As we celebrate Africa Day, May 25, 2017, it is also important to reflect on the state of the African continent today and more importantly to envision, 10 or 20 years from now, future Africa Days. Africa is the world’s youngest continent, with approximately 70% of the population below the age of 30. This “youth bulge” can be viewed as a liability, or as a demographic dividend to leverage as one of the greatest economic assets the continent has to offer. With the entrepreneurial spirit of today’s youth in confronting some of Africa’s unique challenges, it would be injudicious not to leverage the ingenuity of Africa’s future contributors and leaders and, what’s more, egregious not to harness and invest in them.
As President of the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF), an independent U.S. Government agency established by Congress to support African-led development in poor and vulnerable communities, I encounter innovative and entrepreneurial young Africans in the U.S. and throughout the continent. More importantly, I have the privilege of investing in them and their market-based solutions, like Kenyan entrepreneur Eric Muthomi, founder of Stawi Foods and Fruits Limited in Nairobi. USADF, which invests directly in early-stage African enterprises with seed capital and local technical assistance, awarded Eric a grant of $25,000 to jumpstart his agribusiness, which links small banana farmers in Kenya with direct market access, and create banana products such as chips and flour. USADF’s catalytic capital investment in Eric enabled him to receive $200,000 total in follow-on financing, and to scale his enterprise to reach over 400 farmers.
For an example of investing in youth at scale, let’s look at USADF’s work in Somalia. With over 70 percent of Somali youth unemployed and the presence of terrorist groups like al-Shabab that are actively recruiting young people, USADF’s investments in local lives and local enterprises are vital, a clear model of efficient and results-driven local economic development. We invest in fragile states to grow and expand emerging markets. Since 2011, USADF has worked with a network of Somali NGOs providing job-training skills, access to capital and entrepreneurial development skills for young men and women. Today, as a result, over 5,500 young Somalis have been trained, placed in jobs or established enterprises, providing a lifeline to a stable, more prosperous future in their country.
USADF invests in youth initiatives because we know that strategic and catalytic investments made today in African youth will reap scalable benefits for years to come.
Through collaboration with initiatives such as the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and U.S. corporations such as the Citi Foundation, USADF has demonstrated a commitment to youth investment by providing capital to over 150 entrepreneurs in over 30 countries. Over 68% of entrepreneurs in 2014 funded by USADF has attracted follow-on financing for their ventures, putting them on a pathway to prosperity and sustained economic growth.
While celebrating Africa Day today, we must continue to seek opportunities to harness and invest in Africa’s greatest asset for a peaceful and prosperous tomorrow-- the youth of Africa.