WEF Africa at 25: My Stroll with Elsie Kanza, Senior Director & Head of Africa, World Economic Forum

11/10/2015 11:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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This interview is so close to my heart because I finally got the chance to speak with one of the people who have made my 2015 a year to remember. Thanks to Prof Klaus Schwab's undying support for the Global Shapers Community and Elsie's constant push to increase the number of young people allowed to participate at World Economic Forum meetings, I was lucky to be selected as one of the 80 young Africans and Global shapers who got the opportunity to "rub shoulders" with continental and global leaders at the 25th Anniversary of the World Economic Forum on Africa. At the Africa Meeting we discussed Africa--then and now--taking a sneak peek into the future and highlighting what we have to do to get there from the present. At 22, it was my first time out of Nigeria, my second time ever to fly in an airplane, and it's an experience I'll never forget.

Let me tell you a bit about Elsie... Born to Tanzanian parents, she has completed, between 1997-2006, a BSc (Hons) in International Business Administration, United States International University - Africa; MSc in Finance, University of Strathclyde, UK; and MA in Development Economics, Center for Development Economics, Williams College, USA. She has served in various capacities with the Ministry of Finance and central Bank of Tanzania.

From 2006-2011, she was Personal Assistant to Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete, President of the United Republic of Tanzania, responsible for Economic Affairs. She joined the World Economic Forum in 2011 and in 2014 she became Senior Director and Head of Africa of the World Economic Forum. Her other accolades include, Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow (2008); Young Global Leader nominee, World Economic Forum (2011); Rising Talents nominee Program of the Women's Forum for the Economy and Society (2011).

Elsie and I discussed everything. From Africa to her journey so far; including her bucket list. You can listen or download our full conversation on #TheStrollPodcast or read a summarized transcript below:

WEF's Current Projects in Africa

Elsie: Right now we have three kinds of projects that are on-going: we have an agricultural related project, this is Grow Africa and involves about 12 countries right now. We have an infrastructure-related project, which was initially focussed on how we can accelerate trans-national corridor development Under the Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa, and now we're shifting to focus on financing and how we can address the bottlenecks to enable mega projects to get to financial close.

We have skills development project that we launched in Abuja last year, which is really about addressing the job challenge by looking at the mismatch between skills that are available and what the market wants, and to see how we can bridge that gap.

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We have more industry-focussed projects, one related to the mining industry, it's called the Responsible Mineral Development Inititiave and the current focus is Guinea. We have health-related projects which is about improving and building solid health systems in emerging economies, and the focus is on Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya. In terms of looking forward, we're actually looking at the possibility of launching an initiative related to financial inclusion. Last Friday we launched, 'Competitiveness Dialogue', and we're planning to have another workshop on competitiveness in SADC and ECOWAS before next year's World Economic Forum on Africa. Our aspiration is to identify indicators or action points so that we can come up with an action plan to improve competitiveness in Africa because; currently Africa is at the bottom of the pile in terms of competitiveness globally. So we're looking at the last Global Competitiveness Report and Africa Competitiveness Report to agree on a few areas to take forward as action points.

Lastly, with respect to the Future of the Internet global challenge, we're also scoping and establishing a workstream on how to bring the last billion people who are unconnected to the internet. In fact, tomorrow I'll be speaking at the "Transform Africa" meeting in Rwanda, and we'll also have a closer discussions on how we can launch a new initiative aimed at addressing this gap. We have many Africans connected, in terms of mobile telephony, but in terms of internet connectivity, it's very low. In terms of usage, it's very low, and so we're lagging behind the world yet once again in an area which can actually help us address a lot of our economic, social, and political challenges.

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Elsie at 40: What's the secret Ingredient?

Elsie: I'll focus on three things. One is having a strong support network which is family, friends, peers, and mentors who really challenge me to excel and be the best that I could be in whatever I set out to do. And sometimes in things I did not set out to do but they thought that I could add value, they clearly pushed me to be more daring and taking on experiences that have contributed to that trajectory.

The second is that I've had the opportunity to work with leaders who have created opportunities for me and a team because success is a team effort. So while I am credited with achievements, it's not just about Elsie, it's about a lot of people that I work with and have worked with that enable us to deliver the kind of success and outcome that enable people to say: 'you are accomplishing a lot..." So, I really want to underscore the importance of leaders, bosses, and supervisors who create opportunities that enable us to show our talents and to grow our talents.

The third area is on a personal level which is that, I have been driven from a very young age to make a difference, and I have a passion for the development of the African continent. My passion is clearly about Africa and that process has driven me to take up challenges, opportunities, and tasks that enable me to contribute to the continent's development, and I think it's fair to say when I receive various accolades it's about the impact we're making in small ways, and that there's a lot more to do. But it's really about this interest that I have in leaving a better Africa than the one I found.

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(Elsie speaking at United Nations University-WIDER's Annual Lecture 17)

Why Should Young people be given a seat at the table?

Elsie: Amongst others, I joined Rotary in Dar es Salaam at the age of 20, and the exposure that it gave me was great. First, it was great that they accepted me and I was exposed to leaders in different sectors, it expands your universe about what is possible, what you need to pay attention to, and really cause you to take life more seriously.

I think it is important to provide exposure to young people, and so by creating spaces and bringing them to the table that's part of the learning experience for them. Africa is a young continent, it is young in age and this is a demographic outlook that we talk about and our aspirations to bring about the demographic dividends, and what is important is that we need to prepare young leaders.

Having more Global Shapers present at an Africa meeting means that you're able to learn from each other, you're exposed to different ideas, and it just puts you in a better frame to do more. It's also an opportunity for leaders to listen to what the young people need, and if one is in a position that's influencing their present or their future, we need to listen to what it is that they're saying. We can only do that if we have representatives of that young demographic in the room to be able to share their perspectives.

Frankly, there's a lot to do to bring about impact, and you have a lot more energy in your 20s than you'll have in your 50s. So, if we can complement each other and really push forward this project that we're undertaking, we can have the impact that we desire, and really bring about the change that we need.

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Yet-to-be-Achieved Items On her Bucket List

Elsie: Every day is an adventure, and so I push myself daily to do more and grow more, and challenge myself more on a daily basis. Let me just focus on three things that I feel I will like to do that I have not done yet.

One is to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. I reside in Africa and I still haven't done it which is very embarrassing (laughs). There's a lot that goes into it, and everyone I have met who have been up the mountain say it's very much a personal transformation experience, and it's not just a physical exercise. So, I look forward to doing that soon.

Second is, there some creative talents that I really haven't explored or dealt with, and what concerns me is that the creative industry in Africa is still not taken seriously. And it's an industry that can employ a lot of us, there's a lot of value in it. I have an interest in contributing to ensuring that the creative are taken more seriously in Africa, and I think that will not be so easy, but I guess that's why it's on a bucket list. (Laughs)

Thirdly, I still haven't visited every African country, and I really would love to do that. More importantly with my interest and passion for development on the continent, I would love to contribute to the growth and development of every country on the continent in one way another.
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Food for the Soul: "A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her, and lacks nothing of value. She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life. She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands. She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.

She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants. She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard. She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks. She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night." (Proverbs 31: 10-18, NIV)

(Images Credit: World Economic Forum, UNU-Wider, Elsie Kanza)

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