For many years, the dominant narrative about Africa has been that of the ‘hopeless continent’ and young people were rarely mentioned in reportages or shown in photos with the notable exceptions of militiamen, refugees or children almost dying of starvation. As the focus of the media shifted from political and humanitarian crises to the daily reality of African societies and expressions like ‘Africa rising’ were increasingly used in headlines and articles, spotlights were also turned on young Africans who achieved great results.
For those who chose not to leave the continent, Africa’s booming cities and rapidly changing social landscape have often worked as an inspiration for new businesses, which arose from simple yet innovative ways of dealing with common problems. Take for instance Daniel Mukisa who, when he was still a student at Kampala’s Makerere University, was among the founders of Transporter Corporation, which applies to goods the same solution that is currently used for passengers in the Ugandan capital, overwhelmed with traffic: offer them a ride on the back of a motorbike. Mukisa, now just 21, and his associates, hope that their business will became profitable as e-commerce – and so, the need for goods to be delivered to one’s home – becomes more widespread in Uganda. However, they have already reached an important result: their idea has been shortlisted for the Anzisha Prize: an award for African entrepreneurs between the ages of 17 and 22 whose businesses have the aim of solving social problems.
Also Farai Munjoma is among those competing for the same award: two years ago, this 18 year-old Zimbabwean created Shasha Iseminar, an online platform aimed to provide high school students with the instruments for better learning and to sustain, through the revenue generated, pupils in various schools in the rural areas of the country. Providing essential services to the people and communities who most need it was also Arthur Zang’s idea, when he conceived ‘Cardiopad’. The touchscreen medical tablet invented by the 27 year-old Cameroonian engineer can perform potentially life-saving heart exams, including an electrocardiogram even outside of a hospital and without the presence of a doctor, who then receives the results on another device and can make his diagnosis, sparing the patient a potentially difficult journey to the nearest urban centre.
If people like Munjoma and Zang have successfully rebutted the decades-old stereotype associating Africa with primitive life, there’s another category of young people which is literally changing the image of the continent. They are cartoonists, designers and artists whose works have often earned them an international fame or set the pace for future trends in their respective fields. When, at the age of five, he started drawing, inspired by the cartoons he was looking at on the TV, Ghana-born Gyimah Gariba wouldn’t have expected that, much later, his skills would have earned him the attention of the world-famous American comic book publisher ‘Marvel’. Or that, in addition to realizing covers featuring superheroes like Spiderman, his artworks would have had as protagonists, among other celebrities, the Oscar-winning Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o or the Barbados-born singer Rihanna. Spreading a new, positive, message in the world, instead, was the goal of one of the most appreciated graffiti artists in the world, the Franco-Tunisian eL Seed (real name: Faouzi Khlifi). His works are immediately recognizable due to his unique use of the Arabic calligraphy, which is also the reason why he has chosen to use the word ‘calligraffiti’ in order to define them. After having worked in Tunisia, France, South Africa, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, the artist and his crew spent the last year in Cairo, producing an immense piece of art: some words of the 3rd century Patriarch of Alexandria, St. Athanasius (‘Anyone who wants to look at the sunlight clearly must wipe his eyes first’) have been painted in black, white, turquoise, and ochre on the faces of 50 buildings in the Zaraeeb community of Manshiyat Nasser, Cairo.
Having a world resonance, however, is not an essential condition to be a trendsetter. The ‘Smarteez’, for instance, less than ten years ago were just a group of young men in their 20s from Soweto, South Africa’s most famous township, near Johannesburg. Their colourful, eccentric style, nevertheless, became one of the most notable features of a city willing to leave the apartheid legacy behind. Also thanks to the work of photographer Chris Saunders, the four designers – Kepi, Thabo, Floyd and Sibu – gained visibility, which in turn earned them many followers and enabled them to start a new dressing style and finally to try their hand at interior design. Behind all their creations, there is a philosophy that can easily be regarded as that of the entire African youth. Creating a new identity, different from that of their fathers and from the stereotypes, which have influenced the perception of Africa in many fields, including design and fashion. The ‘Smarteez’s’ style often called DIY, in fact, can’t be more different from the animal prints, head wraps, safari suits, or Masai blankets which have been seen many times on the catwalks in Paris, Milan or New York. (D.M.)