This is a repost from my April 22 column for Internet Evolution. It makes a nice overture for my work-in-progress, Young World Rising.
A photo of the teenage pirate arrested
in the rescue off the coast of Somalia last week popped up in my RSS
feed-reader this morning as I was wrapping up an interview with Sheraan Amod, a
social media entrepreneur in Cape Town, South Africa. While Abduwali Abukhadir
Muse will surely be the young African most of America is talking about this week,
Amod and thousands of others like him across the continent are the members of
this new Cheetah
Generation that we should really be paying attention to.
Africa has long been seen in the West as the unhappy
convergence of natural disasters and man-made mis-governance. However, across
the continent, there is now a different kind of convergence taking place,
bringing together the powerful forces of youth, information technology and
Since 2006, Africa has been gaining new Internet connections
faster than any other region - a curve which is only expected to steepen with
the widespread deployment of mobile Web and wireless satellite-based services.
Costs continue to fall, extending access further and further down the economic
At the same time, many countries of
historically-impoverished sub-Saharan Africa have populations that are
exceptionally young by global standards. Nearly 45% of Nigerians (total pop.
160 million) are under the age of 15, for example. In the Economist's "Ageing"
index, which measures the ratio of under-15s to over-60s in a population, 14 of
the 15 youngest countries in the world are African.
In the past, this would be seen as a harbinger of political
instability and economic underdevelopment. Now, the rapid spread of ICT and a more
entrepreneurial approach to the problems of bottom-of-the-pyramid populations
is turning the 20th century liability of "too many mouths to feed"
into the 21st century asset of "millions of minds at work." If India
is facing a demographic
dividend, in the words of Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, then Africa
is looking at a bounteous harvest indeed.
While certainly the bodies attached to all those active
young minds still need to eat, ICT-based development offers a path to
prosperity that simply did not exist even five years ago. African Net
entrepreneurs with skills and Web access can stand at eye-level with their
peers anywhere in the world and enjoy instantaneous access to the prosperous
consumer markets of the developed world. Compare this model with the enormous
capital requirements necessary to start a manufacturing enterprise, even in a
very low-cost market, and obtain the plethora of permits and partnerships to do
As access barriers collapse, new institutions are stepping
forward with resources to fuel innovation and growth.
"A few years ago, private equity was the only way to go for
start-ups," explains Amod, whose company, Personara, plans to develop
applications based on Facebook and other social platforms. "Now, there is
venture capital. There is government support. There are whole networks of
entrepreneurs and resources to share knowledge."
Even the most optimistic advocates of ICT-based growth in
Africa remain sanguine about the challenges. ‘Gbenga Sesan is executive
director of Paradigm Initiative Nigeria,
a non-profit focused on youth and ICT-based entrepreneurship.
"In Nigeria, we cannot continue to depend on the price of
oil for our economic fortunes," he says. "It is unsustainable. By building our
ICT skills among the younger population, we can start to explore new avenues of
development. There is incredible talent here."
The problems of poverty and education remain daunting, but
Sesan says the government is stepping up investments in ICT training and
community-based access to serve the more impoverished areas, including urban
slums and rural villages. "I believe, knowing the trend of things in Nigeria,
once those things are in place, content is definitely not going to be a
problem, because a lot of people will take advantage of the infrastructure to
Sesan believes prosperity will increase gradually, as
greater efforts and resources go into closing the digital divide in the next
10-15 years. Amod says not to be surprised if change comes much sooner, maybe
in as few as 7-10 years. He, of course, is quite young - and such is the
optimism of youth.