How the ITU Youth Fellowship inspired my career, By Gbenga Sesan
Gbenga Sesan

My career as a proponent of digital development and meaningful connectivity began 22 years ago, while I was a student of engineering at the Obafemi Awolowo University in Ile-Ife, Nigeria.

One of our lecturers there, Professor G. O. Ajayi, asked who could write on the subject of technologies, youth and national development.

I was always talking about how information and communication technologies (ICTs) could drive personal development, nation-building, regional cooperation, and global participation. So I wrote the essay and handed it to Prof. Ajayi, not knowing he would submit it as an entry for the Africa 2001 Youth Fellowship organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

A few weeks later, Prof. Ajayi e-mailed me: “Dear ‘Gbenga, Congrats. You are successful and have been selected. I advise you to obtain a passport…”

I was over the moon. This was a big win in so many ways. It would be my first time seeing an airplane on the ground, let alone getting on it and travelling to another country. I wasted no time in getting my passport, and while the visa process was a bit tedious, an ITU letter told the embassy exactly why this Nigerian newbie would be coming to South Africa.

ITU rolled out the red carpet for the 54 young men and 54 young women, selected from 54 African countries, who descended on Johannesburg for our fellowship programme in November 2001.

From the welcome reception to the courtesy visits, training sessions, conference participation and more, we were being inducted into a special cohort.

The host country’s President Thabo Mbeki glowingly described us as “the future of Africa.”

Dr Hamadoun Touré, at that time Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Development Bureau (and later ITU Secretary-General), said we were selected from “among the best of Africa.”

It felt like a lot of pressure.

Inspired to think bigger

Walda Roseman, who inspired the ITU Youth Fellowship and remains a mentor to most of us, likewise kept telling us we were “Africa’s future.”

Many of us did not understand the depth of her words at the time. But looking back, her idea of finding the brightest and most enthusiastic young people to prepare them for ICT leadership on the continent could not have come at a better time for me.

Inspired by the ITU Youth Fellowship, I started an online group, Black Pioneers, that morphed into an eNigeria mailing list and eventually Paradigm Initiative Nigeria (PIN) – the name I adopted for my volunteer efforts in ICTs for development.

I had a job at a non-profit, too, coordinating training for young people around Nigeria. Starting in 2001, I also took part in United Nations-led conversations on how ICTs were changing our world.

The UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) started regional consultations in 2002, ahead of its two major meetings – first, in Geneva in 2003, and then in Tunis in 2005.

During African consultations in Mali in 2002, ITU invited me to speak about the role of young people in the global debate on the information society.

That led to my involvement in the Youth Caucus of the WSIS, which in turn informed the Rural Youth National Information Society Campaigns (RYNICS) that took me across Nigeria.

In less than one year, RYNICS trained more than 400 young people in the Federal Capital Territory and eight states across Nigeria on ICTs. We also explained the WSIS process to them and took their feedback with us to Geneva and Tunis.

The work of that extraordinary group of volunteers is documented in Global Process, Local Reality: Nigerian Youth-Led Action in the Information Society (Paradigm Initiative Nigeria, 2005), which I edited and co-authored with Adeolu Ashaye, Ayo Oldejo, Ayobami Olutuase, Edward Popoola, Kola Osinowo, Nwanneka Akabuike and ‘Tope Soremi. The book was sponsored by the Heinrich Boll Foundation.

In 2007, with global policy processes taking up more of my time, I resigned from Junior Achievement of Nigeria to start my own organization focused on youth, ICTs and policy.

Since then, my initiative has grown from a small cybercafe in Ajegunle – an informal settlement in Lagos, Nigeria – to become a truly pan-African organization, with offices in six countries and operations across the continent.

Passing the torch

It’s almost like Dr Touré and Ms Roseman saw the future and prepared me for it. Every stage of my career has relied on skills I acquired through ITU, as well as fulfilling my own promises.

This year, when I got the invitation to join the UN Secretary-General’s Internet Governance Forum (IGF) Leadership Panel, my mind went back to how I first became involved with the WSIS and IGF.

That ICT newbie and excited ITU Youth Fellow, I realized, had grown over the years to become a globally recognised expert in digital inclusion and rights. It was only fair, then, to redouble my efforts to support young Africans in building enduring careers and thus continue the cycle that Dr Touré, Ms Roseman and ITU began for me in November 2001.

I was especially honoured to tell my story to ITU Secretary-General Doreen Bogdan-Martin, the first woman to break the glass ceiling in the organization’s 158-year history. I am glad to see ITU’s ongoing interest in youth empowerment and, more importantly, appreciate working with ITU and other digital stakeholders to define the best possible future for the Internet.

My career journey is one of many that organizations like ITU, along with the Walda Rosemans of the world, have inspired.

I feel fortunate in continuing to build the future while empowering a new generation to do the same. Thank you, Walda Roseman. Thank you, Dr Hamadoun Touré. Thank you, ITU.

Thank you, Doreen Bogdan-Martin, for breaking the glass ceiling, for hearing my story, and for working with the IGF Leadership Panel to build the Internet – and the digital future – we all want.

‘Gbenga Sesan is Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, a pan-African social enterprise working on digital inclusion and digital rights, with offices in Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Zambia and Zimbabwe. ‘

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