Africa, Our Future

Oluseun Onigbinde
20 min readApr 3, 2024


by Oluseun Onigbinde

Thank you so much for the honor to speak to the Graduate Students in African Studies at the 10th Annual Indiana University Conference on Africa. I am delighted to engage an amazing group of students and faculty who strongly believe Africa remains the missing puzzle in global development. It is unnecessary to overstate Africa’s situation, the world’s youngest continent. Africa has oscillated from being “The Hopeless Continent” to “Africa Rising” to “Aspiring Africa” as dictated by The Economist covers.

Africa, a space rudely partitioned by strange men in ‘conference.’ Africa, a continent that aggregated its rising intellectual class in the 1950s to seek independence from its colonial masters, against the use of violence of wanton proportions to undermine its people. The continent largely got its independence within the same corridor, walking into geopolitical dimensions and inherent conflict from the patchwork of tribes and groups. Africa has faced crises in several coups, weak civilian rule, suboptimal institutions, and poor developmental outcomes.

However, it is impossible to apply broad strokes to Africa’s challenges as we have seen countries such as Namibia, Morocco, and Botswana, among others, that have shown impressive development results. However, from Chad to Sudan, Libya to Mali, African indices continue to face regression, coupled with the recent surge in coups and civil wars. While the legacy of colonialism and corrupt leadership has undermined the continent, we must look ahead with promise on what’s possible. We must boldly interrogate the complexities that exist today and where Africa can draw lessons from.

Africa has spurts of growth in a post-independence way, but exogenous shocks and poor leadership choices have resulted in 25 years of slow growth that triggered weak social and development conditions. From the mid-1990s, Africa had an uptick in growth with increasing per capita numbers, occasioned by booming prices of commodities. Buffers created in boom times shielded Africa from the pernicious shocks of the global recession. The post-economic recession provided another wave of economic boom, which triggered increased debt and quick capital flows. Africa would bear the severe brunt of the global pandemics and the retreat of global capital, which has significantly weakened its economies from Cape to Cairo and led to significant currency devaluations.

Africa is not alone in its crisis, and nothing about the ‘dark continent’ presently indicates that it has an easy pathway to progress. Africa needs to start running. We have all been told stories of continental sick people, such as Germany and China, who have rewritten their stories. From being called the ‘sick man of Asia,’ China has become the world’s workshop, leaving spillover effects over the region. With an average growth rate of almost 10% between 1978 and 2010, China is one of the few countries that took its per capita GDP from less than $1,000 to $10,000 in three decades. In addition, China has helped over 800 million people escape poverty. One might take this as a standalone situation, but Vietnam also offers us insights into a country that faced a brutalizing war till the mid-1970s. Vietnam is a regional manufacturing hub, with trade accounting for 80% of its GDP and $355.5 billion in exports as of 2023.

Asia’s performance shows that sustained high growth can be achieved even in nations that differ greatly in magnitude, resource assets, human capital, culture, and political systems. This is evidenced by Japan’s steady high growth and the subsequent industrialization of China, India, and other Asian tigers. So why will Africa’s story be different as South Asia is also scrambling to find development?

However, in discussing Africa’s future, we must examine some pillars.

Demography is Africa’s Destiny

We have to interrogate Africa’s current context to understand where it stands in the future. Africa is a very young continent, entirely woven around the youth bulge. The JICA Africa scenario document states that “In all but three African countries, the age group 15–29 represents more than 40% of the adult population (above age 15), a phenomenon known as the “youth bulge.” By 2030, 40 of the 53 countries studied are likely to continue to have more than 40% of their adult population in the 15–29 age group, and by 2050, 27 countries (half of them) will still be in that position if fertility decline remains as slow as it has been in the past.”

Examining important fertility drivers such as income levels, urban residency, formal sector employment, health status, education, and other missing characteristics is crucial when examining Africa’s population growth trajectory. This means Africa will continue this population trajectory, except certain elements are fixed. The critical question would be, “What would Africa do with its young population?”

While Africa contends with a youth wave, there is also glaring evidence of rapid urbanization that has increased by a factor of 10 between 1960 and 2010. According to Brookings, “As of 1950, Africa’s urban population was 27 million people, a minute fraction of today’s urban population of roughly 567 million people.” Africa not only faces a youth bulge but also an urbanization challenge, as it expects to have around 311 million people within the age range of 15–24 in its labor market.

In this presentation, I am looking at the development options for Africa, considering its population size and urbanization and what it needs to learn from different spheres to deepen the value generated across the continent.

Africa Exhibits Weakness in Trade

Africa’s contribution to the global GDP is less than three percent, and intra-African trade has remained at 15%. Also, Africa’s share of global trade is around 3%. Africa accounts for 6% of the overall merchandise exports from developing nations. According to UNECA, an estimated 25% of the region’s exports are manufactured goods, 15% are agricultural products, and over 50% are fuel and mining products. Even though it is only made up of five nations, between 2005 and 2019, North Africa accounted for more than one-third of all goods and services exchanged in Africa.

The geopolitical factors that could impact the macroeconomic components globally won’t make Africa’s macroeconomic problems go away. Africa has enough people under 35 to propel its growth — more than 600 million — but still faces significant obstacles due to low productivity and inadequate links to the world economy. But labor alone won’t propel economic expansion. The abundance of resources in the continent has not allowed it to fully capitalize and produce the incredible wealth that the petro-economies of the Middle East have produced in recent years. It appears that Africa has not yet addressed two crucial and essential components of its strategy: the need to increase intra-Africa commerce and the limited size of its global trade. At the core of Africa’s challenge are two main issues: productivity and governance. We will revisit the subject of governance, but first, let us examine productivity.

During the heat of the pandemic, we witnessed countries hijacking medical supplies from the airport tarmac in China just to keep their sick populace alive. If there is a well-known insight explained over again, it is the immense dependence of global manufacturing on China or widely on the Asian corridor. It points to the concentration of global supply chains in one country. The reality was apparent: the world was in bedlam. No one was ready for a pandemic at the time it happened. Most developed countries did not even have the unit economies to produce medical equipment and supplies such as facemasks and ventilators. This meant one thing for Africa: she lost a big manufacturing opportunity. Africa also currently doesn’t have the capacity for that scale of manufacturing. However, it does not have to be like this forever.

In 2020, China’s share of global trade grew to 15% from 3% in 1995, a breakneck speed that shows countries can rewrite their stories within a relatively short time. Today, manufacturing contributes 26% to China’s GDP, reflecting the huge space it occupies in its economy. While manufacturing contributes only 8% to Africa’s economy and less than 2% to total global manufacturing. There are emerging bright lights, with South Africa’s manufacturing sector contributing 13% to GDP and Egypt’s reaching 23% of GDP but this is not the prevalent situation across Africa. Africa needs manufacturing, and it needs giant numbers of people who will be tested in this age of robotics, automation and modular manufacturing.

The Resource Dependency in Africa

There is always a tendency to whip up that Africa is endowed with resources but that’s not the full picture. Africa’s production of the majority of important bulk minerals, including coal, iron ore, oil, and gas, is likewise fairly minor and does not distinguish itself from other regions worldwide. There are, however, a few exclusions to this: Africa remains the leading producer of titanium, bauxite, and gemstones.

However, is there anything exceptional about Africa’s ownership of transition metals? Lithium major reserves are in Bolivia, Argentina, China, Australia, Chile, Canada and so on. Copper main reserves are in Chile, Peru, Australia, Russia, Mexico, United States, with only DR Congo featuring as the African country in the first ten countries. Let us be honest. Resource dependency has not helped Africa over the decades. Africa should have used oil and mining receipts to leapfrog development and expand new production levers, but this has not been the case. In the era where transition metals are ubiquitous from Chile to China, it would be foolhardy to believe resource rent is the magic ticket for the continent. We now see huge oil reserves in Guyana and the US shale market pumping hydrocarbons at record rates.

Africans have frequently watched while foreign companies take advantage of their resources, paying taxes and royalties to national governments that either lacked the ability or the governance structures to guarantee the resources’ use for inclusive growth. In worst circumstances, resource rents have resulted in widespread corruption, the Dutch disease, a decline in competitiveness, the destruction of local institutions and customs, a culture of rent-seeking and extraction, and occasionally, armed conflict and war. In the future, why will Africa center itself on resources that have bred a rentier culture, conflict, and fiscal profligacy? So where’s Africa’s place in trade — agriculture, service, manufacturing, or knowledge economies?

Is Agriculture Africa’s Exit Opportunity?

Sixty percent of the arable and uncultivated lands worldwide are in Africa, and it is pertinent to know that more Africans are employed in the agriculture sector than any other, contributing 35% of Africa’s GDP to the continent. Despite a large arable land and abundant workforce, Africa still spends $78 billion on food imports, and at least 20% of Africa still experiences hunger. It is also pertinent to know that 80% of food produced in the continent is by subsistence farmers. According to the African Development Bank, Africa’s food and agriculture market could increase from $280 billion annually in 2023 to $1 trillion by 2030. But what would it take for Africa to emerge as a prominent global agricultural force?

Even though their economies largely depend on agriculture, nations like Nigeria, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Mali, and the Central African Republic are net importers of food, and this trend is expected to continue. Africa’s economies have either been stuck in unproductive agriculture practices that do not affirm seed science or exploit large-scale mechanized farming. It has been shut out of the manufacturing space except for Morocco and South Africa, and has seen an increase in services, but would this trend be enough for its future? “Many African countries are deindustrializing while they are still poor, raising the worrying prospect that they will miss out on the chance to grow rich by shifting workers from farms to higher-paying factory jobs,” The Economist wrote in its 7 November 2015 issue, summarizing the dilemma.

Can Africa Leapfrog into the Service Economy?

According to the African Development Bank’s African Economic Outlook 2020, which was released in March 2021, the service sector contributed almost 53% of Africa’s total GDP in 2020, compared to the industrial sector’s 36% share. In 2021, the service sector accounted for 42.4% of all jobs in Africa. It shows that more mobile users live in Africa than in the US or Europe, with 650 million, according to reports from the World Bank and African Development Bank. More individuals have access to a cell phone than electricity, potable water, or bank accounts.

The technological advancement and the transition to a digital economy continue to present significant economic prospects for African companies. By 2027, it is anticipated that the African e-commerce market will generate over $60 billion in revenue. As banking, insurance, e-commerce and the tech industry take a lift, it is expected that the demographic dividend of a youthful, tech-savvy populace will pay off. However, will participation in the service economy be enough for Africa?

Ha-Joon Chang, a South Korean author and academic, called the idea that developing nations could largely bypass industrialization and enter the post-industrial phase, where services increasingly drive employment and productivity growth, “a fantasy.” He contends that this is due to the industrial sector’s “inherently faster productivity growth than the services sector.”

Africa Has Governance Issues

Apart from productivity challenges, Africa also has governance challenges. In the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicator, Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are evidently the weakest regions in terms of governance. Sub-Saharan Africa’s ranking on the 2022 WGI Control of Corruption index is the weakest among all regions, with a score of 31.49 out of 100. This is low compared to East Asia and Pacific (59.17), Latin America and the Caribbean (48.97), South Asia (37.32), Europe and Central Asia (64.89). The regional scores have marginally weakened on the index from 32.42 in 2010 to 31.49 in 2022. Some countries within the region have woeful numbers: Sudan (6.60), Equatorial Guinea (2.83), Democratic Republic of Congo (3.30), South Sudan (0.00), and Somalia (0.00) are performing poorly in controlling corruption.

According to the Global Corruption Barometer developed by Afrobarometer and Transparency International, conducted between 2016 and 2018 “The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has the highest overall bribery rate (80 percent), followed by Liberia (53 percent), Sierra Leone (52 percent), Cameroon (48 percent) and Uganda (46 percent), Guinea (42%) Cameroon (48%) Gabon (35%) Ghana (33%) Togo (32%) Mozambique (35%), ) Madagascar (27%), Zimbabwe (25%).”

According to the 2019 Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) for Africa, based on a survey in 34 countries, about 55% of people perceived levels of corruption in their country to have increased in the previous 12 months. This corresponds with the 2017 Afrobarometer survey, which indicated a similar percentage of perceived increases in levels of corruption. Across African countries, the groups or institutions perceived to be most corrupt included the police (47%), government officials (39%), parliamentarians and business executives (36%), and offices of the president or prime minister (34%).

According to the Ibrahim Index for African Governance, Africa has seen a decline in the categories of security, rule of law and participation, rights, and inclusion. It is more challenging that worsening security and democratic participation environments are the two most declining factors under the leading indicators. According to the report, “more than 20 African nations have decreased more quickly since 2017 than they did during the previous ten years, with more than half of the continent’s countries declining over the five-year period as well as the previous ten.”

Human Capital Is Not Keeping Pace

Even though Africa is endowed with many natural resources — not unique in any way, investments in human capital have played a significant role in the growth and development of East Asian countries like Japan, Taiwan, and others. Most Asian countries have not only grown their manufacturing base but also understood the importance of human capital development. It is recorded that human capital accounted for approximately half of the US total wealth and at least two-thirds of the growth in the US GDP in the 1960s, according to estimates (Schultz, 1961). Upgrading their infrastructure for education and training is mainly responsible for the amazing development of recently industrialized countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and South Korea.

Compared to other regions, Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has the lowest school enrollment rates, which suggests a weak or subpar human capital base. At 76%, the average net primary school enrolment rate in SSA from 2007 to 2017 is exceptionally low. This is in contrast to other regions, which include South Asia at 89%, the European Union at 97%, East Asia and the Pacific at 96%, and OECD countries at 96% (World Bank, 2019). Underdevelopment persists in many African countries, primarily due to a need for more information and skills to increase productivity and elevate national output. Africa has made progress, but the growth rate has remained slow, and the level is still low compared to East Asian nations like Malaysia and South Korea (Baah-Boateng 2013).

The Future Calls For Inward and Outward Reflections

A tremendous opportunity to unlock global and African corporate potential exists with the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), which was formally established in 2021 after being negotiated in 2018 and ratified in 2019. The AfCFTA created a unified market throughout Africa. According to World Bank projections, the AfCFTA could lift 50 million people out of poverty by 2035, increase incomes overall by 8%, boost exports within Africa by up to 109%, and boost exports outside Africa by 32%.

Many of the identified obstacles will be lifted by the AfCFTA, allowing Africa to engage with multinational corporations and participate in regional and global value chains. Investors worldwide should take note of the potential earnings from an integrated African market as an indication that the region is ready for corporate development, expansion, and integration. With trade within Africa at 15% of total trade, AfCFTA is a key element in leapfrogging Africa to development. Africa has the opportunity to look outside, not just inside. There’s much learning from Brazil, India, China, India, South Korea and others.

What Do We Learn From the South?

Since the mid-2000s, Brazil has accelerated its transformation from a prominent exporter of primarily tropical agricultural products, such as coffee, sugar, citrus, and cocoa, to a major global supplier of commodities, such as soybeans, grains, cotton, ethanol, and meats. Brazil has been strengthening its position as a significant producer of food goods and agricultural commodities, as well as a supplier to global markets, over the last 20 years. It is currently the world’s largest net exporter and in the “top 5 producers of 34 commodities.” Brazil’s agricultural growth plan is still centered on markets, product diversification, and ongoing trade expansion. From 2000 to 2021, the value of Brazil’s agricultural exports — which include processed goods — grew by 9.4% annually on average, making up 37% of the country’s overall exports. Brazil is currently the third-largest agricultural product exporter in the world, after the United States and the European Union (EU), sending significant agricultural commodities and food items to 222 nations and territories.

Brazil is changing due to some factors, including increased yields from agricultural research, the expansion of arable land, significant investments in production technologies to create new crop and forage varieties, and an increase in global demand for food and animal feed, especially in the last ten years. Most importantly, Brazil stands out from other nations that produce grains and soybeans due to its capacity to harvest two to three harvests annually on the same piece of land.

According to the University of São Paulo’s Center for Advanced Studies on Applied Economics, Brazil’s GDP (gross domestic product) comprised 8% of agriculture and livestock production in 2021. Brazil’s agriculture and food sector is anticipated to contribute 29 percent of the country’s GDP, which was expected to reach $1.8 trillion in 2021 when processing and distribution are considered. Africa needs a place to look for agricultural growth and exports; it can quickly look at Brazil.

Do We Look at the East — Near or Far?

Many African countries’ reliance on natural resources subjects them to the cruel swings in the global economy. Thus, it is vital to build a protective shield from such sinusoidal movements. If, as a continent, we learn anything from the pandemic, it is how interwoven we all are. We must begin to take advantage of this connectedness for economic advancement. China still gives businesses a significant cost advantage despite accounting for 30% of global manufacturing value-added, or roughly the same as the combined shares of Germany, Japan, and the US. China’s ascent to global dominance is inextricably linked to its economic power, which cannot be disconnected from its manufacturing sector. However, this did not happen within the blink of an eye. A growing manufacturing industry eases the restrictions in trade and builds capabilities to do business. Without a skilled workforce, ease in raising private capital, improved infrastructure, and deliberate supportive policy mechanisms, we will keep looking at changing our fortunes in agriculture when it lies in value-chain manufacturing and services expansion. Is the continent ready to do the painful hard work to make our manufacturing competitive?

India is predicted to be protected from external dangers by a spike in its services exports, which reached a record high in 2024. India’s IT services are no longer the only profitable offers driving service exports; consultancy and Research & Development are also major players. At $332 billion in 2023, India’s services exports are now 150 percent of the $218 billion recorded in 2019, while the country’s share in global services exports has hit an all-time high of 4.9 percent. Will Africa look at the manufacturing capabilities of China or India’s service export economy to expand its trade with the world?

On the other hand, to improve the quantity and caliber of their human capital base, the Southeast Asia nations like Malaysia, South Korea, and Singapore directed their priority and commitments (measured in terms of actual resource allocation) toward the education sector. They have built high value from high-tech sectors, using their brainpower to develop ubiquitous technologies worldwide. What is Africa learning from them?

The Stories of Africa

Africa is also charting a great path with movies and music, seeding its culture across the world. According to Dataxis, by 2026, Africa’s yearly music streaming sales should reach $314.6 million, up from $92.9 million in 2021. Three of Africa’s largest markets — South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria — will see continued growth in the music streaming business, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ (PwC) annual report, Africa’s Entertainment and Media Outlook 2023–2027. The Nigerian film business, popularly called ‘Nollywood,’ has become one of the biggest in the world, producing 2,500 films annually. Aside from that, stories with an African American theme are being told in well-known Hollywood productions like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, which has made over $800 million worldwide, The Woman King, The King’s Horseman, Nanny, and upcoming series like Iwájú (an animated series that debuted on Disney Plus on February 28, 2024). Telling Africa’s stories has great promise in looking through Africa’s future, but there’s a long way to go!

Humans Assets Are Our Pathways

Africa cannot rapidly expand its industrial base without adequate investment in human capital — managerial and technical fronts. The growth of the Asian market, especially its manufacturing sector, is linked to deliberate investment in intellectual capital, which includes improving basic education, research and development funding, and quality of life. For instance, it is not enough to have Chinese workers build our infrastructure; knowledge transfer is important for project sustainability. Africa needs to embrace technology transfers, especially in developed markets such as Europe and the US, where the unit economics might no longer favor certain manufacturing.

One way to achieve this tech know-how transfer is to build partnerships with global tertiary institutions to deepen technical capacity, which is an essential resource in this process. Nigeria has the Petroleum Trust Development Fund, which provides scholarships to its youth in global learning environments. Unfortunately, it has not been able to use the vehicles to fix the technical gaps in building the machinery that can power its industrial growth. Africa needs to know that its assets remain the ingenuity of its young population and needs to nurture this rapidly.

No matter how ambitious our plans are to increase exports, they will always fall short if we don’t invest human capital. The vast disparity in technical and adaptive skills across Africa makes hiring the proper people difficult for industrial organizations. A closer examination of prosperous economies reveals that people are the cornerstone of these systems. They view each person not merely as a statistic to increase the size of the population but as an asset that requires investment. We failed to make our own people assets and missed the chance to realize that the key to diversity is to maximize human capital in societies that foster possibilities for citizens to prosper.

Africa can only properly develop its unit economies for manufacturing by making fast investments in the necessary infrastructure. Less than 5,000MW is produced by the majority of African economies, which is insufficient to sustain an economy centered on manufacturing, much less a city in Europe. Africa must raise funds to construct new ports, highways, trains, and other infrastructure to facilitate market access. We should have completed this yesterday, but now is the ideal moment to power our infrastructure. As the continent’s population continues to rise and surpass the infrastructure in place, futuristic infrastructure design should consider future population growth.

These issues are the reason behind the industrial sector’s downturn. However, without addressing the problems of double taxation, energy scarcity, and export difficulties, among other things, we cannot hope for a better future. Consolidating more manufacturing organizations into hubs and facilitating their access to domestic or foreign markets would require long-term planning that would take at least five years.

Africa must do more to assist organizations that are considering exporting manufactured goods. This covers the complete cost-effective process of registering a firm, the infrastructure needed to transport goods, expedited port services, and agency standardization — all of which can potentially increase Africa’s competitiveness. Africa’s competitiveness can be boosted through the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), but these capabilities will also be required for trade within the continent and will provide the groundwork for trading with the rest of the globe.

Africans are all over the world. Our diaspora is a pathway we have yet to maximize on the road to economic greatness. The continent can leverage its diaspora and build them as a fortress of enterprise across the world. The chances of success are higher if the continent leverages the diasporans’ capabilities, especially to fill its current apparent gaps in education, healthcare, and technical skills.

Paraphrasing the legendary Kwame Nkrumah, Africa cannot just face East, West, South, or North but must seek to fix its own contradictions and challenges and face forward. There is no unique approach or exceptional route in fixing Africa’s challenges; it must decide what type of society it wants, and it is really a mosaic on a canvas. Those who want to become the continent’s Brazil, building agriculture at a scale for exports are welcome. For those founded on knowledge economies, channeling their Southeast Asia strength to build new cutting-edge inventions in artificial intelligence and service exports is an important approach. Do we look to the strong man of China that has built manufacturing? Or do we find inspiration from India’s service export story? How does Africa proceed? Our trains must run at once. We must apply all approaches to find opportunities for our burgeoning young population.

And there are no shortcuts to the intense focus on human capital development (people remain the strength of Africa, but without converting them to assets, they turn to liabilities), the current spectacle of crisis, terrorism, banditry, and wars across the continent. Africa also needs to expand its private sector capital as it remains the prospect of expanding development in the continent. The use of state-run enterprises that were expanded in previous years has not shown promise either in the refineries in Nigeria or power utility companies in South Africa. The expansion of private businesses, big and small, must become the guiding frame for Africa, with significant leverage to connect to intra-Africa and global markets.

Fixing Africa means governance premised on transparency, and the rule of law must take center stage in Africa’s conversation. Without the growth of state capacity to deliver public goods and services transparently and accountable, Africa cannot find the rapid levers of development it seeks. Ultimately, it is about reactivating the peer mechanism approach, leveraging the AfCFTA, and expanding the productivity and trade levers that allow Africa to deliver development. Beyond this, Africa must have a stake in the next Industrial Revolution, which begins with investing in its people to bring forward ideas and nurture them with a supportive policy environment. Also, energy transition offers a lot of promise as at least nine million people could be added to the employment bracket by 2030. Africa can use renewable energy spheres, especially in solar, bioenergy, wind, and hydroelectric power.

Africa has a future it would have a say in. It’s already running late and needs to move all its pieces at once, ensuring its people have the right environment for its talent to be well-educated and empowered to thrive.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to this honorable group, and I wish you an outsized role in Africa’s future. Thank you once again for this opportunity.




Oluseun Onigbinde

God's Unfinished Sketch. Policy & Data Wonk. BudgIT Lead. Ashoka, Aspen Voices & Knight Innovation Fellow