Africa's Hopeful Future: A Look at Tomorrow’s Opportunities and Challenges
The promise of Africa’s future rests on its large number of young people. A new generation of African leaders and innovators comments on the hope this presents amidst persistent realities.
When looking at Africa's future, experts often cite the continent's large, growing young population as an asset. For one thing, half the continent is under the age of 20 and all 10 of the world’s youngest countries are in Africa. These statistics represent a powerful workforce for the next several decades. Similarly, the "demographic dividend” suggests a pool of future leaders, from local communities to the national level.
With this population in mind, The Catalyst asked a number of Africans from different parts of the continent to answer these two questions: What does Africa’s young leadership mean for the continent’s future? And what stands in its way?
Below are their answers, which touch on issues from better education to health care to leadership development. The responses are hopeful about the future and direct about the challenges.
Founder and CEO, soleRebels
"By definition youth brings fresh ideas to the table. In the context of Africa we see that freshness of ideas being manifested in the in the type of entrepreneurial spirit that is taking place across the continent."
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To me, Africa’s young leadership means opportunity and innovation for the continent’s future.
It’s a massive opportunity because by definition youth brings fresh ideas to the table. In the context of Africa we see that freshness of ideas being manifested in the type of entrepreneurial spirit that is taking place across the continent. And this spirit of fresh ideas holds the seeds of promise and progress in all sectors of African life.
The innovation part is critical as well. Thoughtful leaders understand the power of transformative innovation. And young African leaders, who have grown up in an era of innovation and disruption, know that innovative ideas manifested into solutions hold the seeds of great prosperity for the continent and its people.
We need far more inclusion, though, for opportunity and innovation to truly take root in the widest and most meaningful sense. Both these concepts cannot reach their true potential without a rethink and a new interpretation of what inclusiveness is.
For example , we need new approaches to financial inclusion to ensure that brilliant ideas which are being well executed have access to capital. If this is done properly, we really can begin to see prosperity unleashed in a broad sense.
Director, Africa Careers Network, African Leadership Academy
"Africa needs a strong network of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders who are willing to commit their energy and passion to serve their communities."
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Civil war in South Sudan forced Ngor Majak to flee with his family to Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya where he lived and attended school. In 2011, his top marks earned him a full scholarship with the African Leadership Academy (ALA). Deeply impacted by the needs of his community and driven by the desire to eliminate inequities, Majak founded Education Bridge in South Sudan while still in university. The school currently educates about 200 young scholars who aspire to further develop and strengthen institutions in Africa’s youngest country.
ALA is home to many students like Majak. Africa needs a strong network of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders who are willing to commit their energy and passion to serve their communities.
ALA's mission is to enable lasting peace and prosperity on the African continent through a network of young leaders. Through its unique curriculum, ALA is developing a powerful network of young leaders who are working together to achieve extraordinary social impact.
The academy aims to contribute to the continent’s growth through training and educating these enlightened young leaders in various sectors and institutions. This will positively impact the future of Africa, which has the second fastest-growing economy in the world.
At ALA, we firmly believe in the old adage that talent is universal, opportunity is not. One can imagine the direction of Majak’s life had he not had access to opportunities such as education, resources, and mentors. That is the case for many African youth, which is why we believe that we need to identify, develop, and connect young leaders like Majak, amplifying their voices and shaping the future of this continent.
Founder and Owner, Life Creations; 2013 Bush Institute Women’s Initiative Fellow
"The true wealth of Africa lies not only in the rich and diverse natural resources of this continent, but also in the inspiring mosaic of an emerging generation of devoted, intelligent African leaders.
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The true wealth of Africa lies not only in the rich and diverse natural resources of this continent, but also in the inspiring mosaic of an emerging generation of devoted, intelligent African leaders. Today, innovative youths aiming for positive change in their communities are the masterminds behind many initiatives that focus on economic empowerment, the leadership of women, and the development of good schools and quality health departments.
Despite the potential, pitfalls sabotage our countries. One of the biggest issues the continent suffers from is the lack of accountability, which leads to the infestation of corruption and cronyism. Policies that favor political elites have helped breed a culture of dictatorship, which acts as a barrier to young leadership.
Corruption in Africa has also grown at an alarming rate due to rampant poverty. Focusing on initiatives that combat the systemic issues of poverty, such as small business training, good education, and access to resources, will eliminate ignorance and prevent common societal mistakes.
Finally, mentoring and creating space for inter-generational dialogue and knowledge will enable young leaders to foster connections and make better decisions, rather than monopolizing resources and escalating nepotism that leads to more corruption.
Young leadership in Africa should be aware of these challenges and encouraged to develop character. The latter will keep them from the pitfalls that prevent the full development of their countries and people.
Managing Director, NBA Africa; Founder and Chairman, SEED Project
"Current leaders have a responsibility to engage and cultivate Africa’s youth for active leadership."
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Africa’s human capital is its biggest asset. With the youngest population in the world, Africa’s youth will play a pivotal role in shaping the continent’s continued development and growth.
Current leaders have a responsibility to engage and cultivate Africa’s youth for active leadership. It is incumbent upon the older generation to ensure that youth receive quality education and practical skills, as well as develop character and a commitment to Africa’s shared future. In time, these young leaders will use their expertise and experiences to nurture the next generation.
This is a period of incredible innovation. Young people are leading developments in many parts of Africa. Technology has redefined how people communicate and connect globally. More than ever, there are tremendous opportunities for entrepreneurship and investment on the continent.
One particular challenge for youth is access to opportunity. Too often, there is an expectation that young people must be invited to take a seat at the table, that the path must be charted for them.
It is important to encourage and empower young people to be bold, confident, and relentless in their pursuit of excellence. They are the future. They can shape the narrative and set the table. They do not have to wait for an invitation.
Global Youth Advocate
"The future of Africa is its youth, and the necessary investments should start now if we are to harness the demographic dividend."
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With the median age of 19 years, Africa is more youthful today than it has ever been. The continent’s young people are a great asset when it comes to achieving political, social, and economic prosperity. But that is not possible without intentional and sustainable investment in the education, health, employment, and empowerment of young people.
It is also imperative that young people are equipped with the knowledge and skills to steer the continent in the right direction. African youth are more aware and are claiming their seat at the decision-making table by holding leaders more accountable for their leadership, democracy, and governance.
Countries such as Kenya have set up a youth fund that provides capital and mentorship for young entrepreneurs. But young people who have great and innovative ideas but not access to capital are left out. This is a hindrance to maximizing their potential.
There is also a need to increase the investment in the education of young people. That will equip them with skills that meet the demands of the labor market and the needs of their nation’s development.
A rise in youth unemployment has led to a rise in crime. Most young people are frustrated and feel neglected by the systems that should be providing opportunities for them.
The future of Africa is its youth, and the necessary investments should start now if we are to harness the demographic dividend.
Project Officer and Marketing & Public Relations Coordinator, Our Youth Our Hope; 2015 Women's Initiative Fellow
"More than 50% of African youth are seeking jobs. They are educated, thoughtful, and aspirational, but that does not make the job market any more forgiving."
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The youngest continent in the world is undoubtedly Africa. It counts 40% of its population under the age of 15 and 20% between the ages of 15 and 24. We would like to think that these are hopeful numbers, reflecting a powerful generation that is shaping the continent’s future. Yet the young population needs jobs and a helping hand for them to integrate into a professional life. Unfortunately, these are not always available.
Today, even a university degree does not offer a pass to the job market. In fact, more than 50% of African youth are seeking jobs. They are educated, thoughtful, and aspirational, but that does not make the job market any more forgiving.
Attempting to resist the high unemployment rates in Africa, young graduates are trying to stand out from the crowd and win the fierce competition in the job market. They are creating new pathways to employment, including starting small businesses. That way, they can maintain a decent living for themselves and their families, and create jobs for others.
Young African entrepreneurs, whose numbers are increasing significantly, are the leaders of their communities. Their aim is Africa’s economic growth.
Founder, Nhaka Foundation
"Africa’s young, emerging leadership is made up of people who have a passion and vision for the continent. Harnessed well, they will ensure each African country benefits from an array of human capital that can take the continent forward."
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Africa’s young, emerging leadership is made up of people who have a passion and vision for the continent. Harnessed well, they will ensure each African country benefits from an array of human capital that can take the continent forward.
But many challenges stand in their way – and it’s essential that we give our children and youth the tools to overcome them. Early investments in young children are proven to be cost-effective and have a higher rate of return than later remedial interventions for older children or adults. This makes early childhood development a strategic investment.
In the 10 years that the Nhaka Foundation has been active in Zimbabwe, the organization has grown from one that pays fees for schools to one that reaches thousands of children and fosters a successful, safe-learning school environment. As an example, our early childhood development programs partner with rural primary schools, parents, and community caregivers to repair and replace damaged classrooms. A clean learning environment stimulates cognitive and motor abilities early in a child’s growth. At the same time, we operate nutrition and feeding programs to help young children grow into responsible leaders.
We all have a role to play in giving kids a strong start to life and the education they deserve: from parents and community leaders, to international donors and organizations like the Global Partnership for Education. Developing young leaders must be a priority to create a secure, prosperous, and peaceful continent.
National Coordinator for Cancer Prevention, Zambia’s Ministry of Health
"Young African leadership brings more than just political emancipation. Before us lies a challenge to finally implement the many solutions we have talked about and indeed written about."
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Young African leadership brings more than just political emancipation. Before us lies a challenge to finally implement the many solutions we have talked about and indeed written about.
Africa’s young leadership means the creation and implementation of health solutions that have often eluded us. Africa’s young leadership must be the change that turns the tide in preventing the many diseases that face our continent.
This means we must focus on improving our health systems. We also must balance the prevention and curative aspects of health care with the sociocultural context of our continent. And we must prudently use our resources in high-impact, yet low-cost interventions to save more precious lives.
What stands in our way is not adequately understanding our setting and simply implementing solutions that work well in developed countries. We must keep scientific accuracy but adapt solutions to suit the local situation.
We are not using existing socio-cultural channels to deliver health service. A failure to come up with locally-adaptable solutions stands in the way of delivering efficient and effective health services.
Country Program Manager, Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon
"Africa is the next frontier for development, technologic advancement, and consumer marketing."
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Africa is the next frontier for development, technologic advancement, and consumer marketing. That is mostly due to its historically-unprecedented youth bulge, which is not only the world’s largest youth population, but also predicted to be its longest-lasting one.
More than half of the world’s top-10 growing economies are in Africa. The demographic shift presents the opportunity to lead and influence innovations that will have global significance. Africa will be able to do that if its young people can lead economic development and contribute meaningfully to their societies.
But these rewards will not be automatic. Unless the threats to public health, education, and job creation are addressed now, extreme poverty, epidemics, and self-destruction will keep Africa from reaping the benefits of its demographic dividend.
As an example, Africa’s young women and adolescents have the highest number of new HIV infections. This also puts them at high risk for cervical cancer. Similarly, they have the highest unmet needs for family planning. Youth health services that provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services is vital. Only a healthy population can lead.
Low school enrollment, childhood marriage, and gender-based violence also are potent obstacles for Africa’s youth. Educational opportunities with a strong emphasis on STEM is necessary. So is leadership training, especially for young girls.
Finally, youth unemployment, coupled with poor remuneration, fosters high poverty levels. As a result, unemployed youth are not contributing to economic development. Africa needs meaningful job creation in both the public and private sectors. Then, Africa can advance innovations and strengthen its economy, which will solidify its global role.
Country Director, Drew Cares International
"Political leaders should design youth-centered policies. And they need to put in place infrastructure, as well as peace accords and trade partnerships, that allow Africa’s young people to reach their full potentials as adults."
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Africa’s young population represents both an opportunity and a challenge for the future of the continent. Unemployment, political conflicts, illiteracy, diseases, and lack of opportunities are driving citizens into endless cycles of poverty, the old common description of Africa.
In order to shape its bright future, policy reforms are needed across the continent to empower youth. They need to be engaged in development projects that stimulate their entrepreneurship skills. They also need access to mentors that will help them develop financially. And they need seed-funding that doesn’t require a sound banking history.
Policy reforms should include education systems that respond to Africa’s needs; healthcare systems that prevent and treat diseases; and universal health coverage that includes access to sexual and reproductive health care. The latter especially impacts girls, who are a big portion of the population.
At the same time, political leaders should design youth-centered policies. And they need to put in place infrastructure, as well as peace accords and trade partnerships, that allow Africa’s young people to reach their full potentials as adults.
Finally, African youth also need to be included in decision-making forums. That will provide them with the opportunity to define the continent’s future.