I first met James on a media platform in London, we were both analysing events in Africa. I was struck by his vision, age and focus on global affairs with particular focus on Africa. Whilst his roots are firmly anchored to his home country Malawi, he continues to shine across the continent. He has achieved way beyond his time, he is mannered and humbled and a true asset to the African continent. His future is a bright as the African sun, and we can expect more wonders from this shining young man.
James Woods talks to Dorcas Gwata, Director of Tribal Sands.
DG: James, you have become one of the most influential young Africans with great visibility on many platforms, can you tell us how you got into Youth Development?
JW: It is an honour to be considered as influential, I see myself as that young man from Malawi with a passion and a dream to create a better Africa. The reason I got into this work was simply seeing my surroundings in Malawi where systems have failed many and instead of waiting for others to help fix it I thought why not me.
DG: You were named Africa’s Change Maker of the year 2015, among some of the greatest names in the continent. What did this award mean to you and your future commitments?
JW: To be recognised for the work one is doing is extremely humbling, to be recognised at such an event with many global/household names is even more flattering. Apart from me, other winners on the night included the then President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete; The African Union Chairperson, Dlamini Zuma; The Award winning musician, Diamond Platnumz; The One Organisation and South Africa Broadcasting Corporation to name a few.
There are many people out there doing wonderful work who do not get recognised so the award I received is for all of them and not just me.
The award has put a lot of things in perspective for me, that we are here for a reason and my reason is to help drive the positive change we dream of seeing for our countries and continent. My future commitments are simple – turn observations into obligations – but to achieve the goals set is difficult but together we can achieve a better Africa.
DG: You were born in Malawi, orphaned at a young age and then moved to London, a journey as unique as it is common amongst Africans. What more can you tell us about this lifetime journey and what are your fonder memories of a childhood in Malawi.
JW: I lost both my parents at the age of 8. Life took a drastic turn as we went from living a life of wealth to one of need.
My mother (local Malawian lady) was an extremely successful entrepreneur (real estate and transportation); my father worked with Price Waterhouse, Malawi Ministry of Works, he established the first financial system Malawi government used, was involved in the Malawi tea estates – these guys were way ahead of their time. When we lost them, we as children faced many challenges. My father and mother, during the short time I knew them had instilled a certain belief and character in us. A belief that we can be whatever we want to be, that has never left me. I was fortunate that as a child, my parents travelled the world with us and taught us many life lessons.
DG: You were part of the inaugural team that set up the London School of Economics and Political Science ‘Africa Summit’ platform with a number of other students in 2014, why did you feel it was important to have a single platform where African issues can be discussed?
Let me first commend all those who were involved in the inaugural LSE Africa Summit as we all had a part to play to ensure it’s success and be a model on which we could use to improve year on. The LSE Africa Summit is now going into it’s third year (April 2016) – the inaugural team have served to some extent as advisors and there is now a wonderful set of students who have taken over the planning, logistics, running etc…
The LSE has trained many wonderful African’s such as Yemi Osinbajo, current Vice-President of Nigeria; Kwame Nkrumah, First Prime Minister of Ghana, 1957-1960; Jomo Kenyatta, President of Kenya, 1964-1978 to name just a few. There was no better place to have this platform to showcase what our continent is doing and what still needs to be done. Bringing together professionals from all walks of life to help find solutions to prosper our continent and not just talk but put words into action.
DG: You have worked and rubbed shoulders with heads of state, Prince William, an invitation to the White House and also to a private dinner with Bill Clinton to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s life yet you remain very grounded and true to your African roots why is this important to you?
JW: Life has been very fortunate for me. I have had the opportunity to meet many amazing people from different walks of life. For me, it does not matter as to whether I have dinner with a Head of State, Nobel Peace Prize winner or a renowned billionaire, lunch with a Hollywood A-list actor, tea with an English premier league footballer or breakfast with a security guard in Malawi or a street vendor in Zimbabwe – they are all people, some have been fortunate to achieve their dreams whilst others have not. We all have something to offer but most importantly we should aim to lift others so that they too can attain their dreams. Having witnessed the different cultures of the western world and Africa this has further cemented my passion for home and our people. Africa is a beautiful continent with beautiful people, sadly at times the governance has failed us but if we don’t stand up and be counted we will forever talk about a rising Africa that never reached her potential.
DG: In 2008 Madonna controversially adopted a Malawian child, in the promise of development, which never took off in Malawi. What was your view on this?
JW: Personally, I believe what Madonna did was great – she gave two Malawian children David Banda and Mercy James a home, an opportunity to a great future which they can use to help lift others. The media attention at the time did not really help, so one can understand the outrage. As for the question pertaining to the development that never took place – I think this has much to do with the politics and personal agendas of all involved be it Madonna, her team or government of the time.
DG: Natural disasters can be horribly unfair. You were one of the few Malawians who raised the world’s awareness to the floods in Malawi in 2015. What more can African governments do to address the threats of climate change, which invariably affect the most vulnerable in Africa?
JW: Yes, I was one of the first people to raise awareness of the floods that devastated Malawi in early 2015. International media was fixated on Mozambique and ignoring Malawi – so it was only right to also get media to focus on what Malawi was going through. The Malawi government is considering how it can better prevent climate-linked disasters, reviewing 1991 Disaster Preparedness and Relief Act to come up with a better and robust policy.
DG: James many African countries are struggling to improve their governance structures, to the detriment of their own populations. How can individual countries and institutions such as the African Union and ECOWAS improve on this?
The Continent’s mother body, the African Union and other regional players must not only articulate clear terms on governance issues but must also strictly act according to letter and spirit of the terms when a Head of State diverts from the tenets of good governance and start to act with impunity. Why should the AU or ECOWAS have rules of engagement, which they know they will be shy to enforce? This defeats the whole purpose of having such bodies and these institutions better be serious if people on the continent are to take them seriously. Why should it take NATO or individual foreign countries to intervene when there is a serious crisis in individual African states when the AU is there?
DG: Rates of gender violence in the continent are still alarmingly high, with African women bearing the heaviest burden, what in your opinion is the role of African men in reducing these rates? Is culture working against us?
JW: Violence against women, children or men is a NO. You are right, African women do face a big burden on domestic violence. Firstly, this can be attributed to society they are in and what they are made to believe – a World Report in 2016 ‘’Domestic Violence and Poverty in Africa: When the Husband’s Beating Stick is Like Butter’’ indicated that 51% of African women viewed that being beaten by their husbands was acceptable if they had disobeyed him, gone somewhere without his permission, had argued back, refuse to have sex, burnt the food or not taking good care of the home. Here we see the big need in empowering these women, so that they know they have a voice and not live in fear.
Secondly, African men need to take a bigger role in respecting women as their wives, mothers, sisters, friends, equals and move away from the deep-rooted cultures where women are seen as second citizens.
Lastly, to achieve this I believe organisations at both international and local level need to start working with Africa’s biggest asset – ‘’The Youth’’. Prevention of this violence has to start early in life, by educating and working closely with young boys and girls promoting respectful relationships and gender equality. It is at this age where you can foster greater gender relations.
DG: We are observing an increasingly refreshing and energised and sometimes restless African youth across the continent; all issues considered where do you see the youth in 15-20 years from now?
JW: Africa is truly a youthful continent with estimates suggesting that 200 million Africans are between 15 and 24 years old. With this we can see youth as being the continents best asset if governments put in place polices to harness their potential. Actually this youthful population is expected to double by 2045.
If our African leaders can create systems which empower the youth such as:
Improving education: A lot of our schools on the continent put an emphasis on rote learning which ends up leaving us with graduates who are not innovative; don’t think outside the box; are not problem solvers and are not go getters. We need to move away from this and create systems where we can have that innovation and development of critical thinkers. The curriculum needs to be tailored to the labour market and the key economic sectors for the country development. Most importantly the skills the students learn must be transferrable.
Making youth part of the country development agenda – with vast populations considered as youth, our leaders need to make them part of their agenda for the transformation of their respective countries.
Job creation – with this vast youthful population comes the need to provide jobs. Our leaders need to sit down and identify the key sectors that are currently there and will in future drive the economy and create opportunities in these sectors. There is need for strategic planning, vision and implementation by our leaders to make this a reality. If they have addressed the education downfalls then there will be an influx of educated Africans to fill these roles with the right skill sets but most importantly they will be innovative thus able to think outside the box.
So the question: Where do I see this youth in 15-20 years? I see them as being the Changemakers who will drive the continents prosperity forward if our leaders have the vision and tools of good governance.
DG: The African Union made a bold and ambitious plan for women development throughout Africa, how in your opinion can microeconomics improve health and social outcomes for African women and what would a successful look like to you if we achieved it?
JW: In a typical African set-up, most women look after their families and for varying reasons, these women lack the economic muscle to develop themselves health as well as social wise. In my view, empowering them, among other things through soft loans to start small scale business would go a long way in uplifting their lives in these aspects as well as in many other aspects of their lives.
More importantly and in the long run, there is a need to empower an African girl child with education. The adage, ‘when you educate a girl, you have educated the whole nation,’ perhaps was coined owing to the responsibility, which an African woman has of looking after the entire family. So it is important not to turn a blind eye in as far as empowering an African girl child where education is concerned.
DG: What makes you tick, and how do you relax?
I am a very inquisitive and curious person, always trying to understand my surroundings, how to better myself, and those around me. I guess it is the turning of observations into obligations that impact many that drives me. To relax, I love reading, travelling, experiencing new cuisines and cultures but most importantly spending time with my family. I always put time aside to thank the Lord God for all the blessings.
DG: Favourite writers and musicians and why do they stand out?
JW: The list is long:
Wole Soyinka – I simply enjoy his writings, go read something of his and tell me what you think?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – she is a fascinating storyteller.
Yvonne Vera – sadly she passed away young but her writing was absolutely fearless and courageous – she wrote about tragedies affecting society and women, delivering it with such an effect that made the reader feel as if they are living through her words.
Legson Kayira (Malawian author) for his book ‘I Will Try’ – which shows the power of belief and determination to achieve the life you wish to have despite your circumstance. Enjoy reading books by Terry Pratchett…I think this list can go on.
DG: Favourite Musicians?
JW: Well I wouldn’t say I have a favourite but I do enjoy listening to music from different genres – classical, jazz, hip-hop, reggae. At the moment I am really into traditional African sounds.
James thank you very much for talking to me on Tribal Sands.
Bio: James is the Founder of AJ Africa Consulting, an independent advisory firm providing consultancy services on Sub-Saharan Africa in areas of governmental relations, geo-political risk, strategic communications, media, reputation and crisis management. Has an extensive knowledge of working with media and leading figures in government and private sector.
Holds B.A. Hons in Politics, Philosophy and History and a Masters in Social Policy and Development from London School of Economics and Political Science.
Dorcas Gwata, Director of Tribal Sands
March 2016, all rights reserved.