• September 2014

Energizing and Empowering African Youth Through the Congo Leadership Initiative

By Cheryl Moore
Associate Editor
Be Inkandescent magazine

Since 2010, Harvard MBA student Nathaniel Houghton has served as president of the Congo Leadership Initiative, a nonprofit organization that he founded while still an undergraduate student to equip young people in the Congo with the education and skills they need to lead their communities—and eventually, their country.

Why the Congo?

Houghton had studied French in high school and college and became interested in French-speaking countries in Africa, specifically the Congo. While a student at Cornell University, he traveled to the Congo for the first time.

“I quickly found myself overwhelmed by the seriousness and complexity of the Congo’s development challenges and, for the first time in my life, felt completely powerless,” says Houghton. “It was an alarming feeling.”

The idea for the nonprofit began percolating after he spoke to youth in Kinshasa who were his same age. Houghton says he discovered their feeling of dis-empowerment, which he could relate to.

“That’s when I realized that it was not up to me to develop the Congo, but rather that my job was to help empower these talented young people to do so themselves,” shares Houghton, who tapped into the work he did as an intern at The Center for Social Leadership in Washington, DC. “I knew the leadership skills being taught to youth in the United States could also benefit young people in the Congo.”

In the last five years, Houghton’s Congo Leadership Initiative has touched the lives of more than 1,000 Congolese youth, as well as a growing number of US volunteers, who provide financial, administrative, and public relations support to the organization.

Learn more at www.congoleaders.org.

And scroll down for our Q&A with Houghton about CLI’s accomplishments and his hopes for the organization’s future.


Be Inkandescent: Tell us about your organization. What is your mission?

Nathaniel Houghton: The mission of the Congo Leadership Initiative is to develop the next generation of leaders to be catalysts for peace and prosperity in the Congo. Through our flagship program—the Leadership Institute—CLI has trained more than 1,000 Congolese young leaders and inspired them to launch nearly 100 small businesses and social enterprises to develop their communities.

Be Inkandescent: How has the organization changed over the years?

Nathaniel Houghton: CLI has grown and changed tremendously over the last five years. Initially, we conceptualized a five-day program that would train 16 youths in Kinshasa. Since then, the program has added content and become a year-round endeavor. We now have 14 sites and have trained more than 1,000 students.

Obviously, the challenges associated with managing and leading the organization have changed as well. Fortunately, one of these changes has been our ability to attract talented individuals to our team—often as volunteers or at very low pay for their skill level.

Be Inkandescent: Who is your target audience?

Nathaniel Houghton: CLI’s target audience is the roughly 22 million Congolese youth and young adults between the ages of 13 and 30. CLI works with youth who are in school and out of school, youth in urban centers and rural areas, and (importantly in the Congo) both young men and young women. In the Congo, the access that girls and young women have to education and training is severely limited. Only 26 percent of the Congo’s university students are females.

Those who benefit from the CLI programs also include Congolese citizens who are positively impacted by the new projects and businesses that CLI-trained youth create to better their communities. Through this ripple effect, every person in the Congo constitutes our target audience.

Be Inkandescent: Can you tell us about someone who completed the CLI training and the kinds of things he or she has gone on to do?

Nathaniel Houghton: Joelle is a young woman who lives in Kinshasa. She is an orphan and lives with her grandfather, along with four siblings. After taking part in the CLI’s Leadership Institute, she had the skills and confidence to start a hairdressing business that now supports her entire family.

Joelle’s story is representative of youth who are part of CLI’s community of leaders. CLI graduates have created more than 100 social enterprises and small businesses, including dressmaking cooperatives and school stores, as well as community projects such as disease awareness programs and water removal structures that help prevent malaria by employing a drainage system that eliminates standing water.

Be Inkandescent: What accomplishment are you most proud of?

Nathaniel Houghton: This year, CLI participated in a study conducted by the International Youth Foundation as a program working with youth in the Congo that merits replication. We are also proud to have been selected as the sole partner in the Congo of both DoSomething.org and the African Leadership Academy’s Anzisha Prize.

But most importantly, we are proud to have created an effective way to partner with Congolese youth so that they can discover—and tap—their own tremendous potential.

Be Inkandescent: What are your goals for 2014?

Nathaniel Houghton: In the 2014-2015 fiscal year, CLI will operate at 15 locations across the Congo and train at least 2,000 youth. These young people will launch at least 500 small businesses and social enterprises in their communities that cumulatively improve the lives of at least 11,000 Congolese citizens.

Be Inkandescent: What is your budget, and how do you raise funds?

Nathaniel Houghton: CLI’s budget for the current fiscal year is just under $150,000. We raise money in three ways:

  1. Individual contributions: This includes donations of all sizes from individuals as well as revenue from fundraising events. CLI typically receives between 120 and 150 donations per year.
  2. Institutional revenue: As the largest portion of CLI’s budget, this category includes revenue from grant-making foundations. Our largest supporters include the Geisse Foundation and the Segal Family Foundation.
  3. Partnership revenue: CLI’s partners contribute a portion of the costs to run the Leadership Institute in their local communities, either on their own or through contributions from institutions that focus on local grant-making in the Congo.

Be Inkandescent: With the economy improving, is it easier to raise money? Or is it still a struggle?

Nathaniel Houghton: Raising money will never be easy; that’s because fundraising is selling intangibles, such as the concept that donating can make a difference, and that change can be effected. The change in the economy has not made a tremendous difference in our fundraising effectiveness, but we are still very much in a growth phase and will likely not plateau for quite some time.

Be Inkandescent: If our readers could learn just one thing about your organization, what would you want them to know?

Nathaniel Houghton: CLI is a youth-development organization, and what we truly are doing is changing the way that international development happens. We aim to replace a top-down model, in which Western organizations implement programs in local communities, with a grassroots model operating at a scale in which talented local leaders are equipped to solve these problems on their own.


About Nathaniel Houghton

President of the Congo Leadership Initiative, Nathaniel Houghton is a 2011 graduate of Cornell University and is a member of the Sphinx Head Society. He currently lives in Boston, where he is pursuing his MBA at Harvard Business School.

Contact Nathaniel Houghton at empower@congoleaders.org.

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