Africa's Got Talent

We know this about human capital: Today, simply mastering a skill is not enough. Most skills are ephemeral, constantly eroded and devalued by change; as change accelerates, the half-lives of skills diminish. An everyone-a-changemaker world, therefore, requires resilient talent strategies—helping people continually retool to participate fully in rapidly evolving systems.

The opportunity to design and catalyze an architecture for resilient talent represents Ashoka Knowledge’s first formal initiative outside the news realm. We’re partnering with Ashoka’s Rural Innovation & Farming program to create an incubator for innovations that more productively deploy talent in rural agricultural communities. Our work with news entrepreneurs has led us inevitably to this core insight: Resilient talent depends increasingly on knowledge citizenship—on the capacity of people to engage powerfully with knowledge systems to advance their own lives and their communities.

Last month, we brought together Ashoka Fellows from East and West Africa with other entrepreneurs in Nairobi to introduce the Changemaking Talent initiative. This group included Jocelyne Kompaore, who synthesizes and publishes historically hidden expertise from across a network of villages in Burkina Faso; Joseph Seikuku, whose community radio station connects hundreds of thousands of Tanzanians to news and agricultural and environmental techniques; Wamuyu Mahinda, whose Youth Banner catalyzes youth entrepreneurship in Kenya; and Eric Glustrom, who has created a leadership curriculum for Ugandan high school students. 

The group explored cross-cutting strategies, many enabled by emerging media and information technologies, that promise to catalyze knowledge citizenship and unlock talent—from Peer2Peer University, a free, online, crowd-sourced-and-led portfolio of college courses, to Lend-A-Hand, an Indian project that injects real-life entrepreneurs as teachers to disrupt hidebound school curricula. We examined the barriers to talent development—most important, the perception that poor people have no talent. As one participant noted: “The biggest problem isn’t a poverty of ideas, but a lack of confidence in bringing those ideas to market. The obstacle is guys in nice suits who stop women and young people from engaging with knowledge.”

“Talent is what makes you free, what gives you autonomy,” Jocelyne Kompaore declared. And we agreed that fully realizing rural talent—and deploying it to create, to solve problems and to advance change—depends on five key factors:

  • Access to vibrant, high-quality knowledge networks.

  • The ability of people to create and share knowledge, empowering others by sharing their expertise and perspective.

  • Motivation—and opportunity. “We need to build in people the confidence to seek new alternatives,” Mahinda observed. But motivation and opportunity are reciprocal: Talent development without real opportunity is empty, opportunity without talent development falls short of its potential.

  • Changed perception of farmers and of rural communities. Rather than being seen as a last resort for the uneducated, rural villages are a place where entrepreneurial activity can lead to development.

  • An ecosystem that supports talent through economic incentives, policy infrastructure, and cultural reinforcement.

Above all, we came to understand that talent is embedded in nearly all social change strategies, and that realizing the full potential of rural talent represents an urgent challenge. Many villages in Africa and India suffer from chronic, self-reinforcing talent market dysfunction. Their schools produce graduates with skills irrelevant to local employers. Those few young people with valuable skills seek greater economic opportunity in urban areas. As a result, villages are left with older, semi-skilled workers unequipped to innovate or even to adapt to others’ innovations, anchored inevitably in subsistence farming and poverty.

The barriers to changemaking talent are many: declining health and nutrition, aversion to risk and diversity, limited access to technologies, lack of rewards for innovation, a paucity of role models, and many more. We’re working now to build a global community of Fellows, researchers and other leaders—a Changemaking Talent Engine—who will identify and collaboratively activate new talent strategies powered by knowledge innovations. Over the next year, we’ll report on those strategies here and on the Rural Innovation & Farming site.

Photo: Flickr/Marwa Morgan