Young, Female, and Global: Social Entrepreneurship in East Africa

A couple months ago, Ashoka East Africa hosted an Open House to celebrate our recent move to a new office.  We put together an invite and sent it to all our local contacts.  When our Friday afternoon soiree was in full swing, I took a look around the room of social entrepreneurship enthusiasts and had the following reaction:  the face of social entrepreneurship in East Africa is young, female, and global. 

Social entrepreneurs in East Africa are young.  Of course, Africa is the world’s youngest continent so anytime large groups of people gather, the average age is going to be relatively low.  In Kenya, for example, 42.2% of the population is under the age of 15 (compare that to 20.1% in the US or13.8% in Italy, for example). But it’s not just their sheer numbers but their dynamism that makes you take notice of these young people.  Often called the ‘cheetah generation,’ our Open House was well-attended by young, well-educated, entrepreneurial, and passionate Kenyans.  As described by Ghanaian economist George Ayittey in this popular TED talk, the cheetah generation “understands accountability and democracy” and is “not going to wait for government to do things for them.” Though we have Ashoka Fellows in East Africa ranging in age from 28 to 68, we suspect these new and even younger citizen sector leaders will be increasingly well-represented in networks of leading social entrepreneurs like Ashoka.  They bring energy and new ideas in while bringing the average age of the group down.

Social entrepreneurs in East Africa are female. Of Ashoka’s nearly 3,000 Fellows worldwide, over 40% are female.  At first glance this might not seem noteworthy, but we believe it is indeed a cause for celebration.  Why?  Since Ashoka scours the world for only the best social entrepreneurs in any field – no matter their age, gender, nationality, or field of work – the global Ashoka Fellowship represents the leaders of the citizen sector worldwide. Based on this, there appears to be more gender parity at the highest levels of the citizen sector than in the public and private sectors.  (Compare that to just 2.5% of Fortune 1000 companies with female CEOs in 2009 and 10% for female heads of state today.) If our open house is any indication of future trends, the fact that over 75% of the attendees were female might indicate that we will see even more women taking up leadership roles in the sector in the future.  

Social entrepreneurs in East Africa are global.  In a recent column titled “Potential, Poverty, Politics & Parties: Why Kenya Attracts America's Best & Brightest Young Social Entrepreneurs,” Nairobi-based American journalist Jonathan Kalan describes the above “4-Ps” as those things “that draw  a distinct class of Gen-Yers looking to make money, make a name for themselves, and make a difference” in Africa. Whatever their motivations, there is a very large and visible group of young expats innovating in Nairobi. But it’s not just the foreigners in Nairobi who are global; increasing numbers of young Kenyans have chosen to work in the social entrepreneurship space after experiences abroad.  Senei, who works with Ashoka East Africa as a Program Assistant, graduated from university with a master’s degree in Morocco and Mutembei, an intern with our Venture program, has lived and worked in Austria and India. Like so many of the young social entrepreneurs we are meeting, their experiences throughout East Africa and beyond have helped them see the world differently and tackle problems creatively.  

On this blog we will soon be introducing our new class of Ashoka East Africa Fellows.  As you might suspect, we have some young expats, inspiring women, and global changemakers in the group!  Stay tuned!

This article was written by Simon Stumpf (Senior Program Manager, Rural Innovation and Farming) as part of The East Africa Impact Series.

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