On October 23rd, Princeton in Africa held its 2014 Annual Gala, which included an inspiring speech by former Fellow Alexandra Hellmuth, Princeton in Africa’s 2013-14 Fellow with Olam International in Ghana.
Alex spoke on behalf of current and former Fellows about why our work is so important. We are honored to share her comments with all of those who were unable to join us on October 23rd. Thank you Alex and thanks to everyone who joined us in celebrating 15 years of Princeton in Africa Fellows!
Good evening and thank you all for being here tonight. Your generosity helped make my fellowship experience possible and will continue to provide opportunities for fellowship classes to come. I want to extend a special thanks to the Tierney family and the original Princeton in Africa founders who we are honoring tonight. And finally, thank you to Katie and the whole Princeton in Africa team for organizing an amazing night and for working tirelessly throughout the year to ensure the success of Princeton in Africa.
I am honored to be representing Princeton in Africa and I am proud to be a former Fellow. 15 years ago, Emily, our MC, was part of the first fellowship class. Since then, Princeton in Africa has sent 400 Fellows to 35 countries. I want to highlight the three key areas where I think Princeton in Africa has made a significant impact in the past 15 years: They have changed the lives and careers of 400 Fellows, myself included. They have delivered value to countless partner organizations. And most importantly, they have built a strong network committed to positive change in Africa.
I think it is obvious that the Princeton in Africa fellowship provides an incredibly unique opportunity for a recent graduate interested in working in Africa. In thinking about what to highlight in this speech, I looked back at the journal I kept in Ghana. From the very first page penned upon my arrival in northwestern Ghana (in short, it reads: where am I??) to the many subsequent challenges, successes, laughs and tears—it describes the experience of a lifetime. For me, Princeton in Africa helped bridge my interest in understanding the potential of the private sector to deliver business solutions to large-scale social problems with concrete work experience. It also completely expanded my worldview, taught me how to work with an extremely diverse group of people, and ignited new passions: like sustainable farming! As a Jersey girl who had never set foot on a farm before landing in Ghana, this is huge.
Secondly, Princeton in Africa is creating value for their partners: the businesses, organizations, and people who Fellows spend their year with. At Olam, a global agriculture firm, I managed two public-private partnerships between Olam and development organizations that were initiated by the 2012-13 PiAf Fellow Sarah Richards. When I got to my post in the Upper West region of the country, it was obvious how much of a positive impact Sarah had had on her colleagues and the company as a whole. In fact, most colleagues and Olam staff called me Sarah for the first month or so…the fact that we were both blonde haired, blue-eyed, approximately 5’8” females probably contributed to the mix-up, but I think they also just missed her and her contribution to the business. The two projects initiated by Sarah, with backers like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are aimed at improving the livelihoods of smallholder cotton and cashew farmers through a variety of farmer training programs, environmental initiatives, and education campaigns. My role at Olam was to develop a strategy for successful implementation. During my year in Ghana, I am proud to have led Olam’s investment in farming communities. We trained close to 4,000 cotton farmers on basic business practices to help them better manage their farms, we provided direct market access and fair prices to 20,000 cashew farmers.
What I was able to achieve at Olam is just a fraction of the impact generated by my fellowship class and the many Fellows who have come before us.
Finally, Princeton in Africa is building a core group of people who are committed to growth in Africa. Who here has heard the term “Africa Rising” in the past year? In the midst of a renewed focus on the potential of African economies, it will be even more important to develop a group of people who are not only passionate and motivated to work in Africa, but who will also bring an experienced and educated perspective to development, policy, health, and business challenges there.
Impressively, 15 people in my fellowship class are still working in Africa, and while a few are still working with their partner organizations, the majority of those 15 sought out new opportunities, spreading PiAf’s reach even further across the continent.
On a more personal level, I have found the network to be extremely supportive and encouraging: one of the first people I was greeted by at Yale was a former fellow, Emily Harris, who is in her second year at the School of Management. And my fellowship class now includes some of my best friends and important professional contacts. The rapidly expanding group of former Fellows will continue to grow and leave their mark on the world, and I have no doubt that those who I am lucky to call my fellowship class will be leaders for important issues facing Africa in the future.
In closing, thank you for making an investment in Princeton in Africa—you are an essential part of value creation for Fellows, partner organizations, and the future of the African continent.