Obama Foundation Annual Report 2018

President Obama works with members of the first Leaders: Africa class at a service project in Johannesburg.



Every region in the world faces its share of challenges. But we also know that each region is home to tens of thousands of incredible emerging leaders who have overcome odds to drive real impact in their communities. These are the leaders we want to support, offering them targeted guidance and a connection to each other, so they can take their work to the next level. That was the genesis of the Obama Foundation Leaders program, which we first launched in the Summer of 2018 in Africa.

Leaders gather together for team building.

Leaders participate in team building exercises during the convening.

Leaders: Africa

A Continental Shift

Why begin with Africa? You can’t talk about the future of the world without talking about the future of Africa. The continent is already home to several of the fastest growing economies in the world, with growing, youthful populations. Those demographics also make Africa the youngest continent in the world and therefore one full of promise.

We opened the applications for our Leaders: Africa program in the Spring of 2018 unsure of what to expect. Seventeen days later, we’d received 9,800 applications from every country on the continent.

In July, we convened 200 of our most promising applicants on the campus of the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. The kickoff began with a conversation with Mo Ibrahim, a pioneer in African telecommunications and one of the world’s most prominent good governance advocates, hitting home the theme of responsible leadership that would resonate throughout the five-day event.

The second day began with a powerful call to action from South African advocate Thulisile Madonsela: “Don’t go it alone,” she said. “When spider webs combine, they can even tie-up a lion.”

Graça Machel, a champion of education, social justice, and ethical leadership and wife of Nelson Mandela, sounded a similar note, encouraging leaders to collaborate. “A profound transformation of the continent will be achieved when young leaders’ networks work together,” she said.

David Sengeh, an Obama Foundation Leader and the Chief Innovation Officer of Sierra Leone, led a session on innovation in government, where he also emphasized the importance of diverse teams, reminding participants that innovation could come from anywhere. And there was no better way to celebrate the communal spirit of the gathering than with a traditional South African braai, with the voices of the Soweto Gospel Choir serving as a moving, joyful backdrop.

Portrait of KOFI ANNAN

One is never too young to lead.”


The third day became a bittersweet one in retrospect. In what would be one of his final public appearances, the late Kofi Annan joined former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former Algerian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lakhdar Brahimi. “One is never too young to lead,” he told the audience, as he highlighted the need for dedication to a cause. “Change is a process. It can take a long time. It’s not an event.”

The final day was highlighted by a special town hall conversation with President Obama. He talked about the urgent need to engage in the work of change. And he urged those who were considering leadership positions to not lose sight of their goals.

But rather than end the gathering with his words, the President rolled up his sleeves and joined the Leaders in an act of service. The cohort traveled to the Far North Secondary School in Johannesburg, where the President helped the Leaders paint a mural, make benches, and beautify the grounds.

The service project seemed a fitting tribute to close out a phenomenal gathering—it occurred on what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday.

Having laid the groundwork for partnership in Johannesburg, the Leaders embarked on a year-long journey of leadership training and network building. The Leaders have engaged with a suite of virtual programming that includes interactive webinars facilitated by experts and inspirational figures, bi-monthly group meetings to hold each other accountable, and group discussions that explore strategies and approaches for ethical and innovative leadership.

Together, these elements have helped build a self-sustaining community of leaders—one whose members lift up and learn from each other, engage in sincere self-reflection, and embrace an abiding commitment to bring positive change to the continent. Our hope is that they become leaders for life, staying deeply engaged with each other and the Foundation. As we said to them throughout the convening: “You are the ones you’ve been waiting for!”

President Obama plays with school children during a service project in Johannesburg.

Simple Bonds, Profound Impact

A journalist committed to the truth. An Olympian hungry to make an impact in a new arena. A young State Commissioner putting a new face on government. Abaas Mpindi, Simidele Adeagbo, and Mark Okoye came to Johannesburg from different countries, with different backgrounds and ambitions. But they all left forever changed.

For Abaas, that change happened in a flash, after hearing President Obama say his name during a speech commemorating what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. President Obama cited Abaas and his work training young journalists as a source of hope for the continent—someone who was leading change while embracing Mandela’s values. The mention boosted his credibility with the young people he trains and the organizations and officials who can help him expand his work.

Today, Abaas is working with fellow journalists he met at the convening to expand his initiative beyond his native Uganda. He’s using lessons he learned during program webinars on fundraising and capacity building to ensure that expansion is sustainable. And he’s working with the World Bank to focus on training refugees in citizen journalism so they can tell their own story. “The Obama Leaders: Africa program is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” he said.

Simidele’s story was quite different. After becoming Nigeria’s (and Africa’s) first female athlete in the sport of skeleton in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, she was looking for her next act. “I wanted to inspire, empower, and enable the next generation of girls in Africa,” she said, “but I wasn’t sure where to start.”

Luckily the convening and subsequent year-long program connected her “with the greatest think tank of leaders committed to moving Africa forward ever assembled.” Those connections helped give her the confidence to start making a difference on her own.

During the course of her year with the Leaders program, Simidele has worked with 400 girls across Nigeria, South Africa, Kenya, and Morocco to build their leadership skills and help unlock their potential through the power of sport. “I didn’t wait to build a nonprofit,” she said. “I just got started by giving my time, sharing my knowledge, and mentoring as many girls as possible. As President Obama says, ‘Worry less about what you want to become and worry more about what you want to do.’”

And Mark Okoye, Nigeria’s youngest State Commissioner, made the most of his year among 200 of Africa’s best and brightest, leading to connections that will transform his community.

After meeting four other Africa Leaders at the convening from his state of Anambra, he later introduced them to the Executive Governor. Impressed with the group, the Governor asked them to form an executive committee to advise the Anambra government on youth empowerment and entrepreneurship policies. “We hope to engage, inspire, and empower youth over the years,” Mark said. “Watch this space!”

Mark also met a fellow Leader from Nigeria, Ifeanyi Orajaka, who runs a renewable energy company specializing in off-grid solar for underserved communities. After a spirited conversation, he encouraged Ifeanyi to pitch the Anambra State Government on a public-private partnership to build off-grid power in rural communities there. That led to a $5 million deal, and by November of 2019, a total of 12 communities with 10,000 people, 361 small businesses, 53 schools, and 11 health centers will receive uninterrupted power for the first time.

Mark, Simidele, and Abaas are just three people. But thanks to the connections they made and the continued support they receive through the Leaders program, they’ve been able to achieve far more than they could on their own. And as a result, thousands of lives will be changed for the better in their communities.

It’s enough to give you hope.

Leaders: Asia-Pacific Design Workshop

A Change in Context

Germany, Indonesia, Brazil, India, Singapore, New Zealand, the Netherlands, South Africa, and Hawaiʻi. Over the past two years, President Obama has met with groups of emerging leaders from all around the world. No matter the location, these town halls and roundtables reveal just how much unites local leaders pushing for change. Their dedication, their focus, their passion for making life better for others; it’s evident in every country.

And universal themes emerge as well, transcending geographical and cultural differences. People everywhere are concerned about big global challenges like education, climate change, public health, and ethical governance.

But the more of these conversations we had, the more clear it became that even when discussing global matters, local context mattered more. Working for change requires rootedness—an understanding of community and place.

That’s why we tailor our programs to those local contexts with local input. Rather than deciding how best to design leadership programs abroad, we want to hear directly from regional stakeholders already working for change on the ground.

President Obama engages with regional leaders at the Design Workshop.

Young leaders from across the Asia-Pacific joined President Obama and Foundation staff in Hawaiʻi to help design our Leaders program for the region, set to launch in late 2019.

So in January of 2019, we brought 21 emerging leaders from 16 countries and territories across the Asia-Pacific region together in Hawaiʻi to help us co-design our next regional leaders program, Leaders: Asia-Pacific.

The multi-day workshop consisted of hands-on design sessions, immersive group activities, and conversations with President Obama about the skills and resources leaders need to amplify and accelerate their impact.

The group also explored the rich history and cultural traditions of Hawaiʻi, and during a visit to the Mānoa Heritage Center, leaders were inspired to reflect on their own cultures and communities. Leaders completed their time in Hawaiʻi at a celebration with President Obama and local community leaders.

Throughout the workshop, the complexities of prominent issues in the region, such as climate change, indigenous rights, and government transparency and accountability continued to surface. Leaders discussed how cultural norms and traditions require young leaders to offer respect to previous generations, even as they push for breaks with the status quo. And they emphasized the importance of including Pacific islands—including Hawaiʻi—in the dialogue about the region’s future, rather than focusing only on large countries.

By the end of the workshop, they developed a set of context-specific recommendations that will be incorporated into the Asia-Pacific Leaders Program, which will launch later in 2019. We’re looking forward to expanding our global network of leaders pushing for change around the world.

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