The African Development Center has for the first time honored African-owned businesses for outstanding success as a way of recognizing this growing segment of Minnesota's business community.

That these businesses were honored at all is an indication of how far they, and the African community in Minnesota, have come in a single generation. Studies show that increasing the rates of self-employment and homeownership among these "new Minnesotans" contributes to the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods and links mainstream businesses with the state's estimated $6 billion ethnic economy.

According to the 2010 census, more than 20 percent of Minnesota's foreign-born residents in the 2000 census were from Africa -- a higher percentage than in any other state except one (South Dakota).

But basic economic security still remains out of reach for too many of Minnesota's 150,000 African immigrants and refugees. Most arrived less than a generation ago. Language, cultural and religious barriers paired with major gaps in the local economic development system have led to failed businesses and wasted wealth.

The African Development Center, which provides economic education, training, consultation on business development and homeownership, and microloans, envisions the day when African immigrants and refugees have overcome barriers to financial success.

Like most immigrants before them, Africans come to America and Minnesota for a better life for themselves and their children. But their journey has been complicated by troubles back home. Most Africans have come to Minnesota as refugees fleeing civil strife in Somalia, Liberia and the Sudan. Other relatively large African populations recently arrived include Nigerians, Ethiopians and Eritreans.

This influx will likely continue. Minnesota offers immigrants an established African population, a strong economy, a good quality of life, educational opportunities, and a number of jobs that don't require fluency or literacy in English.

So while these new arrivals try to plant both feet firmly in their new home, they are still glancing over their shoulder toward relatives, friends and countrymen back home. That's where partnerships between the Minnesota diaspora community and local organizations come into play.

While developing a strong and vibrant community in Minnesota, Africans want to do what they can to make life better for those still living at home. One of the most important ways to do that is to build the education system in African countries, which helps build democracy, which in turn provides the environment and rule of law for businesses to grow.

And education starts with books. Lots and lots of books. That's why the African community works closely with the nonprofit Books for Africa, which over the last 24 years has shipped more than 27 million books to students in 48 African countries. Local Africans help identify needs and contacts and schools in Africa, while Books for Africa collects and ships the books one cargo container (22,000 books) at a time.

One recent recipient was a 14-year-old boy named Abubakar, who lives in Kano in the Islamic north of Nigeria, where he attends Islamiyya Primary School. "We now have our very own library, and it is full of books from America!" he proclaimed proudly. "Can you imagine this, in our school? We have books in every subject, math, English language, computer and elementary science, and best of all we have storybooks, too!"

Working with the Minnesota Kenya International Development Association, Books for Africa was able to get books to the Gusii community in Kenya because members of the African community here identified a need and local connections in Africa to make the shipment possible. The University of Minnesota and Thomson Reuters helped fund the project.

"Education is a tool that sharpens, enables, empowers and liberates," said Prof. Joseph Nyasani, chairman of the Kisii University College Council. Another Kisii professor, Anakalo Shitandi, said the books will help with research that is "vital in narrowing the gap between the known and the unknown."

The Minnesota African community is alive and well, building economic success one business and one homeowner at a time, while also trying to do what it can to make a difference back home in education and health care, one child at a time.

Congratulations to our winners:

• 2012 Business of the Year: Katar River Restaurant and Bakery, 2751 Minnehaha Av., Minneapolis; owned and operated by Sara Wordofa.

• 2012 People's Choice Award: Salama Child Care Center, 1411 Nicollet Av. S., Minneapolis, and 1209 W. St. Germain Street, St. Cloud; owned by Ardo Diriye; director of operations is her daughter, Farah Aidid.