Looking for bright spots in Africa

How ironic that as Washington hosts the largest gathering of African heads of state in recent times, an outbreak of the Ebola virus threatens the western part of the continent. One has to hope that disease does not eclipse the good news stories coming out of Africa — a continent with its share of problems.

Last week, President Obama hosted a town meeting with 500 emerging African leaders chosen to come to U.S. universities and colleges for summer training in everything from healthcare to good governance. (Fifty-thousand applied to come.) The new Mandela Fellowship for Young African Leaders is part of a broader initiative known as YALI (Young African Leaders Institute) which networks the best and the brightest in Africa in an effort to boost skills in business, government and education. The YALI initiative is an important step and the enterprise has drawn private companies and foundations who are contributing to bringing more young change agents from the continent.

Africa is a young continent with 200 million citizens between the ages of 15 and 24. That demographic is likely to double by 2045, according to The Africa Competitiveness Report. Fully one-half of Africa's population is under 18 years of age and according to projections from the U.N., the median age in Africa will increase only to 21 in 2034 and to 24 in 2050.

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If we are looking for a more hopeful world future, it lies with Africa's youth. Given a chance, they can usher in a generation less marked by destruction and more fueled by construction across sectors like energy and communications. But to get there will require an American (and global) investment in African education.

There are still some 30 million primary school-age children out of school — one in every four in the Africa region. Successes are happening in terms of the enrollment of young Africans into school — today more children attend school than ever before. Projections in The Africa Competitiveness Report 2013 show that 59 percent of youth (20-24) will have had a secondary education in 2030, compared with 42 percent today.

Better enrollment in schools in Africa is a good sign. But enrollment is uneven throughout Africa and quantity does not guarantee quality of education. More than half of students in grades four and five in countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia are below the minimum learning bar. Studies in countries such as Lesotho, Mozambique and Uganda have found that fewer than half of teachers could score in the top band on a test designed for 12-year-olds. Meanwhile, many countries have epidemic levels of teacher absenteeism, overcrowded classrooms, shortages of learning materials, and a persistent gender gap in education, leaving too many girls out of the mix. The highest rate of girls not in school is across the African continent, where in sub-Saharan Africa nearly four out of five poor rural girls are not completing primary school. Socioeconomic issues also affect education. Countries like Niger, Chad and Mali have some of the world's highest levels of child marriage — many girls become brides before they have finished primary school.

This is the moment for Africa. It is not hard to imagine an African continent powered up in the right ways. An area of great possibility is online learning as the capabilities of distance learning in education continue to gain ground. Mobile phone ownership across Africa has soared in the past few years and continues to expand. About half of Africans own one, and 75 or 80 percent have access to one. Africans have leapfrogged over the landline. In the process, they have created an information revolution whose effects on agriculture, commerce, health and education are limitless. That opens up possibilities for e-readers, Kindles, tablets and virtual exchanges. Challenges remain with bandwidth issues and the digital divide hampering progress in terms of electricity, computer access and awareness of digital exchanges.

The U.N. Millennium Development Goals for education in Africa are very basic — to ensure that "all boys and girls complete a full course of primary education." Now is the time to take those efforts to scale and widen the goals to invest in a truly globalized youth with the talent, skills and expertise to contribute to global health and prosperity. Solving problems like the Ebola virus requires educated researchers, doctors and healthcare professionals in addition to policymakers.

As Nelson Mandela said, "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

Sonenshine is a distinguished fellow at George Washington University. She was formerly under secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs.