7 Trends to Watch During Africa’s Rise

Johannesburg, South Africa

For a quarter century, Africa has been calling me. I have a passion for the continent, for the diversity of its people, languages, geography, economies and more. I have a passion for its success. It too is often unrecognized but is so resurgent that the impact of Africa’s rise can no longer be ignored.

I first traveled to Africa in 1992, when I visited Johannesburg at the invitation of the African National Congress. The legacy of apartheid still scars South Africa today, but then the wounds were open and raw. Nelson Mandela was less than two years from his nearly three decades on Robben Island. I was asked to help the ANC convert from a paramilitary to a political organization. We landed in Johannesburg after back-to-back overnight flights. Instantly, I was enthralled.

I was met at the airport by a fellow named “Terror” Lekota. Given the ANC’s reputation in those days, you can imagine my concern when I was told my ride from the airport was nicknamed “terror.” But it turned out that Terror was a mountainous, teddy bear of a man who had earned his nickname from his fierce football play, and whose eight years on Robben Island had not hardened him to the African tradition of welcoming strangers. Lakota is now Leader of the Congress of the People party in South Africa.

During that first visit, I saw the apartment buildings in Alexandra where snipers took shots at passersby. I walked through Soweto and saw the shanties where three or four families with four or five children each shared a tiny space made of tin metal or cardboard. The memories of such wrenching poverty still sear my soul.

That was a generation ago. In the life of a nation, it would not even register as the blink of an eye. The United States needed nearly nine decades and a civil war to solve the moral crisis of slavery, and decades more to overcome the stain of segregation. And recent events have reminded us our work remains unfinished.

Africa’s challenges — from governance to public health and from economics to the environment — are immense. States have failed, and others are teetering. The World Bank estimates that even in 2030, after more than a decade of further progress, nearly one in five Africans will live in poverty — an unacceptable total of 300 million people representing 80 percent of the global poor. Nearly four in 10 of the world’s refugees are located in Africa. About the same proportion of those in our world who lack access to clean water are there. In sub-Saharan Africa, a staggering 589 million people lack electricity. It’s why I’ve been proud to support President Obama’s Power Africa initiative, which has already completed projects connecting 2.5 million businesses and households.

And yet by the standard of historical progress, and certainly by the standard of what I saw in 1992, Africa has traveled far and quickly. Across the continent, possibility is blossoming like the crops bursting through the rich soil of the Tanzanian or Rwandan foothills. Infant mortality has been cut in half since 1990. We’ve made huge strides with HIV and malaria thanks to an effort on a global scale. Polio is now only a few cases away from being eradicated on the continent. Among the world’s dozen largest economies, three — Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt — are there. There are 29 billionaires on the continent and countless more entrepreneurs who dream of joining their ranks. Six hundred million acres of arable land — six in 10 of the world’s total — are waiting to be cultivated there.

If the land is ready to blossom with possibility, just consider the continent’s most valuable resource — its people. In the next 10 years, more than 50 million new middle- and upper-class households are expected to emerge in Africa. Within 20 years, the African job force will be larger than China’s.

Of course, there’s still much to be done. But here are seven trends that I see unfolding across the continent that, if realized, will impact Africa’s rise and with it, opportunities for partners from around the world to grow with it.

1. Integration between nations. Africa’s assets are spread across 54 countries speaking more than 1,000 languages. China’s explosive growth would not have happened so swiftly had its massive work force been so splintered. It was naturally integrated. Africa is not.

Trade barriers between African nations continue to impose high costs and a heavy drag on growth. Consider one measure: African countries levy average tariffs of up to 13.3 percent on imports from other African countries, while Africa’s average external tariff is 8.7 percent. By contrast, the average tariff imposed on African exports to the rest of the world is just 2.5 percent. Estimates say trade facilitation could reduce costs by 17 percent, more than in any other region of the world. This starts with regional blocs. And it is a process already well under way. Some are focusing on peace and security, others on economics.

The striking fact — one under-reported and under-appreciated — is that there have been no declared wars across national borders in Africa for nearly 20 years, an achievement all the more impressive when one considers that these boundaries are artificial lines drawn by European colonists. The lesson is clear: Integration works.

2. The rise of the African middle class. It is a Western myth that Africa is a charity case — a myth in two senses. One is that Africa is a rising economic power in which poverty is objectively falling and a middle class with disposable income is objectively rising. The second is that all the data indicates that even Africans living in distressed conditions do not experience their own lives in terms of poverty. They see poverty as a state of mind, not just a state of money.

Westerners need to be careful how we interpret that. It is not an excuse for ignoring objective need and serious deprivation. It is a reason not to condescend to people living joyously and courageously within limits that would impose the most serious tests on those of us accustomed to the comforts of the West.

More than 50 million new middle class and upper class households are expected to emerge on the continent in the next decade, and nearly two-thirds of Africa’s more than 300 million households will have discretionary income by 2025 — a massive expansion of the global consumer pool.

Africa is brimming with youthful energy. By 2020 the average age will be 20 years. By 2034, Africa is expected to have a work force of 1.1 billion people, larger than either China or India — an immense possibility if jobs keep pace, but a looming danger if they do not.

3. Increased urbanization. By 2030, half of Africans will live in urban areas. The continent has as many cities with more than 1 million inhabitants as North America. There are three megacities with populations above 10 million — Lagos, Cairo and Kinshasa — and others, Johannesburg among them, are poised to join them.

This urbanization is driving consumption. In the largest African cities, consumption growth can rival even that of major cities in Brazil, Russia, India or China. But urbanization is also exposing serious challenges. Six in 10 urban residents in Africa live in slums. About four in 10 lack access to piped water, and at least one in four do not have electricity.

4. African women are (slowly) rising, too. I’m convinced that some of the most important opportunities in Africa can result if women achieve greater empowerment. Women are the rivers nourishing and connecting their communities. But fewer than 20 percent of African women have access to education, and women in sub-Saharan Africa are a staggering more than 230 times likelier to die in childbirth or pregnancy than women in North America. They represent just 15 percent of landholders, despite growing the majority of the continent’s food.

Yet they, too, are on the move. Fertility rates are declining. More women have careers. They own a third of African businesses and are likelier to run informal microenterprises. When women prosper, communities prosper. When women thrive, success spreads to families and radiates outward.

5. The mobile revolution. A good indicator of the growth in mobile on the continent is the staggering scale of M-Pesa. More than 40 percent of the Kenyan economy passes through it. All told, mobile generated 6.7 percent of Africa’s GDP in 2015, accounting for 3.8 million jobs. Online retail is still in its infancy in sub-Saharan Africa, but the industry shows promising potential, especially in South Africa and in Nigeria.

The under-developed nature of brick-and-mortar retail in sub-Saharan Africa creates an especially intriguing value proposition for e-tailing, which provides an alternative to gridlocked traffic, higher prices, long distances to urban shopping and other inconveniences. The implications of mobile for online retailing are immense.

6. The effects of climate change — a casualty, not a cause. Africa accounts for only four percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. It is the continent least responsible for global greenhouse gas emissions. But it is also the continent least prepared for the impact of a changing climate. Temperatures will rise during this century. Rainfall patterns will change. By 2020 between 75 and 250 million people in Africa are predicted to be exposed to increased water stress due to climate change. Precipitation in some areas may drop by 20 percent while others may experience frequent and intense tropical storms. Arid and semi-arid lands will spread. But Africa has been a resilient continent in the face of harsh natural conditions, and if climate technologies and resources are available to its people, they will mitigate and adapt to the planet’s changing climate.

7. The desperate need to improve governance. Finally, the last trend is not so much a trend as it is an imperative for Africa. That is the desperate need to improve governance. Corruption remains the principal obstacle to many people who would otherwise do business in Africa. The African economy cannot fully take flight until that weight is removed.

I was privileged to join the delegation on President Obama’s trip to Kenya last year, and I sat in the Safaricom Arena listening to the president’s address to the Kenyan people. Many of us expected a speech laden with the emotions of the president’s personal journey. He could bask in the glow of Africa’s son returning home. But he chose a different, more difficult path. He transformed from brother and son to village elder, and used his enormous influence to address directly and forcefully core societal issues that are too often ignored or swept under the rug. He tackled ethnic and tribal divisions that have stymied democracies.

He addressed the rights of women, and chastised traditions that treat women and girls as second-class citizens. And then he squarely turned to the issue of corruption. “Ordinary people have to stand up and say, enough is enough,” he said. The fact is that those of us from outside Africa can encourage change, but in the end, it will only come from citizens in Africa demanding accountability. And from leaders who have the courage to change.

Me meeting students in Moshi, Tanzania during a trip sponsored by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation

Historically, the West treated Africa as an asset to exploit. Recently, the developed world has often treated it as a troubled friend to whom it owes a debt. The future is one in which Africa is a partner in full.

Africa is rising. It is calling. It is developing at an extraordinarily rapid pace — rich with resources, abounding with ambition and, most of all, wealthiest in the asset that matters most: people who believe in one another and in the future they share. Being a partner in it is a responsibility. It is an opportunity. But most of all, it is a privilege.