TWO Zimbabwean youth entrepreneurs – Simbarashe Mhungu and Limbikani Makani – will travel to the United States as part of the U.S. President’s Young African Leaders Initiative.
They will attend the 2012 Innovation Summit and undergo a two-week professional development programme sponsored by the U.S. Department of State in collaboration with the Meridian International Centre.
Mhungu, 32, is founder and managing director of Harvest Fresh, an indigenous company specialising in agribusiness and food processing.
The former Victoria Falls Safari Lodge trainee received his undergraduate business degree from Howard University, Washington, D.C., and worked in the U.S. for Goldman Sachs and The Walt Disney Company.
Makani, 31, is founder and managing editor of the Technology Zimbabwe website (www.techzim.co.zw
) and holds a national diploma in Information Technology.
Since its establishment, TechZim has become a leading voice on technology issues in Zimbabwe and a main promoter of local technology creation and venture capital investment.
Makani says he is counting on Zimbabwe’s youth to take IT innovations to a new level.
“The achievements Zimbabwe has made in terms of human capital is immense. We have a youth that is capable of delivering on a global scale, but we also have a youth that has been disconnected from the world in terms of communicating or exchange of ideas…. The sooner we tap into it, the sooner we benefit,” says Makani.
He sees himself as a true ambassador of that human capital as he heads to Washington D.C., where he will meet top U.S. government officials, IT experts, company executives and representatives of civil society organisations.
Makani is a true internet devotee. He speaks passionately, with youthful enthusiasm and an eager smile, about the infinite possibilities and opportunities available to Zimbabweans online.
He also has an unbending faith in Zimbabwean online entrepreneurs and their power to change Zimbabwe.
“The internet is so powerful,” he said. “And it is really pointless to try to block it – there are always ways around to get to what you’re trying to find. Because it’s the internet – the whole idea is we are all connected on it and you can find anything.”
Makani studied information technology and, in 2009, started TechZim, arguably Zimbabwe’s leading technology website featuring product reviews and local IT news. With 3,000 page views per day, TechZim has set its sights on building a culture of start-ups and innovation in Zimbabwe.
“A lot of Zimbabweans see the internet as a product, not a platform,” he laments. “They think they are just an audience, but they need to see how much they can do and put on the web.”
Limbikani had never seen the internet until the day his boss at the Gweru shopping centre where he worked after finishing high school, bought a PC and got a dial-up connection. It was 2001 and there were 500 million internet users worldwide – many in the U.S. but few in Africa. The search is what hooked him.
“When I did my first search, I couldn’t believe how much I could find on the internet. I kept saying, ‘All this, I can get all this…,’ and I just kept looking up more things.”
Exploring the internet took Makani’s life from black and white to colour in an instant. “My first time on the internet was a religious moment,” he says, smiling a deep, knowing smile and recalling intimately the experience. “Today, internet uptake in Zimbabwe is still slow but that ‘moment’ is happening now to a lot of people.”
About 60 youth leaders from throughout Africa are expected in the U.S. for the Summit and Mentorship Partnership. The programme is part of the Obama administration’s multi-year initiative targeted at young African leaders who are actively promoting positive change in their communities.
It began with President Obama’s Forum for Young African Leaders in 2010, has included more than 2,000 U.S government-sponsored programmes for young leaders across Sub-Saharan Africa.
In 2011, First Lady Michelle Obama sponsored a Young African Women Leaders Forum in South Africa in which two Zimbabwean young women leaders participated.