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Amini Kajunju

Where Others See Bottlenecks, New Leader Sees Opportunities

The Africa-America Institute which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year is in good hands with its new president Amini Kajunju, who seems to have been born for such a post.

Her cultural, academic, and professional background, gives her unique advantages: a daughter of Africa who attended U.S. college and grad school, she is familiar with the American setting while retaining strong family-roots on the continent whose fortunes AAI hopes to help improve.

As a girl in Congo, she recalls listening to her father's music collection, which included legends and pioneers of modern African music: Franco, Dr. Nico, and Tabu Ley -- all of whom are still revered throughout Africa.

The was long before Kajunju came here to attend Brigham Young University, where she studied International Relations. Later, she was off to New York University, for an MPA, with a concentration in finance.

Kajunju worked for Lehman Brothers, in the mergers and acquisitions unit. Later, for more than a decade, she was the executive director of Workshop in Business Opportunities (WIBO), one of the country's oldest and highly-respected entrepreneurial programs. There she was involved in educating and training hundreds of entrepreneurs each year.

One of her most noted programs at WIBO was a 16-week bootcamp called "How To Build A Growing Profitable Business" which was dubbed a mini MBA program. WIBO workshops trained entrepreneurs to address questions such as: do you know your market?; do you know who your competitors are?; how do you use the Internet to market your goods and services?; and, do you in fact need the Internet to reach your target market if for example they are in rural communities?

Kajunju, a can-do leader, wants to infuse some of the entrepreneurial drive that WIBO fostered, into AAI's programs. She's eager to dispel the pervasive image of Africa as a continent of want and charity. Africa, after all, is rich in natural and human resources.

"We're in a globalized world and Africa can't be left out of it," she says, emphatically, when interviewed recently at AAI's offices near Grand Central Station in Manhattan.

AAI has a storied history; Kajunju, who became president and ceo last October, brims with enthusiasm as she confidently discusses her own vision and plans for the venerable organization.

AAI was founded in 1953. Its early mission was to secure scholarships for post-colonial African leaders. Decolonization was rapidly sweeping across the continent beginning with Ghana in 1957 and followed quickly by a score of African countries in the early 1960s. At the time of "Uhuru," the popular Kiswahili term for independence, some African countries had less than a half-dozen college graduates.

The challenges were tremendous.

AAI placed many African students on U.S. campuses, some of whom later gained global renown in various fields. The late Wangai Maathari became a celebrated environmental and human rights activist in Kenya and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Nahas Angula became Prime Minister of Namibia. Alasanne Quattara became a top international banker and after working at The World Bank, is today president of the Ivory Coast. Malawi's President Joyce Banda was an AAI fellow and she credits her U.S. visit for opening her eyes to the possibilities for women in Africa.

Today, AAI sits at a crossroad and is "refocusing" its mission, Kajunju explains.

Yes, the organization continues to secure scholarships for Africans to study in the United States. The quality of a workforce determines a nation's destiny, beginning at the individual level. "Education is the ultimate liberator," Kajunju says. "It gives people the tools to change their own circumstances and societal circumstances."

While retaining its traditional role, Kajunju believes AAI can accomplish even much more by leveraging: its resources; connections; reputation; and, alumni network through social- and new media technologies.

Throughout the interview Kajunju repeats the terms "professional development" in Africa and "capacity building." One of her chief goals is to match African professionals in the Diaspora with African governments, NGOs working on the continent, and international corporations that are locating in Africa or expanding their business operations there.

This year, on September 21, AAI will host its first Africa-America Career Expo. AAI hopes to attract between 50 to 75 international companies to potentially recruit from a pool of 300 African professionals. "There are companies investing in Africa; they need talent," Kajunju says. Plans are to develop the career expo into an annual event.

AAI is involved in elevating professional and management skills in Africa. AAI, in partnership with the Coca Cola Africa Foundation launched what's called the Transformative Leadership Program (TLP) in 2006 to train leaders of non-profit organizations in African countries so they can more efficiently manage staff and resources.

This year's class, currently in training, includes 120 non-profit leaders who are participating in three partner locations: the University of Stellenbosch Business School in South Africa; the United States International University, in Kenya; and, the Pan-African University, in Nigeria.

The South African program focuses on people management skills while Nigeria's also teaches fund-raising. Kajunju was impressed after attending a training session at the Stellenbosch program. She will also sit in on a training session in Nigeria, when she visits in May. "These courses will allow them to better manage their non-profits," Kajunju says, referring to the heads of the non-profits.

Kajunju even sees an eventual role for AAI in partnering with programs that offer technician skills such as air-conditioning system repair work. She wonders: why build a multi-million dollar hospital with an efficient cooling system, only to come back a year later to find it in disrepair because no one was taught how to fix it?

Kajunju believes Africa's future is in the hands of its youth and entrepreneurs. Where most people see bottlenecks, she sees opportunities. She dismisses the notion that the critical constraint to business development in Africa, and even right here in America, is lack of start-up capital.

Many would-be entrepreneurs place the cart before the horse, focusing on searching for financing, before developing  solid business plans, she explains. "You don't want to throw good money into a bad idea," Kajunju warns. "Good money is always looking for good projects."

"I don't believe businesses that go into Africa should come with a charity approach," Kajunju continues.

Ultimately, Africa's transformation will be led by people such as Mo Ibrahim the founder of Celtel International, the giant multi-billion dollar mobile communications company. Ibrahim, who sold Celtel for $3.4 billion in 2005, now heads a philanthropist organization that annually awards a $5 million cash prize and a $200,000 annual payment for life to African heads of state "who deliver security, health, education and economic development to their constituents and democratically transfer power to their successors."

Kajunju believes that 3,000 Mo Ibrahims spread throughout Africa would accomplish for the continent 10 times more than what's been done with all the foreign aid sent there. "I would love for him to be a friend and advocate for AAI," Kajunju adds, of Ibrahim.

There are many other people whom she'd like to be "friends" of AAI.

Kajunju recalls a chance encounter with Peggy Kerry, Secretary of State John Kerry's sister, whom she now hopes to get involved in AAI's work -- perhaps even a "best friend" to the organization.

AAI's annual signature event is its Gala, its biggest fundraising event, which this year is on September 25. This year's honorees include Dr. Kandeh K. Yumkella, Director-General of the United Nations Industrialization Development Organization (UNIDO), who gets the nod for "2013 Distinguished Alumnus Award." The 2013 Corporate Award goes to Chevron. Additional awardees haven't been announced yet.

AAI has also used the Gala to highlight history. Last year's Gala honored Liberian President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson and Malawi's Joyce Banda. While the continent still faces "challenges" when it comes to gender issues, Kajunju notes, the Gala was a unique opportunity to honor Africa's only two female presidents.

Kajunju hopes AAI will repeat last year's "standing room only" turnout, especially an increased show from the younger supporters; the under-40 years old.  "We want to let them know that the Gala is an important networking opportunity," she explains.

Kajunju wants to develop stronger ties with past AAI Annual Gala Awards Honorees, such as President Bill Clinton and to reach out to Hillary Clinton, whom she hopes could be a future honoree.

AI wants to reach out to President Barack Obama, whom Kajunju admires, as many Africans do, not only for his intellect and achievements but for his African heritage as well -- with his Kenyan father, who came to study in the U.S. where he met the future president's mother. "I think a relationship with president Obama would be apropos," Kajunju says. "I'd love for him to be our best friend."

With all these plans, AAI has enhanced its information delivery and outreach. "When I was being interviewed and asked 'what do you want to accomplish in the first six months, I said 'website, website, website,'" Kajunju recalls, with a laugh, and explains her desire for a revamped and interactive site.

A good website gives AAI "an opportunity to tell our story," Kajunju says. "And when you miss the opportunity, you miss potential donors and potential stakeholders."

To update AAI's followers and to draw new supporters, especially younger ones, Kajunju and her staff also produce: a weekly column; a monthly column; and, a quarterly newsletter.

One of Kajunju's priorities is to encourage many of AII's alumni, including those who went to Ivy League universities, to play a more active role. "Can you imagine if some of them could create a scholarship fund, say with $200,000?" Kajunju says. AAI "could then go to a Bill Gates for example, and get him to match that amount and then we would manage that fund."

AAI's annual budget is $1.4 million and the organization, including consultants, has a staff of seven. Some of AAI's biggest supporters have been The Ford Foundation and The Coca Cola Africa Foundation.

With such a full plate does Kajunju have time for anything else? Yes -- even she seems to marvel that she's working through David Maraniss's 641-page "Obama: The Story."

While not yet done with the book she says it's "simply brilliant!"


To find out more about AAI's plans for 2013 and beyond please visit


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