President Obama's summit last week with African leaders in Washington, D.C., when not distracted by the Ebola outbreak, focused as expected on investment opportunities for American businesses in the energy sector. And yet, it was clear the nature of our interface is changing forever on the continent where a new generation of African job creators and their startups are the driving phenomenon in Africa’s growth trajectory.
The first-ever U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, D.C. took place on Aug. 4 – 6. It marked a change in the collaboration discourse with Africa and signaled the end of an exclusive focus on foreign aid. In fact, stories of businesses with leapfrogging technologies drove the discussions at the Summit.
The Christian Science Monitor (CSM) argues the real leaders determining Africa's future and the summit itself are the continent’s young. The article points to the fact that Africa has the largest “youth bulge” in the world and to the results from a new survey called “Global Youth Wellbeing Index”. According this study, young Africans are more optimistic than young Americans. “This youthful hope is one reason why President Obama is playing host to nearly 50 African leaders at a summit this week in Washington,” the CSM Editorial Board expressed. In addition, a recent Gallup poll highlighted that two in three Africans believe their communities are good places for people to start new businesses.
A demographic dividend is clearly at play in the continent, as observed by Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, in his 2013 tour of the continent. It is estimated that by 2030, nearly 1 in 4 young people on the planet will be in Africa. Currently, 40 percent of the continent’s population is under the age of 15 (the world average is 25 percent). What is most interesting is that their curiosity and creativity have helped bridge the digital divide that their parents suffered as they use mobile phones to connect to the global grid of entrepreneurs, banking and more.
Bringing the lens of entrepreneurship to the discussion of Africa’s economic potential at last week’s summit was the Sudanese telecoms billionaire Mo Ibrahim, founder and chairman of the Foundation bearing his name, and Ashish Thakkar, CEO and Founder of the Mara Group. Thakkar is a serial entrepreneur who started his first venture in Uganda and become Africa’s youngest billionaire before age 30. He echoed the observation that young Africans are thirsty for entrepreneurial advice in a panel titled “Powering entrepreneurship: Innovative solutions to address energy poverty”. His philanthropic initiatives, such as the Mara Mentor App, the Mara Women initiative, the Mara Launchpad incubation centers, and the Mara Ad-Venture Fund all aim at combing the continent for scalable startups.
Yet most Africans still live without electricity. According to World Bank estimates, Africa is home to a third of the world’s population living in extreme poverty (defined as an income of less than $1.25 a day). This means 400 million Africans live in extreme poverty. Fewer than one in four Africans say they have access to training (23 percent) or the money (22 percent) to start or grow a business themselves.
Challenges in health, education and infrastructure abound. Dr. Ibrahim told the audience in Washington last week that international investment in these areas rely upon creating stronger bonds among Africa’s 54 different countries. In this amalgamation of cultures and regimes lays the disadvantage of this continent vis-a-vis other large booming markets like India and China. For an entrepreneur seeking to expand across the continent, it means navigating 54 different regulatory systems.
But entrepreneurs are already at work on this and are starting to succeed despite harsh conditions by using new technology creatively to solve both local and now non-African challenges. I have written previously about some of those success stories. Africa.co links to the partners of LIONS@FRICA that include the State Department’s programs, Global Entrepreneurship Week and Microsoft among others, offering startup community events, programming and other opportunities across the continent. Platforms like vc4africa.biz bring events like DEMO Africa (happening for the second time next month in Nigeria) and a network of shared hubs and more for nascent entrepreneurs.
Young Africans are clearly creating the buzz that was felt in Washington last week and entrepreneurs and institutions are stepping up their engagement. Soon, with financial support from the Templeton Foundation, GEW will launch GEN Africa which will tie these and more programs together in an effort to accelerate the improvement of the entrepreneurial ecosystems in major African economies.
While a lack of infrastructure, especially in terms of energy and health care will no doubt continue to hinder the war on poverty for more years to come, the time is now to help those young Africans busy at work tooling, taking risks and re-branding themselves as independent innovators able to do more with much less. Perhaps we have as much to learn as we do teach. As Vivian Greene said, “life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
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