This July, President Barack Obama visited Ethiopia and addressed the African Union (AU). In doing so, he became not only the first U.S. president to address the AU in its 52-year history, but the first sitting U.S. president to ever visit the country of Ethiopia.
This historic event demonstrated that multinational investment in Africa is now a top world priority. To quote the President himself: “We cannot reach our global goals of fighting extremism, ending extreme poverty, investing on peace and security without the voice and contribution of one billion Africans.”
President Obama’s words pose an important question: why is there such a growing interest in multinational investment in Africa? Why is this vested interest intensifying now?
There are many answers to this question, but all of these answers begin with the fact that the world can no longer look at Africa with pity. Africa is no longer synonymous only with extreme poverty, hunger, AIDS, instability, corruption and violence.
Africa is a force to be reckoned with. Countries, regions and continents with a robust young population often experience faster economic growth. In addition to boasting a population of almost one billion today, Africa has the youngest and fastest growing population in the world. 50% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population is 18 or under. By 2050, a third of the world’s population 18 years of age and under will live in Sub Saharan Africa.
With economic growth comes enhanced purchasing power. Not only does Sub-Saharan Africa’s young population represent one of the world’s largest bodies of human capital, but it represents a voracious consumer class. Africa’s nearly one billion consumers are expected to double in size over the next thirty years, and serve as one of the largest potential consumer markets.
Although Africa’s youth are motivated and ready compete, they often do not have the opportunity to reach their potential. Thus, our greatest task is to create opportunity for this new generation. We need to create jobs and provide access to capital for local businesses. We need to invest in infrastructure and transportation to make inter-continental trade and travel more accessible. We need to invest in making broadband access and mobile technology widely available. We need to invest in developing human capital so that Africa’s youth will be literate and highly skilled in order to have a fair chance to compete in the global job market.
To develop human capital, we need to invest in quality education, which is directly correlated with the production of highly skilled workers who can compete in the global market. We also need to train our children to become creative problem solvers. Investing in quality education is at the core of cultivating leaders who are not only skilled workers, but will solve local problems, bring peace and fight injustice.
Most importantly, we need to invest in our girls and our women. Today girls make up about 49% of the total population 18 and under; in thirty years, girls will comprise 40% of this population. Improving the lives of girls and women is not only a question of rights, it is crucial for African development. Africa’s economy will suffer if we leave our girls behind. We cannot stop until every child has the same opportunities regardless of gender.
There will be severe consequences if we do not take investment in African education and development seriously, and these consequences will not be confined to Africa. If we look at the Middle East and North Africa, we can see how a growing population of youth with no opportunities fuels instability. Young people without jobs, hope or opportunity become targets for extremists because they are looking for a feeling of belonging that will replace their hopelessness. By enabling young African populations to embrace the global macroeconomy, we move them away from the isolationist, reactionary position of many of their Middle Eastern counterparts.
President Obama’s visit to Ethiopia was a symbolic recognition of these trends. His cabinet understands the importance of cultivating African nations. If we do not focus on investment in Africa’s human capital and economic mobility, we risk abandoning one of the world’s largest young populations, a mistake which would result in increased global fragmentation, poverty, and extremist violence.
Data was sourced from
United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2015). World Population Prospects: The 2015 Revision, custom data acquired via website.