Agritourism farm earns African entrepreneur a ticket to Washington

Courtesy photo

Amadou “Chico” Cissoko hopes his entrepreneurial success will inspire other young Africans to launch their own startup ventures.

Several years ago, he created an agritourism business on his family farm in Kindia, Guinea that brings expatriates and young people from around the world together to learn about agriculture, business, farming and diplomacy.

The venture took off, eventually attracting business executives and diplomats who used the conference room he built on-site to negotiate when political strife in the country prevented them from meeting more publicly. Cissoko caught the eye of a U.S. ambassador, and now, the 27-year-old has just completed a State Department-run exchange program in the United States that has inspired him to take the lessons he learned from the experience back home to expand his efforts.

“I never just saw myself as a Guinean entrepreneur,” Cissoko said when asked about his fellowship experience. “I always saw myself as a global entrepreneur. ”

That’s exactly what the U.S. State Department wants to hear. The program Cissoko completed is a new fellowship organized through the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI), part of the department’s effort to increase diplomacy with African and Southeast Asian countries through exchange programs.

YALI aims to bring young African entrepreneurs and professionals like Cissoko to the U.S. for six-week fellowships at American universities. This year’s inaugural class, the Mandela Class of 2014, includes 500 participants, all between the ages of 25 and 35. They study things like business development, civic leadership and public management, but the program also offers participants a chance to network with policymakers and nonprofit leaders in the nation’s capital.

Cissoko and the other fellows attended the recent U.S-Africa summit in Washington, D.C., during which the Obama administration called for more collaboration and interaction between U.S. companies and African leaders.

The YALI program and summit come as countries like China are stepping up efforts to do business in Africa.

Cissoko completed his fellowship at the University of Notre Dame in July and began an internship at tech giant IBM this week.

“The environment in which I was in Guinea, I didn’t really have the opportunity to put forth all of the potential I had in myself,” Cissoko said, as he described the frustration he felt when he first launched his agritourism business. With the lessons he’s learned in the United States and the contacts he’ll make at IBM, he hopes to be able to fulfill that potential.

“In any country in Africa where I want to go, I can go and I’ll find that I have a fellow there,” said Cissoko, naming country after country and explaining the influence of the YALI network of fellows across the continent “and I can bring something, bring my ideas, bring my network, bring investors and help them grow what they’re doing.”

He has plans underway, with the African fellows he met in the U.S., of expanding his agritourism business in other African nations and hopes what he sees as a growing entrepreneurial trend in Africa will improve the infrastructure and economies of the continent’s nations.

“It’s going to have an effect on the next 50 years of Africa,” Cissoko said about the future of YALI in Africa. “And I wouldn’t be surprised in the next 20 or 35 years if some other future president or leaders of big corporations of organizations was part of this YALI program.”

The State Department expects the YALI program to expand to 1,000 fellows by 2016. Next year’s summit is set to take place in Sub-Saharan Africa.