“Africa is not poor. Africa has more than enough resources for its people. Our poverty is in our minds. We need to free our minds of the poverty that holds us back.
As I prepared to speak to you today I wondered what it would be like to be a student and graduate of Ashesi. I have had the privilege of visiting your campus a number of times. It is a beautiful place and I hope you took time to take it all in despite your busy schedule. As I reflected more I realized that what makes Ashesi stand out are its alumni. I have repeatedly had the good fortune of working with and mentoring many Ashesi Alumni; the Phoebes, Godsons, Sarahs and Toms of this world.
At Airtel Ghana we have developed an outstanding reputation for exceptional corporate social responsibility (CSR). We have won awards both locally and internationally for making a difference in people’s lives where it matters; in education, healthcare and the environment. One young lady has spearheaded our efforts. She brings her unique approach as she leads our delivery. Maame, who many of you have read about, stands out from the crowd!
My first message to you is: stand out. Stand out as a leader with big dreams that will transform Africa.
My reflections also took me back in time. When I graduated many years ago, I thought I had gained the passport that validated my infinite knowledge. I recall sitting in the student room when we were job hunting thinking out loud to my friends saying “now that this is over, I am only going to go work for the highest bidder” and “I don’t mind where in the world that job is. As long as it is legitimate business, I am going”. Some of my friends thought it was ludicrous. They thought we should be grateful to get an offer. I thought differently.
I can imagine that these sentiments sound familiar to at least some of you here today. Yet with the passage of time I learn more about how little I really know and how much more I have to learn. I sense this most when I am in the company of young innovators. I find myself increasingly relying on my openness to learn. Having the opportunity to work with great minds helps me continue my learning journey.
As my career has progressed I have managed to find my passion. I realized that what I am truly passionate about is engaging young people to realize their potential. Everything I do ultimately is about this great generation I believe will create the Africa that I know is possible. It took me a while to get there but I found my passion along the way.
My second message to you is: find your passion. Figure out your passion that will create your big dreams to transform Africa.
It is the pursuit of my passion that brought me back to Ghana. I was not sure what to expect but my family and I decided that we would take the opportunity to jump; to leave the familiar for the hope of contributing to the African story.
When I arrived in Ghana in 2008 I got to know of a little known university based in Labone in Accra. It was a curious looking university to me, nestled in the midst of a residential area, not a typical university campus, yet already able to attract bright minds. And so I searched to find out more. Along that journey I watched Dr. Awuah’s talk, a number of times, and the inspiration and ambition behind this university became clearer to me.
He had a passion to change the African story through the way its young people, its future leaders, are educated and socialized. I could relate to that passion.
Passion must enforce our determination. During my final interview for my first job in Africa my would-be boss asked me “Lucy, you are used to working in a system of order. You have been successful in this system. Africa is chaotic. Things are disorderly. How are you going to cope? How will you succeed?” My response came from belief and not experience. I said, “in the midst of chaos the ability to create order is even more important. I will create order in my work that will cut through the chaos.”
As you will soon experience, my journey through corporate Africa has been challenging yet rewarding. In Africa we are faced with structural, social and cultural challenges which we must continue to work through. Challenges that make doing business tough but we must not be deterred.
I have watched my children over the last 8 years navigate this challenging system in a more social context while hearing me coach them from behind with values I believe will make them part of Africa’s positive impact generation.
For me it feels like swimming against the tide and each day I remind myself that all I need to do are enough breast strokes to get through today’s tide. At some point you will experience this. Just keep swimming.
You are part of the generation that must build a modern Africa. An Africa where the values of integrity, excellence and generosity, that lead us to care about each other, are demonstrated from the top. You are the generation that must transform Africa from what it is to what it must be. You must create a sustainably successful Africa.
My third message: Create lasting success. Be leaders who create success for the good of their people.
Sometimes people ask me how I came to be the CEO of a telecommunications company. My answer is simple. I imagined it. I created a vision in my mind of being a telecoms CEO. And once my mind had embraced the vision I started to live the vision.
Please close your eyes with me for a moment. Relax and as you do so please take in the joy of today. The sights and sounds. How wonderful today smells. Oh the faces of your fellow graduates. Now in your mind’s eye fast forward and picture your world at any time in the future. A world you have played a major role in creating. What are you doing? How does it feel to be there? I want you to savour that vision for a moment because one day you will be in it. Now please open your eyes.
In closing, I would like to share one of my very African experiences with you. In 2010 I went to work, with my children, in the DRC. Even though I have travelled for work across a number of African countries that was probably my most instructive experience about what we need. Over the years many non-African consultants that we worked with would say things to us like ‘all the countries are the same to me’. The Ghanaian in me at the time felt bruised. To me Ghana had made significant progress compared to other countries on the continent and this was not being recognized. As I prepared to leave for DRC, the reaction of friends and family made me realize that I was not the only Ghanaian who felt that we had made so much more progress. They asked ‘do you have to take the kids?’ If they could stop the plane from taking off with me and the kids they would have.
A few months into my time in the DRC I made a trip to Ghana. On my return to Ghana all the things that used to irritate me seemed to have evaporated. I suddenly found the immigration officers so polite. And why were the streets so clean I asked myself? Even though nothing had changed I was overjoyed.
The problem was that I had become conditioned and was beginning to accept a standard which I knew was low just because it was a little higher than my conditioning. It took me a few days to realize this. What I was celebrating was the marginal difference between the two countries. You see between our best and worst countries on this continent the difference is not real enough. Progress is a continent where all our children have access to a good education. Real progress means having healthcare systems that ensure the quality and preservation of life. I could go on.
Yet, young people like you fill me with hope that it is possible to create change.
Africa is not poor. Africa has more than enough resources for its people. Our poverty is in our minds. We need to free our minds of the poverty that holds us back. As you graduate today, my ask of you is to change our story by changing your story. Become leaders who diligently execute those big dreams which you have to transform Africa for good.
I wish you lifelong success in supporting each other through that journey. Thank you.