The African Century: Afro-Optimism and Innovation

21st century skills, Fourth industrial revolution by Honoris Staff Writer

In stark contrast to global stereotypes and outdated narratives, the African Youth Survey 2020, the most comprehensive survey of its kind involving thousands of interviews across 14 countries, reveals a rising Afro-Optimism among the continent’s youth. Driven by a strong sense of individual responsibility, entrepreneurialism, and confidence in a shared identity, these young people believe that the 21st century will be the African Century.

These young people are digitally savvy, with 79% believing that wi-fi access should be a fundamental human right, and 81% stating that technology will change the fortunes of Africa. This understanding of the necessity of technology, combined with their self-starter mindset, puts Africa’s youth in a strong position to face the technologically advanced future with confidence.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) that is now reshaping the world will require young people with determination to take control of their own lives, create their own jobs, and invest in the digital economy by embracing innovation and research and development (R&D). They will need to know how to adapt new technologies to fit the economic and social context of tomorrow’s Africa.

Africa’s youth population is the largest in the world, with 60% of the continent’s population under the age of 25. While that has its present challenges – three in five of the continent’s unemployed are in the youth category, and 72% of young people live on less than US$2 a day, according to the International Labour Organisation – it has great future potential.

Over the next two decades, Africa has the opportunity to benefit from a demographic dividend, in which the large percentage of working-age population lowers the dependency burden of supporting the continent’s children and elderly. If the potential of Africa’s young people is harnessed in the right way, particularly through the transformative powers of technology, they may be responsible for rewriting the economic and social structure of the continent.

While Africa trails other countries on some indicators – only 24% of Africans have access to the internet, for example, according to ITU, the United Nations specialised agency for information and communication technologies – internet usage is high among youth. Where Africa lags in technology, the youth now have the opportunity to avoid the expensive roll-out of outdated technologies and leapfrog straight to the latest innovations.

The continent has already led innovation in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector in mobile digital financial services. The region had nearly half of global mobile money accounts in 2018 and will see the fastest growth in mobile money through 2025, according to American research group Brookings Institution.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and blockchain are also attracting interest in Africa. In West Africa and Kenya, for example, blockchain has enabled efficient verification of property records and transactions, and expanded access to credit in some previously informal sectors of the economy.

Africa is well known for its myriad small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which drive jobs and help boost economic development. The Youth Survey found that 76% of young Africans want to start a business in the next five years, while more than 60% already have an idea for a business or social enterprise.

Technology is often crucial in making a success of these SMEs, from harnessing social media for marketing to using mobile money platforms to provide short-term loans. Being skilled in cutting-edge technologies will give Africa’s youth a headstart to success.

Education will be crucial to ensuring that young people in Africa will not be left out of the knowledge economy and can benefit from new technologies. Educational institutions across the continent are already boosting entrepreneurship and R&D through innovation labs, such as at Honoris United Universities institution The Moroccan School of Engineering Sciences (EMSI).

The school has set up three innovation and development labs covering mathematics and computing, electrical engineering, physical science, and management and finance: SMARTiLAB in Rabat, set up in 2015, was the first private laboratory in Morocco dedicated to research, development and innovation; LPRI in Casablanca; and LAMIGEP in Marrakesh.

Teams of student engineers from EMSI recently won medals at the most important innovation show in Asia, AsianInvent Singapore 2020, which was held online in May. The winning inventions were a Smart Micro Wind System for Auxiliary Electrical Energy Production, Micro Hydro-Aeolian Production for A Position Energy Building, and an Intelligent, Efficient and Digital Hospital Management Ecosystem.

REGENT BUSINESS SCHOOL in South Africa also unlocked the potential of Africa’s youth by mobilising its innovation hubs, iLeadLABs, in Durban, Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Students produced Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) in the form of reusable protective face shields and splash protection masks using 3-D printed parts to be distributed, at no cost, to public healthcare facilities.

Educational institutions – both private and governmental – like these that invest in innovation and R&D are not only finding solutions and boosting skills, but building a talent pipeline for the future. Harnessing the demographic dividend through investments in Africa’s youth will release the continent’s enormous promise and help to realise its economic and social potential.