08/13/2014 10:06 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2014

The Best Investment in Africa

Teeming with the heads of state and official delegations of 45 African countries, last week Washington D.C. was abuzz, playing host to the first U.S.-Africa Summit convened by President Barack Obama.

The premise of the summit, "Investing in Africa," has drawn both praise for its breadth and scorn for what some would consider its tardiness. Home to six of the world's top 10 growing economies, the spotlight on Africa has largely shifted from the tired narrative of despair and now shines brightly on the role that trade and investment can play in the continued development of countries large and small.

Over three days, the U.S. government along with several corporations pledged to provide $37 billion of dollars in financing and direct investments to fuel economies, create jobs, provide infrastructure and expand previously announced programs such as Power Africa, an initiative seeking to provide electricity to some of the 600 million in sub-Saharan Africa who are currently off the grid.

Make no mistake, this mobilization of funding is laudable and these financial investments are certainly welcome. But if the U.S. and others are seeking to make lasting investments in Africa, they must start by investing in the continent's future leaders.

In a region of the world where more than 30 million children don't have access to an education investment in all levels of education must be at the forefront. At a time when girls in Africa aren't expected to achieve universal access to primary education -- let alone secondary -- for another 70+ years, humanity has a one-way ticket booked to catastrophe.

The silver lining?

We need not look far to see what students given access to a quality education can achieve. On the sidelines of this week's summit were the real superstars--a 500-strong corps of Young African Leaders Initiative Fellows wrapping up their six-week stays in the USA. Chosen from a pool of over 80,000 Africans who applied to be part of the executive-level education program, these innovators are awe-inspiring in their solutions to everyday problems and demonstrating the power of investing in grassroots solutions working to empower both urban and rural communities.

Earlier this year, the U.S. committed $90 million over the next two years to support the Global Partnership for Education, a multilateral organization working to coordinate funding to support access education in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. By my calculation, that amount is equivalent to .02 percent of the funding announced earlier this week, far, far short of what's necessary to realize tangible, sustainable progress.

The Brookings Institute alongside the Global Business Coalition for Education estimate that in India, every $1 invested in education today returns $53 in value for the employer at the start of an individual's working years. While the number may vary across the 50+ countries of Africa, the private sector and the international community will struggle to find a better return on investment over the long run. As capital flows more freely to businesses in the developing world, so should their support of the education systems that will comprise their workforce for generations to come.

The U.S.-Africa Summit has created an incredible amount of momentum, but we mustn't stop there. Without recognizing the inextricable link between investing in the education of Africa's youth and its burgeoning private sector, we will let slip perhaps the greatest opportunity of all.