Before the World Economic Forum on Africa, the Continent's Youngest Leaders Discuss the Keys to Progress

07/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

As anticipation builds for this week's World Economic Forum on Africa, many are not aware that another important summit took place in Cape Town last week. It didn't get the same attention, but its impact on Africa's future is equally profound.

The African Youth Summit, hosted by the British Council's Global Changemakers, is a gathering of young activists from across the continent who are taking the fate of their countries into their own hands. They are changing Africa one issue and one community at a time. More than 1,000 youth applied to take part in the pan-African event, of which 80 were selected.

The Nike Foundation's Creative Director, Emily Brew, and Director of Communications, Ilana Finley, traveled to Cape Town to learn about how African youth are changing the world and unleashing the girl effect along the way. The following is Emily and Ilana's report.

"Being a refugee, I didn't like waiting to see what would happen next, so I started a movement for girls to fight violence. Where I come from in North Kivu [Democratic Republic of Congo], the media says it's the worst place for a girl or woman in the world. I didn't want that to continue."

For the last three days, we've heard stories like this - young people overcoming all odds to spark transformative change in their communities in areas that range from poverty, education and entrepreneurship to youth participation, diversity and civil action. The "Anti-Violence Girl Movement" mentioned above was started by a teenager, a refugee from Uganda who told us, "I look forward to making North Kivu the best place for a girl to be."

It didn't really surprise us that an 18-year-old coming from unimaginably harsh circumstances would have started a program to empower girls who are victims of rape. Quite honestly, the girls we come across in the course of our work have always created more change with fewer resources than any other population on the planet.

What surprised us is that the young girl champion in question is a boy.

We heard from many strong, smart, empowered girls who are sure to take their place as leaders in the years to come. But we also heard from many remarkable boys - from The Gambia to Zimbabwe to Congo - who recognize the potential of the girl effect to change their communities.

Joseph, the founder of the Anti-Violence Girl Movement, chose girls as his focus because empowered girls impact the world positively, as future mothers and as citizens. "When girls are protected," he said, "the nation is protected."

Alex, a Global Changemaker from Uganda, is working to improve outcomes for girls by changing the behaviors of men and boys. After receiving training from the Instituto Promundo, a Brazilian NGO that seeks to promote gender equality and end violence against women, children and youth, Alex wanted to build something similar in his home country. His YouthLink Initiative's Be A Man Campaign is "trying to model the ideal man - a man who is caring, faithful, nonviolent and respectful in his relationships."

YouthLink focuses on men as the decision-makers in the family unit. Because they control issues such as when to have children, how financial resources are spent, children's education, and health decisions, their attitudes have a significant impact on the entire family. Alex used the example of health care, saying that in his community men control whether or not their wives and daughters have access to reproductive health services and information about healthy behaviors.

Alex also talked about the intergenerational impacts of YouthLink. As he puts it, "Behavior of men becomes a vicious cycle. The son starts learning the violence that the father creates. Even the girls who see submissiveness of their mothers begin to become scared of men. When they start growing up, the girls become less empowered. If both girls and boys are engaged in empowerment, we'll have a better world."

Joseph and Alex are just two examples of the amazing work taking place across the continent today. Today's Africa is filled with an emerging group of new youth activists and advocates who have decided it's just as much their responsibility to shift the social and economic issues facing the continent as the government leaders, NGOs, institutions and donors coming to Cape Town later this week. They refuse to remain idle and are instead taking action, developing programs and building networks across the countries to share ideas and hopefully make the impact of their work even stronger.

Overall, it's been an amazing and moving couple of days here in Cape Town. When you think about how many girls and boys from across Africa applied to be here to learn from their peers and share ideas about what's working, that means there are at least 1,000 projects like Alex and Joseph's being implemented across the continent right now. It reminds us that while Africa faces many challenges, it is also a place of extraordinary hope filled with young people of limitless potential.

A final note from Maria: Be sure to check back later this week for a report on The Girl Effect in Africa. Nike Foundation Managing Director Lisa MacCallum will let us know how girls are playing a part in the World Economic Forum's agenda.