In Malawi, lots of boys are harnessing the wind - the country is full of young people with great ideas. There happens to be a wonderful children’s book about one of them - the famous William Kamkwamba, who, in the midst of drought forcing him out of school, harnessed the wind by building a windmill out of scrap for his village. There are, however, many other young men and women like him who do not make the headlines, says Emmanuel Mwanyongo, a graduate of NDI’s youth leadership academy. What they need, he says, is a platform to help them on their journey, an opportunity.
For three years, NDI’s Next Generation Youth Leaders’ Academy has been an opportunity for Malawi’s young people to develop the capacity and skills needed to become more effective advocates. Funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), each year, the academy has accepted a new class of young people under the age of 35 who have completed their university education and are already working in civil society organizations or political parties. The academy lasts nine months and, in recent iterations, has begun with 12 political party fellows and 12 CSO fellows attending a series of courses on the important skills needed to create policy. The fellows are taught by experienced professionals and experts, and have opportunities to discuss their own insights with one another.
For fellows like Emmanuel Mwanyongo, known humorously as King Yongo to his friends, this early cross-pollination is the most impactful experience of the academy. He arrived at the 2021 academy as a political party hotshot. At 31, he was already working as a special assistant to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and had served as a member of the youth advisory panel to the National Planning Commission, Malawi’s long-term planning department.
But in February, Emmanuel surprised his friends and his party by announcing a change of course. He founded Young and Winning (YAW), a CSO that works to empower young people in Malawi through innovative programs and opportunities that promote self-discovery, connection and personal growth. He separated from his party and the youth council on good terms and has taken a professional risk in a country where jobs are very hard to come by. “I would say it was the academy that did this to me,” Emmanuel says, laughing. Going to classes with young people from other political parties in the opening weeks of the academy was a unique, powerful experience for him. “As you go on the journey together, as you gel, you realize that you all have the same aspirations and struggles,” he says, describing those early days.
Mixing with the CSO fellows was also an eye-opener. “I realized that civil society was actually offering more space for young people to participate, and that’s where the switch came from,” he remembers. After several months of collaborating so broadly within the academy, he thought differently about a career within the party. “Someday I may find myself in politics again. We will never know what the future holds,” the king admits, but, “for now I feel like there’s so much I can offer my country as a civil society leader.” For Emmanuel, the academy was an opportunity to hear from different voices and gain experience in the alternate world of CSO work.
After the fellows complete classes on how to create policy, they practice those skills by designing and implementing their own advocacy project proposals, seeking funding from the academy. This second phase is designed to provide the fellows with practical, hands-on experience. In Malawi, where there are hundreds of job applicants and bribes paid for every position, this phase of the program is a major resume builder. For Ibrahim Rajab, a member of the current 2023 academy, this has been especially true.
Ibrahim is currently the executive director for Youth Active in Sustainable Development (YASDO), a CSO, but he readily admits that he is looking for more experience. “There are many young people in our society,” he says, like himself, “who do advocacy but don’t know how to advocate, or who to advocate to.” He has a concise vision of how he wants to help his community - “to improve the capacity of young people to be able to speak out” - but he needs the experience to know what steps would lead him toward that goal. “Before the academy, I wasn’t able to develop a leadership strategy. Since starting the program, I’ve been able to create tangible goals and objectives for the good of the organization, the implementers, and the community,” he says. We were just “murmuring in the community” before the academy, he recalls, poking fun at himself. Today, by implementing the advocacy project developed with the support of the academy and funded by NDI, he is beginning to speak with a clearer voice.
Next year, NDI will build on the successes of the three iterations of the youth academy by focusing its programming on the dozens of alumni that have completed the program over the years. Alumni engagement has always been one of the most valuable, appreciated aspects of the academy’s culture, and this newest program will multiply the effect by bringing all of the fellows together for further training and engagement with young people in Malawi. The fellows will participate in and facilitate regional youth dialogues, create advocacy projects and gain practical experience in monitoring and influencing electoral politics in advance of the 2025 general elections, a new area of study for the academy. By working with other alumni, the fellows will have the opportunity to learn from their peers' accomplishments and reinforce their social networks.
The next phase of youth-centered programming in Malawi will bring together an accomplished group of young people like Ibrahim and Emmanuel, and give them the opportunity to learn from each other’s stories. By coordinating step-down trainings and regional and national convening events, the opportunities of NDI’s Next Generation Youth Academy will continue to expand and allow young people to harness the winds of change.
Author: Grant Wishard, Program Associate on the Southern and East Africa team
NDI is a non-profit, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that works in partnership around the world to strengthen and safeguard democratic institutions, processes, norms, and values to secure a better quality of life for all. NDI envisions a world where democracy and freedom prevail, with dignity for all.