Good evening ladies and gentlemen, Graça Machel, Professor Ndebele, Vice Chancellor de la Rey, members of the Mamelodi families, friends and dignitaries, it is a great honor to have the opportunity to speak today.
The theme of this year’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture is “living together.” This is fitting, because in many ways, “living together” was also the theme of Nelson Mandela’s life. The system he fought against was based on the opposite idea—that people should be kept apart, that our superficial differences are more important than our common humanity.
Today, South Africans are still striving to “live together” in the fullest sense, but you are so much closer to that ideal because Nelson Mandela and so many others believed in the promise of one South Africa.
I was 9 years old when Nelson Mandela went to Robben Island. As a boy, I learned about him in school. I remember seeing reports about the anti-Apartheid movement on the evening news.
The first time I spoke with him was in 1994, when he called to ask me to help fund South Africa’s election. I was running Microsoft and thinking about software most of my waking hours. But I admired Nelson Mandela very much, I knew the election was historic, and I did what I could to help.
I had been to Africa for the first time just the year before – in 1993 – when Melinda and I travelled in East Africa on vacation. The landscape was beautiful. The people were friendly. But the poverty, which we were seeing for the first time, disturbed us.
It also energized us.
Obviously, we knew parts of Africa were very poor, but being on the continent turned what had been an abstraction into an injustice we could not ignore. Melinda and I had always known we’d give our wealth to philanthropy—eventually. But when we were confronted with such glaring inequity, we started thinking about how to take action sooner.
This sense of urgency was spurred on by another trip, in 1997, when I traveled to Johannesburg for the first time, as a representative of Microsoft.
I spent most of the time in business meetings. But one day, I went to a community center in Soweto where Microsoft had donated computers. My visit to Soweto – which was quite different then than it is now – taught me how much I had to learn about the world outside the comfortable bubble I’d lived in all my life.
As I walked into the community center, I noticed there wasn’t any electrical power. To keep the computers on, they had rigged up an extension cord that connected to a diesel generator outside. I knew that the minute I left, the generator would get moved to a more urgent task.
As I read my prepared remarks, about the importance of closing the technology gap, I knew I was missing the point in some way. Computers could help people do some important things, and in fact they have revolutionized life on the continent in many ways. But computers couldn’t cure disease or feed children. And if they couldn’t be turned on, they couldn’t do anything at all.
Soon after that, we started our foundation – because the costs of waiting had become clear. Our work is based on the belief that every person – no matter where they live – should have the opportunity to lead a healthy and productive life. We have spent the past 15 years learning about the issues and looking for the leverage points where we can do the most to help people seize that opportunity.
It was when I started coming to Africa regularly for the foundation that I came to know Nelson Mandela personally. AIDS was one of the first issues our foundation worked on, and Nelson Mandela was both an advisor and an inspiration.
What we talked about most was the stigma around AIDS. So I remember 2005 very clearly, when his son died of AIDS.
Rather than stay silent about the cause of his son’s death, Nelson Mandela announced it publicly, because he knew that stopping the disease required breaking down the walls of fear and shame that surrounded it.
It is important to recall Nelson Mandela’s legacy—and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so. But Nelson Mandela was concerned with the future. He believed people could make the future better than the past. And so that’s the topic I’d like to discuss for the remainder of my time here today.
What can South Africa be, what can Africa be, what can the world be—and what must we do to make it that way?
The Millennium Development goals adopted by the United Nations in 2000 laid a foundation that enabled Africa to achieve extraordinary progress over the last 15 years. And the Sustainable Development Goals that recently replaced them set even more ambitious targets for creating the better world we all want.
When I talk about progress, I always start with child survival, because whether children are living or dying is such a basic indicator of a society’s success. Since 1990, child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa has been reduced by 54 percent. That translates to 1 million fewer children who died last year compared to 25 years ago. Ten African countries achieved the MDG target of reducing child mortality by two-thirds.
Meanwhile, the incidence of poverty and malnutrition is down. And, though economic growth has slowed in the past few years, it has been very robust in many countries for more than a decade.
This is very real progress, but the Africa Rising narrative doesn’t tell the whole story about life on the continent.
First, the progress has been uneven. You know this very well here in South Africa. In last year’s Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, the French economist Thomas Piketty pointed out that income inequality in South Africa is, quote, “higher than pretty much anywhere else in the world.”
In general, African countries tend to have higher rates of inequality than countries on other continents. And despite healthy average GDP growth in the region, many countries have not shared in it. Gross inequalities exist both within countries and between countries. Until progress belongs to all people, everywhere, the real promise of living together will remain elusive.
Second, even with the great progress Africa has made, it still lags behind the rest of the world in almost every indicator. In sub-Saharan Africa, 1 in 12 children will die before they turn 5. This is a vast improvement compared to 25 years ago, but African children are still 12 times more likely to die than the average child in a wealthy country. And because rates of poverty and malnutrition aren’t shrinking as fast as the population is growing, the total number of people who are poor or malnourished has actually gone up since 1990.
Finally, the progress is fragile. The continent’s two largest economies, here in South Africa and in Nigeria, are facing serious economic turmoil. And new threats require attention. The Ebola crisis pointed out weaknesses in many national health systems. The effects of climate change are already being felt among farmers in many countries.
In short, to meet the goals of the SDGs, Africa needs to do more, do it faster, and make sure everybody benefits.
It won’t be easy, but I believe it can be done.
The successes and failures of the past 15 years have generated exemplars and lessons that we can learn from. Phenomenal advances in science and technology are constantly expanding the range of solutions available to solve development challenges. And then there is the ingenuity of the African people.
One topic that Nelson Mandela came back to over and over again was the power of youth. He knew what he was talking about, because he started his career as a member of the African National Congress Youth League when he was still in his 20s.
Later on, he understood that highlighting the oppression of young people was a powerful way to explain why things must change. There is a universal appeal to the conviction that youth deserve a chance.
I agree with Mandela about young people, and that is one reason I am optimistic about the future of this continent. Demographically, Africa is the world’s youngest continent, and its youth can be the source of a special dynamism.
In the next 35 years, 2 billion babies will be born in Africa. By 2050, 40 percent of the world’s children will live on this continent.
Economists talk about the demographic dividend. When you have more people of working age, and fewer dependents for them to take care of, you can generate phenomenal economic growth. Rapid economic growth in East Asia in the 1970s and 1980s was partly driven by the large number of young people moving into their work force.
But for me, the most important thing about young people is the way their minds work. Young people are better than old people at driving innovation, because they are not locked in by the limits of the past.
When I started Microsoft in 1975 – at the age of 19 – computer science was a young field. We didn’t feel beholden to old notions about what computers could or should do. We dreamed about the next big thing, and we scoured the world around us for the ideas and the tools that would help us create it.
But it wasn’t just at Microsoft. Steve Jobs was 21 when he started Apple. Mark Zuckerberg was only 19 when he created Facebook.
The African entrepreneurs driving startup booms in the Silicon Savannahs from Johannesburg and Cape Town to Lagos and Nairobi are just as young—in chronological age, but also in outlook. The thousands of businesses they’re creating are already changing daily life across the continent.
In a few days, I’ll be meeting with some of these young innovators. People like the 21-year-old who founded Kenya’s first software coding school to provide other young people with computer programming skills. And like the 23-year-old social entrepreneur here in South Africa who manufactures schoolbags from recycled plastic shopping bags. Besides being highly visible to protect children as they’re walking to school, these school bags sport a small solar panel that charges a lantern during the journey to and from school -- providing illumination so students can study when they get home.
The real returns will come if we can multiply this talent for innovation by the whole of Africa’s growing youth population. That depends on whether Africa’s young people—all of Africa’s young people—are given the opportunity to thrive.
Nelson Mandela said, “Poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”
We are the human beings who must take action, and we have to decide now, because this unique moment won’t last forever. We must clear away the obstacles that are standing in young people’s way so they can seize all of their potential.
If young people are sick and malnourished, their bodies and their brains will never fully develop. If they are not educated well, their minds will lie dormant. If they do not have access to economic opportunities, they will not be able to achieve their goals.
But if we invest in the right things – if we make sure the basic needs of Africa’s young people are taken care of – then they will have the physical, cognitive, and emotional resources they need to change the future. Life on this continent will improve faster than it ever has. And the inequities that have kept people apart will be erased by broad-based progress that is the very meaning of the words: “living together.”
When Melinda and I started our foundation 15 years ago, we asked ourselves: what are the areas of greatest opportunity? It was clear to us that investing in health was at the top of the list. When people aren’t healthy, they can’t turn their attention to other priorities. But when health improves, life improves by every measure.
Over the last 15 years, our foundation has invested more than $9 billion in Africa – and we are committed to keep on investing to help Africa. In the next five years, we will invest another $5 billion.
We’ve put a lot of this money into discovering and developing new and better vaccines and drugs to help prevent and treat the diseases of poverty. We’ve also invested in global partnerships that work closely with countries across the continent to get these solutions to the people who need them most.
We’ve been fortunate to work with amazing partners and, together, we have seen some incredible progress.
The entire continent of Africa has been polio-free for two years, which puts us within reach of wiping polio from the face of the earth . . . forever.
The newest vaccines that protect children from two of the most devastating diseases – pneumonia and severe diarrhea – are reaching children across Africa at the same time they’re available for children in wealthier countries.
Countries that invest in strong, community-based primary health care systems – like Malawi, Ethiopia, and Rwanda – are making great progress reducing child mortality.
Malaria infections and deaths are down significantly thanks to better treatment and prevention tools.
And efforts like the Ouagadougou Partnership in West Africa are helping millions of women get access to contraceptives, which can make it easier for them to care for their families.
AIDS is another area where there’s been good progress – though it’s a more complicated story and there are big challenges ahead.
In a few days, I’ll be speaking at the International AIDS conference in Durban. When the global AIDS community last met there in 2000, only a few thousand Africans were receiving antiretroviral drugs. Today, more than 12 million Africans are on treatment – more than a quarter of them living here in South Africa.
But the rate of new infections remains high. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 2,000 young people under the age of 24 are newly infected every single day. The number of young people dying from HIV has increased fourfold since 1990.
There are other challenges. Almost half of the people living with HIV are undiagnosed. Millions more aren’t being treated. And millions of people who are receiving treatment aren’t able to stay on it.
Add to this the high rates of tuberculosis among people living with HIV, including here in South Africa where TB/HIV co-infection continues to wage a devastating toll.
So we need more creative ways to make testing and treatment accessible and easier to use.
We need to get much more out of existing prevention methods like condoms, voluntary medical male circumcision, and oral anti-HIV medicine.
And we’re going to need new and better prevention solutions – like an effective vaccine and medicines that people are more likely to use consistently.
If we fail to act, all the hard-earned gains made in HIV in sub-Saharan Africa over the last 15 years could be reversed, particularly given that Africa’s young people are entering the age when they are most at risk of HIV.
Nutrition is another critical area of focus for Africa. Nearly one third of the continent’s children suffer from malnutrition that stunts their growth and development and robs them of their physical and cognitive potential. Millions more suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. These are impacts that last a lifetime and impact whole generations of Africa’s youth.
African Development Bank President Akin Adesina put it best when he said recently that the greatest contributor to Africa’s economic growth is not physical infrastructure, but “gray matter infrastructure” – people’s brainpower. The best way to build that infrastructure is with proper nutrition.
Candidly, it’s hard to imagine a better future for Africa’s youth without tackling this problem.
While eliminating malnutrition is a complex challenge, there is a lot we already know about how to ensure that every child gets a healthy start in life.
We know that mothers and infants need good nutrition for healthy growth and brain development, and that breastfeeding protects children from life-threatening diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea.
We also know that certain vitamins and minerals are essential for children and for women of reproductive age.
The good news is we have a growing suite of cost-effective interventions – things like cooking oil, sugar fortified with Vitamin A and like sugar and flour enriched with iron, zinc, and B vitamins.
One of the most exciting advances is the breeding of staple crops so they are more nutritious. For example, when adolescents eat high-iron pearl millet, their likelihood of iron deficiency decreased six-fold. And just half a cup of biofortified orange sweet potato is all it takes to meet a child’s daily vitamin A needs.
The human and economic toll of micronutrient deficiency is huge, but the costs of fighting it are not.
Recent estimates in Nigeria and Uganda indicate that every dollar invested to reduce stunting will return $17 in greater earning capacity in the workplace.
When children’s bodies and brains are healthy, the next step is an education that helps them develop the knowledge and skills to become productive contributors to society.
Improving education is incredibly hard. I have learned this first hand through our foundation’s efforts to create better learning outcomes for primary, secondary, and university students in the U.S. But this hard work is incredibly important. A good education is the best lever we have for giving every young person a chance to make the most of their lives.
In Africa, as in the U.S., we need new thinking and new educational tools to make sure that a high-quality education is available to every single child.
In Uganda, young innovators at an NGO called Educate! are helping high schools prepare young people for the workplace by teaching students how to start their own business.
And with the high level of mobile phone penetration in Africa, technology using mobile phones connected to the Internet have the potential to help students build foundational skills while giving teachers better support and feedback.
Globally, the education technology sector is innovating and growing rapidly, and it’s exciting to see new tools and learning models emerging to meet the needs of educators and students that are not currently being met by existing systems.
At the postsecondary level, we not only need to broaden access – we also have to ensure that governments are investing in high-quality public universities to launch the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs, educators, and government leaders.
South Africa is blessed with some of the best universities in Africa – universities that our foundation relies on as partners in important health and agricultural research. Maintaining the quality of this country’s higher education system while expanding access to more students will not be easy. But it is critical to South Africa’s future.
Other countries in the region will do well to follow South Africa’s example and provide the highest level university education to the largest number of qualified students.
Healthy, educated young people are eager to make their way in the world. But African’s youth must have the economic opportunities to channel their energy and their ideas into progress.
One way to create economic opportunity is to turn agriculture, which still employs more than half the people on the continent, from a struggle for survival into a thriving business.
Right now, most African smallholders suffer from an almost total lack of innovation. They plant unproductive seeds in poor soils in order to produce just enough to feed their family. With climate change leading to more severe weather, doing more of the same is going to bring even more meager harvests.
The key to breaking this cycle is a series of innovations at every step along the way from farm to market.
First, African farmers need better tools to avoid disasters and grow a surplus – things like seeds that can tolerate droughts, floods, pests, and disease, affordable fertilizer that includes the right mix of nutrients to replenish the soil, and easy-to-administer livestock vaccines that can prevent flocks and herds from being wiped out.
Second, farmers need to be connected to markets where they can buy these inputs, sell their surplus, and earn a profit they can invest not only in their family’s basic needs but also back into the farm.
This, in turn, will provide employment opportunities both on and off the farm as more prosperous farmers begin to support a range of local agribusinesses like seed dealers, trucking companies, and processing plants.
I recently met with a group of young crop breeders, one from Ethiopia, one from Kenya, one from Nigeria, and one from Uganda. I may be a little unusual in this regard, but I love talking about the science of plant productivity. In this case, they were all doing cutting-edge work on cassava – a staple crop that provides more than one third of the calories in the average African diet.
Some were working to improve its nutritional content. Others were trying to breed a variety that can resist both of the devastating diseases that threaten to wipe out farmers’ entire crop.
Our foundation is also working with a young computer scientist from Makerere University who designed a mobile phone app that lets farmers upload a photo of their cassava plants and find out immediately whether it’s infected or not.
These are the innovators who can drive an agricultural transformation across the continent—if they have the support they need. For many decades, agriculture has suffered from dramatic underinvestment. Many governments didn’t see the link between their farmers and economic growth.
Now, however, this misconception is gone – and through the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Program, countries have a framework for transforming agriculture. The investment needs to follow, so that young Africans have the means to create the thriving agriculture they envision.
With Africa’s small farms as a base, the next step toward economic opportunity is to promote job creation in other sectors. Doing this will require significant investments in infrastructure, including energy.
Seven in 10 Africans currently lack access to power, which makes it harder to do everything. Harder to get health care in a dark clinic. Harder to learn in school when it’s boiling hot. Harder to be productive when you can’t use labor saving machinery.
Unfortunately, a shortage of power – like South Africa is currently experiencing – is also a massive drag on economic growth. Businesses will not invest in places where they can’t operate efficiently.
A recent report projected that more than 500 million Africans won’t have electricity in 2040. That number needs to go down.
In the long run, what Africa needs is what the whole world needs: a breakthrough energy miracle that provides cheap, clean energy for everyone. I have spent much of the past two years on this issue because it’s hard to think of anything more important. I am involved with a group of businesspeople who are collaborating with almost two dozen governments, mostly in rich countries, on a project called Mission Innovation. The goal is for these governments to double their energy R&D spending in the next five years.
I get angry when I see that Africa is suffering the worst effects of climate change although Africans had almost nothing to do with causing it. The countries leading Mission Innovation need to create energy breakthroughs that are applicable globally—and they need to do so urgently.
No matter how accelerated the R&D agenda is, though, we cannot wait for tomorrow’s energy breakthrough. Africa needs power now, and there are ways to meet that need now.
In East Africa especially, governments should invest in hydro and geothermal sources of energy, which are both reliable and renewable, as soon as possible. There has been a lot of experimentation with small-scale renewable energy, including micro solar. This approach can provide individuals with some electricity for basic purposes, but it’s not going to be the solution for the continent as a whole.
One priority for governments is to get much tougher about managing their electrical grids. This means refurbishing power plants, making sure people are paying their bills, and doing the technical work to stem electricity losses so that the grid is operating as close to 100 percent as possible.
Once the power utilities can prove they are economically viable, it will be easier to attract investors who can help fund the necessary improvements.
Using the resources available now, we can provide power to many of the 500 million Africans projected to be without it 25 years from now. With breakthrough innovation, we can chart the path to zero.
All of these things – advances in health, in education, in agricultural productivity, in energy – won’t happen on their own. They can only happen in the context of governments that function well enough to enable them.
It’s great to see initiatives like Mo Ibrahim’s annual index of African governance, which looks objectively at multiple measures of government performance in each country on the continent. Citizens in other regions would be well served by this kind of comprehensive effort to spotlight and spread effective governance.
A lot can be accomplished by focusing on fiscal governance and accountability. Here in South Africa, the government gets strong marks for the budget information it provides to the public. The International Budget Partnership, an independent monitoring organization, also ranks South Africa highly for its oversight of government spending.
But sometimes, it takes individual citizens to lead the way. Thirty-year-old Oluseun Onigbinde gave up a career in banking five years ago to devote himself fulltime to pulling back the curtain on Nigeria’s federal expenditures.
Savvy in the use of data and social media, Onigbinde founded BudgIT Nigeria, a website that provides facts and figures the average Nigerian can understand. Onigbinde is no doubt a thorn in the side of some of Nigeria’s elite. To me, he is an example of what one person can do to make a difference.
The machinery of government is still relatively new in many African countries, and it’s important that as the institutions of governance mature, they don’t just try to mimic how things are done in developed countries.
One of the most exciting prospects is the role African governments can play in accelerating the use of digital technology to leapfrog the traditional models and costly infrastructure associated with banking and delivery of government services.
Because so many people in developing countries have mobile phones, tens of millions of people are storing money digitally on their phones and using their phones to make purchases, as if they were debit cards.
But mobile money services like M-PESA in Kenya don’t just give people a better way to move money around. They give people a place to save cash to fund the startup of a microenterprise or pay a child’s school exam fee. They create informal insurance networks of family and friends who can help with unexpected financial shocks like a crop failure or a serious medical illness. And they increase the profitability of small businesses through lower transaction costs, easier ordering of products and supplies, and greater security of financial assets.
A digital financial connection can also help governments deliver services more efficiently. I’ve seen studies from India showing the government could save $22 billion a year by connecting households to a digital payment system and automating all government payments. The early evidence suggests that similar programs in Africa can yield the same benefits – while increasing the effectiveness of government services.
For example, recent research in Uganda showed that providing people with digital cash transfers rather than direct food subsidies not only saved the cost of physical delivery – it also improved nutrition because the money gave recipients the ability to purchase a greater diversity of foods and to space out meals as needed.
Governments can accelerate this digital transformation by implementing policies that encourage commercial investment, innovation, and healthy competition, by building the shared infrastructure needed to enable digital financial services to flourish, and finally by using this technology to digitize payments and improve delivery of services to citizens.
Countries like Kenya, Tanzania, and Nigeria are already investing in the building blocks of this new digital financial platform, and they’re likely to see positive economic returns that more than offset the cost.
If there is one thing I’m sure of, it is this: Africa can achieve the future it aspires to.
That future depends on the people of Africa working together, across economic and social strata and across national borders, to lay a foundation so that Africa’s young people have the opportunities they deserve.
Recently, I met with some students at Addis Ababa University. I started by asking them the casual questions college students tend to get asked in America: “What do you want to do after you graduate?” “What fields are you thinking about going into?”
They looked at me like I was crazy to be asking questions like that. They knew exactly what they were going to do. Their parents had sacrificed for 20 years so they could go to school. They weren’t weighing their options. They had come to university to get specific training, and they were eager to get on with it so that they could help Ethiopia become a prosperous country.
They saw themselves as members of a community with needs, and they were going to dedicate themselves to serving that community by meeting those needs. I see that sense of purpose whenever I come to Africa, and especially whenever I talk to young Africans. I think this is unique. I meet with students all over the world, and they aren’t all so committed to giving back.
But students here believe in themselves, and they believe in their countries and the future of the continent.
The priority now is to make sure they have the opportunity to turn those beliefs into action. Because young people with this sense of purpose can make the difference between stagnation and more and faster progress.
Nelson Mandela said, “Young people are capable, when aroused, of bringing down the towers of oppression and raising the banners of freedom.”
But our duty is not merely to arouse; our duty is to invest in young people, to put in place the basic building blocks so that they can build the future. And our duty is to do it now, because the innovations of tomorrow depend on the opportunities available to children today.
It’s clear to everyone how big and complicated the challenges are. But it’s just as clear that people with bravery, energy, intellect, passion, and stamina can face big, complicated challenges and overcome them. There is so much more work to be done to create a future in which we can all live together. But there are also so many people who are eager to get to work.
Let’s do everything within our power right now to help them build the future that Nelson Mandela dreamed of – and the future that we will achieve together.