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African Youth, Innovation and the Changing Society

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In 2000, I founded Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) with a very simple, but powerful vision: to bridge the digital divide between youth living and going to school in Nigeria and their digital peers living in the U.S. YTF was founded shortly after the Internet bubble and the dot com era, it was difficult to gain buy-in to the vision and the term Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) was nascent. Access to information was available via a personal computer (PC) and companies, like Microsoft, trumpeted their vision of access to information at 'any place', 'any time' and on 'any device'.

In recent years, Africa has become a testing ground for breakthrough ideas, innovative high-tech products and disruptive startups. With over 650 million mobile subscribers , it's no wonder so many multinationals, entrepreneurs and educators are looking to tap the continent's potential. Access to the Internet and the increasing ease of communication through cell phones is an indication of how the continent is adapting to newer technologies by leapfrogging the era of the landline. Africa has opened a whole new world with information at its core stimulating entrepreneurship and innovation; exceptional solutions for common issues.

The notion of social entrepreneurship, "Why are you doing this"? "How are you going to make money?" and "Why bother if you can't change the system?" were questions frequently asked of me. This is different today. Businesses without a genuine and measurable social mission are frowned upon. The question often asked is how is the innovation fundamentally changing society, creating jobs, enacting positive social impact? Creating a society that encourages social entrepreneurship and makes it easy for young people, especially, to begin to think in this direction requires a network of interlocking organizations, policies and cultural attitudes, the "entrepreneurship ecosystem."

Entrepreneurship has blossomed in Africa and simply defined as a force that mobilizes other resources to meet unmet market demand; the ability to create and build something from practically nothing; the process of creating value by pulling together a unique package of resources to exploit an opportunity (Africa Economic Analysis, Sherif, Sultan, 2004). For many countries, like Nigeria, the primary socioeconomic goal is to improve the quality of life of its citizens. Achieving this goal depends, in part, on the competitiveness of local firms, which rely on innovation and entrepreneurship. The birth and success of social entrepreneurs must be supported by institutions and through deliberate innovative action that stimulates change.

The population of Africa is likely to double within a generation. The region is witnessing a major increase in its share of young people and with a median age of 19, Africa is the world's "youngest" region. There is a unique opportunity to help transform an entire generation through the right long-term investments in education, health care, manufacturing and banking.

Africa's young technology entrepreneurs have become the vanguard of innovation on the continent. Weekly road shows provide free training building armies of talented, technical Africans. The continent has witnessed a cultural shift from consumers of technology to innovators. As a result there have been mindset adjustments and change is possible.

Technology today is democratizing and personalizing manufacturing. 3D printing technologies, for instance, have the ability to provide local communities with access to facilities they need to produce and market their own products using everyday materials in a sustainable way. Off-grid electricity via solar panels, expansion of mobile and Internet connectivity to rural communities using mesh potatoes, platforms that allow phone operators to send text messages to conduct nationwide polls, children are learning to read on tablet computers and according to a 2012 report by GSMA, more than 55 million Africans use their phones to collect mobile payments.

The generation of "digital natives" has enabled YTF to continually review and enhance our training curriculum to stay current with the demands of his population. The young people today are not looking for one way interaction; they multi-task, consume on several channels at once, require information assistance rather than technical support. They are the now and we are right there with them.