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Message to Davos: Don't forget Africa

By TMS Ruge, for CNN
  • TMS Ruge: Events in Tunisia, Southern Sudan are beginning of Africa's renaissance
  • Africa's youth see cell phones less as a luxury and more as instrument for change
  • Ruge: Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Rwanda made huge efforts in ICT sector
  • Africa's leapfrog into a knowledge-based economy is beginning to emerge, he says

TMS Ruge was born in Masindi, Uganda and grew up in Uganda, Kenya and the United States. Capitalizing on his understanding of different cultures and markets, Ruge has become a successful global social entrepreneur.

(CNN) -- While the developed nations drag their feet on inclusive trade agreements with emerging markets, Africa is busy redefining itself. Most of the continent's countries -- remnants of colonial rule -- are barely 50 years old, infant nations on the path to democratic maturity.

Nonetheless, the world is impatient to see a matured Africa unencumbered by battle scars emblematic of the march to democracy. This year, the continent is on the verge of birthing a new nation in Southern Sudan. In Tunisia, the "jasmine revolution" has gone a long way towards shrugging off the shackles of dictatorial rule. The world need not worry; this isn't prescient to a new wave of unrest for the world's youngest continent. This is the beginning of a renaissance.

Africa is rising, and not because global summits such as Davos are delivering results, but because the continent itself is awakening at the behest of half a billion people yet to experience their 20th birthday.

The continent's relative youth should not be overlooked as a catalyst for massive change. Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation was testament to the precarious balance between the status quo and impending mass-effect tipping point for the continent. Africa's young and dynamic "cheetah generation" is beginning to shift; impatiently chiseling at the crumbling walls of flat-footed regimes. The cavernous divide between stalwart aristocrats drinking from the global begging bowl and the informed, empowered youth could not be wider.

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Technology thrives on the cult of youth. After all, Silicon Valley's roots were formed in the 1970s by teenagers; Jobs, Balmer, Gates, Schmidt, Ellison, et al. Africa's millennials are coming of age in time for the arrival of the information age. By 2012, Africa will have access to over 17 terabytes of designed broadband capacity, thanks to a collection of undersea broadband cable initiatives.

With this improvement in connectivity, the mobile phone is quickly becoming less of a luxury, and more of a disruptive lifeline on the continent. It is embedding itself into the social fabric of Africa's day-to-day life. Technology didn't cause the Jasmine revolution but it did spread the message rapidly across the continent.

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Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and especially Rwanda have made commendable efforts to support innovations in their respective technology and communications sectors, spurring entirely new growth sectors. A wave of innovation is already changing how people communicate, bank, make purchases and go about everyday life.

Kenya's MPESA payments solution ushered in mobile-based money payments into the mainstream in East Africa, upending traditional banking systems. Millions who couldn't access traditional banking services have signed up to the new, uniquely African form of banking.

The Ushahidi platform, a social media service designed for information sharing, mapping and data visualization, is already a household name in the disaster recovery and development sectors. Kenya is also entering the Business Processing Outsourcing (BPO) sector that hastened the rapid growth of India's middle class for the past 15 years.

Technology didn't cause the Jasmine revolution but it did spread the message rapidly across the continent.
--TMS Ruge

But who is Africa's progressive middle class? If you ask the author of the 2008 book "Africa Rising," Vijah Mahajan, they are the 350-500,000 million hard-working "Africa 2" category -- the hungry, impatient subclass that powered Tunisia's revolution.

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Lest we forget Africa's other missing middle class, the once fragile bond the continent had with its Diaspora is tightening. Remittances have risen to between $30 billion and $40 billion annually in the last few years, according to a report from the United Nations Economic Commisssion for Africa.

The same connectivity that made the world smaller is making the proverbial African village much, much larger. The rise of mobile communication is not just fueling economic growth, but it is also changing the social dynamic of the continent's many cultures.

Many members of the Diaspora are opting to pack up their wares in the West and return to their roots. The brain drain is reversing. Africa's middle class is not only burgeoning but its intellectual capacity is returning with the "reaspora" movement -- native Africans who return to their homeland.

As the rest of the world realigns in economic power struggles, Africa's emerging place in that order should not be underestimated. Africa's leapfrog into a knowledge-based economy is beginning to emerge. Don't expect Africa's economic parity with the West to emerge from the traditional enclaves of manufacturing or farming, though growth in those industries is expected.

Africa's triple-play equalizer is going to be technology, youth and its Diaspora. Any way you add it up, that is a recipe for economic revolution.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of TMS Ruge.

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