In 2000, the Economist released a cover story about Africa, titled “The hopeless continent”.  At that time Sierra Leone was embroiled in a civil war that left more than 50,000 dead. Today the situation is different. Sierra Leone is at peace, life in Africa is improving, be it political stability, the economy or health. It’s become one of the fastest growing regions in the world, trailing Asia. Countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia, Uganda and many others have become drivers of the continent’s growth.

In 2011 The Economist had no option but to contradict the cover story they had released in 2000, this time they titled it “Africa rising”, because of the continent’s remarkable progress in the past 10 years. Last year TIME Magazine released its own version of “Africa Rising”, where it analyzed Africa’s emergence as one of the fastest growing regions in the world. It is estimated that African GDP will grow at 6% annually over the next 10 years. I was so stunned by the fact that Ghanaian GDP grew by an impressive 14.4% in 2011. While experts predict that the main driver of Africa‘s growth in the next 50 years will be natural resources, some are concerned that the proceeds from these natural resources do not trickle down to the poor. This is one of the major challenges faced by the African continent today.

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One of the advantages of the sub-Saharan is its young population. In his cover story titled “Africa Rising”, Alex Perry of TIME Magazine shares some interesting statistics on the region’s population. While Europe’s population is expected to decline in the next 40 years, that of sub-Saharan Africa will more than double to 1.9 billion.  At the end of 2010 the average age in the region was 18.6. According to the recent World Bank report titled “World Bank’s Global Development Horizons” (GDH), which explores investment patterns, the sub-Saharan region is the youngest in the world. It’s been forecast that by 2100 more than a 1/3 of the world’s young people will live in sub-Saharan Africa. The consequence of this will be a very productive economy that will cut the costs of social security benefits and therefore boosting growth. The elderly can be a huge burden.

As great as the African story is, challenges remain, even in countries that are experiencing boom times. Poverty remains a huge challenge. East Africa’s giant, Kenya, is home to one of the largest slums in the world. According to The Economist, in 2010 the least literate country in the world was in Africa – Mali. GDP per capita remains very low in most countries. In his column for the Business Day, Obadiah Mailafia points out that the youth accounts for 37% of the African labor force but makes up more than 60% of the unemployed. Given that we are one of the world’s young regions, if not the youngest, we ought to skill the youth so that they are able to succeed in this world’s digital economy.

The World Economic Forum on Africa was held in Cape Town last month. This year’s theme was “Delivering on Africa’s promise”. One of the highlights of the forum was the annual publication by Africa Progress Panel, led by the former U.N. Secretary General, Kofi Annan. The report suggests that natural resources have the potential to transform the continent. It also makes it clear that many of the resource-rich nations are leaving the poor behind. It remains a puzzle that 9 of the 12 countries at the very bottom of the Human Development Index are rich in resources. The panel attributes these natural resource losses to “poor management, corruption and flawed taxation policies”.

One of the officials who I believe spoke sense, before the start of the Forum, was Trevor Manuel. He pointed out that it’s not going to be easy to eradicate poverty if people have no education. Most jobs available today require skilled workers, and the current situation is a huge blow to Africa’s progress. Lack of education will be a threat to Africa’s growth, since the sub-Saharan is the youngest of the world’s developing regions. Africa is experiencing boom times, so it is now that governments ought to pursue policies that will boost growth. I believe that the first step on transforming Africa is to capitalize on these boom times by strengthening our education. Because trust me, having an educated populace will take us to the desirable and prosperous direction.

 

Phumlani M. UMajozi is a Professional Business Analyst, a Policy Analyst at Independent Entrepreneurship Group, and Youth Coordinator at Free Market Foundation South Africa.