Co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
I was 9 years old when Nelson Mandela was sent to prison on Robben Island. As a boy, I learned about him in school, and I remember seeing reports about the anti-Apartheid movement on the evening news. Decades later, I got to meet him and work with him. In person he was even more inspiring than I had imagined. His humility and courage left an impression that I will never forget.
So it was a special honor to be invited to give the Nelson Mandela Lecture in Pretoria, South Africa. I eagerly accepted the invitation and quickly began working on my remarks.
I decided to share my optimism about Africa’s future—to explain why I think the continent has the potential to change faster in the next generation than any continent ever has.
It’s because Africa is the world’s youngest continent, and youth can go hand in hand with a special dynamism. I was 20 years old when Paul Allen and I started Microsoft. The entrepreneurs driving startup booms in Johannesburg, Lagos, and Nairobi are just as young, and the thousands of businesses they’re creating are already changing lives across the continent. The potential will only grow as the digital revolution brings more advances in artificial intelligence and robotics.
But positive change across Africa won’t happen automatically. The real returns will come only if Africans can unleash this talent for innovation in all of the continent’s growing population. That depends on whether all of its young people are given the opportunity to thrive.
It is still an open question, and it is the crux of my speech, which I gave today at the University of Pretoria. It was an honor to give this lecture, and I’m grateful to the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the university for inviting me.
The first time I spoke with Nelson Mandela was in 1994, when he called to ask me to help fund South Africa’s first multi-racial election. It’s not every day that Nelson Mandela calls, so I remember it well. I was running Microsoft at the time and thinking about software most of my waking hours. But I admired Nelson Mandela, I knew the election was historic, and I did what I could to help.
I had been to Africa for the first time just the year before, when my wife, Melinda, and I travelled in East Africa on vacation. Obviously, we knew parts of Africa were very poor, but being on the continent turned what had been an abstraction into an injustice we could not ignore.
Faced with such glaring inequity, we started thinking about how we could use our resources to make a difference. Within a few years, we established our foundation. It was when I started coming to Africa regularly for the foundation that I came to know Nelson Mandela personally. He was both an advisor and an inspiration.
One topic that Nelson Mandela came back to over and over again in his lifetime was the power of youth. I agree with Mandela about young people, and that is one reason I’m optimistic about the future of Africa. Demographically, Africa is the world’s youngest continent, and its youth can be the source of a special dynamism.
Economists talk about the demographic dividend and the potential for Africa’s burgeoning youth population to accelerate economic growth. But for me, the most important thing about young people is the way their minds work. Young people are better than old people at driving innovation, because they are not locked in by the limits of the past. I was 19 when I founded Microsoft. Steve Jobs was 21 when he started Apple. Mark Zuckerberg was 19 when he created Facebook.
So I’m inspired by the young African entrepreneurs driving startup booms in the Silicon Savannahs from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Lagos and Nairobi.
The real returns, though, will come if we can multiply this talent for innovation by the whole of Africa’s growing youth population. To make that a reality, all of Africa’s young people must have the opportunity to thrive.
If we invest in the right things—if we make sure the basic needs of Africa’s young people are taken care of—then they can change the future and life on this continent will improve faster than it ever has.
In my view, there are four things that will determine Africa’s future: health and nutrition, education, economic opportunity, and good governance.
When people aren’t healthy, they can’t turn their attention to things like education, working and raising a family. Conversely, when health improves, life improves by every measure.
I’m especially concerned about HIV. Africa’s youngest generation are entering the age when they are most at risk of HIV. We need to get more out of the HIV prevention methods we have now –while developing better solutions like an effective vaccine and easier-to-use medicines that people are more likely to use consistently.
Nutrition is another critical area of focus for Africa. Malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies rob millions of the continent’s children of their physical and cognitive potential. Fortunately, there are cost-effective solutions like making sure mothers breastfeed their infants, enriching cooking oil, sugar, and flour with important vitamins and minerals, and breeding staple crops to maximize their nutritional content. We need to make sure the people most at risk know about and have access to these solutions.
Second, we need new thinking and new tools to make sure a high-quality education is available to every child. Educational technology using mobile phones has the potential to help students build foundational skills while giving teachers better feedback and support at the touch of a button. Governments also need to invest in high-quality public universities for the largest number of qualified students to launch the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, educators, and government leaders.
Third, we need to create economic opportunities to channel the energy and ideas of Africa’s youth. Through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program, countries have a framework for transforming agriculture from a struggle for survival into a thriving business opportunity. But the investment needs to follow, so that young Africans have the means to create the thriving agriculture they envision.
Africa also needs more electrical power to increase productivity. In East Africa especially, governments should invest in hydro and geothermal sources of energy, which are both reliable and renewable, as soon as possible. The immediate priority is for governments to get tougher about managing their electrical grids so they’re producing as much power as possible.
Fourth, countries can benefit from enhancing fiscal governance. Advances in digital technology is one way that governments can deliver services more efficiently.
It’s clear to everyone how big and complicated the challenges are. But Africa has proven its resilience and ingenuity time and again, and there are millions of people, especially young people, who are eager to get to work.
The future depends on the people of Africa working together to lay a foundation so that Africa’s young people have the opportunities they deserve. This is the future that Nelson Mandela dreamed of and it’s the future that the youth of Africa deserve.
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