Thriving on Challenges: Meet Stratfor's VP of Africa Analysis
Mark Schroeder thrives on challenges, whether living in a mud hut in Zambia with a creek as the only source of water, or sleeping on the ground in the coastal rainforest at the border of Ghana and Ivory Coast while waiting for dawn and the border's opening. Long before he became Stratfor's vice president of Africa analysis, Mark was an undergrad hungry for meaningful and substantial personal growth. While his peers joined study-abroad programs in London and Tokyo, Mark spent a semester living with a host family and studying French in the West African country of Ivory Coast. "Going on the road less traveled, it was a great introduction to a part of the world that is really fascinating, exotic and full of challenges," Mark says.
Mark returned to the United States to finish his degree in business administration and French, two tools that he says enabled him to return to Africa "to learn and experience and make a contribution." He volunteered with two Christian nonprofit relief and development agencies and assisted African nongovernmental organizations in southern and West Africa over the next few years. "I was lucky, in a sense, being the sole expatriate in the relief and development agencies I worked in." Living a volunteer's austere lifestyle, with no television or car, Mark traveled on public buses, on bicycle or on foot. His evenings and weekends were spent exploring the cities, meeting people, observing and reading African literature and works on African international relations. "I was on my own, immersed in lifestyles and constraints that ordinary Africans have to live with." This experience gave Mark an appreciation of Africa and made him "a student of the elements of geopolitics."
After five years of service and learning to "survive, adapt and understand," Mark felt his experiences needed a more systematic review. He returned to the United States for graduate school, continuing his focus on Africa and international relations. While looking for opportunities to apply his experience and studies in Africa, he joined Stratfor as an Africa analyst.
At Stratfor, Mark has taken a particular interest in the continent's natural resource situation and the opportunities and problems that situation creates. He is also constantly monitoring and analyzing events that could affect Africa's natural resources, such as legislation and infrastructure projects. In addition to the opportunities for resource development, he also watches for threats, whether from hostile governments or hostile rebel groups, that could affect the ability to extract Africa's resources. But it's not just resources; every country has some geopolitical significance, and Mark pushes himself to understand and analyze all of Africa's countries. He especially follows the continent's dominant geopolitical players (South Africa and Nigeria, and to a lesser extent, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola), trying to understand those countries and their trajectories. "We're given tremendous space to pursue issues in our areas to really understand what's at the heart of the geopolitical matter in that area."
Besides analysis, Mark does speaking engagements and corporate briefings. Personal relationships are especially important to him, and he spends a great deal of time seeking out and engaging people and organizations that he can learn from. Understanding Africa "goes way beyond just understanding the national political dynamic and who are the heads of state," he says. To truly make sense of what is happening, and to be able to forecast what will happen next, Mark stresses that you must have an understanding of the state and local actors who shape geopolitical outcomes.
Despite the years Mark has spent building relationships, studying and living in Africa, he believes he's still only scratching the surface of understanding the continent. "Every day is a new learning opportunity, and a new opportunity to apply that learning to our analysis and briefings. Politicians change, new resources are introduced and new security actors rise and fall. Every day is an update to the previous. I'm trying to be a step ahead."
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