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Keynote Speaker Laila Macharia: Unleashing Africa’s Human Potential through Education and Technology

“Go there, get your degree, and come back.”  This was the instruction when at just 18 years old, Laila Macharia’s college application form was completed on her behalf. “I was just informed that, ‘In a few weeks, you will be leaving the nation,’” the Kenyan-born businesswoman shared.

The “first born of two first borns” says her parents had a very strong sense of nation building as the generation who took on that responsibility at the dawn of Kenya’s independence. Macharia’s father was the first Director of the Department of Adult Education in Kenya and her mother the first Director of Foreign Exchange at the Central Bank. “They inculcated in us that real idea that Africa could be something great, but it would only be that way if we all did our part with whatever our profession was. It wasn’t in a very ‘activist way’, but just being excellent and having integrity in what you did is what would pull this continent forward.”

Arriving at the University of Oregon, Macharia soon realised that her focus on computer science was not the best fit and changed to planning and public policy. By the time grad school decisions were to be made, she headed to Cornell Law School not for want of becoming a litigator, but to further pursue the public policy route. “This idea of ‘how do I help my fellow man?’ I always had this lens towards African Development” she says, remembering the philosophy of her father to ‘come back’.  

Today, the self-described serial entrepreneur is focused on the idea of unleashing human potential and providing people tools for self-determination. Macharia does a lot of this work through angel investing. It is how she started at the Africa Digital Media Institute (ADMI), a creative media and technology training institution based in Nairobi. “The founder invited me in and now we call each other co-founders.” “How do I give Africans options? I think building wealth in households is how I’m going to do it right now. Within that, there’s so much freedom and so much creativity.”

With Macharia’s focus on skills and investment, she has made significant contributions towards that ideal of self-determination. In its decade of existence, ADMI has formally enrolled and graduated 3,500 students, with a further 10,000–15,000 lives affected. “In Kenya, the statistics say that the average graduate looks for work for five years before they can really latch on to that first job. With ADMI, over 60% have a job on graduation day and six months later, over 90% are working for money. Around 71% say that first job has come out of our community, so we’re creating jobs and we’re linking people to opportunity.”

To give people “a skill they can take to market, very tightly linked to the market” and to lift families out of poverty requires a deliberate design if we are to yield a “generational legacy”, says Macharia. She is first to admit that this is not easy to do. “We did a lot of desktop research, but we also talked to a lot of people. Why are all CEOs saying they can’t find people and then all these young people are saying they can’t find work? What’s the issue?” The conclusion was a “skills mismatch.”

“They need to have digital skills, not WhatsApp, not TikTok, but digital working skills. They need to have a practical education, not theoretical. But the biggest part they are worried about was really the soft skills — character.”

The Aspen Institute Africa Initiative is another forum where Macharia is able to focus on unleashing human potential and building character. As a founding director and chairperson, Macharia drives initiatives to give some of the continent’s most influential leaders space for reflection and refreshment. “We want to help leaders think more critically about themselves — get a culture of introspection and become more critical thinkers.”

Some of the focal groups are traditional as the aim is to skill verticals that the Institute considers catalytic for Africa, such as climate change, but also focuses on non-traditional groupings like an upcoming fellowship for online influencers and another for athletes. “These are people who sometimes speak, and people take it as gospel truth, but they often don’t see themselves as leaders in the way a president is. So, we’re trying to work with them to help them think more critically and become more reflective on their journeys. There’s a lot of initiatives that focus on leaders of tomorrow, but our argument is leaders of today all the way to the president really need counsel and really need comfort.”

“Everybody’s saying the West doesn’t have enough people and Africa doesn’t have enough jobs. So, what is it that we could do collectively with policymakers at the table, private enterprise, and educators?  The main flagship project of the Aspen Africa Initiative is solving that problem. What do we need to do to get Africa ready?”

A part of the solution requires building trust. Macharia cites the latest Edelman Trust Barometer Report and notes, “Every year they say that trust in business is higher than trust in media and trust in government. Yet this year is the first year where the public started saying, ‘We don’t know if we trust business but it’s because of this AI tech thing. We’re not sure that they’re deploying it responsibly. We don’t know whether they are just trying to finish our jobs.’”

Thirty percent of respondents in the Edelman report embrace Artificial Intelligence while 35% reject it. As a proponent of technology, Macharia takes the view that it is agnostic in many instances but calls for it to be channelled and regulated to make it “accessible so they don’t just exacerbate the gaps that already exist”.  

The Stanford Law School doctorate in law graduate argues that technology regulation needs to be “overlaid over all the principles that we as humanity hold dear. We have a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that gives you an inkling of what we think is important. For all its flaws, we want our kids protected. My worry is that if we don’t hurry up, these technologies will leave a really sour taste in the mouths of the public. And once you have a general anti-technology public sentiment then it becomes much more difficult to roll out innovations that benefit those same people who are pushing back.”

It is therefore no surprise that in her conversations with industry, Macharia’s hearing more concern about mindset than technical skills: “They’re saying the biggest issue isn’t even aptitude, it’s just attitude. People have to understand it.” At the upcoming eLearning Africa conference, Macharia looks forward to exploring how we breach that divide to “help people reduce their distress” by upskilling, but also coaching for “resilience and antifragility”.

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