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President of Cameroon Paul Biya (L) walks with his Nigerian counterpart Muhammadu Buhari following his arrival at the airport in Yaounde on July 29, 2015. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari arrived in neighbouring Cameroon for talks on how to combat the escalating regional threat from Boko Haram Islamists. Security was tight for the 24-hour visit, after a surge of Boko Haram violence in Cameroon including an unprecedented series of five suicide bombings in the far north. AFP PHOTO / REINNIER KAZE (Photo credit should read Reinnier KAZE/AFP/Getty Images)

No Continent for Old Men

Africa has the world’s youngest population and its oldest leaders. If the next generation wants change, young Africans must abandon dreams of private-sector success and enter the political arena.

he idea that Africa’s youth bulge is the key to sustained economic growth—a so-called demographic dividend—is a popular talking point for aging African leaders who coopt such language in an effort to signal faith and optimism in the next generation. This was particularly evident in 2017 when African heads of state adopted “Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in the Youth” as the year’s official theme for the African Union.

While gestures toward youth empowerment are welcome, one awkward fact stands out:  Africa—the youngest continent in the world—plays host to some of the oldest and longest-serving political leaders. 

Africa—the youngest continent in the world—plays host to some of the oldest and longest-serving political leaders.

And while the historic election of young people such as Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, elected chancellor in 2017 at the age of 31, or El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, 37 when he became president, make headlines elsewhere, it is troubling that this doesn’t occur on a continent where the median age is 19. It is worth noting that Africa does play host to young leaders, including 43-year-old Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, though these are few and far between.

Africa’s best and brightest have simply lost faith in their governments because of corruption and an entrenched culture of conformity that shows deference to seniority. But they also have themselves to blame—for turning to the private sector or civil society in an effort to become successful social entrepreneurs rather than fighting for political change. This pursuit of “heropreneurship” is a self-inflicted barrier to change.

Increasingly, Africa’s brightest young minds are channeling their focus toward entrepreneurship as a means to create more just and equitable societies.

Increasingly, Africa’s brightest young minds are channeling their focus toward entrepreneurship as a means to create more just and equitable societies.

Much of this can be attributed to the perceived dysfunction of the public sector over the comparatively robust nongovernment sectors.Underpinned by the belief that the market is better positioned than government to bring change, social entrepreneurship—the idea of developing a financially sustainable business with a social cause—assumes that entrenched inequality can be simply reversed by market forces such as competition, franchising, and customer orientation.

Take, for example, a social enterprise that provides Internet access to otherwise disconnected townships. Even if it were to reach 10,000 people, an honorable feat by any measure, it still pales in comparison to the even larger swath of people that remain disconnected. This is because lack of Internet access, particularly in remote communities, is often shaped by the dysfunction of larger systems that a single social enterprise is not built to address. Despite this, business leaders and start-up incubators would encourage such an enterprise to pursue scale and incremental growth—while ignoring the root causes at play.

The inconvenient truth is that dismantling entrenched inequality requires a good deal of unpaid work. This typically involves citizen coalitions, movements, and the passing of laws—none of which play to the traditional strengths of start-up businesses.

Marshall Ganz, who is widely cited as the grassroots organizer behind the historic 2008 presidential campaign of former U.S. President Barack Obama, wrote in a co-authored article that social entrepreneurship “has done little to solve the systemic social problems it purports to address” and that its increasing popularity “distracts from and undermines the critical role of an organized citizenry, political action, and democratic government in achieving systemic social change.” This is particularly important in Africa, where the persistence of social ills is intricately tied to the extreme failures of larger systems and institutions.

The continent’s young change-makers must go beyond a laissez-faire approach to social change which discounts the role of power and politics and consider redirecting their unique skills, passion, and know-how

The continent’s young change-makers must go beyond a laissez-faire approach to social change which discounts the role of power and politics and consider redirecting their unique skills, passion, and know-how

into the most powerful institution for social change: government.In 2016, Daniela Papi-Thornton, formerly the deputy director of the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, argued that “we’ve entered an era of heropreneurship,” in reference to the growing hero-worshipping and self-promotion evident among seemingly well-intended change-makers. This phenomenon has become common among young Africans who would much rather carve a celebrated public identity—the type that often lends itself to a large social media following and a feature on “30 Under 30” lists—over the thought of having to work through the crowded and dysfunctional public-sector machinery.

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