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Bill Gates believes countries throughout Africa can obtain economic prosperity and fairly distributed wealth — but only by mobilizing the region’s young entrepreneurs.

He shared his optimistic vision as he delivered the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at South Africa’s University of Pretoria over the weekend. Gates said that the dynamism of youth has the power to change the world, noting that Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and he himself all began their entrepreneurial journeys before turning 22.

“Young people are better than old people at driving innovation, because they are not locked in by the limits of the past,” Gates said. “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.”

The youthful audacity to dream big and execute on those dreams, Gates said, are essential to tackling the daunting challenges Africa faces today. He noted that several young entrepreneurs in Africa have already created some solutions.

Gates described Thato Kgatlhanye, who founded Repurpose Schoolbags at 23 years old. The startup recycles plastic shopping bags and turns them into book bags with solar panels that charge during a child’s walk to and from school. The solar energy powers a light to help students do homework after the sun sets.

A Repurpose Schoolbag. (Photo via Facebook/RepurposeSchoolbags).
A Repurpose Schoolbag. (Photo via Facebook/RepurposeSchoolbags).

On the non-profit side, Gates highlighted an NGO called Educate!, which teaches high school students the skills they need to start their own businesses.

“The real returns will come if we can multiply this talent for innovation by the whole of Africa’s growing youth population,” he said. “That depends on whether Africa’s young people — all of Africa’s young people — are given the opportunity to thrive.”

Fortunately, as the world’s youngest continent, Africa has a large pool of youthful energy and creativity. In the next 35 years 2 billion babies will be born on the continent and by 2050 40 percent of the world’s children will live in Africa, according to Gates.

But, unfortunately, Africa’s young people face some major challenges. They are entering the age where they are most at risk of contracting HIV, a disease that still has a very high rate of infection. Malnutrition, which goes hand in hand with poverty, also prevents young people from reaching their full potential. Gates points out that nearly one-third of Africa’s children suffer from malnutrition and millions more have micronutrient deficiencies.

“Candidly, it’s hard to imagine a better future for Africa’s youth without tackling this problem,” Gates said.

He also calls for education reform to help young would-be entrepreneurs reach their potential.

Throughout his speech, Gates described ways that technology can address these issues with greater efficiency. Mobile phone adoption in Africa is growing rapidly, leapfrogging computers which require more energy and WiFi. By digitizing education, finances and other aspects of life in Africa, Gates says, we can tap a larger pool of innovators.

“If there is one thing I’m sure of, it is this: Africa can achieve the future it aspires to,” he said. “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.”

See Gates’ full Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture speech here:

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