Joseph Opoku


September 25, 2018


Sixty percent of Africa’s population is under the age of 25 according to the United Nations. By 2050, the continent will be home to the world’s largest labor force, overtaking both India and China. There are significant possibilities for reaping a demographic dividend, but these opportunities come with enormous challenges.

As a young African living outside the continent, I have been following this trend with keen interest. Will Africa’s young people advance economic growth, or will surging unemployment plunge the continent into another era of instability? The answer to this question lies in how we motivate this generation. It is critical that we create economic opportunities to channel their enormous potential.

One bright spot in Africa’s future is a small, but dedicated group of young African leaders – this year’s class of 48 Mandela Washington Fellows. These fellows represent a new generation of Africans committed to ensuring this demographic change is a blessing not a curse. I had a unique opportunity to engage with the fellows at the 2nd annual Africa Business Forum held at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Together with the Presidential Precinct and Howard University, the U.S.-Africa Business Center convened the Mandela Washington Fellows to engage with our network of global business executives, academics, and government officials. Discussions focused on a myriad of issues including healthcare, economic development through free trade, youth opportunities on the continent, and Africa’s skills gap. These young people are fashion designers, economists, politicians, medical doctors, engineers, and agriculturalist. They are passionate and focused on ushering Africa into an era of prosperity never before seen. At the forum, they were presented with the opportunity to develop skills and meet influential business executives to ensure African countries achieve the much-needed demographic dividend.

During the forum, I interviewed and learned about the initiatives my peers are spearheading. Here’s a few highlights:

Disgruntled with a widespread notion that public servants are lazy, bureaucratic and aging, Isaac Rugamba decided to join the ministry of economic planning as a donor coordinator in Rwanda. Isaac’s passion goes beyond creating avenues for the private sector to engage in Rwanda’s development, he also works with Visa Free Africa to ease the movement of people across the continent. In his view, the free movement of goods through the African Continental Free Trade Area Agreement makes no sense without the free movement of people.

In my conversation with Arlene Barou, an agro-economist from Ivory Coast, she highlighted opportunities to transform the country’s agricultural sector and called for greater private-sector engagement.

Ndeye Sarr wants to contribute to solving Senegal’s youth unemployment after years of working as a statistician. She decided to channel her passion for data-driven decision making to start a fashion business to employ and train other young people. Today, she’s taking Senegalese fashion to the world by exporting to other countries. She speaks persuasively about the contribution small and medium enterprises are making towards job creation in Senegal.

Over the last five years, I have been privileged to serve Youth Impact Workshop and the Zongo Innovation Lab for Girls. These initiatives provide opportunities for Ghana’s youth to start and lead social enterprises in their communities. At the Africa Business Forum, I met young people who are leading similar initiatives across the continent and I hope to collaborate and share ideas about how to impact our communities at scale.

Hearing the many stories of how my peers are also creating change gave me a lot of hope and reminded me of my commitment to the continent. It also strengthened my belief that youth skills development will be central to Africa’s future. In the months ahead, I hope to continue to develop my skills working as a fellow at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in order to better serve my community.

About the authors

Joseph Opoku