“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” ~ African proverb
My travels to West African countries (Benin, Togo, & Ghana) in a study abroad program in 2006 were the highlight of my graduate education. However, the unfortunate aspect of the trip was that we, as students, weren’t provoked to consider our role in the global economy, specifically Africa. This would have been an opportune time in our intellectual development to challenge us to assess critically how we could become change agents as we encountered the host of social and structural issues of each country. For instance, in each country we visited, we witnessed many residents of the rural towns and villages using kerosene for lighting their homes and businesses. Unbeknown to us, approximately 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were living without electricity at the time. There are many opportunities present in rural Africa, and students should be at the center of entrepreneurial conversations, solutions, and building of partnerships.
As an educator, I am concerned that students, and Historically Black Colleges and University (HBCU) students in particular, are not having transformative conversations and experiences regarding entrepreneurship and using academic knowledge and resources to empower the African Diaspora. This conversation is necessary if we are truly interested in preparing our students to be at the forefront of global issues. HBCUs have the unique opportunity to develop students’ social and economic competencies to meet global needs that they may only be privileged to receive during the course of their higher education.
Many HBCUs have community-based programs such as study abroad programs, service-learning projects, and civic engagement activities that are focused on various African countries, which they do a good job of exposing students to African heritage, language, culture, dance, and ethnic cuisines. This knowledge and cultural exposure should only be the foundation to inculcating entrepreneurial and transformative thinking to students. To the contrary, most of these community-based programs simply focus on students’ exposure and consumption of “authentic” African culture without helping students to facilitate and develop entrepreneurial initiatives that would socially and economically enhance the place they are visiting. Instead, students leave Africa with masks, artwork, mud cloths, statues, and other cultural goods without understanding civic and global engagement that leads to sustainable solutions.
The most recent community initiative by a hip hop artist, Akon, made me re-evaluate the role HBCU administrators, alumni, students, and entrepreneurs. Akon is well known for his entrance in the hip hop music scene in 2004 with the release of his hit song “Locked Up.” However, Akon’s most impressive work is his current agenda to provide electricity to rural areas of Africa along with his partners Samba Bathily and Thione Niang under the Akon Lighting Africa Foundation. The Akon Lighting Africa Foundation has developed relationships with international banks to provide immediate electricity services to eleven African countries and counting by using available solar energy, which is a readily abundant resource in the continent. So where do HBCUs fit in such a community initiative?
This solar electricity initiative requires a host of skills, knowledge, and expertise in banking, community and global development, technical skills in installation, and knowledge of solar and clean energy. The aforementioned community-based programs offered at many HBCUs should consider developing partnerships with their alumni, community business leaders, and faculty to re-design these programs in order challenge students to design solutions that would benefit underdeveloped and economically marginalized communities. Not only would these communities benefit from such programs, but students would exit their institutional globally aware, marketable for employment, enhanced understanding of civic engagement, and a portfolio of work that demonstrates their skills and knowledge.
HBCUs also have the opportunity to capitalize off of such programming. One, action-oriented community programs would garner international attention and enhance the image of HBCUs worldwide, which would attract diverse students and faculty of the African Disapora. Two, this could attract potential donors like Nigerian billionaire Akilo Dangote and others to contribute to institutional endowments. Three, this is a great method for strengthening the relationship between alumni and their institution, socially and financially. Four, there would be an increase in faculty engaged in government-funded sponsored research. Five, HBCU administrators would have the opportunity to develop beneficial relationships with business leaders and entrepreneurs. And certainly not the last, HBCUs would achieve and extend their mission by truly changing the social and economic profile of the communities and students they serve providing an impetus for connecting the ecosystem of the African Diaspora.