Africa’s future will be shaped by its optimistic, entrepreneurial and innovative youth

For 35 years, I have been traveling the length and breadth of Africa; meeting people and investing in their futures and mine. Recently, I had an epiphany. Despite the overwhelming clamor to the contrary and the negative headlines, I was struck by the feeling of goodwill and optimism —among young Africans— that kept occurring, wherever I went.

I have always believed that the redemption of Africa would only be possible when those who were not born either under the yoke of apartheid or carrying the scars of colonialism, were finally ready to take their rightful place. I firmly believe that time is now — some 27 years since the democratic liberation of South Africa, the last oppressed country in Africa.

But the more I tried to articulate my prodigious optimism about the continent of my birth; in Europe and North America, to political and business leaders alike, the more I struggled. This would, in turn, become the catalyst behind my Foundation finding a way to actually prove, once and for all, whether my instincts had been right all along.

The African Youth Survey which we launched in 2020 was a huge undertaking, due to the sheer scope of the scientific research involved, comprised of conducting in-depth, face-to-face interviews with thousands, across a vast geographical spread. We didn’t want something that would test just political sentiment, or inquire on merely social issues or the economy, nor gauge just young Africans’ aspirations. We wanted all of it — because Africa has the youngest and the fastest-growing population in the world.

We are quite literally talking about the leaders of tomorrow and yet no one knows what they feel, think or even hope for — and we knew that we needed to know what they think now in order to chart that evolution afterward.

We wanted to find out, despite our efforts as Africans to evangelize to the rest of the world that Africa is actually made up of 54 countries, not just a monolith suited for a ‘one size fits all approach’, if there actually was such a thing as a pan-African identity, an African consciousness, an African psyche.

Our survey revealed that over three quarters (76%) of the thousands polled agree that there is a common African identity, with “culture” (40%) and “shared history” (24%) key drivers of this grandiose sentiment.

The African Youth Survey was in itself also a huge risk; its findings could have indicated that my gut instinct was totally off-kilter and that the Afro-pessimists were wholly justified in their long-held prejudice – Actually, it’s proved entirely the opposite.

We have found that youth in Africa are imbued with optimism about the future — however, they want to shape their own destiny. 82% of all respondents believe that their standard of living will improve in the next few years; 72% are confident about their financial future at home in Africa. Among those whose standards of living are poor, a strong majority (67%) believes that their positions will also improve.

They are unprecedentedly entrepreneurial and will be the champions of what will be Africa’s truly great start-up culture – 76% polled say they intend to start their own business in the next five years; if given $100, nearly half (49%) suggest that they would use it to invest in or start their own business.

81% believe that technology will change the fortunes of Africa. However, Africa’s youth are also acutely aware of the barriers to their entrepreneurial success, such as their present lack of technological inclusivity when compared with the global north — 79% thus believe that WiFi and the ability to connect to the internet should be considered a fundamental human right. Critically, 65% believe that the 21st Century will indeed be, “The African Century.”

Bolstered by this belief, we have found a youth population that refuses to shy away from the very real challenges of Africa; a population that is nonetheless honest about what needs to be done and what their role has to be to achieve success — and they are overwhelmingly keen to make that difference themselves.

This survey was limited to 14 countries initially, due to the sheer volume of data that has been collected. We will, however, run the survey on an annual basis moving forward and expand it to more countries every year.

It is our intention to make the African Youth Survey the pre-eminent source of information on Africa’s youth. We are now able to use our 2020 findings as a benchmark to test some of the future assumptions that we are coming up with already.

The purpose of this study is ultimately to empower; to change the stereotypes about Africa, not by shouting it from the rooftops as the loudest voices, but through irrefutable quantitative data that is then subjected to proper academic rigor.

We want to help African countries understand their future leaders and give them the power to address their own problems. Importantly, we too want to let today’s youth know that they are not alone; that their brothers and sisters in other countries share the same hopes and fears.

Most of all, we want to replace past assumptions with verifiable data. We want Africans to go out and shape their destinies the way they dream of doing, by getting them to believe in themselves unlike the generations before who had been repeatedly told by foreigners that this was a pipe dream; that they could do nothing without their help.

The crises in our north have been a godsend for Africa, because now the continent has to look within for solutions, not hold out its hands for assistance.

When Hillary Clinton arrived here as the Secretary of State of the United States, her message was just that – Africa had to find its own answers; when it did, America would help. Likewise, South Africa’s own challenges with state capture and its own isolationism following the Mandela era have further encouraged this process. This new self-reliance is something that regular travelers to and across the continent will attest to in the shape of the massive infrastructure investment that has taken place over the last decade.

It is telling that when respondents were asked to name one individual whose life had made the most impact on their own, Nelson Mandela was the out and out favorite for more than half surveyed (55%), while former US President Barack Obama was second, but with only 12% of the votes.

We are finding that Africans are pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. They have constructed a very different reality for themselves. And, despite the constraints of late, due to COVID-19, Africans have accomplished hard-fought gains in poverty reduction across large parts of the continent. Historically lower-income regions are growing rapidly, giving birth to rising, youthful middle classes.

I’m privileged to contend wherever I continue to travel that Africa is one of the last great frontier marketplaces, while hosting already today one of the fastest-growing consumer markets in the world; consumer expenditures on the continent are projected to reach $2.1 trillion by 2025, and $2.5 trillion by 2030. Furthermore, if the African Continental Free Trade Area (AcFTA) is properly implemented, a singular market for goods and services will be operational well ahead of that timeframe, offering liberation from trade restrictions and providing businesses with innumerable points of entry to the benefit of a market nearing 1.5 billion.

The majority of that marketplace will be a new generation of young people, a vibrant demographic who are connected to the world like never before. They are already out there doing incredibly innovative things with next to nothing. They are not just optimistic about the much-vaunted African century, they are determined to shape that century because, unlike their forebears, they have never been downtrodden; they know that their destiny is theirs alone and yet that they can achieve greatness. Because of that, they have every chance of making that greatness their reality — as borne out by this research which we have the privilege of sharing with the world.

Ours is a Survey that has not just backed up my claims on the highly capable hands we will be leaving the world’s largest marketplace to, but one that offers the rest of the world actionable intelligence on the contemporary opinions, attitudes, concerns, and ambitions of that marketplace. Our African Youth Survey has achieved its mission and one which we will expand upon in the future — Our 2022 study is presently being administered and will be launched in the new year.

I have been considered to be an influencer in the African investment arena for the global community, a badge I’ve worn with pride. It is a privilege to make a contribution and find solutions to the challenges that our continent faces to achieve its inevitable trajectory, but moreover, espouse the numerous opportunities for effective investment on the continent. I implore the intrepid — It’s time to take a refreshed look at the African opportunity. Mark my words — The 21st Century will be the African century. We’ve asked its future leaders, Africa’s next generation, who will make sure of that.

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