The real leaders at the Obama-African summit

President Obama's summit with African leaders mainly focuses on business ties. Yet the continent's outsized youth population may really determine Africa's future.

An employee registers a customer for a mobile money transfer, known as M-Pesa, inside the Safaricom mobile phone care center in Kenya's capital Nairobi.

One result in a new survey called the “Global Youth Wellbeing Index” hardly fits a common perception of Africa. Young Africans today, the survey found, are more optimistic than young Americans. This youthful hope is one reason why President Obama is playing host to nearly 50 African leaders at a summit this week in Washington.

The summit is mainly focused on ways to expand trade and investment with Africa – a welcome change from the past emphasis on foreign aid. But Africa’s future may depend less on economics and more on its so-called demographic dividend, or the fact that Africa has the largest “youth bulge” in the world.

About a quarter of the world’s population is under age 15, but in Africa, the number is 40 percent. By 2030, nearly 1 in 4 young people on the planet will be in Africa. And today’s young Africans are already rapidly joining the digital revolution. They are more advanced than those in most countries in using mobile devices for cashless money transfers. In fact, although most Africans still live without electricity, they have more mobile devices than toothbrushes.

The continent’s young people also have a different attitude than previous generations. In a new book, “The Bright Continent,” Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade quotes a former Nigerian education minister as saying African youth do not carry “the albatross of failure.”

“The youthful population in Africa today had no idea of colonialism – it’s story to them,” says Obiageli Ezekwesili. “They didn’t know military rule – it’s strange to them. They are intolerant of poor performance – they don’t understand why that should be their lot.”

When Google’s executive chairman, Eric Schmidt, recently toured Africa, he was impressed both by its youth and their capacity to jump into the Digital Age. “The demographic dividend in Africa of young people is their greatest hope,” he said. “This new generation expects more, and will use mobile computing to get it.”

When Mr. Obama set up a program in 2010 to train young African leaders, more than 50,000 applied. In her book, Ms. Olopade cites the concept of kanju, an African word that suggests an ability to be innovative in difficult situations. Indeed, while nearly two-thirds of Africans live in countries deemed “free” or at least “partly free,” most young people still work in agriculture. They are hungry to connect, and they demand better governance.

Olopade writes that Africa’s current strength is the fact that “the most vibrant, authentic, and economically significant interactions are between individuals and decentralized groups,” such as those in civil society.

So while the three-day summit in Washington may result in more business and trade for Africa – and jobs for young people – the real dynamism lies in African youth. Their size and their creative uses of new technology are driving the continent’s future.

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