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From Africa to DSM USA, This is What I've Learned Through the Mandela Washington Fellowship

Mandela Fellowship

July 30, 2018

It was a few minutes after midnight on March 27, 2018 when I opened a much-anticipated email from the Mandela Washington Fellowship confirming my placement in the U.S. When I learnt that I had been placed at Drake University in Greater Des Moines (DSM), I quickly rushed to my search engine to look it up. After watching videos and reading through the web about Iowa, I dreamt that night of myself in a cornfield. Some of my fellow Zimbabweans had been placed in larger cities that I had known more about. Fast forward to today, I am convinced that DSM is the right and best placement that I could ever have had. It is the hidden gem of the U.S. and thanks to the Greater Des Moines Partnership for augmenting a once in a lifetime experience. 

Mandela Washington Fellowship

The Mandela Washington Fellowship is the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) by the U.S. Department of State. The fellowship began in 2014 and brings young leaders to the U.S. for academic coursework and leadership training, and creates unique opportunities in Africa for Fellows to put new skills to practical use in leading organizations, communities and countries. Fellows are placed in various universities across the U.S. and Drake University is amongst them. This year, Drake hosts 25 leaders from 18 countries across Africa under the Business and Entrepreneurship track. 

Being Introduced to DSM

Mandela Fellowship in DSM USAThe Drake team has arranged interesting and relevant activities that will  enable us to learn more, create networks and ultimately catapult our mindsets and careers to a higher level. Amongst these activities was our interaction  with The Partnership. On our first Saturday in DSM, we visited their offices and we had an interesting presentation from Executive Vice President of Talent Development Mary Bontrager and later from CEO Jay Byers. They introduced DSM and provided us the opportunity to understand the business context that we are in. From my understanding, DSM is on a good path towards revitalizing itself and putting itself on the world map. The community and business leaders take proactive steps towards making their city develop socio-economically for the greater good. This gave me a major paradigm shift — from one of individuality to that of collaboration. I’m realizing that it is up to us as citizens to make our lives better by building bridges between businesses, the government and the community. 

Practical Site Visit

We were honored to visit the Global Insurance Accelerator and were introduced to The Partnership’s entrepreneurial resources, the AgriTech Accelerator and Plains Angels. Besides being the largest corn producer in the U.S., Iowa’s capital is a global hub for insurance services. This makes it the best place to incubate future leaders in these sectors. The Global Insurance and AgriTech Accelerators are strategic initiatives. Mike Colwell and Megan Vollstedt took us through the history and how the space works. I was impressed by how The Partnership together with local businesses is connecting young leaders to investment opportunities, a rare scenario in Africa. I learnt that investing in young leaders is the foundation to working economies for the future. The time is now for African young leaders to equip themselves for the future: A key lesson from our visit. 

I could go on and on describing the amazing experience that myself and my awesome Fellows have had. But I will just wrap up and say, despite a little culture shock, DSM and The Mandela Washington Fellowship at Drake have made our stay here in the U.S. one that is fruitful, eye-opening, educative, fun and life changing! The seed planted in us will definitely yield. We hope to create lasting relations and partnerships with the DSM community to create a better world for all of us. 

Mandela Washington Fellowship

Through the Global DSM international talent strategy, The Partnership works to establish Greater Des Moines (DSM) as a global community attracting and retaining foreign-born persons to the region. Check out more Global DSM stories.


Lisa Nyamadzawo

Lisa Nyamadzawo is a promising social innovator from Zimbabwe with keen interests are in the fields of renewable energy innovation, urban renewal and digital empowerment. She is a co-founder of SolvUS Zimbabwe which runs an initiative called Green Spaces, which seeks to revamp public spaces through the provision of solar energy charging ports and wi-fi to address the digital divide and the green energy agenda. A finalist in the Green Innovations Hub Challenge, Green Spaces has also won the Young Scientist and Entrepreneur Award in Tunisia 2017 from the Renewable Energy Cooperation Program (RECP). Lisa holds a BSc Honors Degree in Rural and Urban Planning and Certificate in Project Management. She is a graduate member of the Zimbabwe Institute of Regional and Urban Planners and sits on the Executive Committee of the Internet Society Zimbabwe Chapter. She also has a passion for research, blogging and reading books.