119. Reanne Olivier: Empowering African Youth

Reanne Olivier headshotIn podcast episode 119, Reanne Olivier, co-founder of Africa Matters Initiative talks to Sue Stockdale about how her first journey to South Africa was sparked by her parents’ curiosity and exploration of the continent. This led her to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about Africa, and ultimately shape her passion for making a difference. By immersing herself in the diverse cultures and communities of Africa, Reanne gained a deeper understanding of the continent and its people, allowing her to build relationships, learn from others, and collaborate to create an initiative that is empowering African youth. 

About Reanne Olivier

Reanne is the co-founder and CEO of Africa Matters Initiative, a youth-led organisation dedicated to empowering and upskilling African youth. As the CEO, she has led successful youth programs promoting transformative leadership and community advancement across 22 African countries. With over a decade of experience in nonprofit program management across Africa, she specialises in designing and developing highly effective learning materials for young people. Reanne previously served as a Program Manager for Princeton in Africa and as the USA Director for Stellenbosch University’s Development & Alumni Relations Office. Beyond her leadership roles, she is a gender and sexual rights activist, facilitator, consultant, and problem solver.  Find out more at Website | TwitterLinkedIn | Facebook

Time Stamps

[00:02:19] Passion for the African continent.
[00:08:17] Identity challenges in South Africa.
[00:12:22] Empowering African youth.
[00:14:32] Impact of training women artisans.
[00:22:22] Starting from the bottom.
[00:26:17] Overcoming guidance counselor discouragement.

Key Quotes

  • “Africa is more than what the Western media was portraying.”
  • “There’s a welcoming nature of the African continent, of African people, that allows you to feel at home, regardless of your race, your gender, your background.”
  • “Human beings are literally the same. They’re just in different locations. They just speak different languages and they have different colours.”
  • “We have been able to impact over 6, 000 young people across the continent.”
  • “Community for me is really, really important. Again, that’s what has moulded me to be the person that I am today.” 

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Reanne Olivier Transcription

Sue: Hi, I’m Sue Stockdale and welcome to episode 119 of the Access to Inspiration podcast. The show where you can be inspired by people who may be unalike you. This week my guest is Reanne Olivier, co-founder of Africa Matters Initiative. Reanne explains to me how she gained a deeper understanding of the African continent by living and studying in South Africa and that experience inspired her to create an initiative that is empowering African youth. As always you read the transcription of this podcast as you are listening on our website accesstoinspiration.org.  Welcome to the podcast Reanne. So tell me, Reanne, what are you doing in Scotland?

Reanne: I am currently studying my Masters in African International Development at the University of Edinburgh.

Sue: And what does that involve?

Reanne: It’s actually looking at international development from a theoretical standpoint, but looking at it through the lens of Africa. So how do actors, such as international development actors in particular, influence policy, influence implementation, influence governments when it comes to election participation or what have you? And so the program is really centered around what is the nuance of international development or organizations being positioned in Africa and how is that benefiting the continent and the people who live within the continent or what are some of the challenges and the discourses that we would want to incorporate that are important in relation to those two topics.

Sue: So what I’m hearing from you Reanne is that you’ve got an interest in the African continent and you’re the co-founder of an organisation called Africa Matters Initiative. I’m imagining what you’re learning here at university is relevant for your organisation.

Reanne: Yes, I do have a passion for the African continent. I did my undergrad in South Africa. But to just kind of backtrack a little bit, why Africa? A lot of people ask me this. So I was introduced to South Africa through my parents, particularly my father. He used to work in the hospitality industry, where he was invited by one of his clients to explore South Africa. They explained to him how beautiful it was. My parents, they are explorers of the world. And one of the questions that they asked was, like, how’s Africa, right?

Because they’ve never been to the continent. And so this client invited them to South Africa. And just from there, they fell in love with the country. They fell in love with the culture, the food, just the ambience. And it reminded them of their home country of Haiti. And throughout the years, they’ve traveled across the continent. They’ve shown us pictures of what Africa looks like, which also trumped a lot of perception of what Africa looks like. Growing up in school and socialization, we were always told that Africa was poor and stricken, very similar to my home country of Haiti. And just kind of through these images and through engaging with the different people, we realized, just kind of through the stories that my parents would share, that Africa has more than what the Western media was portraying.

Yes, it has its challenges. However, there are middle class, there are upper class, there are roads, there are elements of infrastructure. And also one thing that my parents also taught me was levels of advancement before the Western world. So for example, my parents would tell me about cell phone, mobile devices were very prime in South Africa before it was in the States. But I’ll just speak from my perspective in New York. So as the years went by, my father moved to South Africa in the late 90s. And his goal and his dream was for his family to move there. Unfortunately, after two years, he moved back to the States because my mother did not want to migrate again. So a couple of years down the line, he continued to manifest this whole, his family will move to South Africa, and it happened for me, at least.

So during the mid-2000s, my family was affected by the recession, where then I had to stop studying in the United States because of affordability. And yeah, it was really difficult to get reinstated, try to find the funds, because the whole world was under recession. So, you know, any type of loans, scholarships, those things really kind of dwindled down. However, one of the goals that I did have was to do my master’s in South Africa, because that was a country that my parents visited quite frequently. And so I took the leap, I took the risk, in just leaving everything that I’ve known in my life in terms of socialisation in the States. And I applied to some institutions, which through rankings were the top institutions on the continent. And I ended up at Stellenbosch University, which started my whole trajectory around Africa, perception, international development.

Sue: I’m fascinated by what you’re saying around the journey that it got you to South Africa. And some people might say, well, South Africa isn’t Africa, the continent. So what would you say to those people and also perhaps to those who haven’t been to Africa at all? How would you describe the continent, if you’ve got a better perception of the entire thing?

Reanne: Yes, so despite me living and working in South Africa for X amount of years, I’ve also explored and worked in different countries throughout the continent. So till date, I’ve visited about 10 countries, a couple in West Africa, Southern and East Africa. And some of these countries I’ve visited multiple times as well. And one of the things that I would say is that there is so much similarity when it comes to vibrancy, cuisine, culture, language, natural resources, nature, people. There’s a welcoming nature of the African continent, of African people, that allows you to feel at home, regardless of your race, your gender, your background. You just feel at ease within this continent. And then when it comes to the differences, it equates to the similarities, right?

In West Africa, you’ll often hear this joke of jollof wars. Similarities in terms of a type of food, but in terms of how it’s made, the taste of it, the ingredients used, that’s where the difference lies. And so, my integration within the continent, yes, was the entry point of South Africa. But while I lived in South Africa, I was able to make friends with a whole bunch of nationals across the continent, which then made it so much easier for me when I went to travel to the other regions within the continent.

Sue: So it sounds like it was a stepping off point for you to explore the region. Yes. Now Reanne what then was the catalyst for you to co-found Africa Matters Initiative?

Reanne: So Africa Matters Initiative came to me. So I had a mutual colleague, student leader within Stellenbosch and we got on quite well and we would often speak about some of the challenges we would face as black women who identify as African in the leadership space. And one of the challenges that we saw during this time was around identity. During the time when I moved to South Africa, a lot of people would refer to me as American. But ancestrally, I’m Haitian. And so it never really bothered me before when I was in America, but it really bothered me when I was in South Africa, when people would just say that American girl.

And granted, my accent is an American accent, and yes, I grew up in the States. However, culturally, what I know, what I understand is very ingrained in my Haitian culture. And that was similar to her as well, where she was South African Zimbabwean, but she went to what South Africans refer to a Model C school, a private school. And so her accent and her dialect was a bit different. And so we were grappling with what our identities meant to us. But during that time as well, there was a lot of things happening across the continent. There was xenophobic attacks happening across South Africa, from South Africans to African nationals who were refugees or migrants there. There was also the Garissa University attacks. There were also attacks in Baga, Nigeria.

And while all of these things were happening, and this was in 2015, you would see silence amongst African leaders. You wouldn’t see any elements of solidarity. You would also see amongst citizens as well the differentiating factors of like, oh, this happens all the time in Nigeria. It just felt normal. But then when, I think it was in France, the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Not everyone that we knew in our networks in Africa would change their Facebook image to reflect the French flag as a point of solidarity when there were three journalists or cartoonists who were attacked through a terrorist attack. And so just this kind of perception that it’s kind of like this mental perception of like the West is better than what’s happening in Africa.

If terrorist attacks happen, that’s normal, which is not the case, right? And so she approached me and she said we should do something about it. And at the time I felt like I was unprepared for that kind of journey. I didn’t identify as African. I still don’t. I’m part of the diaspora, yes, but not African. And she mentioned that Haiti is very ingrained in the African history and culture. Haiti was was one of the first black countries to gain independence. And we also supported other African countries to gain their independence as well. So there’s no way I could say that I’m not African when the relationship is there. And so, yeah, it started from there.

Talking about creating an awareness around what it means to be African. So it was like a student movement. And then once that was done, it went quite viral across different campuses. And then students were like, what’s next? What, we want more. And so we held an identity workshop. And then once again, that was well-received. So her and I went into the drawing board and really thought about if we were to develop a youth-led movement, what would that look like?

And so from 2015-2016, we collaborated with other young people from our campus, and then we established African Matters Initiative. And so with African Matters Initiative, we’ve gone through different conceptual changes, but right now we really focus on empowering and upskilling African youth to change the African narrative and their communities through leadership, social entrepreneurship, and advocacy.

Sue: So you didn’t just come up with an idea, you made it happen, you took it into action. What are the successes, the way that you can evidence the impact that the initiative has had so far, Reanne?

Reanne: So there are a lot of impact or evidence. So for example, we have been able to impact over 6,000 young people across the continent, and this is as direct beneficiaries as well as indirect beneficiaries. This is through some of our flagship programs. The curriculum that we’ve developed is a very strong model which was adapted to be facilitated in Senegal in 2020 to 2021.

Virtually, through our blogs, through our social media platforms, we’ve been able to empower 27,000 young people. And then also just personal stories as well. I have two young phenomenal women from our African Matters Ambassadors Program and our She’s Empowered Program who looked at some of the social issues in their communities and develop social enterprises to help alleviate levels of poverty and create income transformation within their communities.

The acronym of the ambassadors program is ADAMA. So the first person is from Sierra Leone and what she did was to help alleviate challenges around gender-based violence. She created this program, which created the awareness, but then also taught young women how to create traditional textiles through weaving. So through our program, she was able to accumulate new instruments to create the weaving, and then through different increments of workshops, support young women and older women to learn how to create these weavings. And through developing these textiles, they’re able to sell them for a profit, which has gone really well. But then that also allowed women, especially single mothers or women who come from violent homes, to generate income for themselves and to be able to sustain for their families.

The other person, for example, from She’s Empowered is Doreen. So Doreen has a very interesting story. She joined our program while she was conducting her midwife-free residency. And she was placed in a rural village in northern Ghana. And that community is synonymous for agriculture. Unfortunately, when they were in off-season, there was no way for these women to generate any sort of income, and so they were hungry. And so she had bead-making skills, like jewelry-making skills, as well as makeup. And what she did was conduct various workshops to get these women to learn this trade. And just through learning this trade, these women actually started gaining contracts from different families. So they were contracted to facilitate jewelry for funerals, weddings, even like governmental events. And so from women who would make a dollar a day, now all of a sudden making $42 just on the basis of these products that they were able to make. And so, for me, those are levels of evidence of impact. I think also the duration of how long we’ve been in existence. We’ve been in existence from, we’re going to be nine in April, ten next year. And so, yeah, through the partnership, through the program participants, through those impacts are all evidence.

Sue: And if you are enjoying this episode then I also recommend episode 90 with Dr James Kisia where he talked about how mentorship can cultivate leadership in Africa. Just hop on over to our website at accesstoinspiration.org where you will find this and over 100 other episodes to listen to. Now back to the conversation.

So that sounds like an amazing impact that you’ve had, Reanne. How do you feel about that when you hear about these successes? To me it sounds like going to South Africa for you was the catalyst for you to want to make an impact and through the programs and the work that your initiative has been doing has then been the catalyst for other people to make an impact in their villages. How does that make you feel when you think about that?

Reanne: It’s surreal. I think if you had asked me when I moved to South Africa if I would have gone through this path, if you were like a fortune teller and you told me this, I would tell you it’s a lie. Simply because I like to say that I’m like a bird. And wherever the path or the wind leads me is where I go. And ironically, when I was much, much, much younger, I’ve always been someone who wanted to help people or do something impactful in the world. And I said to myself when I was 16 that I’ll run a non-profit. And those dreams never came into fruition because I was like, what, what, like how, what am I going to do?

But when I actually went to Stellenbosch, I went in as a psychology major. I didn’t go in within the intent of doing international development. However, because I was on the continent and because I was learning the contextual examples related to the continent made me very interested and made me pivot and also engaging in a lot of student leadership roles. So when me and my founder created the organization, we were just like, we want to make an impact. We don’t know where this is going to take us, but let it take us. So that’s why I said, I’m always like, I’m a bird. I literally just followed where the path went and it brought me here.

Sue: So there’s a couple of things that have struck me about what you’ve said so far. One is about how you’ve used curiosity, not judgment, to follow threads of interest. And then the other thing is one of our straplines for the podcast is be inspired by people who may be unalike you. And I think what I’m taking from what you’re saying is that willingness to look behind the cover. They always say that don’t judge a book by its cover. A willingness to not take things at face value because of someone’s accent or looks or not make an initial judgment about them, to have a willingness to dig a little bit deeper. Do you think those things are qualities that people who do want to make an impact should pay attention to?

Reanne: Absolutely, especially if you are trying to work within a context that you’re not familiar with, right? So for me, I grew up in the States, and then I happened to study in South Africa, but that allowed me some time to really integrate and understand the complexities and the differences and the uniqueness of multicultural cultures. However, If you’re not curious, you’re going to be bored. And if you’re not curious, do you really have a passion? So for myself, I always felt like there was something more. And I think it was because of what it was instilled in me when I was growing up, of my parents always being curious of what this country would look like, what this food tastes like, what these languages or cultures were.

And so it’s always been in my mind to be open. And then that element is just like, people as you mentioned my parents are immigrants to the United States despite having lived there for a long time so how they were perceived played a huge role in how they raised us as children and of course they could naturally say they judged us so we must judge them and they were like no Human beings are literally the same. They’re just in different locations. They just speak different languages and they have different colors. And that is how my parents raised me. And so I’ve always kept that in mind.

And I’ve learned that through engaging with different people, I take a bit from them as I go. And that has helped me develop as an individual as well as a leader. And that’s what inspires me at the end of the day as well. is being able to engage with all these different individuals. I know like some of my program participants, so we had an alumni meet and greet like two weeks ago and this was the first time where some of our alumni engaged with me directly and one young lady was like, Oh my gosh, Reanne, it’s such a pleasure to finally speak to you and finally meet you. And for me, I really see myself as a very common person. In layman’s terms, I’m very down to earth. I don’t see myself as the CEO or the founder of AMI. I’m just like, I just work here. I just like what I do, and I like engaging with people.

But the way that other people perceive me is quite interesting as well. My program participants and alumni are those who really, really inspire me. Young people across the continent who might not even engage with our organization per se, but are doing amazing work on the continent, inspire me. My parents, evidently, because they’ve been, you know, said throughout the course of this conversation, inspire me a lot as well, and my team. So my team took a chance on that quote-unquote American girl who had this vision, right? Who has this vision and who’s continuing to implement this vision across the continent and sees that it’s for the greater good. It’s not for my benefit, but it’s for the benefit of young people, which is why they continue to work with me until this day.

Sue: It’s very inspiring what you’re saying, Reanne. Now, there might be a listener that’s thinking, oh, that’s all very well. Reanne, you know, she’s got resources. She can make things happen. But I can’t get access to funding, and I don’t have contacts, and all the reasons that very legitimately can stop people taking an idea and making it happen. I wonder what you would say to somebody who’s got that mindset currently. How would you inspire or engage them to step out their comfort zone into that unknown and follow a passion to make a difference?

Reanne: I am going to use a millennial vernacular and say we literally started from the bottom and now we’re here. Drake is the artist and that’s one of his lines. We didn’t start with any resources. We didn’t start with any knowledge. Till this day, we are learning as we go. So we had this idea, we had this passion, we had the curiosity, and we continue to work towards it. There were times, to be very fair, admittedly, that we wanted to part ways with the organization. Presently, I’m still within the organization because there’s too much potential, in what we do. And so I would just say talk to people. Volunteer in organisations so you can understand the inner workings if you don’t already have that.

That’s one of the things that I actually did. I volunteered quite frequently, especially from the student leadership side. And then build a community. Community for me is really, really important. Again, that’s what has moulded me to be the person that I am today. Get a coach, get a couple of mentors. Maybe the person doesn’t necessarily need to be a direct mentor, but get a friend or a friend that you can bounce ideas to. Learn more about what other organizations that are similar to you are doing. reach out, send a DM or a private message. You never know, people will respond. I’m one of those people who respond because I also know what it felt like when I was in that position of knowing absolutely nothing and just being authentic.

What got me to the space of getting resources is being authentic in my nature. There’s the various streams of grant writing. There’s the various streams of crowdfunding. People can try that. But then also just building connections with people is super important. If people believe in you, then they’ll believe in the vision. And when they believe in you and the vision and the mission, then they’ll be able to invest in your organization. So I say all of this to say, we did not start off with any sort of capital. And we were actually self-funding the organization for many years. I think it’s been three years now where we’ve stopped self-funding. And like I mentioned, we’ve been in existence for close to nine years. And so it does take time, and it’s hard.

Being a head of an organization is literally being a head of a business, right? So you do need to have business acumen. I wouldn’t necessarily say someone needs to go back to university and do a whole business course, but there are professional certificates. There are courses from Coursera, LinkedIn, different platforms that can help. But I do want to add what’s super important is make sure your governance is intact. Make sure your finances are intact. Even if you don’t have any money, understand your country’s registrations, your country’s taxes, make sure you have a budget, make sure you know what a balance sheet is, what an income statement is, because those are super important from the beginning. If you don’t have that from the beginning, it’s going to be really difficult to continue onwards. And then have two or three people who believe in your mission, but can help you implement it while believing in it.

Sue: Well, that sounds like very wise advice, Reanne, and I’m sure very useful for our listener. I guess my final question to you is if you could go back and give the 14-year-old Reanne some advice from where you are today, what would that one bit of advice you would have given yourself as a teenager?

Reanne: Don’t allow your guidance counsellor to change your mind. There was a guidance counsellor that I had in junior high. who actually didn’t believe in my vision and my dreams. I actually wanted to become a medical doctor, but I wanted to study in France. And she told me, don’t you think it will be a little difficult for your parents to facilitate? And I said, why? And she was like, no, try to apply for some local universities to study. So 14-year-old Reanne would be take the risk.

Sue: Well, it’s been a great pleasure to speak to you today, Reanne, find out about you, the energy and drive that you have for this mission. And if listeners do want to find out more about Africa Matters Initiative, how might they do that? Do you have a website?

Reanne: Yes, we have a website. It’s www.AfricaMattersInitiative.com. If you Google search us, you can do Africa Matters. Some people confuse us with Africa Matters Limited, but we’re not. We are Initiative. And we are throughout various social media platforms, LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter. And I can share the links with you as well.

Sue: Fantastic. We’ll put all of those on the show notes. Thank you again for your time today, Reanne. It’s been a great pleasure to talk to you.

Reanne: Thank you for the invitation and I really hope that your podcast continues to flourish.

Sue: Thank you.  Well thanks to Reanne for sharing her story with us. And it’s very inspiring to learn what she is doing to empower the youth in Africa. Let us know what you enjoyed about this episode by sending us a voicenote, or message, via our website contact page,  and remember to subscribe to the podcast and leave us a review we really appreciate that, so that others can learn more about this podcast series. I will be back again next week speaking to another astronaut Robert Thirsk from Canada who is now also an advisor and speaker. I hope you can join us then.

Producer: Sue Stockdale
Sound Editor: Matias de Ezcurra