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The Nation (Nairobi)
By James Kahongeh
Dr Richard Munang was born in Cameroon. The award-winning professional is passionate about Africa and has worked on climate change, development and youth issues.
Dr Munang, 41, has authored a book titled Making Africa Work through the Power of Innovative Volunteerism. This book explores Africa's strengths and how to leverage on them for climate action and wealth creation opportunities, with the youth at the core.
What inspired you to write this book?
Notable leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Wangari Maathai, Kofi Annan and Desmond Tutu have all inspired the world through their words and actions. I may not have the material wealth to give to Africans, but I have knowledge to share with them. This book proposes a new approach to build an economy that thrives amid climate change, by looking at the crisis as a master key to unlock accelerated socio-economic transformation.
In the book, you talk about your story. How did your earlier experiences shape your path?
My parents were peasant farmers. I grew up herding goats and trekked many kilometers to school. Sometimes we would go without food. In university, I had one pair of trousers and two shirts. But even so, I never felt disadvantaged. I was always hopeful that my future would be better if I worked harder, remained humble and passionate.
You also talk about innovative volunteerism in the book. What does this concept entail?
This concept is pinned on the spirit of selfless commitment towards Africa's socioeconomic climate resilient development. Africa has a population of slightly above 1.2 billion people, 60 per cent of whom are young people. Thousands of African graduates join the labour market annually to compete for the few jobs available. To engage people in climate action development, this has to be done in a structured manner.
What holds Africa back?
For the past 60 years, we have blundered by focusing on material resources instead of putting our human capital at the front. We have failed to leverage on our people's skills, their talents and passions in the development agenda. When you import food because you lack the skill-set to add value to the produce, then essentially you are exporting jobs and importing unemployment.
That said, what is our biggest resource as a continent?
The irony of Africa is that we live in desperate lack amidst plenty. Why do 257 million Africans go to bed hungry every day when we have the best arable land? Research shows that human capital is four times more valuable than material capital and 15 times more valuable than natural capital. We, therefore, need to skill our 1.2 billion people to improve our fortunes. If $1 trillion were donated to Africa to build roads, without human capital to maintain these roads, this investment would not be sustainable.
Is there hope for the continent?
Everyone has something to contribute, irrespective of their skill-set. Every talent could be nurtured to solve a particular problem in our agro-value chain. In that case, we must be able to refine and retool skills in our people so that they become better at what they are passionate about. Secondly, we must be selfless. Thirdly, our continent has not been competing from a position of strength. To be competitive at the global stage, we must contest in the area of our competitive advantage, which is the agro-value chain.
Besides skilling, what else does the continent require to transform?
Many young Africans wake up every day to do something they love because they derive joy from changing the lives of others in whatever small ways. We must nurture these young people. We don't need dollars or magic to transform. Rather, we need logic, reason and self-belief. But most importantly, we need change of mindset to do right and steer off victim-hood mentality and the dependence syndrome.
Isn't it a paradox to have unemployed graduates on a continent that has shortage of skills?
What are these skills for? Whereas skilling people is important, the skills must be tailored towards the sectors of our competitive advantage. Africa squanders $48 billion (Sh4.8 trillion) annually as a result of post-harvest loss in the agro-value chain. If the skills were concentrated to this area, more graduates would be gainfully employed and more value realised from farm produce.
In what way has our education contributed to our woes?
If you have a doctorate degree but you haven't fed a person or changed a life, your PhD is as good as it can get. My mother didn't go to school, but through sacrifices, she supported us through our education. To solve our problems, Africa needs an education revolution where skills are concentrated where they're required.
Many African youth have brilliant ideas about changing the continent. Why has it taken so long to realise any meaningful change?
If your idea isn't premised on solving a problem and impacting lives, it will soon become irrelevant. When they start different initiatives, most young people are driven by the desire to make money. This distracts them from pursuing change in the society. This way, their ideas are bought off by others, killing the dream.
Any key lessons in your career that would help young professionals to flourish?
Respect people irrespective of their career, social standing and age. Hard work is important, but hard work for what? Concentrate your efforts in initiatives that touch people's lives. Read widely and surround yourself with people from whom you can learn. Always listen and have an open mind. While at it, steer clear of all negative energy because this only wastes your time. Your image is important. However brilliant your ideas might be, if you don't conduct yourself in a presentable manner, you're likely to fail. Nothing beats humility. Remember, having a big chair doesn't make you a king.