Mahika knows that there are no minimum requirements to create positive change. “Really caring about a problem is what sets you apart, not your age or your college degree”. At 15 years old, she has proven this herself: she is the innovative leader behind AYANA, an initiative which empowers young changemakers in the developing world to create and lead sustainable solutions to their communities’ most pressing problems. And she’s doing all this from her computer and cell phone in her room in San Jose, California, after school and homework.
Mahika grew up in San Jose, California, in what she describes as a deeply compassionate family, who acknowledged their relative privilege and always encouraged Mahika and her now 11-year-old sister to create opportunities to give back. Their mother would help them sell their paintings and donate the over USD 1,000 profit to a local women’s shelter, and the sisters usually received as part of their Christmas gift, the opportunity to choose a charity to donate funds. Mahika knew, as a young person, that she had both the power and the responsibility to be a changemaker for spreading good, and she has not stopped since then.
At 13, she signed up as a volunteer for two non-profits in her community, where she exercised her marketing & social media skills, as well as her ability to lead from a distance, by tutoring girls in Africa and designing teaching materials to be used by fellow tutors. “At the beginning people were doubtful of how much I could accomplish being only a teen. But after a while when they started to see that it’s not only your age or your experience level that matters, but how much work you are able to put in, I was given all sorts of cool positions where I was leading teams” says Mahika.
Her volunteering work ignited her passion for understanding development issues. She describes how she chanced upon an article that listed several books on poverty in Africa and how she asked her mom to get them for her. It was her dream gift, and within a few weeks she had received, read, highlighted and annotated a total of 10 books. What she learned was that “foreign aid is not helping developing countries, instead the systemic problem of poverty is actually made worse when you keep pouring money in. The solutions are not sustainable because the communities are not involved in creating ideas and maintaining them over time.” Her immediate idea, based on her own experience, was to link youth with changemaking, and design a program that would empower them to create and lead their own solutions to their own problems. The seed for Ayana was planted.
Mahika followed her spark and quickly designed, tested and implemented a 5-day curricula based on design thinking principles, which took youth from identifying a problem to investigating to testing solutions and finally implementing them. She partnered with local development workers with broad experience on the ground from the first moment. So far, 3 youth groups from 12 to 22 years old in Tanzania and South Africa have gone through the program, and the results are impressive: the Ayana team is currently helping to implement 10 creative ideas designed and led by youth for their own community. Mahika knows that, as it was in her case, there is nothing more powerful than a new idea in the hands of a young changemaker who now knows their power to bring change to their communities.
Mahika is not only positive about the impact her initiative is having in supporting young changemakers in Africa, but also about the role of youth in today’s world: “People are starting to look 20 years forward, and realizing the importance of empowering youth now to solve exponential problems the world will face. I see a lot of 12-13 year-olds leading positive change in the news“, she says.
Mahika believes that the main advantage of being young is having different ideas because you haven’t been told no as many times yet. “You are less afraid to venture out and doing something that’s not written in books or prescribed,“ says Mahika. Imagine a world where every young person is empowered to think and act this way. A world where youth changemaking is a norm.