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Developing a Lasting Impact on Africa’s Economy

Marie-Noelle Nwokolo ’16

Marie-Noelle Nwokolo ’16

Former international business & management major Marie-Noelle Nwokolo ’16 embraces her passion for improving Africa’s economic standing as a researcher at The Brenthurst Foundation. A fervent advocate for promoting Africa’s prosperity, she strives to help businesses, societies and country managers create solutions to address the continent’s challenges.

Can you speak to how Dickinson’s useful liberal-arts education helped you along your career path?

Can I speak about my journey without acknowledging the usefulness of a liberal-arts education?! That’s the question. I didn’t realize it then, but I can surely attest to how versatile, open-minded, and multifaceted my liberal arts education has made me. It has been especially advantageous on my career path when it comes to understanding and tackling the daunting challenges I face at work, and in general discussions. Understanding that different disciplines teach or emphasize different lens(es) is beneficial in conversations. It allows me the patience and decency to listen to others and be okay when some views that are expressed differ from mine. It’s also taught me that often there are no silver-bullet solutions—there’s a multitude of them, and sometimes the more you know, the more you have to draw on to get to the closest, or best, possible solution. That beats a single disciplinary approach to problem-solving any day.

What was your favorite activity/organization at Dickinson?

I don’t know that I have one because I liked different things for different reasons and in different seasons. Generally, I would say the events by ACS were often fun to be a part of. The weekly Dickinson Christian Fellowship meetings were also really warm and uplifting. But if there is one thing I enjoyed, it was being able to share with the Dickinson community an enlightening documentary that addressed the political economy of the aid industry. That whole episode was way outside my comfort zone because it required me to stand in front of and speak to many people in a way I hadn’t before. I was terrified, but it was also fun because it wasn’t about me; it was about creating conversation and challenging norms around aid and giving. And it was also the start of understanding how power, (dis)incentives, accountability and political will all work (or don’t) to make change happen. The Department of International Business & Management, with the help of Registrar Mary Ann Leidigh, made that season so much fun, empowering and memorable. That was indeed one for the books. 

How has Dickinson’s focus on global education impacted your life or career since graduation? 

Studying abroad allowed me to experience another place and its culture and history to some extent (Professor of Creative Writing; Writer-in-Residence Susan Perabo ensured much of that happened!). In the traditional sense, it certainly helped expand my worldview, learn about new perspectives, and developed a cross-cultural awareness that today benefits me in social and professional settings. Most importantly, it challenged me academically due to how radically different the teaching style on that side, strengthened some friendships from Dickinson, made some new friends out there, and filled my ‘happy cup’. It really showed me that moving to the U.S. for school was one huge adjustment but that I could do it again and again—and thrive. I did my master’s in the United Kingdom because I enjoyed my study abroad there and wanted to go back. So, in some way, I can credit Dickinson’s focus on global education to that. I should mention that it has not explicitly been highlighted, but I am sure it’s also made me a more intriguing candidate in spaces I have sought to occupy, i.e. jobs, etc.

What jumps out as a great memory from your time at Dickinson?

The Friday night impromptu conversations over everything and nothing on someone’s bed or in the common area is a great memory. I had some of the most challenging and most exciting conversations about friendship, the world as it was, the world we desired it to be, future aspirations, relationships and life as I understood it then. Although not many of them happened, those moments helped me get through the rigorous classes and be away from familiarity (home). 

How did you get interested in your work, and what about it excites you most?

My interest in the development space came from a combination of events that lined up really well. I studied abroad in the United Kingdom and took a development economics class. I was so fascinated that I could study development. It gave me some insight into why in places like the U.K. and the U.S., legacy businesses existed and how easy it was to start and grow a business, unlike home. I came back, attended a conference at Harvard where I watched the documentary Poverty Inc., and that added more color to the complex and messy space that is development, or more specifically, African development. And then, I approached Associate Professor of International Studies Shamma Alam, who allowed me into his international development class. His course, guidance and reflections on his activities before Dickinson helped solidify my choice of pursuing a master’s degree and engagement in the international development space. 

One of the things that excites me the most about this path I have chosen to walk at this moment is understanding how micro-attitudes, influences, backgrounds and nurturing impact decisions at the macro level. It’s so fascinating to uncover but also slightly frustrating to untangle. The choice between good and bad decisions is sometimes not as complex as people make it out to be—at least when it comes to development. People just stand in the way because dysfunction sometimes does benefit their personal and professional interests for one reason or the other.  It’s never a dull moment.

What does your current work entail?

My current work is as multifaceted as my liberal-arts degree, I suppose. I work at the intersection of business and development—just like my education. Sometimes I contribute business and economic policy advice to national and subnational governments. Other times I produce research publications on a range of themes, including creating an enabling environment for growth, generating/attracting investment, and the lessons Africa can learn, leverage and contextualize from others (e.g. East Asia) to our advantage. In case you haven’t realized, I am all about Africa and Africans prospering. 

To put this in context, consider that today, more than half the population of sub-Saharan Africa is under 25, half of whom (potentially more) are unemployed and account for some 60% of all the continent’s jobless population. Also, at current rates and by 2050, Africa’s population is projected to double to 2.5 billion people. Nigeria, for instance, will increase to more than 400 million from 200 million today, and Tanzania’s current 53 million people will grow to 137 million, all this in less than 30 years. While this does not automatically mean doom, nor dividend, it is concerning to think that some 10 to 12 million youth join the African labor force each year. Yet, less than 4 million jobs are created annually. In the absence of strategic reform in economies, most African countries will likely face multiple social, economic and political challenges in an already precarious world. Helping policymakers see, understand and pivot themselves to create more thriving economies is my business. That includes investigating their strengths and next-best opportunities and being intentional about creating those conditions that encourage much-needed investment and job creation, reduce inequality, and allow its human capital to upskill and become competitive. That’s my passion and job. No matter where I find myself in the world, I am doing one thing or the other to help make this a reality. It’s a tough space to be in, but for now, it challenges me in ways I enjoy. 

What comes to mind as something unforgettable that you’ve done since you graduated?

Two things. Going back to further my education in the U.K. That was the continuation of my formal educational journey and an itch I could scratch because of Dickinson’s study abroad exposure two years prior. I often look back fondly on my time in the U.K and the subsequent wealth of experiences I now have—socially and professionally. It was a good time for a lot of reasons. 

The second is starting a blog, noellewonders.com, about my experience and thoughts as I navigate this space in international development. It gets confusing and overbearing sometimes, so I use this space to process—publicly. It’s a chance to question and digest my thoughts—a lot of which change over time, by the way, but that doesn’t scare me. There is, after all, some not-so-flattering saying about people who never change their mind. The more I know, the better I can do. 

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Published June 23, 2021

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