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Empowering Africa’s Youth - President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI)

AUGUST 25, 2016
A group of 2016 Mandela Washington Fellows at the Young African Leaders Initiative Presidential Summit on August 3, 2016. [IREX Photo]

During my visit to Nairobi this week with Secretary Kerry, we met with an outstanding group of young Africans who are part of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). Every time I travel to Africa, I meet with YALI Fellows. They inspire me, and they are the reason I am so hopeful for Africa’s future.

When President Obama addressed the African Union in Ethiopia last year, he said, “The most urgent task facing Africa today and for decades ahead is to create opportunity for the next generation.”  Seventy percent of Africans are under the age of 25 and Africa’s population is projected to double to two billion people by 2050. These demographic realities are part of the reason we must ensure that Africa’s youth are engaged in their communities and are vested in the future of their countries -- this is a central goal of YALI. 

This summer, 1,000 young African leaders came to the United States to participate in the Mandela Washington Fellowship, YALI’s flagship program that empowers young people through academic coursework, leadership training, and networking. These Fellows have sparked innovation and positive change in their organizations, institutions, communities, and countries. They are already leaders. YALI’s goal is to give them the tools to be even greater leaders.


Addressing the YALI Fellows at the Presidential Summit held in Washington DC on August 3, 2016. [IREX Photo]


Earlier this month, we hosted the Fellows in Washington, D.C., for a Presidential Summit featuring a town hall with President Obama. The energy that the Fellows brought to the room was incredible. I had the opportunity to speak with all of them, and here is some of what I shared:

People often ask me what is the most important initiative that the U.S. government under the Obama administration has in Africa and what will be the Obama legacy in Africa. Everyone has a different answer to that question, but I have one -– YALI. I point to YALI for many reasons. But the most important one is all of you and what all of you bring to the program –- your talent, your passion, and your potential.

You have heard this before but I will say it again: you are Africa’s future, and you inspire all of us every day by your enthusiasm, by your ambitions, and by your creativity. You are the reason, in the face of so many challenges, that we all continue to strive to make Africa better.

Empowering young people is at the heart of U.S.-Africa relations. Our mission is to partner with Africa to promote democracy, peace, prosperity, and opportunity. And we believe those goals are intertwined in everything we do.  

We also have to ensure that women are fully engaged in their communities and contributing to their country’s growth in all areas. I’m really thrilled to say that half of the Mandela Washington Fellows in this room are women. It was one of your colleagues on the first day, who said that women must lean in – they must lean in completely. This is your time, she said, let’s own it. We know African countries cannot succeed if they leave half of their population out of the mix. 

Most importantly, I want to urge all of you to dream big. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf once said at a Harvard University graduation speech, “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” You all have incredible potential –- do not limit yourselves. 

Every single one of you in this room is going to change lives. You are going to change the trajectory of Africa and the world. I am as confident of that as I am standing here with you today.

I know that dealing with all the crises we have to deal with, the difficulties of everyday life, dealing with war and peace on the continent of Africa, it would be hard for me to keep going if I did not have the inspiration that you provide to me and my colleagues every single day.

As I complete my trip to Kenya and Nigeria, I am reminded of the energy I see among so many of our Fellows, the members of the YALI networks, and the millions of African youth who are serving their communities. They are not only empowered to make a difference; they are empowering others to do the same.

About the Author: Linda Thomas-Greenfield serves as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs. 

Editor's Note: A portion of the text above was adapted from a speech delivered on August 3, 2016, at the 2016 Mandela Washington Fellowship Presidential Summit. You can read the full speech and see the video here. This entry also appears on

For more information:

  • Read President Obama’s speech at the 2016 Mandela Washington Fellowship Presidential Summit. 
  • Follow the Assistant Secretary on Twitter @StateAfrica and visit the Bureau of African Affairs on Facebook
  • Read other DipNote blogs on Africa and African Affairs

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Publication date: 25 March 2017
Address of the Contact Person: USA

Empowering Africa’s Youth
Credit: DiasporaEngager ( , 25 March 2017
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