The evidence is clear. According to the State Department, during the last decade, 17 countries in sub-Saharan Africa have maintained growth rates between 5 and 7 percent annually. In addition, the World Bank projects growth rates of between 5 and 6 percent over the next two years for Africa. These projections are higher than growth rates expected for Latin America, Central Asia, and Europe. Average incomes in the emerging African countries have increased by 50 percent since the mid-1990s. This means that there is tremendous opportunity to build our economic relations with Africa today.
What makes this even more appealing is that unlike so many other parts of the world where the U.S. is regarded unfavorably or apathetically, they like us in Africa. Gallup polling research on Africa finds that Africans view U.S. leadership on the global stage more favorably than any other region of the world. And despite the fact that the Chinese have been beating down their doors to invest, Africans view U.S. leadership on the world stage much more favorably than that of China. The even better news is that the U.S. is on the path to build on this opportunity. U.S. exports to Sub-Saharan Africa tripled from seven billion U.S. dollars in 2001 to over $21 billion dollars in 2011. However, we must and can do more. The key to this is to understand what is driving this economic growth in Africa.
As in the case in many developing regions, the African population is skewed toward the young. In fact, more than 40% of the population is below 15 years old in most Sub-Saharan countries. While this can be viewed as a liability, it has also turned out to be an opportunity. A new generation of young African entrepreneurs described as the “cheetah” generation for their initiative, energy, and desire to challenge the status quo is emerging. This group looks less for traditional development assistance than partnerships and support to spur investment and grow their businesses. They offer a huge potential for their respective countries, continent, and to the rest of the world but only if they are empowered with opportunities to pursue their talents, develop their skills, and build better futures.
Take for example, Marc Arghur Zang Adzaba of Cameroon who invented the “cardiopad” a medical tablet that conducts heart examinations in remote, rural locations and wirelessly transfers the results to specialists for interpretation. His company has attracted the attention of his own government as well as local donors, but he is looking to expand support for this revolutionary product.
This week, the State Department in coordination Meridian International Center, is bringing Mr. Adzaba and more than 60 other young leaders like him who represent this dynamic new generation, to the U.S. on a three-week leadership development program. The program is aimed at creating economic opportunity for these young people and strengthening economic ties between the U.S. and Africa. In addition to focusing on trends in entrepreneurship and innovation, the program will expose Americans to the business challenges and economic opportunities in Africa.
The participants come from 42 African countries, range in age from 20-35 years old, and are leaders in their diverse fields that are revolutionizing the African business environment like mobile technology, agribusiness, and healthcare. They are also applying their professional skills to address social problems in their communities, from environmental protection to youth and women’s empowerment. Therefore, supporting their business success will mean not just increased business opportunities, but will provide another route to assist Africans with addressing their countries’ still very serious challenges.
To assume that Africa is the perfect, risk-free place to do business is naïve. African nations still have a lot of work to do to continue to build infrastructure, political stability, and combat corruption. However, one should not dismiss the tremendous gains the continent has made in the last decade: Economic growth has been spurred and accompanied by political reforms that include more transparency, greater protection of civil liberties and increased political freedom. There are more youth in schools and universities, improved healthcare, and a reduction in poverty rates. Working with Africa now, particularly with the “cheetah” generation who are both benefitting from and contributing to African development, can create a much brighter future for the continent. It is in the U.S.’ interests as current and future trading partners with the region, to ensure Africa’s entrepreneurs have the tools they need to reach that potential.
Holliday is president of the Meridian International Center in Washington, DC.