The 21st century belongs to China—but the 22nd will be Africa’s

The fictional country of Wakanda from “Black Panther” might not be the stuff of science fiction.
The fictional country of Wakanda from “Black Panther” might not be the stuff of science fiction.
Image: Marvel
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The 21st century will most likely belong to China as the Chinese Century. But with a rapid increase in Chinese investment and African innovation, the 22nd century may see the dawn of the African Century.

China’s investment in Africa will create an infrastructure for African culture and innovation to accelerate. Chinese investments and contracts in sub-Saharan Africa total $299 billion from 2005 to 2018, according to the China Investment Global Tracker, and in 2018, Chinese president Xi Jinping vowed to invest a further $60 billion into African nations. If the continent can successfully navigate the issues raised by Chinese neo-colonial ambitions—such as the fear of “debt trap” diplomacy, with $130 billion in loans from China to African nations since 2000—they will be able to ascend from this trajectory into global power.

In this new age of unparalleled prosperity and influence, AI will wake up to its African soul. The musician Brian Eno once said that the problem with computers is that there is “not enough Africa” in them; computing needs to involve more of our bodies and more embodied rhythms, just as African music requires of its players. We will know that AI is working for humanity when it becomes more African.

African innovators are moving fast to make this a reality. Kwabena Boahen, a computer researcher and the director of the Brains in Silicon group at Stanford, is using neuromorphic engineering to create artificial retinas that give the blind the gift of sight. Oshiorenoya Agabi, a theoretical physicist based in Nigeria, just created Koniku Kore, a modem-sized gadget that utilizes neurons from mice to detect explosives and sense diseased cells. And Kamau Gachigi of Kenya created Gearbox, a hardware accelerator set up to empower African inventors to rapidly prototype their inventions.

As a forecaster and afrofuturist who imagines alternative futures from a black diaspora perspective, I think about long-term signals that will shape the next 10 to 100 years. I believe there are four major factors that will allow African nations to reveal the full power and reach of what my daughter calls our “cultural vibranium,” that fictional meteorite resource that advances the technology of Wakanda in the film Black Panther. Only this vibranium already exists as a state of mind within the African soul.

Leapfrogging: The first signal is technological leapfrogging, which is when developing nations accelerate innovation by skipping over older, less efficient technologies, moving directly to more advanced ones. For African nations, this exists through a variety of pathways. These include cryptocurrencies, sharing economies, and blockchain’s smart contracts. In the near future, African nations and peoples will be able to leverage and scale their own discoveries as technology infrastructure becomes cheaper, rather than racing for innovation in the first place.

Demographics: A second powerful signal is reflected in the demographics of African nations. Their growing populations along with their immense geographic size will command our attention in positive, sustainable pathways well into the 22nd century. The population of the African continent will double to 4.2 billion by 2100, ensuring that soon two out of every five people on Earth will be African. (If you juxtapose the maps of the US, China, and Europe over Africa, you still only cover about three fourths of the continent.)

Culture: A third pathway derives from the second: the global dissemination of African culture. As Africans become more upwardly mobile and move out of the continent and across the world, it will place the full breadth of African culture on display. (This African diaspora will also send back a net inflow of money to enrich their urban and rural economies: African migrants sent back a record-breaking $37.8 billion in cash to sub-Saharan Africa in 2017, and this amount will likely reach a high of $39.6 billion in 2019.)

Africa and its diverse nations reflect our core ancestral cradle with their strengths in fashion, design, and the potential for plant-based medicines. The continent’s capacity to advance its urban middle class while retaining its culturally rich, dizzying variety of cultures provides Africa’s real power.

Adaptability: The final signal reflects the African continent’s ability to see beyond strict categories. We are rediscovering more wisdom in African world views such as the concept of ntu, which views everything as networked and interdependent. This African-centric perspective innately sees the interconnectedness of all things and the world as more fluid than binary categories. Many African cultures also have long-held and holistic approaches, such as the spirituality and non-gendered traditions of the Yoruba, Zulu, and Igbo religions.

These cultural beliefs have allowed African people globally to imagine and adapt. Africa’s net regional exports will likewise reflect a mindset that can address climate change and think in nonlinear, out-of-the-box approaches. As Wanuri Kahiu, Kenya’s premiere science-fiction author, has said, “Africa and science have never been separate.”

As Italy led the European renaissance, it is for these reasons that Africa will lead the next. This mindset is its real vibranium, and will allow the continent to shape the 22nd century as an African one.

Correction: This article incorrectly stated that Sierra Leone used blockchain in their elections last year.