Ms. Neema Mgana
Founder, African Regional Youth Initiative, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, May 2007
Ms. Neema Mgana, a native of Tanzania, is the founder of the African Regional Youth Initiative(ARYI), a membership organization working with over 400 community and youth organizations on development issues. She also co-founded the Forum for Global Action and the African Women of Empowerment Project. She is currently coordinating projects to improve health delivery and manages partnerships between development agencies and the private sector to fund community-based projects in Africa. She serves on the boards of several organizations (including the MTV Staying Alive Foundation and Kabissa) and global campaigns, and has been featured on radio and in print media, including Teen Newsweek (2005) and Fast Company (2006). Ms. Mgana received a Masters degree in International Health and a B.Sc. in Health Informatics. She was the youngest of 1000 women from around the world jointly nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.
Youth Policy Toolkit: What prompted you to set up the African Regional Youth Initiative?
Ms. Mgana: The ARYI is a membership organizations set up to address a real gap that existed in 2003, and that gap was the absence of a platform promoting collaboration among youth and community-based organizations in Africa. At the end of that year, I was doing an internship in Tanzania and was involved in running a youth organization that I co-founded. Despite the accomplishments achieved in that organization (including starting ten income-generating projects and building a children’s center for education and health services), there were clear signs that more communication, collaboration, and resource sharing needed to take place between youth and community groups. One clear sign was when a Director from a foundation in the U.S. who was in Tanzanian told me about a neighboring community-based organization that was setting up similar activities, and yet I had not heard of them. The fact that it took someone from thousands of miles away to tell me about a project close by with whom we could have worked in setting up our activities was, in my mind, a wake up call that community and youth organizations needed to have a way to learn about each other and form these collaborations.
When ARYI started, we mostly focused on creating a platform for youth and community-based organizations that worked on HIV/AIDS in Tanzania. I remember then getting e-mail messages from different groups in Kenya stating that they were interested to join. These groups not only worked on HIV/AIDS, but also gender, poverty, youth empowerment, and other issues. Soon afterward, a number of e-mails from Ghana and Nigeria requested that ARYI have a presence in West Africa. Since then, ARYI has not stopped growing. We now work with over 400 African organizations addressing development issues as outlined in the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals— namely, poverty and hunger, HIV/AIDS and malaria, primary education, gender equity, child mortality, maternal health, and environmental sustainability. It’s not just the issues that set us apart but our structure. ARYI works actively in 20 countries through country teams, country and regional representatives, and program coordinators. The work of ARYI is based on action plans developed by country and regional teams. In addition, ARYI is the only organization that places youth and communities at the forefront of activities that operate cross-regionally through programs such as the African Poverty Monitoring Initiative program planned to take place in 20 countries, an HIV/AIDS project implemented in 16 countries, an African Women of Leadership project active in 17 countries, and a Panel on African Commissions that is operating in several countries in Africa.
Youth Policy Toolkit: What policy issues does the group focus on and why are these important?
Ms. Mgana: ARYI has recognized that youth in Africa have tremendous unmet family planning and reproductive health needs that require urgent national and international attention. The need for urgent attention is supported by findings from Population Action International, which classified several countries in Africa as “very high risk” in its Reproductive Risk Index. This index is a measure composed of 10 key indicators of sexual and reproductive health that documents vast disparities between rich and poor countries and the urgent need to accelerate progress in sexual and reproductive health as narrated in the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development.
Of particular concern are policies (or lack of) addressing sexual and reproductive health that are meant to help young people to exercise their rights, for example, to access youth-friendly health services and gain information on sexual and reproductive health. A number of meetings held by the Interagency Youth Working Group on these issues made me personally aware of the experiences among young people on very specific cases calling for reproductive health policies to protect the rights of young people. Too many countries in Africa are challenged in devising and implementing reproductive health policies, thus increasing the vulnerability of youth to HIV/AIDS, unplanned pregnancies, high morbidity and mortality due to risky pregnancies (usually due to the young age of the woman), female genital mutilation, and abortion.
To address this issue, ARYI started creating Youth Policy Groups to bridge the gap between policy and its implementation, promote and advocate for reproductive health policies, and build a foundation of youth leadership around reproductive health care services, programs, and policies. We are currently focusing on three tools to assist the Youth Policy Groups. One is the use of videoconferencing as a way to bring these groups together (for example, a videoconference planned among Tanzania, Ghana, and Ethiopia). A second is the use of the policy compendium available in the Youth Policy Toolkit. Lastly, we created a forum through the Implementing Best Practices (IBP) Knowledge Gateway that facilitates the communication and action plans between these groups while sharing best practice experiences and information on reproductive health care services, programs, and policies in Africa.
Youth Policy Toolkit: What have some of the big challenges been in setting up and maintaining the ARYI?
Ms. Mgana: A challenge in setting up and maintaining ARYI stems from its creation in the first place. The organization was formed to fill a gap and, as such, there was no ‘template’ to follow in setting it up. However, this challenge has allowed for much uniqueness within the operation of ARYI in that we don’t necessarily fit within a mold, and thus have flexibility to adapt according to different situations and also cater more so to on-the-ground needs.
In addition, I had no real experience in starting something of this nature and magnitude. What I did was spend time talking to people and reading books on organizational management, financial management, program planning, how to register an organization, website development, and the like. This helped a great deal to orient myself on the day-by-day operation of the organization.
Every day is a learning experience for me and I am grateful to work with a strong leadership team, composed of mostly young people who are either in school or transitioning between school and work. As such, the organization works around time availabilities of each person, including my own time, since from the start of ARYI, I have been either a full-time student or an employee in another organization. This leaves nights and weekends to work on ARYI. Within the last year, we have been focusing on the decentralization of ARYI to country levels, which has helped tremendously not just in terms of overall coordination but also in the support of local talent and leadership among national ARYI teams.
Funding is always an issue, as we have mostly received financial support for specific projects rather than organizational support.
Youth Policy Toolkit: Of the work the organization has carried out, what are you most proud of?
Ms. Mgana: I am proud of all the work ARYI has carried out, but I am most proud of the over 100 programmatic collaborations that have formed as a result of ARYI. It is common now to read a message posted to the ARYI listserv from an organization in Africa with some need (i.e., looking for partners to implement a project, lacking resources for an activity, etc.) and soon afterward reading a reply from another organization interested to form a partnership and share their resources. I remember the first such message of that nature that was sent to the listserv in 2004 by a group in Kenya that was looking for soccer balls and jerseys for a tournament organized as an HIV/AIDS awareness activity. When I read that message, I had no idea what would happen. Within weeks, soccer balls and jerseys were mailed to them by another group that was interested in the project. ARYI then also contacted equipment stores and others for additional support, as well as facilitated a fundraiser to be done to further their project on using sports as a way to raise awareness on HIV/AIDS.
Another example was in 2005 when we developed a concept for a series of children’s forums as part of a global awareness raising and advocacy on the needs and rights of orphaned and vulnerable children in Africa. A call for organizations was made through the listserv and, within weeks, 40 organizations signed on to conduct these forums. All 40 organizations held the forums, but I remember one group in Kenya in particular who wrote a report and sent pictures of the thousands of people that took part in the forum, which was followed by a large march across Nairobi on the rights of children. This was a completely inspiring experience.
Those connections facilitated by ARYI that form into meaningful collaboration and action are what make me feel proud and honored to be part of the overall experience.
Youth Policy Toolkit: What are the group’s current activities?
Ms. Mgana: Although we continue our work in HIV/AIDS, there are six main activities that ARYI is spearheading at the moment. One is called the African Women of Empowerment Project (AWOE), co-founded by Amanda Koster, a photojournalist, which highlights through mentorship, the media, and leadership activities, the role of women within development processes in Africa. A heavy focus of the project is nurturing the leadership of young women in Africa and we do this through inter-generational dialogues that are held across the African continent. To date, there are over 180 young men and women AWOD leaders in 17 countries in Africa who are coordinating the project’s activities in their respective countries.
Recently, we increased our work with the Reproductive Health Youth Policy Groups, which were set up to promote and advocate for young women’s participation in sexual and reproductive health issues at national and international levels.
Another project we are involved in has been the creation of the African Poverty Monitoring Initiative. The goal of this initiative (which resulted after a detailed research on the poverty reduction strategy paper [PRSP] process) is to increase the participation of civil society groups in Africa to engage within the African Poverty Reduction Strategies. The initiative was launched on March 5, 2007, in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and plans are to conduct civil society consultations similar to the one held in Yaoundé in 20 countries in Africa by 2009.
The setting up of Development Analysts within the last few months has been something I am very proud of. These analysts, who applied for the position and currently number six within the continent, provide regular commentaries on Africa’s development. In addition, starting in April 2007, we will hold local gatherings whereby the Development Analysts will have an opportunity to present their commentaries to audiences in order to promote dialogue on key issues that they write about, which have to date included commentaries on elections in Nigeria and human rights issues in South Africa.
The Millennium Community Foundation, which launched in April 2007, aims to facilitate private-public and community linkages in addressing and supporting solutions to community needs.
The Panel on African Commissions (PAC) was launched by ARYI in late 2006 and we recently organized the PAC with ten youth coordinators residing in different parts of Africa. The goals of the PAC are to facilitate public dialogue concerning development processes in Africa, coordinate the work of at least ten national commissions throughout Africa by October 2007, produce clear recommendations to be delivered to government representatives, nongovernmental organizations, donor agencies, and other development actors, and popularize development initiatives (i.e., the African Youth Charter) at community and national levels through publications, research methodologies, conferences, and media work.
Youth Policy Toolkit: What is the single most important thing that makes the ARYI effective?
Ms. Mgana: The people—including Sesan and Bella in Nigeria, Frehiwot in Ethiopia, Jeannie in South Africa, Zachary in Kenya, Cleophas in Rwanda, and Mohamed in Somalia. These are just a few of the people who have been committed to the organization for a long time, are passionate about Africa, and who are clearly tomorrow’s African leaders.
Youth Policy Toolkit: What are the criteria for joining the ARYI? How can people or organizations join?
Ms. Mgana: There are two types of members within ARYI, one is as an individual and the other is as an organization. There are no criteria for joining as an individual other than an expression of interest either emailed to us or via the membership form available on the website. Organizations, however, must send us their profile (which includes a mission statement, objectives, a description of their target group, and where they operate) and a contact name and address. We then use that information to invite them to join their respective country team for in-person meetings and planning sessions. Both types of membership are free to the individual and organization.
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Contact Information for Ms. Mgana:
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 11428, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania