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Young African entreprenuers meet in Berlin

Naomi Conrad / mc
April 30, 2013

Is a new mindset and political awareness emerging among Africa's youth? Or is the growth and glitter giving a false impression. Internet-savvy, smart phone-wielding entrepreneurs and activists look for answers.

A file picture taken on April 22, 2004 shows young Ivorians learning how to use a computer in Abidjan during the 7th Internet Festival organized by the Ivorian Ministry for Information and Telecommunications New Technologies. Converging booms in Internet and cell phone technologies in Africa hold the promise of economic growth, since studies show a link between rising broadband and mobile penetration and economic development. AFP PHOTO ISSOUF SANOGO. (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Internetnutzung in AfrikaImage: AFP/Getty Images

In a converted hall in Berlin's Kreuzberg district that once housed a transformer substation, Ghana's Minister for Youth and Sport, Elvis Afriyie-Ankrah has taken control of the microphone. "Do you know this song - The world is not my home, I'm just passing through," he intones. When the rest of the lyrics start to elude him, he loudly but melodiously fills in the gaps with "Dadadadada."

Yet the lyrics don't really matter. The minister for youth, in his mid-forties, has his clear, well-prepared, message ready to deliver. Africa's young generation should not just pass by and let others decide their lives, but to take action themselves. He raises his hands to the audience and drops them again as he wipes to the next slide on his iPad presentation.

Twin devils

Afriyie-Ankrah is one of Africa's few youthful ministers. Key positions in politics and economics are still occupied by the older generation, which traditionally denies younger people a say in the running of their affairs.

"For me, I call it the twin devils of religion and culture," said Yomi Adamolekun, director of Enough is Enough Nigeria, a civil society coalition that focuses on good governance issues.

Image #: 7074894 Customers in Ntulele, Kenya, send money via M-Pesa, a pioneering cell phone money transfer service that has signed up 5.5 million customers in less than two years. Mobile banking is catching on in Africa, where nearly half the people have cell phones but less than one-fifth have formal bank accounts. MCT/Shashank Bengali /Landov
Will technology and economic growth empower Africa's youth?Image: picture-alliance/Landov

"Both in Christianity and Islam, rarely do you challenge authority, and for most African cultures I know, rarely do you challenge authority. Layer that on to politics and so rarely do you challenge politics," she said.

The Nigerian is one of a hundred or so young entrepreneurs, activists and artists from Kenya, Ghana and South Africa invited to Berlin by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development to discuss the plight of Africa's youth. On the walls of the Kreuzberg hall are photographs of young people demonstrating, clenching their fists at the camera.

Good governance

Africa's youth – such was the consensus at the conference – are starting to rebel against the old elite, which has marginalized and ignored them for so long. "People now know, it's OK to question the old structures," said Adamolekun. This is because democracy has taken root in many – though not all – African states. The uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East also serve as inspiration.

Adamolekun has firm ideas about what constitutes good governance. Her NGO is launching a campaign directed at 18 year-olds telling them don't drink and drive, don't have unprotected sex and do vote wisely. This has not endeared her to those in authority or to those who frequent the mosques or the churches. "I've been told a few times that I am under surveillance and had better watch my step," she says, shrugging her shoulders.

Investors are coming

Africa's older generation are following the activities of the young very closely. African economies are growing quickly and young people are now better educated. They know their rights and they are demanding them both in politics and business. Mark Kaigwa is a blogger and digital art and technology consultant from Kenya. He said that if he wanted to raise 50,000 euros five years ago, he would have scratched his head and gone through a rolodex. "Today, in a day, I could have 50,000 euros in a bank account, if the idea is good enough," he said. Investors are coming and they want to get involved early in high-risk, seed-stage companies. They're in Nairobi, Cape Town, Lagos and Accra.

But outside these cities, it can be hard obtaining financing and the new narrative that focuses on Africa's young dynamic mobile elite may be dangerously one-sided. "I think Afro-optimism is awesome," said Kaigwa. "But it may be a little early, there are still obviously some very real challenges in Africa and I don't want to pass over them," he said.

"Africa," he adds, "is not one country and not all glitter and growth."

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