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YALI Voices Podcast: Neema Kiswaga Creates a Ladder to Leadership for Youth
March 9, 2018

“I know what I needed to do is to provide a solution, a permanent change that will occur from within.“

Neema Kiswaga YALI Voices Podcast: Neema Kiswaga Creates a Ladder to Leadership for Youth
Neema Kiswaga attends the Presidential Precinct at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia. (USDoS)

So says Neema Kiswaga, YALI Network member and 2017 Mandela Washington Fellow from Tanzania. Kiswaga founded Leadership Ladder Tanzania to train, coach, and connect youth who want to develop their leadership skills. Kiswaga designs leadership development programs and leads coaching and training sessions.

In this YALI Voices podcast, Kiswaga tells host Rebecca Ojedele, “I want to be part of this solution, building a permanent change, working from the inside, helping [youth] to become aware of who they are. They are capable, they can, they have what it takes. What they need is someone to push them.”

By creating what she calls “Mastermind Groups” consisting of 10 people with similar characteristics, Kiswaga is able to encourage peer-to-peer learning, networking and mentorship, in addition to the coaching and training.

“It’s kind of a community where you feel like you belong. … You can collaborate with each other and can share ideas.”

To learn more about Neema Kiswaga and Leadership Ladder Tanzania, listen to the YALI Voices podcast or read the transcript below.


YALI Voices Podcast: Rebecca Ojedele Interviews Neema Kiswaga on Youth Leadership



♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪

REBECCA OJEDELE: Greetings, young African leaders, this is the YALI Voices Podcast, your home for sharing the best stories from the Young African Leaders Initiative Network. I’m Rebecca Ojedele, a 2017 Mandela Washington fellow from Lagos, Nigeria, attending my civic leadership institute at the Presidential Precinct in Virginia. I’m happy to have you here with me. I’m joined by another wonderful Mandela Washington Fellow, Neema Kiswaga from Tanzania, and today we’ll be discussing Neema’s work in youth empowerment. Neema is the founder of Leadership Ladder Tanzania, where she currently serves as a leadership coach and trainer.

Leadership Ladder is dedicated to improving individuals and organizations to grow and flourish as leaders. Neema is responsible for designing leadership development programs as well as leading, coaching and training sessions. Before we get started with our podcast, don’t forget to subscribe to the YALI Voices Podcast on iTunes and Google Play and visit yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com to stay up to date on all things YALI. So Neema, you’re welcome.

NEEMA KISWAGA: Thank you very much, Rebecca.

REBECCA : So happy to have you here because you are the expert on youth empowerment issues.

NEEMA: Thank you very much. I feel so honored to be here and happy to participate. Thank you very much.

REBECCA: I know that you worked as a HIV coordinator for nine years in Tanzania before you decided to quit your job and start your organization called Leadership Ladder Tanzania, right?


REBECCA: What motivated you to do that?

NEEMA: I’ll say that first of all, being part of the HIV and AIDS program, I was have an opportunity to work with young people, and part of my job was to do training to young people in secondary school and also in higher learning institution. That job of HIV and AIDS coordinator gave me an opportunity to travel into different parts of the country as well as in Africa. So, wherever I go, whether in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, just name it, I just experienced here that on top of HIV problem, I saw young people were facing many other problem: unemployment, extreme poverty, social injustice, and so many other more. I think in my head I was thinking as a young person, how can I help young people in their problem that they’re facing, and that in line has motivated me to start something that can empower young people to become solution for their own problem. The vision of Leadership Ladder cames in as a part of empowering young generation of leaders, the leaders who will be part of the process in making change that we want to see.

REBECCA: That sounds so great.

NEEMA: Thank you.

REBECCA: Sounds so wonderful, but what kind of empowerment programs specifically do you do?

NEEMA: What we’re doing … I’m a professional coach, and right after leaving my job I had to go to learn coaching, how to coach. Because I know what I needed to do is to provide a solution, a permanent change that will occur from within. What I did, we’re doing a coaching program, one-on-one coaching or a group coaching, but on top of that we’re also doing training. For Leadership Ladder, our training, we do it in a form of a mastermind group where we got an opportunity to equip young people in a group.

Normally we have 10 people in one group with similar characteristics, not merely all of them, most of them will be maybe fresh graduates, or maybe they have just finished from their high school. So we group them together, men and women, and then we empower them with a leadership training, but on top of that we encourage them to meet on a weekly basis so that they can discuss different issues. Peer-to-peer learning. We feel that is the best way on how young people can engage, share their experience and learn from each other. We’re doing training, coaching, and on top of that, if they come with an idea, for example some of them they want to be entrepreneur, what we do we find a mentor, a person who’s doing similar thing that they’re interested. And then we ask them to give them kind of help and mentorship program for as long as they can sustain. That’s what we’re doing here.

REBECCA: I’d like you to talk more about the mastermind groups. It’s a nice concept, and even here at the Precinct, we’re also experimenting with mastermind groups, but you have been doing it for how long? How many years?

NEEMA: It’s almost for a year now.

REBECCA: For a year. I want you to talk more about the mastermind groups, so from what you just said, you have a group of about 10 young people who share similar characteristics so they may all be high school graduates or they may all be —

NEEMA: Fresh graduates, college graduates. Yeah.

REBECCA: How does that work? When they meet, what happens? How often do they meet, what exactly do they do? I know you said you sometime assign them mentors, but what’s the structure? What exactly happens with those mastermind groups? When they meet what is the goal and what do they do to achieve the goal?

NEEMA: Okay, so mastermind group, what we normally do as I said that we group young people based on their interests, what they need. We have other people, for example some of them they’ve just finished their university but they don’t have job and so we group them together. A group of 10. So what we normally do, we have a five-week program and we have a specific set of theme that we want to discuss. Before I go on let me just explain how do I come out with this mastermind group.

I am a member of John Maxwell Global Leadership Team and in that membership it give me an access to get material and books and resources about leadership. What we do in our mastermind group, we have a specific set of information. For example, we can maybe decide, maybe we have to go through a certain book. Like I’m using John Maxwell book because I am entitled to use it. For example, I have Fifteen Invaluable Law of Growth, so we go through that book chapter to chapter within those five weeks with young people. What we normally do when we just met, we first want to know your name, just briefly introduction, where you come from and things like that. But again we want to know your vision, your goals, what do you want to do, and so as we are dealing with chapter to chapter in a specific book, we align on each other. Where do you want to go? How do you use this information?

So the whole idea of this is to empower each other, but again to unleash that potential because you feel like you can do something, but also to tell them that they can do it because they see each other they can do that thing. At the end of the mastermind then we have a quick review, we discuss, and then if you have any challenge you share, if you have an experience, what went well what didn’t went well, what steps are you going to do, because we need to have your goals. This is my goal, I want to be this, this is where I’m stuck, and this is where I want to go.

We encourage each other but we support each other. So we use that book as a resource to equip them. We have Fifteen Invaluable Law of Growth, we have 21 Laws of Leadership, we have so many books that we can choose or a specific topic depending on the needs. Maybe for example if you are fresh graduates and you are unemployed and you don’t know what to do, we bring some expert on each of entrepreneurship to support the young people. How can you become an entrepreneur? But then we have to know your goal, where do you want to go, where you are stuck. So it’s a theme that we have and we go through it.

REBECCA: So each group meets for five weeks and they brainstorm on how to come up with solutions.

NEEMA: Yeah, we meet in a five week, that’s the minimum we can have. In a minimum of five to 10 weeks but we meet once per week, and then when you finish that particular book of a mastermind, that maybe you have gone through a mastermind group on 21 Laws of Leadership. So you maybe want to become a leader. Or you have gone a mastermind group on a course on entrepreneurship. So we have a specific course basing on each group has its own need. And so when you finish that, that mastermind group can continue because then themselves they can also meet on a weekly basis or on a monthly basis. They engage each other, and you know nowadays we have WhatsApp so they can chat on WhatsApp. They can ask each other resources. It’s kind of a community where you feel like you belong basing on your need so that we don’t want young people to feel that they are alone, I don’t have job, or I don’t have this, is just you can collaborate with each other and can share ideas.

REBECCA: Do people have to pay to join or is it —

NEEMA: They don’t have to pay.

REBECCA: So how do you get funding?

NEEMA: That’s a good question that you are asking. What we are doing, Leadership Ladder is a social enterprises.

REBECCA: How do you — what’s the business part of it?

NEEMA: So the business part of it, what we do, apart from doing a mastermind group, we’re also selling our programs. We are selling our coaching program. I tell you that we have been using … we have getting these resources from the … number one, I could say leadership guru, John Maxwell, who is very good, very resourced. We sell this program to other organizations, we sell this program to individual, for example we do one-to-one coaching to people who can pay.

Also, we sell our training program to organization, to individual, depending, to private organization, and so we use the part of this money to support our youth mission, and what we do on a monthly basis we recruit at least one mastermind group. So by the end of the year, 10 people per month because of the limitation of resources so that we can have a few but then we do them well. So those 10 people they go through five weeks then at the end of the five weeks then we group another mastermind group. For example, since we started up to now we have been able to reach a hundred of them because we have 10, 10, 10, 10, so we keep on, yeah, adding.

REBECCA: Do you have any success story to share? Any impact that this mastermind group or any of your other activities or programs have had on young people.

NEEMA: Yeah I think I have so many things to share because when you’re in such a group you have so many good story and the best thing of being part of the mastermind group is that you can monitor before and after so you can see the change clearly. I may say for example, what has been a very good thing for being part of this process of empowering young people is for fresh graduate, particularly female. I have a group of seven females who have graduated from IFM.


NEEMA: IFM is Institute of Financial Management.

REBECCA: Oh, after going through your program —

NEEMA: No, no, I met them after they have graduated. So what has happened is that after they have graduated, they came from the rural areas and so they could not be able to go back home because they were expected to bring something back to their family, and they don’t have a job. They have to stay in town, so what they do they just rent a space and they stay themself when they don’t have job.

So when I tell them that I have mastermind and this is what we are doing, they were interested and said, “Yeah, we’re just home, we just write letters, we don’t know what to do, it’s good, we could be happy to participate.” And so they join in the group, so when they join in the group, out of those they were seven, but I would like to talk on one of them. One of them is called Mary, and when Mary came she was … she said that I cannot go home because I’m supposed to be here, they sent me to school and now I’m supposed to have money to support my family, my other family members at home, but what can I do. She started the mastermind group, she went on the 21 Laws of Leadership, and then their mastermind group has been progressing, but now as we speak, Mary, she has been able to start her own business.

REBECCA: She’s no longer looking for work, she’s creating jobs.

NEEMA: She’s no longer looking, she’s creating job. What she does she do a retail shop that she sells some cosmetics for women. She’s been interested in being an entrepreneur, and so she started it very humbly, just by buying those thing and selling it to individuals, but now she has been able to secure her own space where she is able to sell those products.

For me I see this is very good because through that she has been able also to secure a part-time job. Then she has been able to bring one of her young sister who has finished school in their home, to stay in that shop while she is waiting for result to go on and she is also working. So, you could find a person like Mary who was staying at home, doing nothing, waiting for the job, but she has now been able to do something for herself. I say for me that is an encouraging, it is very good thing because it makes me feeling like that’s a good thing because those girl were staying in a house, seven of them. They can be very vulnerable to any situation. They can accept anything in the name of money but —

REBECCA: They were in desperation.

NEEMA: Yeah, desperation, so I’m happy that they passed through our mastermind group.

REBECCA: Thank you so much for sharing that because I’m sure that will encourage a lot of people listening right now. So, you believe that youths are the leaders of tomorrow.

NEEMA: Yeah.

REBECCA: I’ve heard you say that so many times.

NEEMA: Yeah, it’s true.

REBECCA: I want to ask you, how do you think youth can shape the future? What kind of skills do they need? How can they shape the future and what kind of skills do they need to do so?

NEEMA: I believe that youth are the future of today as well as tomorrow because we are here, we cannot wait for tomorrow, so we have to lead on wherever we are. I believe that everything rises and falls in leadership. It takes a leader to make change. Why I’m saying this, leadership does not about leading other people, it’s about leading yourself. You have to know who you are, where you want to go and where is your vision. Like I’m telling most of the youth that are coming in our mastermind that’s the basic thing, it’s the basic thing that I need to know. Why am I here for? What is my purpose? What am I good at? What can I do? If you know yourself, if you have been able to lead yourself, it’s very easy you can as well be able to lead others. So that’s the number one thing I want all of youth —

REBECCA: Leadership skills.

NEEMA: Leadership skills, to be able to understand who you are and what are you doing, what you’re doing.

REBECCA: So that is also like linked to self-awareness.

NEEMA: Yes, linking to self-awareness. I think that’s a very good character, every young person need to have it and exposure of knowing who you are. But again we need kind of leaders who can be in a position regardless of — maybe you have been going to a university, you have an IT degree, whatever you have it, but it takes also to take a leader on how to engage yourself in a wide space, in a community. So how can you engage people? How can you understand people? Because leadership you need to have people skills.

REBECCA: People having — building relationships.

NEEMA: Good relationships with each other. So I think all these things young people need to know apart from formal education that they get. They need these transformational program that can equip them. Like here we are in this program of YALI, what we’re doing is a transformational program. We learn how to network, we learn how to engage each other, we learn the power of diversity, we learn tolerance, and all this thing is a very important for young person to know if they want to become the leaders of today and tomorrow. That’s what I believe.

REBECCA: That’s great. So I’ve heard you say leadership skills, the need for self-awareness, comprehensive sexuality education.

NEEMA: Yes. Understanding their body, understanding themselves, and that’s a very key thing. And sometimes we assume people know, but I tell you most of them, even those who have think that they have gone higher level, these basic things they don’t know. That’s the barrier for them, so if we empower them, giving this information, skills, inspiration is the very own thing that young people need to hear. And, with a minimum information that we can provide, or the better information that we can give, it frees them, and you can be amazed like this thing that can make a person move from one step to another, it’s, yes, it’s a skill. People need inspiration. You can, you can do this, you are good at it, it’s keep them going, because all the information that they hear is a negative most of the time. But if they can, they need to hear a positive story. They need to also look and see their role models, people who have been doing these things and they’re successful. And I think that’s the best thing the young people can have.

REBECCA: What’s next for you? You know, where do you think your organization will be in a few years’ time? What are the next steps you want to take?

NEEMA: That’s a very good question, and I’ll say that for me what is next is to keep on doing what I’m doing in a bigger picture. I’m telling now that what we’re doing, we have been able to reach let’s say we recruit 10 people per month. It’s very minimal but it’s something that I want to do more, to reach more, to support more, to empower more, and I’m saying this with a lot of confidence because for more than nine years I’ve been working with young people, rural areas and urban areas, and I know what it takes to be a young person with a minimum information and resources. It gives me a thirst to feel like how best I can support. So my vision is to keep on supporting young people, creating more mastermind group, supporting people, especially young people with the one-to-one coaching program, but also finding a means on how I can get the best mentor to support these young people.

REBECCA: Are your mentors right now volunteers?

NEEMA: My mentor’s just volunteers. I’m actually going … If I see someone’s very good, an entrepreneur, specifically a woman or a man and then I’m going to approach her, “Please can you support to mentor these people?” We have a lot of people who have got these resources and we have young people who want to hear from them, so it’s an opportunity to shape the program, to expand the program, to support young people.

REBECCA: So, we’ve been in this Mandela Washington Fellowship program for about three weeks now, so are there any skills or any key lessons you’ve learnt that is going to help you achieve your dream of more?

NEEMA: Yeah, I’ll say a lot. It’s a very good program, and if it’s my wish that for every young person to pass through this. It’s a transformational program if I’ll say. We have read so much things which is very important on my career, because part of me, I’m a trainer and a coach. I cannot give people what I do not have, so I need to be really good. But on my personal level, the key three thing that keep on clicking in my head out of this program is about the power of diversity. We are all unique but different, and that for me is one, but then also about tolerance. Being part of Mandela Washington Fellow, it has teached me how to tolerate each other. Seeing people from different nations staying together, receiving a lot of people coming and talking with each other. The way things have been done here is about tolerance and another thing is about empathy. That I think those three things — diversity, the power of diversity, tolerance and empathy. If I’ll keep all those three things they will take me a bigger step ahead.

REBECCA: What does empathy look like for you? Can you paint a picture of empathy?

NEEMA: I think for me empathy is about not only understanding the situation of somebody but also doing something to support, regardless of how minimum you can be —

REBECCA: So, for you, empathy is action?

NEEMA: Is action.

REBECCA: It is not feeling?

NEEMA: No, it’s not about feeling it, because I’ve been there and I am very happy for your first question. You asked me why I’m doing what I’m doing. I have experienced this thing. I have seen people are suffering, I have seen young people struggling, and then it’s not enough to say that sorry or you just try to work on the symptoms, maybe you provide them with clothes, you provide them with food or shoe, that’s not it. Is just touching the symptoms part of it.

I want to be part of this solution, building a permanent change, working from the inside, helping them to become aware of who they are. They are capable, they can, they have what it takes. What they need is someone to push them, and that’s why I even call my organization Leadership Ladder. It’s a ladder of success to climb. So we all have these, and I am not underestimating myself saying that I do not have everything, I do not have resources I do not have … I know I will start wherever I am and I think that is empathy. Seeing a problem, you don’t wait for anybody, it is me who will do it if it’s not me.

REBECCA: So, it is walking in other people’s shoes?

NEEMA: Walking in other people’s shoes, yeah.

REBECCA: You know, someone said, I think this is someone from Johns Hopkins University, I think Benjamin Lozare. He said — also there is a common saying about being able to walk in other people’s shoes. He says, “To walk in others people’s shoes you have to remove your own shoes first.” That means you have to put aside all your own prejudices and all your biases, you know, so you have a better understanding of what the situation is, then you can do something about it. If you come with your own biases you will be operating based on your own prejudices and stereotypes without even knowing it. That is so nice.

So, you are part of the YALI Network definitely, being a Mandela Washington Fellow you’re automatically a member. How have you been interacting with the Network, with the YALI Network?

NEEMA: Yeah, first of all I’ve been interacting because we get a lot of information through YALI Network, the resources —

REBECCA: Tell me, how have you been using them? What resources and how have you been using them?

NEEMA: Some of the resources I’ve been using, I’ll say it’s a course. Yeah, I have done some leadership course on it, and they have a very good first-class courses and always I want to empower myself. Those courses are great. If you are young person you want to learn, you want to grow, and another thing, that’s an opportunity, but another thing, working with young people, one of the things that we give is an opportunity. This is an opportunity they don’t know, but I’m here, I’m an ambassador. So, what I do, I tell them in their mastermind groups that you can as well use it, this you can log in, you can be part of the YALI Network and it is very free.

REBECCA: The courses are free.

NEEMA: The courses are free but they’re so good, but not only good they’re also relevant. That’s the platform I use because I’m part of the YALI Network, I’m sharing with other young people is an opportunity for them to learn, grow and become more in whatever they want to do.

REBECCA: That means are you part of the YALILearns.

NEEMA Kiswaga: Yes, I’m part of the YALILearns.

REBECCA: So you take those resources, those courses, and then you step it down to your mastermind groups?

NEEMA: Yeah.

REBECCA: That’s fantastic. Is there any other way or how do want to continue using the YALI Network after now?

NEEMA: After now, I’ll keep on doing some courses because I tell you I keep on —

REBECCA: You have not finished?

NEEMA: No. I’ll keep on doing some more course. I’ve not finished, but I’ll keep on finishing the course but then I want to open room for young people to be an advocacy for this, because it’s a very good thing. And as I tell you most of the time we underestimate the power of information because I know I think everybody knows. But not everybody knows, so I want to share as much as I can for young people to know and explore this opportunity.

REBECCA: You have been talking about leadership courses on the YALI.

NEEMA: Yeah, there are leadership courses.

REBECCA: Even civic leadership courses separately?

NEEMA Kiswaga: Yeah.

REBECCA: Fantastic. So we know you as this quiet, gentle … what would surprise people to learn about you? What is that thing that you could tell me now I’m going to be like really surprised? Something interesting.

NEEMA: Something interesting, what will surprise them is just apart from being so quiet, I’m not very quiet, I think I’m an observer. I’m kind of a person, I want to observe and then feel how can I put in something or my thoughts or my idea. But apart from that I like music and most of them I like hip hop.

REBECCA: Tell me about that.

NEEMA Kiswaga: I like hip hop because I like the way they think and the way they keep on their narrative and most of the time I get time to listen.

REBECCA: When you say hip hop do you mean rap?

NEEMA: The rap, I like the rap.

REBECCA: That’s amazing, I thought you like, like Celine Dion.

NEEMA: No, I just like … I like all the music, but I like those because I think they’re more if you get time, I don’t know if you like them, Rebecca, but if you get time to listen, they have a very good message. Most of the time their think. I like that critical thinking on the way they write and the way they present. That’s what I like. Maybe that’s the fun thing of me and maybe some people they will not …

REBECCA: I’m sure people after listening to this podcast, will be really interested in getting to know more about your work because your methodology of using mastermind groups. I don’t think is that common.

NEEMA: It’s not very common. I think it’s not very common, I don’t know if there’s anyone doing it but I think I’ve never heard.

REBECCA: How can people reach you if they want to reach you?

NEEMA: People can reach me, first of all through LinkedIn, because most of the young people that I get, I use LinkedIn to get a lot of young people because that’s the way. If you get one I can connect to another, connect to another. If I get one person from, especially young people, that’s the best way I can also connect, but also our organization is located in Dar es Salaam, we’re very far out of town, but then I know soon we’ll be in town, we are looking at Bujupi in Dar es Salaam, that’s where we are, maybe I’ll share, I don’t know —

REBECCA: Let’s start with your LinkedIn, give us your name on LinkedIn.

NEEMA: My name is Neema Kiswaga.

REBECCA: Can you spell.


REBECCA: N-E-E-M-A. Then Kiswaga is K-I-S-W-A-G-A?


REBECCA: Is that your name also on Facebook?

NEEMA: Yes, that’s the name on Facebook, that’s the name on Instagram. Even maybe on Twitter I just use @NKiswaga.

REBECCA: @NKiswaga

NEEMA: Yeah, just kind of the longest part.

REBECCA: Thank you so so much for —

NEEMA: It was very much pleasure, Rebecca, thank you very much.

REBECCA: It was so wonderful hearing your story, your work and your experiences.

NEEMA: Thank you very much. It has been a pleasure.

REBECCA: You know, one of my favorite parts of this Fellowship is knowing that through the YALI Network I will have the opportunity to continue to collaborate with people like you and all of my friends across the continent. There is really true power in this Network for all of us, and people listening out there, I would encourage you to join the YALI Network at yali.lab.dev.getusinfo.com and be a part of something bigger.


♪ Yes we can ♪ ♪ Sure we can ♪ ♪ Change the world ♪

REBECCA: Thank you everyone for tuning in to another YALI Voices podcast and thanks to Neema for sharing her perspective today. Be sure to come back for more inspiring stories from young African leaders on the YALI Voices podcast. Our theme music is E Go Happen by our fellow Presidential Precinct alumna Grace Jerry, a 2015 Mandela Washington Fellow. This podcast was recorded in the Porter Studio at James Madison’s Montpelier, a partner site of the Presidential Precinct. James Madison was the fourth president of the United States and is known as the father of the U.S. Constitution. Montpelier is now home of the Robert H. Smith Center for the Constitution. The YALI Voices podcast is brought to you by the U.S. Department of State and is part of the Young African Leaders Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. government. Once again, my name is Rebecca Ojedele. Bye.