Today’s Solutions: June 18, 2024

More than 40 percent of Africa’s people are under 15—and they’re getting ready to change the way the continent works.

Vijay Mahajan | September 2008 issue

In the centre of Harare, Zimbabwe, a two-story retail shop is filled to the brim with the hopes of African parents for their children. Stacked neatly in storage cubicles that line the walls of Enbee Stores are the multicoloured uniforms of area schools. Parents come to this shop, or the 25 other Enbee outlets around the country, to purchase what’s often the best set of clothing their children will own.
In 1958, local entrepreneur Natu Patel got the idea to create a school uniform business. When he saw the children returning from school on the streets of Harare, Patel realized there must be a huge market for school uniforms—so he started manufacturing them. These days, the primary store in downtown Harare has two stories of pressed shirts, shorts, skirts and ties in all the colours of area schools. A complete wardrobe for a new student can run $500, and must be replaced every other year.
Even in a tight economic environment, parents have proved reluctant to cut back on their children’s educations. A school uniform is a matter of pride. For workers with good jobs, employers will often contribute to school fees and costs. In a country with high birth rates and parents who place a premium on educating their children, Enbee’s market is sure to grow.
And Enbee isn’t the only company to benefit from a youth market on a continent where the people are growing younger every day. With 41 percent of its population under the age of 15, Africa is one of the youngest markets in the world, according to the Population Reference Bureau’s 2007 World Population Data Sheet. That’s compared to 33 percent for India and 28 percent for Brazil. The developed world, in contrast, is aging rapidly. Just 20 percent of the North American population is under 15; those figures are 16 percent for Europe and 14 percent for Japan. Whereas much of the ­developed world is worried about a birth dearth, Africa’s population explosion is redefining the future of its consumer market. There, youth are a force that’s changing politics and driving economics.
These young Africans are different from their parents, and from peers in the West. Ghanaian economist George Ayittey has called them “the cheetah generation” because they move faster than “the hippo generation,” the group that’s in power but mired in the past.
The hippos are still complaining about colonialism and imperialism, while the ­fast-moving cheetahs are demanding democracy, transparency and an end to ­corruption. Ayittey says the future of ­Africa rests “on the backs of these ­cheetahs.” Here are some of their other ­signature ­characteristics:
They’re motivated. When American talk show host Oprah Winfrey was criticized for donating $40 million to build a school for girls in South Africa instead of donating the money to inner-city schools in the U.S., she talked about the difference in attitudes. “If you ask the kids [in the U.S.] what they want or need, they will say an iPod or some sneakers,” she told Newsweek. “In South Africa, they don’t ask for money or toys. They ask for uniforms so they can go to school.” This may go a long way toward accelerating the progress of the next generation in Africa.
Its members have values. A study by The Coca-Cola Company found African youth draw their role models from intellectual and artistic leaders. In Morocco, youth point to their new king; in Kenya, poets and artists; in South Africa, Nelson Mandela. Their heroes are determined by the value systems of their countries.
They combine old and new. In every country, young people have their own language. In Kenya, for example, youth might speak in Swahili when talking about their everyday lives, but turn to English for discussions of jobs or philosophy, while Sheng—a hybrid of Swahili and English along with other Kenyan dialects—is the dominant language of rappers on music videos playing on the plasma screens in the newer matatus (minibuses) that crisscross Nairobi. In an article in National Geographic, Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina discussed the “dual personalities” of Nairobi youth. “This is the tension that best defines Nairobi: to try (and often fail) to live within the world views of our traditional nations; to try (and often fail) to be seamless, Western-educated people; to try (and often fail) to be Kenyans—still a new and bewildering idea.” African youth have a complex and textured experience, connected to global trends and local traditions. Old and new exist side by side the way English and Swahili come together to create Sheng.
Youth are fast and connected. A Television commercial for engineering conglomerate Siemens A.G. illustrates the impact of cellular phone networks. A native of a Tanzanian village returns from abroad sporting a new “leopard” hairstyle, his head painted with spots. He calls his family on a mobile phone from the airport saying he has a surprise for them. But admirers with cellphone cameras take his photo in the city and send the image across the country, even to his home village. While he’s in transit, all the salons begin offering leopard hairstyles. By the time he arrives home by bus, everyone in his village is sporting the same hairstyle. When his family asks him about his surprise, he just shrugs. Through connections and speed, the young generation has gained a different view of the world. One cheetah (or leopard, in this case), connected with a cellphone, can transform an entire society.
Rising aspirations and the demographics of a youth market have created a tremendous demand for education. This can be seen not just in the need for uniforms, as demonstrated by Enbee’s business in Zimbabwe, but for colleges and universities.
New educational technologies are spreading across the continent, thanks in part to public-private partnerships. The New Partnership for Africa’s Development launched a project to bring technology to 600,000 “e-schools” in more than 16 African countries in a decade. The project was designed to provide schools with equipment such as computers, TVs, radios and telephones with the help of corporate partners including Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Oracle and Cisco. The goal is to equip African youth with the knowledge and skills to participate in the global economy.
Demand is also growing for universities. The highly selective American University in Cairo, Egypt, has more than 80,000 students, but the nearby University of Cairo has 350,000—a small city. Some beginning classes there have as many as 7,000 students enrolled, and it isn’t uncommon to have several students with identical names. These aren’t classes, but conventions. Still, there aren’t enough schools to meet the demand. The problem of illegal colleges, a concern in many African countries, is a sign of the magnitude of the unmet need.
Universities and business schools are expanding across Africa. Guy ­Pfeffermann, director of the International Finance Corporation’s Global Business School Network, notes, “Stronger business schools can be important tools for contributing to economic growth in African countries. The new association will create opportunities for professional networking in three dimensions: North-South, South-South and perhaps most important, among African schools themselves.”
Meanwhile, business schools in the U.S. and Europe are showing new interest in Africa, as they did in China and India several years ago. Top U.S. business schools are inviting faculty to their campuses, setting up African exchange and degree programs and holding alumni programs in Africa.
Even though a youth market holds promise for the future, certain dangers are inherent in having such young populations. Research by the citizens group Population Action International shows that 80 percent of the civil conflicts that broke out in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s occurred in countries in which at least 60 percent of the population is under 30. Almost nine of 10 such “youthful” countries had autocratic rulers or weak democracies. German sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn has proposed that countries are more likely to dissolve into civil war or other conflict once 30 percent of their populations are 15 to 29 years old.
Many serious problems affect youth too, including diseases and lack of hygiene, particularly among young women. High unemployment means many young people have trouble leaving home and ­establishing themselves in the world.
Still, despite these challenges, youth represent an important market. As Charles Mbire, who runs the Ugandan division of the cellphone company MTN, said of the youth market in an interview with Financial Times earlier this year, “I am a businessman. I am happy. My market is growing.” The company has expanded to encompass 2.5 million subscribers since its start in 1999, and the average age of its users has dropped from 24 to 17.
According to legend, European explorer Juan Ponce de León explored North America in the early 1500s in pursuit of the ­legendary Fountain of Youth. Today, it’s clear where the Fountain of Youth is, but one must sail in the other direction across the Atlantic Ocean to find it. It isn’t hard to see where the future markets—particularly youth markets—will be.
The growth of African youth markets might bode well for the future. “Imagine the kind of economy we can create in 10 years,” said Lanya Stanek, group advertising manager of Coca-Cola Africa. “There is a sense that [young people] have one shot in life so they need to make it count. Self-belief is very strong.”
Youth also recognize that with their help, the continent will be a very different place than where their parents lived. This cheetah generation is helping create and participating in a thriving market—and this market is Africa’s future.
Vijay Mahajan holds the John P. Harbin Centennial Chair in Business at McCombs School of Business within the University of Texas at Austin. This is an edited excerpt from his book, Africa Rising: How 900 Million African Consumers Offer More Than You Think, which will be published in September by Wharton School Publishing.

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