How to Spread it – Solome Lemma: Amplifying African voices

2015-01-25 15:00

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Solome Lemma, co-founder of Africans in the Diaspora, says that there are heroes among us and they are African, writes Gayle Edmunds

Ethiopian-born Solome Lemma is vocal on the subject of “Africa by Africans”. Sick of the perception of Africa as either corrupt and poverty riddled, or vaguely “on the rise”, she has worked to open the conversation to more diverse and nuanced African voices.

Having worked in the area of African development – a phrase she dislikes – for 12 years, she co-founded Africans in the Diaspora in 2012. The organisation seeks to “unleash” the philanthropic and intellectual capital of Africans in the diaspora – who collectively send $60?billion (R690?billion) home every year – to advance our continent’s development.

She is also the founder of Horn Light, an online platform that encourages Africans to tell their stories to the world instead of having them told by others.

Lemma has a BA in international relations from Stanford University and a master’s in public policy from Harvard University. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and was named a Champion of Change by the White House last year. She’s travelled to more than 30 of Africa’s 54 countries in her quest to ensure African voices are heard.

What makes African philanthropy unique?

Communities throughout Africa have systems of taking care of one another. Strategic philanthropy is what has been growing over the past decade and it is an incredible opportunity for Africans to make an impact in the wellbeing of their communities.

African philanthropy is a form of independence; it enables Africans to take care of their own. It is a necessary step towards the realisation of self-sufficient communities across Africa.

It also flips this prevailing paradigm that aid and philanthropy are driven from the global north to the global south. There are sufficient resources, talents and passion within Africa for Africans to take care of their problems.

Why did you found Africans in the Diaspora?

There were a few experiences over the course of my career that led to Africans in the Diaspora. It made me think about the impact of foreign aid and philanthropy on our sense of power, influence and change.

Then I realised there was a significant gap – the diaspora and those of us on the continent are not connected. We must connect our skills and resources with the innovation, knowledge and leadership of local organisations to bring about meaningful, transformational change and, in doing so, we promote African-led development solutions.

How do Africans in the diaspora give?

Africans in the diaspora send $60?billion a year to their families in the form of remittances. There are also a growing number of people in the diaspora who are returning home to work with companies, governments and nongovernmental organisations, as well as those who are opening businesses and organisations that harness their skills.

Do you foresee a time when the continent will be free of foreign aid?

Yes! There is a growing movement that questions foreign aid and that wants to see Africans approach our progress differently. The growing number of African philanthropy organisations and African philanthropists speaks to that.

In addition, mobile technology has provided opportunities for Africans to give in unconventional ways, as seen by how, for example, Kenyans for Kenya raised millions during the 2011 Horn of Africa food crisis. Leadership that is capable, accountable and visionary is needed to rid African countries of foreign aid.

What prompted you to found Horn Light?

I grew up in Ethiopia and went to the US in the sixth grade. The first question I was asked by anyone who met me was if I was starving. ‘What did you eat? How did you live? Did you know we helped you?’

Because of the way the response to the Ethiopian famine of 1984-86 was handled by organisations and the media, Americans associated Ethiopia with hunger, famine and poverty. Despite the fact that I was fine and was not affected, I had to answer these questions and explain how Ethiopia is big, diverse and complex.

When the famine unfolded in 2011, we were once again seeing images of starving children. Once again the narrative was being driven by big international organisations.

We started Horn Light to insert the voices of people from the Horn of Africa, highlight the work local organisations in the Horn were doing, and to offer a dialogue that was more nuanced and dignified.

We did not want a repeat of 1985, where the world asked if we knew it was Christmas and talked about us like we were in some dark dungeon. We wanted to show that we have our own voices and stories that mattered, we were not mere recipients of charity. We are change makers, leaders, creatives and everything in between.

What have you discovered on your travels?

Meeting, knowing and working with inspiring leaders of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds who are developing solutions to the challenges their communities face.

Leaders like James Kofi Annan, who survived trafficking to build one of Ghana’s strongest anti-trafficking organisations called Challenging Heights; or Gcobani Zonke of Ubuntu Education Fund in Port Elizabeth; or Yewoinshet Masresha of Ethiopia, who was taking care of thousands of orphans through her organisation Hope for Children. Heroes are among us and they are African.

What does it mean to give and how we can get more people to do it every day?

We give to heal ourselves. We give to feel better about our role in this world, to feel better about our privilege and fortunes. We also give because we want change, because we believe in a better world and believe that we have a role in building that better world.

When we give strategically in the form of philanthropy, it is an investment in people, in institutions, in leaders and in our collective future.

.?This series is developed in partnership with the Southern Africa Trust and the African Grantmakers Network. To support a cause, visit

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