A few months ago, the Obama Foundation, in a bid to support and develop the next generation of African leaders gathered 200 young leaders from across the continent. Imagine We’s founder and CEO Dominique Along Uwase was among the delegates. She shared with Sharon Kantengwa about how the conference changed her.
How did you get the opportunity?
The application opened sometime this year and then I applied. Basically, what they were looking for is people who were doing work in their communities in the areas of tech, entrepreneurship, education, civil leadership and things like that. We were six Rwandans from different fields that attended.
So, basically, the work that we have been doing with Imagine We, I think is what really propped me to that place because we had numbers backed up and we’ve reached about 30,000 children, through the books we’ve sold, the teachers we’ve trained and the authors and libraries we’ve built. Towards the end of this month I think we will have built 20 libraries.
How was the experience like?
It was a lot of learning. We had people like Kofi Anaan, Aliko Dangote, from the political and financial side, we also had the director of Black Panther, basically many people from different fields who talked to us about how to grow our businesses. I felt that the ideas that were given were pretty nice, the experience was really nice, and the place that we were at was really beautiful- that was my first time in South Africa, so it was really exciting.
What are some of the lessons that you came back home with?
My highlight was meeting Obama one on one obviously, but generally the thing that I took away was that first of all, Africa is more united than we want to think. A lot of young people are trying to find things to be angry about but the first thing I learned was that there is so much to celebrate and if we just switch our perspective and celebrate what is to be celebrated, then we will have enough positivity to create more impact. I think that was a much needed change of perspective.
The second thing was fact fullness. I like that word now because with the advent of social media, we have angry mobs, you know, people are posting angry things everyday but the fact of the matter is that the world is doing much better than it has ever done in life. 80% of the world now has access to electricity, which in my head I thought was just 20% because the news tells you bad things before it tells you good things. Apparently, 60% of girls can now attend school in the whole world, I thought it was 20% again. Learning that the world is doing better was something that I needed to hear.
So did meeting Obama change you in any way?
I wish it did. Yes I met him, hugged him, I shook his hand, whatever, but I am still going to take a bike when I come to work. It didn’t magically give me a car or bigger house. What it did give me was credibility, because a few days ago people were talking about me on radio. I don’t even know what they said, but they assumed that I was incredibly rich.
I think what it did was give me a little more respect but I’m still the same person.
While there, do you feel like you represented Rwanda in any way?
I think I did. My heart beats for Rwanda, the children that I help are Rwandans. To meet people who haven’t heard about Rwanda, heard bad things about the country and having a one on one conversation with them was very important because some people still think that we are killing each other, so telling them that I have a company that is thriving in Rwanda changed their perspective.
Also the positivity, a lot of people have stereotypes about our culture, Rwandans are quiet people, Rwandans are cold, and Rwandans don’t speak English well. I was like “by the way I’m Rwandan and we don’t run after cows all day.”
Now that you have learned more about leadership, what are your plans for Imagine We?
The goals are to make Imagine We, the number one publishing house in East Africa by 2030, hopefully earlier than that. We are already doing well with people like Karen Bugingo, we started book tours in East Africa, and we are taking her to Ghana, Nigeria and with Obama Leaders now we have a home because of those connections that are bridging the market.
We already have people who are ready to receive us in so many African countries and that’s a huge win for that meeting as Africans, and that came in handy for me after our African presidents signed the Establishment of the AfCFTA because for me now it is more realistic.
As a leader, I also learned that there are so many ways that I can use to express my talents, help my community and express my beliefs. I learned about justice. Obviously coming back with such a mentality will make me more open minded to a lot of people. I think I’m a better person now, but that’s like seven months of learning.