find ways to generate funds to continue to impact lives and fund the projects we run. The recent pandemic made it even harder to find funding towards our cause. Although there was relief funding targeted towards individuals, households, healthcare sector, etc., finding funding for skill development and career growth are limited. So, my team and I are working on new ways of generating revenue for sustainability. We’ve passed the era of relying on grant funding alone.
How do you manage to juggle these businesses and your family?
I’ve learned to manage my time effectively to create work-life balance and focus on my priorities per time. I ensure that I pay utmost attention to my family and children, and also set specific days on which I intentionally focus on spending time with them alone.
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