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Youngsters, you’re lucky to be coming of age in Africa now

Aug 05, 2012 Success, Sunday Nation

Hello there, young Africans. If you are about to reach adulthood around about now, or in the coming few years, you are lucky people. You were born at exactly the right time in Africa’s history. You will be at the heart of Africa’s political coming-of-age and its economic rebirth.

Let me explain.

When you were born, somewhere in the 1990s, Africa was widely dubbed the ‘hopeless’ continent. Africa was the world’s special-needs child, its country-bumpkin cousin. It was a basket case that could only get by on the unending financial support of other continents.

I was born in Africa, too, and came of age in the 1980s. Let me tell you what it was like in those days. Firstly, education consisted of something bitter and irrelevant placed on a spoon by people who claimed to know what was best for you, which you were then forced to swallow (and beaten if you did not).

When you entered the job market with your useless qualification, you found there was very little formal economic activity. Modern business enterprises were few and far between, and consisted largely of government-owned giant monopolies or smug multinationals. You vied with thousands of others for very scarce jobs and you did it on the employer’s terms, as employment was a buyer’s market.

If you were enterprising and entertained thoughts of starting your own company, you soon hit a brick wall. Various regulatory hurdles were placed in the paths of any entrepreneur, mostly insurmountable. Banks would not lend you a cent without security. Venture capitalists were a distant myth. And consumer markets were controlled tightly by the very monopolists who refused to employ you.

There was little connectivity. You called people using landlines, which were expensive and few. You raised money through family and friends, period. Your only path to customers was to meet them in person.

And you couldn’t change any of this, by the way. Most African countries were de facto one-party states. They had their owners. You didn’t do things without their approval. If you tried to resist them, you soon found yourself in plenty of trouble.

That was then. Of course, the Africa of that era was also a simpler, more natural place, and it had its joys and beauties. But it was undoubtedly tyrannical and elitist, a place young people escaped from.

Now, you are coming of age in an Africa where governance models are changing rapidly. In many modern African nations, you are now free to say things, blog things, run for things.

You are coming of age at a time when the world’s attention is fully on Africa – and not just for its problems, but for its opportunities. More capital is flowing into Africa than ever before. Infrastructure is the big growth industry across the continent. Slowly, Africa is shedding its preordained position at the back-end of the global supply chain.

You, individually, can do much more. You have, or will soon have, a device in your pocket that allows you to gather knowledge, ideas, opinions and customers. The best of the world’s information is at your fingertips. You can interact with thought leaders you had no hope of ever reaching in the past. You are now connected to the rest of the world, all the time.

You no longer need to have land, corrupt connections or cheap labour in order to make it. Africa’s leap will now come from knowledge and ideas, not physical resources.

That’s how lucky you are. But it’s not enough. Africa still has a long way to go, and there are many battles still to fight. The old ways will not just give way. You have to participate fully in the fight for a better, more open, more enterprising Africa. Don’t shirk this responsibility. Your place in history awaits.

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