Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has lauded innovations by young Africans – some from Kenya – saying they are already changing the world.
The entrepreneur mentioned innovations by Kenyans several times in his keynote speech during the 14th Nelson Mandela annual lecture series in Pretoria, South Africa, on Sunday.
“For me, the most important thing about young people is the way their minds work. Young people are better than old people at driving innovation, because they are not locked in by the limits of the past,” he said.
The Nelson Mandela Foundation organised this year’s lecture at the University of Pretoria’s Mamelodi Campus.
Gates said he will meet one of the Kenyan innovators in Durban this week, where he is also attending the International Aids Society conference.
He noted that many of the life-changing innovations across the world have been driven by the youth.
A 21-year-old who founded Kenya’s first software coding school to provide other young people with computer programming skills is lined up for the meeting with the billionaire.
“The real returns will come if we can multiply this talent for innovation by the whole of Africa’s growing youth population. That depends on whether Africa’s young people—all of Africa’s young people—are given the opportunity to thrive,” he said.
Gates also lauded Mpesa mobile money transfer system explaining that it had eased payment and savings opportunities for communities and transformed their lives.
“Countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Nigeria are already investing in the building blocks of this new digital financial platform. And I believe they will see substantial positive returns,” he said.
Gates explained the importance of improved food production and said he had met young crop breeders from Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria and Uganda.
“These are examples of the kind of innovators who can drive an agricultural transformation across the continent if they have the support they need. For many decades, agriculture has suffered from dramatic under investment. Many governments didn’t see the link between their farmers and economic growth. Now, however, this misconception is gone,” he said.
The Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture this year was attended by at least 3,000 people including Mandela’s widow Graça Machel, the foundation’s Prof Njabulo Ndebele and the university Vice Chancellor Prof Cheryl de la Rey.
The hour-long lecture also touched on governance, nutrition, education, health and climate change among other topics.
Kenyan Nobel laureate Prof Wangari Maathai delivered the third lecture in 2005.
Other notable figures who have delivered lectures at the event include former US President Bill Clinton, archbishop Desmond Tutu, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet in 2014 and French economist Thomas Piketty last year.
Gates used the lecture to honour former South African President Nelson Mandela and to raise topical issues
affecting the country, Africa and the rest of the world and to lay out his vision of how to create a better world. The theme of his speech was “Living Together”.
Gates said he had admired Mandela, and met him on many occasions. He said: “One topic that Nelson Mandela came back to over and over again was the power of youth,”.
He said while demographically, Africa is the world’s youngest continent, this population must be supported with proper education, nutrition and access to economic activities.
Gates said he was only 19 years old when he co-founded Microsoft in 1975.
“We didn’t feel beholden to old notions about what computers could or should do. We dreamed about the next big thing, and we scoured the world around us for the ideas and the tools that would help us create it,” he said.
“Steve Jobs was 21 when he started Apple while Mark Zuckerberg was only 19 when he created Facebook,” he added.
“African entrepreneurs driving startup booms in the Silicon Savannahs from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Lagos and Nairobi are just as young—in chronological age, but also in outlook. The thousands of businesses they’re creating are already changing daily life across the continent,” he said.
Bill further noted that high HIV infections threaten to roll back the progress the continent has already made among young people.
More than 2,000 young people under the age of 24 are newly infected with HIV every single day, the latest data shows.
The number of young people dying from HIV in Africa has also increased fourfold since 1990.
“If we fail to act, all the hard-earned gains made in HIV in sub-Saharan Africa over the last 15 years could be reversed, particularly given that Africa’s young people are entering the age when they are most at risk of HIV,” he said.
He also expressed his anger that Africa is suffering the worst effects of climate change although Africans have almost nothing to do with its causes.
Gates further encouraged East Africa to invest in hydro and geothermal sources of energy, which are both reliable and renewable.
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EVERY year, thousands of young Africans join an exodus from their families’ small, often struggling, farms in the countryside. Their dream — sometimes fulfilled, often not — is to find a more rewarding and stimulating life in the continent’s rapidly growing cities. Few return, but even fewer ever completely sever their ties.
It’s a complicated connection and one I deeply understand. My own exodus to the city as a young man opened up a lifetime of opportunity that culminated with serving as president of Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy. But not only did I retain my ties to agriculture, I have now returned to my roots. I’m a farmer again — at Obasanjo Farms Limited — and I’ve never been happier.
Working the land once more has given me a better perspective on two of the biggest challenges facing Africa today: how do we provide employment opportunities to the millions of young Africans, who are the world’s largest population of people under 25 years of age so they can stay in the village and farm? And how do we put an end to the seemingly endless cycles of food crises that are, as I write, playing out again with dismaying familiarity in parts of eastern and southern Africa?
Fortunately, more and more Africans like myself are seeing these issues as intertwined. We see agribusiness as Africa’s biggest opportunity to not only end hunger and malnutrition, but also as Africa’s best hope for generating income and employment, particularly in rural regions. The World Bank estimates that by 2030, demand for food in our rapidly growing urban areas will create a market for food products worth US $1 trillion. This market needs to be owned and operated by African farmers, African agriculture businesses and African food companies.
But one thing is clear to me as I return to farming: to achieve its potential, African agriculture needs a fresh infusion of innovation and talent.
I have many fond memories of my childhood in a small farming settlement near Abeokuta, the capital of Nigeria´s Ogun State. By the age of five, I was accompanying my papa to the fields where we grew cassava, maize, plantain, oil palm and other crops. A proud Yoruba man, my father was considered the most successful farmer in our village. While living with few modern amenities, we grew plenty of food, and we enjoyed the cultural wealth of our Yoruba traditions and history.
Ultimately, this way of life was unable to withstand pressures that would soon intensify — population growth, political turmoil, land scarcity and soil degradation.
Today, African farmers need several things that my father lacked but which farmers elsewhere in the world take for granted. We need improved crop varieties developed to resist disease and tolerate drought. We need access to modern inputs, like fertilisers. We need markets where farmers can profit from their labour and thus justify investments in improved production. We need affordable credit that all small businesses require and extension services that help us keep abreast of sustainable farming practices.
But ultimately we need people. Specifically, we need Africa’s best and brightest to embrace agriculture as a calling and a career.
Recently, I agreed to chair the selection committee for the new Africa Food Prize, an award that aims to recognise outstanding individuals or institutions taking control of Africa’s agriculture agenda. It started out in 2005 as the Yara Prize. But moving it to Africa in 2016 and rechristening it the Africa Food Prize has given the award a distinctive African home, African identity and African ownership. It is also a substantial award: $100,000 for the winner.
The hope is that the Prize itself and its cadre of winners will signal to the world that agriculture is a priority for Africa that all should embrace. It can call attention to the individuals who are inspiring and driving innovations that can be replicated across the continent.
I sometimes portray my return to farming as coming full circle. But in reality, while I cherish my childhood memories, I don’t want to return to the past. I want to be part of the future, where farming in Africa is a lucrative, exciting entrepreneurial pursuit and young people aspire to be farmers because they see talented men and women building a rewarding career in farming and farm-related work.
I hope that the Africa Food Prize quickly becomes a symbol of all that agriculture in Africa can offer and that one day soon, we will see a shift, when young people in urban areas will look longingly to countryside and think: there lies the land of opportunity.