Are you an African between 18 and 25 years young and thinking of taking part in this year’s Uongozi Institute Leadership Essay Contest? Opportunity Desk conducts an exclusive interview with all the 2016 finalists to find out how they won and why you too should make an application!
Each year, the Institute of African Leadership for Sustainable Development (UONGOZI Institute) launches an essay contest for young African people between 18 and 25 years. The aim of the competition is to provide the African youth with space where they can contribute to meaningful discussions about leadership.
From the pool of essays written the top five pieces are shortlisted and the finalists besides receiving cash prizes, get a fully-funded trip to the prize giving ceremony. The overall winner is named, receives a grand prize of $2000 and gets to read his or her essay in front of global leaders throughout Africa whom most of us can only read about in history books!
Adekunle Adepajo, Collins Kipkemoi, Chidinma Akaniro, Tinotenda Murove and Liz Guantai were the finalists in 2016. Liz Guantai emerged the overall winner scooping the $2000.
About the winners
Zimbabwe’s Tinotenda Murove is an accountancy graduate from the University of Zimbabwe. He currently pursues postgraduate honor in Accountancy aiming to become a chartered accountant. He genuinely loves Africa and believes its inhabitants can pioneer the continent’s socio-economic transformation through homegrown solutions.
Nigeria’s Adekunle Adepajo is a final year student of law at the University of Ibadan. He is passionate about journalism, writing, and public speaking.
Kenya’s Collins Kipkemoi is a student in Thika School of Medical and Health Sciences where he pursues Environmental Sciences and Technology. He is passionate about writing and reading and believes a good writer is an avid reader.
Chidinma Akaniro is a business consultant and a youth activist. She runs a youth empowerment non-governmental organization called Youths of West Africa which promotes youth entrepreneurship and empowers disadvantaged youth with skills and resources to set up businesses.
The overall winner, Liz Guantai is a law graduate from the University of Nairobi, Kenya. She as well graduated from Kenya School of Law to qualify as an advocate in the High Court. Besides law, she has pursued other courses such as Accounting and Secretarial Practice. Liz is passionate about social justice, community empowerment and protection of human rights. In 2015, she got selected as a global champion for change for women’s economic empowerment by UN’s Empower Women. She currently serves as an associate in the Financial Advisory department in a Kenyan company.
How they heard about the contest and why they opted to apply
Chidinma Akaniro came across the competition while interning at Technoserve Accra. “During this internship, I had lots of free time, so I challenged myself to apply for one opportunity every week. I visited oppportunitydesk.org every week to bookmark opportunities I was eligible for. I stumbled upon Uongozi leadership essay on Opportunity Desk.”
“I had seen lots of essay writing competitions, but I never thought to apply because I didn’t have any experience with essay writing. I had never written an essay asides secondary school essay assignments. But the title of the essay spoke to me. You see, I ran a cloth and jewelry making business in Enugu, Nigeria. The business was faced with numerous challenges most of which were as a result of unfavorable government policies and business environment. I belonged to a network of young entrepreneurs, and most of them had similar challenges. I saw the topic, and I knew I had to share my experiences. I had to speak the mind of other young entrepreneurs facing these difficulties. I braced up and wrote my first real essay,” she says.
As for Liz, she was perusing through an opportunities website in search of a master’s scholarship to study abroad when she stumbled upon the contest. Besides winning a free ticket to a prestigious leadership forum and the huge amount of prize money, Liz and Collins were hugely motivated by the essay topic in business and leadership. “I found the theme of the essay to be something which I can relate to and a topic I cherish. I have seen friends, relatives, and my fellow students start their businesses, only to shut down a few weeks later. I saw the essay as an opportunity to express myself and to come up with solutions to the problems facing businesses in Africa,” says Collins.
“I found the theme of the essay to be something which I can relate to and a topic I cherish. I have seen friends, relatives, and my fellow students start their businesses, only to shut down a few weeks later. I saw the essay as an opportunity to express myself and to come up with solutions to the problems facing businesses in Africa,” says Collins.
Collins, Adekunle, and Tinotenda got to know about the contest all thanks to their curiosity in going through significant opportunities’ websites. “I was searching for a scholarship for my brother on Opportunity Desk when I came across the advertisement for the Uongozi Institute Essay. I was hesitant because it had been years since I participated in an essay contest. I opted to give it a try,” says Collins.
Adekunle wanted to travel beyond the borders of Nigeria and to learn more. He sees every writing competition as an opportunity to research and gain a better understanding of an issue.
Tinotenda got attracted by the topic of business and leadership which he happens to be passionate about.” I believe African businesses hold the key to the continent developing to realize its potential. I found it quite appealing to write on the topic and get an opportunity to share my ideas,” says Tinotenda.
Their Experiences in Dar-es-salaam, Tanzania and things which changed after
For them all, their experiences are quite memorable and something they dearly treasure up to date. They had the rare privilege of learning and sharing ideas with young, energetic African leaders.
“I drew many lessons from the essays of other finalists, both through the content which contained many key nuggets on how businesses can be done better on the continent as well as writing and delivery styles which were all unique and well-constructed. These are key lessons which have helped me in the participation of Zimbabwean economy, both as an entrepreneur through a start-up I co-founded and as an emerging young professional through my accountancy background and studies,” explains Tinotenda.
Chidinma describes the experience as mind-blowing. From an all-expense-paid trip to VIP accommodation in a luxury hotel, making new friends and meeting great and engaging African leaders. For her, it was an amazing learning experience.
“I also experienced some mind shift from attending the event,” explains Chidinma. She always had the urge of writing a book but was faced with lots of uncertainty as she had no formal writing experience nor training. But when she did try writing for the first time, she won an international award! “This was the prompt I needed to get started on my book. Winning the essay writing competition made me realize I was underrating my abilities and it pushed me to start working on my book,” says Chidnma. She has now completed writing her first book and will be made public on 1st August 2017. “I don’t know if I would have done this if I had not applied for the Uongozi Leadership Essay.” Says Chidinma.
As for Adekunle, he believes no form of learning compares to exposure. He met several heads of states and even had the honor of shaking hands with His Excellency Thabo Mbeki, South Africa’s former president. “We were all treated like kings and queens. Our flights were catered for. We were lodged in a five-star hotel and treated to buffets over and over. The locals were very kind and hospitable,” he says.
Just like Chidnma, Collins also experienced some shift in his mindset. “The event was able to transform my mindset, and I came to believe that there is hope for Africa. All we have to do is to hold hands and solve our problems together. Of course, the best part was when I was given $1500 and a certificate that has a place on my wall,” he says.
Their tips to writing winning essays.
In an interview with Uongozi Leadership Institute, Liz Guantai revealed the key to writing a winning essay is to use practical examples then adding some bit of professionalism to one’s work. She advises participants to think about the issues they face in their day to day lives and come up with proposals to those problems. By all means, she suggests, participants should avoid plagiarism and write in their voice.
Tinotenda Murove reemphasizes the importance of expressing thy thoughts. “Be yourself. Express yourself as naturally and as unique as you can. Don’t be afraid to break any barriers. Don’t hesitate to write on the topic even if you have never written on the subject matter before. Last year’s winner had never written on business before. And also be passionate about the topic you are writing about. You have to feel it and put your heart in it.”
Collins believes the key things the judges are looking for are originality and creativity. “The judges look at a wide variety of things, from the content of your essay to the formatting. But what I think sets apart a winning essay from the other essays is originality and creativity. Only those two things. There were about 580 submissions last year. The question that you should ask yourself as you write your essay is, “How is my article different from the other 600?” All that the judges want is something unique and exciting, obviously without watering down your intended message.”
Chidinma believes originality will make one’s essay stand out from the rest. “The judges were looking for a personal and original touch of the essay. It is easy to pull out facts and figures from the internet and write a generic essay, but what makes an article stand out are the strategic infusion of short stories, personal experiences and a personal touch to it. To enable someone who reads feel your emotion. An original piece, creatively crafted with a personal touch,” she says.
Adenkule believes personal stories related to the theme makes one’s essay stand out. “What the judges want isn’t just a demonstration of research skills and creativity. They were particular about personal stories relevant to the theme. All the five winning entries have one thing in common-they are all down-to-earth. The top two entries shared experiences unique to the authors. Kipkemoi from Kenya talked about his art teacher and how family and friends discouraged him when he wanted to start a business. Liz, also from Kenya talked about traders she had met, interactions she had learned from. She used the first person pronoun a lot, and even mentioned names of real people to give a human face to her views. Similarly, Chidinma from Nigeria talked extensively about her fashion business and how it was negatively affected by prevailing socio-political conditions. So, stories are key. Everybody loves them and apparently, the judges were no exception.”
“They also seemed to appreciate in-depth research and creativity. My entry, for example, recounted no personal experience. It was excessively impersonal. But I guess, what stood me out was the salad of facts, and how I deployed my metaphors. Tinotenda’s entry, in this regard, was quite like mine. But if you read it, you would marvel at his ingenuity and ability to think outside the box,” he explains.
Their words of advice to those thinking of taking part in this year’s contest
Adenkule: By all means, participate. I cannot assure you that you will win. But what I am sure of is that you have nothing to lose, yet a lot to gain. Believe in yourself. Whatever style of writing you are used to, ensure it stands out from the pile and make it count. Endeavor to stamp your uniqueness on those pages. Do not be afraid to share part of yourself and your experiences onto the screen.
Collins: Take risks! Take risks! Take risks! What I believe the judges want are uniqueness, creativity and a profound message. Write as though you will never write again, and I believe you will emerge as one of the best. If I did it, then you most certainly can do it. Also, ensure that you have a substantial introduction, maintain the pace in the body and then finish strong.
Chidinma: Stop thinking and get writing. The majority of people spend a lot of time thinking and planning. They forget to get to write until the deadline approaches.
Personalize your essay. Do not lift articles or snippets from the internet. Write an original piece and be as creative as possible. Infuse short and exciting stories and examples.
Whether you win or not, isn’t what’s important. The most important thing is to have a mindset of an achiever and opportunist. Apply to as numerous opportunities as you can no matter what response you get. Thanks to opportunitydesk.org, you can access all these opportunities. Keep trying, keep applying. Your success story is definitely around the corner. Best of luck as you write your essay.
Congratulations to last year’s contest winners!
Find out more information about this year’s contest and how to participate here!
Photo credit: Uongozi Institute