Africa's bright future

The magnitude of need in Africa is great but – with an emerging population of young, smart and ethical leaders – so too is the potential. Mastercard Foundation CEO Reeta Roy on how we can nurture and support this new generation of African business leaders and philanthropists.

Afew years ago, 15 young people from some of Senegal’s poorest communities were telling me excitedly about their new ventures – entrepreneurial activities they hoped would set them on a more prosperous path and help others from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds. One young man dreamed of introducing more computers into primary schools; another had set up a network to help rural youth find their feet in the urban tumult of Dakar, the country’s capital.

Just as I was leaving, I said: “What you are doing is wonderful. Your parents must be so proud.” The response caught me off guard. Every single one replied, “My parents are against what I’m doing.” They each faced family pressure to get a government job, or to use their English skills instead to become a tour guide.

Their stories are instructive in understanding some of the obstacles for ambitious African youth. The journey to work ‐ whether formal or informal, entrepreneurship or traditional employment – is often a solitary one, with little practical support to equip them with the skills, education and tools they need. Or, as illustrated in the case above, a favourable social environment to try something new.

Africa is home to the world’s largest population of young people who, in about 25 years, will make up the largest workforce in the world. By some forecasts, 11 million youth are expected to enter Africa’s labour market each year for the next decade.

If countries on the continent can boost job growth and equip young people with the skills and practical experience necessary for work, then Africa has a significant opportunity to achieve rapid, inclusive and sustainable economic growth. Moreover millions will have the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.

Early on at the MasterCard Foundation we chose to focus on Africa because we saw the magnitude of the gaps in access to secondary and higher education, and to financial products and services.

Two billion people around the world lack access to financial services, according to the World Bank. In sub‐Saharan Africa, just 34 per cent of adults have access to a bank account, making it difficult for people to put money aside for unplanned events – such as a food shortage or a crop failure – or education and other needs.

And while progress has been made in access to education, still only around one‐third of young people are enrolled in upper secondary school.

So we partnered with likeminded organisations to design programmes that create opportunities for people, especially for young people, to acquire the tools they need to transition out of poverty. In turn, these youth will help their families and communities to a brighter future, too.

The way we see it, our programmes are helping to educate and develop the next generation of African leaders, preparing those young people for the workforce and promoting inclusive finance and growth.

"They are role models of what is possible; they are examples of transformative leadership in action."

There is a rise – albeit modest at the moment – of an entrepreneurial cadre of young people who want to do business in a different way. At the foundation, we use the term ‘transformative leadership’. It is about addressing inequity and making positive change to improve the lives of others.

When I ask young people the question: “What will you do when you gain these skills or when you get a job?” The reply is almost always: “I will help somebody else like me.”

Many of the students I meet through the MasterCard Scholars Program – an initiative to help more low‐income African students into secondary school and on to university – are hungry for just such an opportunity.

There are so many examples of young people from countries such as Ghana and Kenya who, immediately after graduation, return to their secondary school and inspire the children to follow them, encouraging them to work hard.

Some have set up community projects in their villages to address HIV/AIDS, built shelters for orphans and young children, and better housing. They are role models of what is possible; they are examples of transformative leadership in action.

A new generation of educated and ethical entrepreneurs is emerging across the continent of Africa. They have the potential to drive change in their countries and communities, but they cannot do it all on their own. We need to nurture them, work with them, listen to their needs and desires, as they see them.

If we can do that, these leaders will be the key catalysts of transformation and the philanthropists of tomorrow. - PA