Young African Leaders Shaping the Continent

With 70 percent of its population under the age of 30, Africa is the world’s youngest continent. What role are the region’s youth playing in shaping its future? As YouthActionNet expands its support of young social entrepreneurs across sub-Saharan Africa, a clearer picture is emerging of the issues that drive them, their social change strategies, and needs. That picture is based on information and data collected from fellows participating in YouthActionNet regional institutes established in Anglophone and Francophone Africa, as well as national institutes in Senegal and Nigeria. Collectively, these young founders represent more than 120 social ventures whose work is impacting over 100,000 lives annually.

What are we learning from these young pioneers? Nearly a third of their ventures focus on economic empowerment and creating opportunities for vulnerable populations to pursue productive livelihoods. Other priority issues include education (16%), the environment (16%), health (16%), and social inclusion (14%). That said, many of these youth-led organizations strive to address more than one problem at a time through broad-based community development approaches.

A majority of fellows (78%) cite youth engagement as both a critical tool—and a goal—in their work, demonstrating the power of these youth to catalyze their peers into action and contribute to a more engaged citizenry that is better equipped to lead change. With 67% of projects led by co-founders, the youth social entrepreneurship sector reflects a strong emphasis on collaborative leadership, as opposed to the individual as heroic leader.

More than half of their ventures function either as for-profit entities with a social mission (30%) or as hybrid organizations (26%) that rely on a combination of revenue-generating activities and charitable donations to sustain their work. This speaks to a growing recognition among these change-makers of the need to be self-reliant and leverage the power of business for social good.

Below are other core themes emerging from our work with these change catalysts:

Youth as Democratizers of Development

Talk abounds of ‘Africa rising’ as a result of increases in economic growth and GDP in a number of countries; yet along with this growth has come speculation over whether the benefits will reach those most in need. Driven by the value of achieving social good, today’s young African leaders are working to ensure more equitable development—providing communities with the knowledge and tools to foster greater local self-reliance. Says Peggy Mativo, a Fellow from Kenya, “The unrelenting resilience that has historically characterized African populations is slowly, but surely, turning into sustainable problem-solving by youth committed to locally-led development.”

The Need for Greater Opportunities for Women

Less than a third of Fellows across YouthActionNet’s Africa programs are women. Fellow Hellen Ziribagwa, CEO of the Pass it on Trust in Uganda, attributes the dearth in women applicants to three main factors. First is the widely held notion of women’s empowerment coming through traditional jobs. For women whose role has long been to care for their families, there’s a tendency, according to Hellen, to focus on viable livelihoods, as opposed to risk-taking and entrepreneurial ventures. Second are the more limited educational opportunities available to young women, who receive less exposure to the social entrepreneurship field as a result. And lastly, young women living in rural areas have less access to the Internet, where most fellowship opportunities are publicized.

A Focus on Agriculture

Contrary to popular stereotypes of African youth forsaking rural life in search of opportunity in urban areas, nearly a third of YouthActionNet’s Africa fellows have launched diverse agri-related enterprises. Their efforts include empowering low-income communities to grow crops and raise livestock, integrating agricultural value chains into their activities, and, in some cases, recycling agricultural byproducts in their ventures.

Take, for example, Mene Blessing Oritseweyninmi, a 25-year-old Nigerian who is producing a low-cost chicken feed that makes poultry farming more affordable, while also addressing local nutritional needs. Similarly, Caroline Owashaba in Uganda trains low-income mothers to make and sell products from readily-accessible materials such as banana leaves.

Use of Technology

Nearly half of Fellows in Africa report using technology in creative ways to deliver their programs. This ranges from the relatively low-tech use of radio for program delivery to more sophisticated uses of mobile phones for banking and data collection. Fellows are also leveraging the power of the Internet to network, deliver trainings, raise funds, and advocate for their causes.

These trends speak to both the power of today’s African youth movement for social change and where additional training and investment can help strengthen its impact. Together, YouthActionNet Fellows and their peers across the continent reflect a vision of the future that values human dignity over no-holds barred development; that defines progress by creating equal opportunities; and that seeks to ensure that all Africans are able to benefit from basic human rights ranging from education to healthcare, productive livelihoods to a clean and safe environment.