of Young African Leaders in Washington is getting some high-level attention
from the Obama Administration. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressed the
gathering this morning, and the President himself has
invited the delegates to the White House for a town hall.
The elevation of African issues in America’s foreign policy
agenda is in some ways unsurprising. Not only does the continent pose a mix of
security, economic, humanitarian and political challenges, but it has also
emerged as a primary venue for diplomatic competition between the U.S. and China.
China has been pouring billions in direct investment into the creation of
roads, airports and other infrastructure, growing closer to the governments
that control many of the vital strategic minerals that China hopes will fuel
its own growth in coming decades. America’s best diplomatic asset in these
times of austerity is a President named Barack Obama.
But Africa’s emergence is also a business story. Africa is
home to 900 million people. Its better-performing economies have been posting
GDP growth of 7-9%, even in the face of the global
recession (U.S. growth last quarter was 2.2%). Countries like South Africa, Egypt
and Morocco are solidly within the global “middle class” and others like Ghana,
Cameroon, Kenya, Uganda, Botswana and Malawi are knocking at the door. Its industries
are becoming more competitive; its consumer markets more viable and mature.
Over the past 18 months, I’ve had the pleasure of communicating
with a number of African business leaders and entrepreneurs–some of whom are
represented at today’s gathering. That experience has given me these five
reasons to be bullish on African from a business perspective:
Youth. In some countries, more than 70% of the population is under 20. That
kind of demographic dividend, where young workers vastly outnumber dependent
elders, produced the kind of economic miracles experienced in Southeast Asia,
China and India in recent decades. Success is of course dependent on the
ability of the countries to turn those raw numbers into productive talent
through investments in education, infrastructure and economic reform.
Fortunately, that’s being helped along by …
Technology Revolution. The Continent which had long been a backwater of
underdevelopment has leapfrogged over generations of older technology right
into the mobile digital era. The deployment of the Seacom
cable last year instantly vaulted East Africa from one of the least-provisioned
regions for broadband into one of the most wired. Mobile devices are
ubiquitous, and for the first time in 2009, voice-and-data plan enrollments
topped voice-only. The spread of higher-quality devices and connectivity is
giving rise to …
Innovation Revolution. Africa’s young population is being exposed to
digital technology and digital culture at an accelerating rate, and the
experience is helping them vault to the forefront of innovation as
entrepreneurs. Ghanaian Bright Simons developed an effective way to combat
pharmaceutical counterfeiting using cell phones; Kenyan Ory Okolloh and a
pan-African community of developers created the Ushahidi platform
for crisis response. These and other leading innovators are among those
attending today’s sessions. Their success is leading to …
Emerging Middle Class. As African economies grow
and diversify, a middle class is emerging in many countries that resembles urban consumers elsewhere in the world in terms of
discernment, brand consciousness, buying power and values. Working in
industries that are harmed rather than helped by government patronage, this
growing middle class of educated young knowledge workers disdains the
corruption and tribalism of post-Independence African politics. Even in Nigeria,
one of the most historically corrupt and disorderly African nations, a movement
fueled by indigenous young business people, thought leaders and educated middle
class urbanites, is demanding transparency and accountability. This may
eventually create …
Governance and Economic Diversity. All but the most retrograde political
leaders in Africa (such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe) recognize that Africa’s
future prospects depend significantly on the industry of indigenous entrepreneurs
creating wealth at the base of the pyramid and developing high-value
intellectual capital to trade in the global knowledge economy. Nigerian social
entrepreneur and activist ‘Gbenga Sesan
told me that “Nigeria will never develop as long as our entire economy is
dependent on the price of oil.” Leaders like Malawi’s Dr. Bingu wa
Mutharika speaks of creating a Silicon Valley in East
Africa. TED Fellow
Ndubuisi Ekekwe is advocating
development of an electrical engineering and circuit-design industry on the
continent. As these efforts bear fruit, their success will spur additional
investment and further discredit the old, failed legacies of the past.
Are there still problems? By the bucketful.
For a continent as richly endowed with natural resources, natural beauty, and
human potential as Africa, there remain daunting problems of climate, resource
scarcity and underdevelopment to go alongside the human-created problems of
violence, poor governance, post-Colonial legacy and divisive fanaticism. The
worst spots in Africa are unlikely to get better anytime soon–although some
of the countries that were on the “hopeless and tragic” list 10 or 15 years ago,
such as Rwanda, have now moved into the success-story category.
Time will tell whether Africa’s success will continue, and
will contribute to the success of American and global business by providing the markets, skilled labor and productive, stable economies we need for trade and export. Today’s events in Washington are a start.
Rob Salkowitz is the author of Young World Rising: How Youth, Technology and Entrepreneurship are Changing the World from the Bottom Up . He lives and works in Seattle, WA.