A new wave of COVID-19 infections is surging through Africa. These students want to help.

Two African students pose for a photo
David Femi Lamptey, who studies computer engineering, and Nita Akoh, who studies neuroscience, pose for a portrait at Northeastern University on July 9, 2021. Lamptey and Akoh are, respectively, the new vice president and president, of the Northeastern African Student Organization. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

The Delta variant of the COVID-19 coronavirus is cutting a swath through Africa, causing such a surge in infections that the World Health Organization declared seven days in early July “the worst pandemic week ever” on the continent. Though the absolute worst, WHO warned, is still to come.

The reverberations are being felt all the way in Boston, where Northeastern students Nita Akoh and David Femi Lamptey hope to use their new roles as president and vice president, respectively, of the Northeastern African Student Organization, to figure out how to help fellow Africans back home.

They acknowledge the challenges ahead of them, both near term as they focus efforts on the pandemic and also weigh the possibilities of expanding the scope of the club, including organizing a virtual summit this fall.

“COVID-19 is one struggle that has been hard for African governments to face because of the lack of infrastructure, the lack of hospitals, and the lack of proper equipment,” says Akoh, who is entering her fourth year studying behavioral neuroscience with a minor in international affairs. 

'Community is important because you need to know that you're not alone,' says Akoh. She plans to use her new platform as president of NASO to unite the university's African students. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Akoh, who was born in Nigeria, lost an uncle to the respiratory disease. She hadn’t been home for two years before a recent visit, where she saw others struggling from the virus.

The COVID-19 situation “is something we do worry about,” she says.

While Akoh and Lamptey, a third-year computer engineering major, have been vaccinated, less than 2 percent of Africa’s 1.3 billion people have received even one dose, according to WHO. Inoculations and basic protective equipment such as masks and face shields are hard to come by.

The students feel compelled to do something about it. But before launching a drive to raise money, as other students have done for their native countries, there are questions Akoh and Lamptey have to consider.

‘The future is literally Africa,’ says Lamptey. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Which organization do we trust enough in Africa to give the money to? Someone who we trust will use the funds the way they’re supposed to be used?” Akoh says.

What gave her pause was an incident in Nigeria involving food packages meant for COVID-19 patients and their families. “The government actually hoarded it and kept it in a warehouse and didn’t give it to anyone,” Akoh says. “So we would hate for a similar situation like that to happen.”

One idea the students are considering is tapping into the network of Northeastern math professor Jonathan Esole, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Esole discussed his work in support of COVID-19 responders in Central Africa as part of a broader interview earlier this year sponsored by Northeastern’s Africa Global Initiative. Akoh also appeared on the program.

“We are thinking of trying to merge with him and help him in providing aid, not just for the Congo, but for more countries in Africa,” she says.

Uniting Africans will be a priority for Akoh and Lamptey at the Northeastern African Student Organization, an 11-year-old club that counts nearly 200 members. Together, they represent almost all of the 54 countries that make up the world’s second-largest continent, from Sudan in the north to Zimbabwe in the south.

Akoh has been with the group since freshman year, holding positions of increasing responsibility. Lamptey, from Ghana, has been a member since 2020, serving in a public relations capacity. Both were eager to throw their hats in the ring when it came time to choose a president and vice president. They will hold the titles for one year, which is not a lot of time considering all that they hope to accomplish.

“I hope to make it a really big club at Northeastern, accessible to every African or anyone who wants to learn about Africa,” says Akoh.

Lamptey would like to see more co-ops with the continent’s white-hot startup market. Before the pandemic threw a wrench into venture capital funding, young African tech businesses in “Silicon Savannah” raised $2 billion in 2019 compared to $400 million in 2015, according to investment firm Partech Africa.

He points to Nigeran online payments company Flutterwave, started by an African student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as an example of the continent’s entrepreneurial potential at Northeastern.

With venture capital dollars expected to flow into Africa this year, “this is a really good time for Northeastern to engage career-wise with up-and-coming businesses on the continent,” says Lamptey, offering as an example the success of African companies such as entertainment firm Kugali Media in redefining African storytelling through comic books and other channels.

Kugali is partnering with Disney+ on a new animated series, “Iwaju,” (“The Future”) that is expected to be rolled out next year. It will explore the themes of class and challenging the status quo, which is a positive story to tell, Lamptey says. “People need to know that Africa is more than just safaris.”

Northeastern’s Boston campus has about 200 African students, a number that Akoh and Lamptey would like to see expanded. The university could benefit from a larger African alumni network that might open up opportunities and inspire younger generations, they say, complementing the professional connections already being forged by the university’s Africa Global Initiative.

The student-leaders have plans to organize a virtual summit in the fall and invite leading African entrepreneurs to deliver keynote remarks. They also want to launch a mentorship program that matches freshmen with fellow African upperclassmen. When Akoh was in her first year she noticed how reluctant Africans were to seek assistance from traditional mentor channels at Northeastern.

Both Akoh and Lamptey are excited about what lies ahead for their organization, and plan to spend their year at the helm of the club to make it a destination on campus.

“The future is literally Africa,” Lamptey says.

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