“By their very nature, young Africans are some of the most entrepreneurial people in the world. Up until now, they just lacked opportunity, access to capital or even the courage to believe in themselves,” Ivor Ichikowitz said in a recent Zoom interview with me. The South African industrialist, social entrepreneur and philanthropist’s family foundation sponsors and funds the Africa Youth Survey, which tracks the attitudes, aspirations and opportunities of African youth in 14 countries.
“Whether or not U.S. policy makers have been paying attention to Africa, young Africans are paying attention to America. I don’t even think most American legislators understand the positive impact that American culture and technology have had on the continent,” Ichikowitz lamented. “Despite the Chinese penetration into many African countries, all that needs to happen is for the Americans to turn up – to fill the vacuum they created.”
In fact, the United States has an astoundingly fresh opportunity to partner with young African entrepreneurs, build the Africa of tomorrow and make the Dark Continent a burgeoning mecca for American goods, Ichikowitz is convinced.
Although China has taken full advantage of U.S. reluctance to invest in Africa’s future and end the stigma of European colonialism, many Africans see the Chinese as just another generation of exploiters. The Youth Survey shows that young Africans have a far closer affinity to American products, culture and values, and the American way of life, than anything coming out of China, he observes.
China is not a party to the Equator Principles, which require that Western financial institutions meet World Bank social and environmental policies that have put a heavy emphasis on manmade climate change, eliminating fossil fuels, and financing only wind, solar and biofuel projects. This too discouraged Western capital from reaching Africa’s shores, opening the door to Chinese influence.
“What we wanted to do in the Survey,” said Ichikowitz, “was to show America and the world that there is a sleeping giant – over a billion people in the world’s youngest, most entrepreneurial region. This generation of Africans is committed to not being held back by the 400-year legacy of colonialism and Apartheid. They see themselves as intellectual, economic and social equals with their peers in the developed world.” The Survey underscores the truth of this perception.
The actual survey involved face-to-face interviews with 4,200 young Africans, ages 18-24, of all educational levels, from 14 sub-Saharan countries. A startling 76% said they want to start a business in the next five years; 60% already have an idea for a business or social enterprise. Four out of five see Wi-Fi access as a fundamental human right and believe technology will change Africa’s future for the better. Three in four believe they can positively change their communities through their work.
In the past 15–20 years, this emerging generation of Africans has used Internet access to garner information, overwhelmingly America-based, to educate and thus liberate themselves. This access – including social media aspects and business, technical and other valuable information – has helped young Africans break the shackles of prior generations who, after centuries of colonialist propaganda and restrictions, distrusted successful blacks as surely corrupt and thus untrustworthy.
It has been not mere Internet access, but the social connections and ability to get data (mostly via cellular phones, as access to plug-in electricity remains sparse across much of the continent) that “has changed the lives of hundreds of millions of people across sub-Saharan Africa over the last 10 to 15 years.” Little wonder many young Africans view Internet access as more vital to their futures than even electricity and running water.
Nearly 15 years ago, this writer contributed to an article published in European View (by the European People’s Party) in which my colleagues and I stated: “Thanks to the almost universal access to cellular telephones and the Internet, Africa is maturing politically and economically, even in countries where oppression is widespread…. Many Africans are tired of 400 years of colonialism and its ongoing vestiges in the post-colonial era, and others are responding to their cries to ‘let my people go.’”
In that same article we quoted Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who explained in his seminal book, The Mystery of Capital, “The cities of the Third World … are teeming with entrepreneurs … who possess talent, enthusiasm and an astonishing ability to wring a profit out of practically nothing. Most of the poor already possess the assets they need to make a success of capitalism.”
The problem, de Soto stressed, is that their assets are primarily intellect, talent, drive and persistence. They lack access to financial capital [and to abundant, reliable, affordable energy] to turn their dreams and often brilliant ideas into reality.
And yet, in the foreword to the Africa Youth Survey, Ichikowitz says this generation of young Africans is “connected to the world and out there doing incredibly innovative things with nothing. They are not just optimistic about the much-vaunted African century, they are determined to shape that century.”
We also quoted economist C. K. Prahalad, who in his game-changing book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid, had argued: “We must stop thinking of the poor as victims or as a burden, and start recognizing them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers [who] … may well be able to transform their societies and economies dramatically in a very short time frame.”
“In the context of Africa, where we have had to leapfrog other technologies,” Ichikowitz explained in our interview, “the Internet is a more important tool than the wheel. Think about how far behind Africa was 15 to 20 years ago – and how quickly Africa has caught up.”
Today’s young Africans, the survey shows, are optimistic, committed to human rights, eager to start businesses and determined to compete successfully in the developed world. Their entire continent cries out for electrification, transportation systems and other technologies for which financing has been scarce and wrapped with strings.
Three-fourths of African youth believe in a common African identify based largely on culture and shared history, the survey found. Five of eight believe African nations should set aside differences and come together to achieve common solutions. Seven of eight remain inspired by the life and teachings of the late South African leader Nelson Mandela.
The survey also found that, while African youth are divided on whether democracy or stability is more important for the continent, most believe in the democratic values of participation, tolerance and freedom. Historically, African tribes allowed open discussion of matters of mutual importance (democracy), as well as firm, final decisions by tribal chiefs (stability). That may be why today’s generation is equally divided between a desire for democracy versus stability in government. Of course, both are important.
The appeal of results-oriented leadership, Ichikowitz suggests, may explain why African youths believe President Trump (at 22%) has the greatest ability to influence their future. Tech entrepreneurs Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates finished behind Trump, with Chinese President Xi Jinping a distant fourth. No current African leader received more than a 5% share.
So whoever wins the presidential election should recognize that sub-Saharan Africa’s more than one billion people represent markets for American goods, Ichikowitz said. Positive outreach to Africa would also provide opportunities to bring African and African-American entrepreneurs together, given their common history of oppression. That would be true win-win-win.
*Duggan Flanakin is director of policy research for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org)