Africa does not have the wealth that has piled up on the North American and European continents over many centuries.
But it does have something richer regions now lack: lots of young people.
While other continents have aging populations, Africa is giving birth to a new generation of consumers and workers. Sub-Saharan Africa is the youngest region in the world, with 43 percent of its population under age 15.
In Europe, only about 16 percent of the population is that young, and in the United States, the figure is about 20 percent, according to the Population Reference Bureau.
That’s why the theme of the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, which kicked off Monday in Washington, is “Investing in the Next Generation.” At the three-day, White House-sponsored gathering, leaders from nearly 50 African nations will be meeting with U.S. business executives, as well as with President Obama and officials from the Commerce Department, U.S. Trade Representative’s office and the State Department.
“We need technology, equipment and tools” to build the infrastructure for a rising generation, said Robert Sichinga, minister for commerce, trade and industry for Zambia.
Sichinga was at the World Bank Monday morning as African trade ministers began arriving to hear from U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman and Secretary of State John Kerry. Over a buffet of berries, melon and pastries, ministers talked up their continent as the place to do business in the 21st century.
Sichinga said Zambia wants to sell as much copper and gem stones as possible to U.S. customers. With the dollars they earn, Zambians will turn around and purchase U.S.-made goods — “everything we need for construction and high-tech,” he said. “We need trade.”
Kerry addressed the ministers, saying the summit will raise awareness of the business opportunities on a continent brimming with 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24. He noted that many of those future workers already have mobile phones, making it easier for them to move into the global economy.
“Everybody is connected to everybody every moment of the day, and that is changing the way people think. It’s changing their sense of possibilities,” he said.
Even as Kerry was addressing the group, General Electric was announcing its plans to invest another $2 billion in Africa by 2018.
“Africa is one of the most important growth areas, purely from an economic standpoint,” Chief Executive Officer Jeff Immelt said at a media event announcing GE’s investment in the continent.
Immelt said that in 2000, his company’s sales in Africa were “almost zero.” That has changed dramatically, and just last year, GE’s revenue from Africa hit $5.2 billion. In Africa, GE is involved in supplying a wide range of products, including locomotives, aircraft engines and gas turbines for power plants.
On Tuesday, the Commerce Department will hold a day-long event where CEOs, including Immelt, will speak directly to African leaders. Many other major U.S. corporations, such as Caterpillar, Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola and IBM, are sending their CEOs.
Their presence underscores the shift in how Africa is perceived by U.S. businesses. Traditionally, Africa was a place for extracting natural resources, from oil to gold. But the focus now is on developing a full range of sectors, including manufacturing, retail, hospitality and financial services.
Last year, the Obama administration pushed the Power Africa Initiative to get more electricity to more people in Africa.
On Tuesday evening, President Obama and First Lady Michele Obama will host a dinner at the White House for the visiting heads of state.
While the summit’s focus is on business, it also involves meetings with members of the U.S. Congress, health officials, environmentalists, human-rights activists and others.
Unfortunately for event organizers, this week is turning out to be a tough time to keep the focus on positive news. In recent days, headlines about Africa have been focused on the outbreak of the Ebola virus in western regions of Africa, especially in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Ebola was not on the original agenda, but has become part of the conversation as global health officials struggle to develop plans to contain it. At a press conference Friday, Obama said some African guests will undergo extra screening to be sure they are not ill as they enter this country.
“We are taking the appropriate precautions,” Obama said.