ACCRA, Ghana (AP) – If Vice President Kamala Harris has a favorite number on her trip to Africa, it is undoubtedly 19. That is the average age in Africa, and she reiterates the fact at every opportunity.
For Harris, it is no small matter, but the driving force behind increased US action in African countries. Washington is seeking to build partnerships on the oldest inhabited continent with the youngest population, a test that could transform Africa’s economy and, by extension, the rest of the world.
In the near future, “1 in 4 people on this planet will be on this continent,” Harris said while speaking to reporters. “For that reason alone – demographics alone – putting the present and the past aside, if we want to be forward-looking in terms of national policies and priorities, we need to look at this continent.”
As part of that effort, Harris on Wednesday announced more than $1 billion in public and private funding for women’s economic empowerment. The money is said to come from a mix of non-profit foundations, private companies and the US government, and will expand access to digital services, provide job training and support entrepreneurs.
Harris made the announcement during a meeting with six Ghanaian women entrepreneurs. It was her last event in Ghana before continuing on to Tanzania and Zambia for her week-long tour of Africa.
She called the women at the table “a model of the potential of all human beings” and said that “the well-being of women will reflect the well-being of society as a whole”.
Harris is the high-profile member of President Biden’s administration to visit Africa this year. During her stay in Ghana, she paid special attention to economic development and young people.
She visited a skate park and a recording studio, released a Spotify playlist featuring African musicians, spoke to thousands of young people, and invited celebrities, civil rights activists and businesspeople to join her at a banquet in her honor.
It’s a carefully calibrated campaign to redefine how Americans see opportunity in Africa, something senior officials from Harris’s office said was central to their goals for the trip. New investment could not only benefit US companies, but also alleviate one of the most pressing challenges here.
“If we don’t find jobs – because that’s what it’s about – for this growing young population, it will be dangerous for political stability on the continent,” said Rama Yade, executive director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. “Because they will attack the institutions if they don’t have the means to live.”
Their vision, officials said, is a journey centered on youth, women and innovation, rather than the humanitarian assistance that often characterizes American perceptions of Africa.
It’s a vision that requires money, and the desire for investment was clear during a state banquet Monday at Ghana’s Presidential Palace, where Hollywood stars Spike Lee, Idris Elba and Rosario Dawson were among those in attendance.
Although the atmosphere was festive, the message was business. A large screen at the far end of the banquet tent showed a computer generated animation of Accra’s future development, a vision of a modern African metropolis.
“We are heartened by the fact that more American companies than ever are looking to invest in Ghana,” said President Nana Akufo-Addo. “And we will continue to create and maintain the favorable investment atmosphere that not only guarantees the safety of their investments, but also good returns on those investments.”
By diversifying the country’s economy beyond exporting natural resources, Akufo-Addo said he envisions “a Ghana beyond aid.”
Ghana is being pressured by skyrocketing inflation and a bulging debt burden. Akufo-Addo pointed to the impact of “malicious developments” such as the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We want to work together to change the African narrative, which has largely been shaped by a focus on disease, hunger, poverty and mass illegal migration,” he said. “Together we must help make Africa a place for investment, progress and prosperity.”
It’s a change Harris is keen to encourage.
“While we face real challenges, tonight I’m looking around and I’m really more optimistic than ever,” Harris said in her banquet toast. “And I know that by working together, the United States and Ghana will share and share our future for the better, along with the diaspora and the people of this beautiful continent.”
Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, joined the effort. He went to an all-girls basketball clinic and spoke to students at a citizenship discussion with cast members from the local TV series You Only Live Once, which addresses public health issues and other challenges facing Ghanaian youth.
Emhoff said the message is about “having the confidence to know that you can do whatever you want in this world.”
But this hope for the future is not necessarily widespread.
Adwoa Brentuo, who earned her computer science degree four years ago, is one of many who fear her education hasn’t been a help.
“I’ve now given up on getting a job because there isn’t one,” she said. “I also noticed that the application letter has become a waste of time.”
Ghana’s Youth and Sports Minister Mustapha Yussif estimated that only one in ten university graduates gets a job.
“The rest won’t be able to find employment for a long time,” Yussif said.
It’s a problem across the continent. The African Development Bank estimates that on average about 11 million people enter the labor market, while only about 3 million jobs are created at the same time.
Harris has tried to look for bright spots in Africa during her journey and found one at Vibrate Studio in Accra, a center for young artists with a recording studio and music business program. The exterior of the sun-yellow building bears the names of supporters such as Kendrick Lamar and the late fashion designer Virgil Abloh.
At the adjacent skate park, young people were slithering back and forth when Harris arrived, their boards occasionally rattling on the sidewalk.
Inside, a staffer said that in addition to recording music, teenagers can learn subjects like accounting.
“We’re all learning from scratch,” the staffer told Harris. “Let’s hope for the next generation in here.”
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