By Zeenat Rahman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Zeenat Rahman serves as Special Adviser to the U.S Secretary of State for Global Youth Issues. You can follow her @zeenat. The views expressed are her own.
President Barack Obama’s just-concluded trip to Africa was focused on some of the issues you might expect from any presidential trip overseas: strengthening democracy, spurring economic growth, and enhancing peace and security. But with Africa’s emergence as a growing economic power, the president employed a strategy on his visits to Senegal, Tanzania, and South Africa that also seemed to recognize something that sets Africa policy apart – the need to engage with young leaders.
It is essential that we connect with – and invest in – the next generation of African leaders, and here’s why: on a continent of 1 billion people, more than 60 percent are under the age of 35. By 2050, one-quarter of the world’s workforce will reside in Africa. And six of the top ten fastest growing economies over the last decade are based in Africa. To remain competitive in the global marketplace, America needs to establish partnerships with African countries and Africa’s rising young leaders who are helping to fuel the growth of these economies.
Part of the story behind Africa’s growth is an emerging cohort of young people that are tapping into the global economy both as consumers, but more importantly, as job creators. That is why the United States is reaching out to young African leaders as important allies for economic and democratic progress.
Private sector leaders have also recognized the increasing importance of Africa as an essential economic player, evidenced by the fact that the President is joined by a robust delegation of business leaders and investors. To them, building partnerships in Africa is not about just about aid; it is also a strategic move in order for American companies to remain globally competitive.
As Secretary of State John Kerry’s adviser on youth issues, I’ve had a chance to meet dozens of these dynamic leaders. For example, a 21-year-old man I met in Uganda started a business incubator giving budding startups access to much-needed resources. Another young woman began a textile co-op, taking artisanal crafts to Western markets.
These inventive leaders, often with scant resources and in restrictive environments, are creating innovative solutions to persistent social and economic problems. Innovations such as mobile banking, clean burning stoves and renewable energy, driven mostly by young leaders, are having large scale impact on the continent, and we should tap into that entrepreneurial spirit and partner with Africa’s best and brightest.
Along with the significant progress on the continent to address global health issues such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, and childhood nutrition, in which the U.S. has played an important leadership role, much work still needs to further the investment in young leaders. Programs that promote training for careers, political participation, and improved access to education and technology are key tools in partnering with Africa’s 600 million youth.
This is why in South Africa, President Obama announced the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, an expansion of his Young African Leaders Initiative, a program aimed at bringing thousands of young Africans from across the continent to the U.S. for practical skills training in entrepreneurship, civic leadership, and public management. They will meet business leaders and their peers, and deepen partnerships between the United States and Africa.
The United States has an unparalleled track record of innovation, investment and strategic partnerships. We must continue that legacy of transparent, productive and mutually beneficial cooperation in Africa through our partnership with the next generation of the continent’s leaders.