Reeta Roy’s Remarks at ATF2018

June 20, 2018 in Accra, Ghana


Thank you for your warm introduction.

It’s a joy for me to be back in Ghana this week. I am honored to address such a formidable group of African leaders from government, business, and the academy — all united in common purpose.

K.Y., this is a testament to you and ACET for bringing us together. For challenging us to think big — and rigorously — about Africa’s economic transformation.

This evening, I’d like to share some thoughts about transformation. At their core, economic transformation and youth employment are inseparable. It’s impossible to envision a solution to the future of work in Africa without economic transformation. Africa’s growth and economic transformation will need to expand prosperity for tens of millions of people. To do so, we must harness the leadership and ideas of young people.

Let me begin with a story.

Joseph’s Story

Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day. It’s apt that I tell you about someone I admire. His name is Joseph Munyambanza. At age six, his family fled the conflict in the DRC to the Kyangwali refugee settlement in Uganda. Life in the camp was bleak. Limited food. No electricity. No schools. It was the beginning of Joseph’s leadership journey.

At the age of 14, Joseph and his friends started a project to educate children in the camp. This project became an organization, CIYOTA. Today, more than 1500 children are enrolled in primary schools run by CIYOTA. More than 900 have attended high school. Forty students have gone on to universities around the world. I am enormously proud that Joseph is a Mastercard Foundation Scholar.

Joseph is just getting started. His ambition is to transform this continent through education. He wants to inspire refugees to become leaders and entrepreneurs. When he points to the results of the schools in Kyangwali, he says “This is what can happen can happen when young people are given tools to manage their own destiny.”

Joseph and many other young people like him have inspired us at the Mastercard Foundation. Over the years, we have been beneficiaries of their insight and ideas.

A Continent Coming of Age

I believe there has never been a more consequential time to come of age in Africa. Young people today are growing up with better access to education, health, technology, and opportunities undreamed of by their grandparents and parents.

It is also an optimistic time. Flagship initiatives are underway to strengthen governance, reduce conflict, improve transportation, telecommunications, power generation, and now the creation of one African market.

The African Continental Free Trade Agreement, covering over one billion people, represents a sea change that will spark years of growth and prosperity. It could increase trade by fifty percent. That’s remarkable.

So, this is a moment. We’re on the cusp of an African Century. I believe it can be, it must be. My question is, “who will make it so?”

Africa’s Comparative Advantage

This continent has many comparative advantages: the sun, the soil, the minerals in the earth. Yet Africa’s greatest natural resource is none of these. It is the hearts and minds and talents of its young men and women.

When we study the pillars of economic transformation laid out by ACET, whether it is infrastructure, agriculture, or trade, I see a common thread.

Who will inhabit these sectors? Who will be at the forefront?

Coming of Age

It is young people.

They are fundamental to all the pillars of transformation. They will be its drivers and its beneficiaries. Long after this generation is no longer young, they will be leading.

Unlike the rest of the world, Africa will keep getting younger as the century advances. Seventy percent of population is under the age of 30. By 2050, 37 African countries will have doubled in population. And, by the end of this century, almost half of the world’s young people will be African. The global workforce will reside here.

This demographic shift presents us with an extraordinary opportunity to shape the future. It is a moment ripe for transformation if ever there were one.

The numbers are changing. But, so is the narrative. Young people, entrepreneurs, through their alchemy of creativity, confidence, and sheer force of will are making remarkable things happen. They are pursuing fresh ideas in business, in community service, in the arts and culture. They are drivers of digital entrepreneurship we see from Accra to Lagos and from Nairobi to Johannesburg.

It’s clearer than ever that young people don’t need lectures from us. They would welcome tools. Our support. Mentoring. Guidance.

Tackling Youth Employment

And, we will need young people’s leadership and ideas to answer a question that keeps parents and presidents awake. How will 100 million young men and women who will enter the workforce in this next decade find dignified work? This may be the question of our time.

Young Africa Works

In our own way, our Foundation is also coming of age. We’re a young organization, now 12 years old. Our vision is a world where all people have opportunity to learn and prosper. Early on, we decided to work almost exclusively in Africa. To date, our programs have improved the lives of more than 26 million people.

In a time of momentous change, the Mastercard Foundation wants to turn promise into prosperity and jobs. We believe youth employment in Africa will be a powerful predictor of social and economic progress. Progress out of poverty.

We are optimistic about Africa’s future. We want to be part of this future. Over the next decade, we will execute a new strategy: Young Africa Works. It places young people and employment and the future of work in Africa at the center of everything we do. Our goal is to enable 30 million young men and women in Africa to secure dignified and fulfilling work by 2030.

Of course, we can’t do this alone. We will want to collaborate with many of you and many African organizations, and most importantly young people — because they have the greatest stake in the outcomes.

Practically, we will be rolling out Young Africa Works in multiple countries over the next few years. In each country, our approach will be the following:

  • Align with the country’s own aspirations and economic strategies. This starts with listening to priorities of governments and private sector and others.
  • Identify and focus on key industries that are transforming national economies. Industries that can unlock their global competitiveness; industries poised to be job destinations for a skilled, young workforce. For example, the tourism sector in Rwanda has exploded into the country’s largest single export industry — 30 percent of total exports. There are promising sectors of agro-processing, creative industries, ICT, and construction in several countries. Each presents a chance to build on progress and enable growth to translate into jobs.
  • Collaborate with Private Sector — employers and entrepreneurs who are growing these sectors. They will need capital as well as a pipeline of talent to grow. As we understand their needs, we need their commitment to provide young people with internships, apprenticeships, and jobs.
  • Prepare the workforce. This entails supporting secondary education and technical and vocational education so young people acquire skills that are relevant and in demand by the marketplace.
  • Most importantly, we have to build innovative ways and connective tissue between supply and demand so job seekers find employers and entrepreneurs connect with capital and tools to become job creators.

 This will require technology to achieve impact at scale. The good news is Africans are finding their own ingenious solutions. Nine years ago, during a strike, three Nigerian university students decided to start a website. They created Jobberman, one of the largest job placement engines in West Africa. It has helped place half a million people in jobs in Ghana/Nigeria.  But there’s more work to do to create functioning labor markets — and to catalyze the talented people who, with the right tools, are going to start the next Jobberman.

Invest in Women

At the Foundation we will make it a priority to invest in women. Two weeks ago, I was at graduation ceremony of Carnegie Mellon University’s African campus in Kigali. I met a young woman, Rahab, from Kenya.  She shared a story about how much her grandmother taught her. To be kind. Generous. Despite their poverty, her grandmother found ways to help others in need.

Rahab had the best scores in her entire primary school. But the family couldn’t afford to continue her studies. She thought she was done with school. Then her entire village showed up, one by one, and paid for her secondary education. She became the best student in her district and won an internship at Equity Bank. She won Mastercard Foundation Scholarships to Ashesi University and Carnegie Mellon. It was a moment of pride when she walked across that stage — cap and gown, degree in hand. She is starting up a data analytics company with two classmates. That’s transformation.

Going to Scale/Values

What does it take to go from the anecdotal to the transformational?

Scale requires certain tools — leadership, policy, incentives, technology, investments. These ingredients help to grow markets and opportunities.

Beyond the rigor and analysis of supply and demand frameworks, scale requires our imagination. We need to create space for young entrepreneurs to test and grow ideas. To empower people to help others. That’s why it’s important to get partnerships right. To create catalytic ways of working together that leverage our strengths. This requires listening, debate, empathy, respect. It requires the right conversations.

Scale that is enduring is scale that is built on a bedrock of values. Ethics. Integrity. Fairness. Inclusion. And this is what I hear from young people everywhere. More than anything, they seek a level playing field. Good governance. Not only in public service but in private sector.

Achieving transformation depends on achieving scale. And scale, in turn, depends on virtuous circles — on helping people who help people.


So, allow me to conclude with a story of a son of Ghana, Patrick Awuah. Patrick grew up in Ghana, was educated in the United States and was a successful software engineer at Microsoft.  But, he found himself restless. He wanted to make a contribution to Africa.

The chiefs in Berekuso listened to Patrick’s pitch. Young people. They resisted the offers of real estate developers.  They waited for years as Patrick raised funds. Today, Ghana is home to one of the finest universities in Africa. Where students operate on an honor code. One graduate set up a platform to support free and fair elections in Ghana. Another techie helped Liberia fight Ebola by digitizing its data and mapping out the outbreak. Last year Ashesi graduated its 1,000th student.

That’s 1,000 reasons to be optimistic that the 21st century will indeed be an African century. There are many more reasons because of the work all of you do. Work that unlocks what’s good and great in each of us and in the organizations we lead.

So, let’s not merely wish for the African Century. Let us make it so, together.


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