Bill Gates thinks Africa’s youth are vital for driving innovation

Continuing Mandela’s legacy.
Continuing Mandela’s legacy.
Image: AP Photo
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Africa’s booming youth population don’t just represent a new workforce or market of consumers. They are a new breed of innovators who will solve the continent problems, but first the continent has to become a home that will help them thrive. Bill Gates outlined his blueprint for a thriving Africa when he delivered the annual Nelson Mandela lecture on Sunday evening (July 17).

Hundreds came to hear the billionaire philanthropist come to speak at the University of Pretoria. In his second life as a tech icon turned global philanthropist, Gates’ foundation pledged another $5 billion over the next five years to focus on healthcare, agriculture and other areas, Gates told reporters.

The Mamelodi township where Gates spoke is not unlike any other urban African center—with pockets of progress surrounded by areas still hampered by the past. The Microsoft co-founder was keenly aware of this as he spoke, noting the many developmental challenges that still plague Africa, citing a series of statistics throughout his lecture.

Gates gave most weight to data highlighting Africa’s youth. In the next 35 years, 2 billion babies will be born on the continent, and it’s essential to start building a continent that will see them thrive, he said.

“The most important thing about young people is the way their minds work,” Gates said, adding that Mandela too believed in the youth. “Young people are better than old people at driving innovation, because they are not locked in by the limits of the past.”

In his lecture, Gates tried to develop a plan to help young Africans from birth. He mentioned the importance of nutrition and healthcare, education and the need for investment and infrastructure to create jobs. Of course, he touched on the various programs the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have throughout the continent, from distributing vaccines to farming chickens.

Throughout his speech, Gates gave a nod to the young Africans whose innovations are already filling in the gaps on the continent, helping communities leapfrog developmental challenges. Special mentions went to Martha Chumo, a 21-year-old Kenyan who founded a coding school to teach young Kenyans computer skills and South African Thato Kgatlhanye, who devised backpacks made of discarded plastic bags, that also double as solar lamps.

Oluseun Onigbinde, a 2015 Quartz Africa Innovator honoree, whose website BudgIT Nigeria gives ordinary citizens access to data on state spending, was called on by name for his contribution to improving governance and democracy. “Onigbinde is no doubt a thorn in the side of some of Nigeria’s elite. To me, he is an example of what one person can do to make a difference.”

Mobile innovations and fortified local groups are welcome innovations, but young Africans also need free societies that encourage their creativity and welcome their ideas.

“The real returns will come if we can multiply this talent for innovation by the whole of Africa’s growing youth population,” Gates said. “That depends on whether Africa’s young people—all of Africa’s young people—are given the opportunity to thrive.”