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Alumna Focus: Aspen Institute Names Muna Musiitwa '03 a 2014 New Voices Fellow

by John Syme
Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa
Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa (photo credit Rachel Strecher/Aspen Insitute, New Voices)

Jacqueline Muna Musiitwa '03 goes for a run at 6:30 most mornings. After that, no two days are alike in her work at Hoja Law Group.

Musiitwa founded Hoja, which means "reasoning," to help clients from across the globe handle contract negotiations, legislative drafting and market entry advice for the East Africa region, and sometimes beyond.

"It's a volatile region. You need to be ahead of the curve in understanding what might change," Musiitwa said. "You need to know what the politics are, their impact on investment, the government players, the dynamics on the social front... I sit down with a myriad of people to get a sense of where things are going and how to be creative for clients. It's unpredictable, and sometimes what I have to say is not always welcomed, about balancing risks with return on investment. I feel like I spend a lot of time leaning and swaying back, like in The Matrix!"

If leaning back is the necessary other half of leaning forward, then Musiitwa's success in doing both has earned her a big jump-start this year: The Aspen Institute named her a 2014 New Voices Fellow, a one-year opportunity funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

"I want to shift from deal making to mind shifting," Musiitwa told the institute in accepting the fellowship.

Expertise and Understanding

The New Voices Fellowship is a year-long program of media support, training, research and writing guidance with experienced mentors and trainers. "Ideal candidates," according to the fellowship guidelines, "are experts in their fields who have a deep understanding of broad development challenges and a passion for communicating their views."

Musiitwa's expertise grows continually as she travels from Egypt to Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo to Burundi, covering legal issues, strategy, market positioning, lines of credit, cultural nuances and, finally, contract negotiations for clients ranging from Chinese investors to local commerce ministers in some 18 different countries.

Her understanding of broad development challenges in Africa and beyond continues to deepen at the international policy level, as well. Musiitwa has served as an advisor to the director general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on trade policy as well as to the Rwandan Justice Ministry on investment, trade and infrastructure and private sector development. She was an Archbishop Desmond Tutu Fellow of the African Leadership Institute, a Mo Ibrahim Fellow serving at WTO in Geneva and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

And her passion for communicating her views came across clear and strong in a recent video interview from Nairobi.

"What I appreciate about being here," she said, "is that anything you touch has the potential to turn to gold. I've received this world-class education, and what better thing to do than share that for the betterment of Africa? At Davidson, I definitely did not see this coming. And I think it's a good thing I didn't see it! I have been extremely blessed. Things turned out to be even bigger and better than I could have expected."

Davidson Days

Musiitwa moved from her family's home in Zambia to Concord, N.C., at age 14. Later she applied early decision to a large state university located in Chapel Hill, but on a wintertime drive through Davidson during her senior year at Northwest Cabarrus High School, she and her dad decided to drop in on the Admission Office. One cup of hot cider and a brisk campus tour later, she applied to Davidson; after an overnight stay the next semester, followed by her acceptance letter, she enrolled.

"The thing that changed my mind was the personal attention," said Musiitwa. "Everything that I thought of exploring that wasn't mainstream was encouraged."

She founded the Adopt-A-Country AIDS Campaign and researched HIV/AIDS at the U.S./Mexican border, with support from the college's Abernethy and Wall grants. With funding through the college's Dean Rusk International Studies Program, she traveled to a summer internship at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and to the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona to present a paper. During semesters abroad, she worked with the Red Cross Foundation in Geneva at the policy level, and with World Vision at the grassroots level in India.

It was from that last juxtaposition, of policy and grassroots levels, that Musiitwa began to develop the perspective that led toward her current contract negotiation work.

"Even though policy makers mean well, there is often a disconnect between what is put into law and what individuals have to deal with on a daily basis," she said. She sees her current work, at the level of individual negotiations between big international players and local denizens, as a way to address potential disparities.

"Legal reform is intertwined with inclusive and sustainable development," she said.

Passion for Africa, and Beyond

Musiitwa earned her law degree from the University of Australia. After a stint at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman global law firm's San Francisco office to help pay off student loans, she returned to Africa-first Sierra Leone and South Africa, then Rwanda and now Nairobi, Kenya.

Current development efforts can be siloed, said Musiitwa, with international commerce and communications within Africa often limited mostly to contiguous countries.

"Inter-African trade is under 15 percent, for example," she said. "We're in a time when we need to be looking at better ways to interconnect. I'm particularly interested in [procedural] governance and deliverables, in terms of African development theories: ‘What's worked? What isn't working? What do we need to explore?' It will take awhile, but every minute counts. I do think that now a lot of things are going well. There is a crop of leadership that is looking to change.

"One thing I will say is that I don't think there are enough African experts opining on Africa."

The New Voices Fellowship will help with that, as Musiitwa finds out what it will mean to take her life and career to the next level.

"Davidson taught me that the foundation matters. I graduated very confident, and regardless of where I end up next, I know I have the tools to do whatever it is I need to do. At a deeply personal level, I'd like to become a better writer. The fellowship will have a lot of benefits: networking, self-improvement, writing, media training... and I want to learn how to effectively communicate my message to a variety of audiences on a global level. A lot of the issues we have in Africa are common to other developing countries in Asia, Caribbean, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

"I have a passion for Africa, but a lot of the problems we face here are universal."