Esteemed South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, Nigerian billionaire business magnate Aliko Mohammed Dangote, and “father of African literature” Chinua Achebe (also from Nigeria) were named the winners of the inaugural African Genius Awards (AGA) at a ceremony hosted by the University of Pretoria (UP) on 25 May 2021.
UP partnered with the AGA, an initiative which honours exceptional Africans that espouse the values needed to take Africa forward, to host the event. It was due to take place at UP’s Future Africa campus but was moved to a virtual format given the recent escalation in COVID-19 infections in Tshwane.
Host and radio personality Bongani Bingwa opened the evening by extending a warm welcome to dignitaries, guests, and the competition’s 24 nominees, who met the criteria for being described as “geniuses” through their demonstrable exceptional ability in their field of endeavour.
UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe spoke on behalf of the Evaluation Committee: “It is not easy to select winners out of a pool of such talented geniuses, and we congratulate and commend every nominee in this competition for your hard work in living out the full potential of your unique skill.” Prof Kupe also spoke of the significance of holding the annual AGA on Africa Day. “I can think of no better way to celebrate and honour this Africa Day than by awarding African geniuses the recognition they deserve and which will propel them, and the whole continent, forward."
Professor Cheikh Mbow, Director of Future Africa, said the vision of Future Africa – to transform the world through African research excellence – is in harmony with the goals of the AGA: to develop a new narrative for Africa and promote African pride, identity, and genius through facing up to challenges, resolving to own them, and addressing them through the wealth of talents possessed. “We know that tackling these issues cannot be done alone; we need partnerships. And so we are grateful for our collaboration with the AGA – it is clear that together we share a compelling sense of belief that, by mobilising and harnessing our vast collective talents, we are surely up to the task of responding to the myriad challenges ahead,” he said.
Dr Sifiso Falala, Founder of the AGA through his company Priority Performance Projects, spoke about an anomaly that needs to be addressed – the rarity of the use of the words ‘African’ and ‘genius’ together in the same sentence. For him, the African Genius Awards are a starting point in accomplishing this. “It is time to put a cap on the years and centuries that our African nations remain developing countries,” he said. Dr Pulane Molokwane, Director, Priority Performance Projects, added, “It is time to change the narrative that Africa is poor. Africa is wealthy; let us use our resources together to build the Africa we want to see.”
Dr Falala explained that nominations for the AGA consist of a continental process that is open to the public and institutions, based on the criteria listed on the website. All nominations are shortlisted, and the final adjudication done annually to determine the winners. He mentioned that nominations for 2022 will open on 1 August 2021. Professional market research services company Plus 94 Research was the partner for verifying and authenticating prospective winners of the first AGA. He emphasised that the Awards are not about positions in society or professions; they are more about a unique skill that has led to society being affected or a large number of people being positively impacted.
After being treated to a spectacular display of African dance by UP cultural ensemble Ovuwa, Professor Steven Friedman, Director: Centre for the Study of Democracy, Rhodes University, announced the three 2021 winners. Describing the first winner, Aliko Mohammed Dangote, Prof Friedman said, “Our first award winner is the richest person on the African continent. He started a small food business, and from there developed a conglomerate of businesses.” He described the next winner, Chinua Achebe, as “the trailblazer of the African novel”; and said that the final winner, South Africa’s Steve Biko, who has “become a household name for those around the world who strive for racial justice and equality”, holds a special place in his heart given that he knew him personally. The Embassy of Nigeria in South Africa accepted Dangote’s award on his behalf, along with Achebe’s posthumous award. A representative from the Biko family accepted Steve Biko’s posthumous award.
In closing the auspicious event, Bingwa said, “I am inspired and motivated, and I hope you are too. I am excited to see what these awards will yield in years and decades to come. Let the light of Africa shine through in everything you do.”