Life

How Africa is becoming a continent of young entrepreneurs, scientists, creatives and activists

The emerging Africa and its booming population results in a very different continent to the one of most Western imaginations

Lagos is Nigeria's financial hub. Credit: Shutterstock

Lagos is Nigeria's financial hub. Credit: Shutterstock

In 2018, for the first time in human history, people aged over 65 outnumbered children under five. By 2100, the world will see just one birth for every octogenarian. In most parts of the globe there will be more care homes than kindergartens, more funerals than births.

Ageing populations can pose economic and social challenges – having fewer working-age people makes it difficult for companies to fill job vacancies, leading to shortages in goods and services. It also reduces tax income while the need for pensions and greater pressure on health systems increase the financial burden on the public purse. Countries like Britain and those in mainland Europe – which globally has the greatest percentage of people aged over 60 (25 per cent) – potentially face the greatest challenges.

But there is one region that is bucking this trend: all of the world’s 20 youngest countries by population are situated in sub-Saharan Africa, and the median age across the region is 18. By 2050, Africa will be home to one billion young people, almost half of the world’s youth. This vast cohort will be the entrepreneurs, scientists, creatives and activists who will lead the world into the next century. And they are emerging from an Africa that is very different to the continent of most Western imaginations.

Urbanisation is changing the face of sub-Saharan Africa. Over the next 30 years, Africa’s thriving, bustling megacities will accommodate almost 950 million new urban dwellers.

The Nigerian city of Lagos is sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest, and could be the world’s largest by 2100. (Greater Tokyo, currently the largest, looks set to lose nearly a third of its population due to an ageing population and declining birth rates.) Lagos has a nominal per capita income of more than double the Nigerian average, is home to a pan-African banking industry, a leader in the Fintech and crypto currency sectors and has become one of the continent’s biggest tech hubs.

“Lagos is the New York of Nigeria.” says Nigerian entrepreneur and influencer John Obidi, 34. “Being in Lagos alters the way you see the world. You begin to think: ‘I can do these things.’”

The other factor changing lives on the continent is access to technology. The growth of mobile internet access is empowering a generation with oppor- tunities that would have been unthink- able a little as 10 years ago. In some areas – such as the mobile financial sector – sub-Saharan Africa has become a global leader. By the end of 2018, there were almost 396 million registered mobile money accounts in the region, representing nearly half of the global total.

Young sub-Saharan Africans – such as Odionye Confidence, 27, the founder of Lagos-based drone specialists Beat- Drone – are using tech-based solutions across agriculture, education, finance, healthcare and infrastructure, sensing a chance to develop African economies at lower cost and faster speed.

“African countries have taken a leap forward,” says Catherina Hinz, director of the Berlin Institute. “In Europe, drones as suppliers of blood reserves or medicines are still dreams of the future; in Ghana or Rwanda they are a reality.”

A continent with educated, ambitious and creative young talent should be good news for countries with ageing populations. Still, Africa remains a blind spot for many in the global North where a fear of African immigration is common. In fact, the share of Africans living abroad has barely increased since the 1960s. Hinz explains, “Only a tiny proportion of young Africans migrate. Those who do leave are not poor youth from the slums, it is people who have money and education because migration is expensive.”

“We need young Africans to come here,” says Hinz. “Over time that will become clearer to people. Regular migration will become a necessity for European countries that are dealing with an ageing population.”

But whether African youth will continue to express an interest in emigration remains to be seen.

“In all of my time living and work- ing in the West, I have yet to meet a young African professional who doesn’t dream of one day moving back to the continent,” writes filmmaker Ras Mutabaruka for Deutsche Welle. “Besides systemic barriers that prevent many from fully realizing their potential abroad, this generation doesn’t just want to work for a pay check. They want to know that what they are doing is valuable and has a real impact on real people. They want to be a part of the continent’s rebirth.”

Soro Soke: The Young Disruptors of an African Megacity by Trish Lorenz is out on May 26 in paperback (Cambridge University Press, £9.99)

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