We are writing this letter after a year unlike any other in our lifetimes.
A recent opinion poll found that the majority of Americans are optimistic about 2017. And they should be. The world, of course, faces many challenges. But year after year, life is getting better for more people on our planet.
For my first blog of the new year, I want to share evidence of this trend from a place where many people wouldn’t expect to find it—Africa. It’s one of my favorite places to go for a fresh perspective on how the world is improving. I saw this in-person last year during my trips to South Africa and Ethiopia.
Although 2016 was a tough year for many African economies, almost every trend on the continent has been moving in the right direction over the last decade. Per capita income, foreign investment, agricultural productivity, mobile banking, entrepreneurship, immunization rates, and school enrollment are all heading upwards. Poverty, armed conflicts, HIV, malaria, and child mortality are all on the decline—steeply so in many places.
If you want to get a better picture of what African countries look like today and why I see the glass as more than half full, here are five things that make me more optimistic than ever about the continent:
Everyday Africa is one of Melinda and my favorite Instagram profiles. It shows what the vast, culturally diverse continent of Africa is like beyond the lazy stereotypes. I’m not much of a photographer myself, but I’m a big admirer of people who can make one image tell a compelling story. These images, most of which are posted by African photographers, do so in beautiful, creative, and sometimes funny ways. “Everyday” and “normal” are usually something we associate with “boring.” Not here! Please see for yourself.
In the developed world, most people eat the root vegetable cassava only in tapioca pudding or bubble tea. But in Africa, it’s the primary staple for half a billion people and the continent’s most popular crop. That’s why I’m super excited that scientists are using the most advanced hybridization techniques for the benefit of cassava farmers and those who depend on the crop. With the support of UK Department for International Development and our foundation, scientists are making great progress developing hybrids that are resistant to the major virus that cuts down on cassava yields (cassava mosaic virus). At the same time, these scientists are breeding strains that have more nutrients than the strains under cultivation today.
You know the old saying “success has many fathers?” It turns out success has many grandmothers as well, especially when it comes to reducing maternal and child deaths. Across many different African cultures, grandmothers are powerful authority figures when it comes to a wide variety of health, pregnancy, and child-rearing issues. As a result, NGOs are now enlisting grandmothers as key agents of change for women and girls, especially in rural areas where there are not nearly enough midwives and other health professionals. Grandmothers are helping to guide pregnant women to health facilities and educating them about proper prenatal care. They’re helping to change attitudes about female genital mutilation (FGM). They’re helping to increase newborn vaccination rates. They’re helping women space their pregnancies for health and safety. As Dr. Bouna Sall related to the Thomson Reuters Foundation, “Everyone obeys the grandmothers. Through them we can change many things.”
In sub-Saharan Africa, the majority of people in rural areas live in the dark, without access to the electrical grid. But new technologies are changing that picture much more quickly than even we optimists expected. Small entrepreneurs, backed by the U.S. government and private companies, are selling affordable solar kits that help rural families leapfrog their way to clean, reliable energy. These solar kits are lighting homes for the first time, allowing children to continue learning after dark. They are powering mobile phones and radios, connecting households to the wider world. They are allowing small businesses to operate longer, producing more family income. They also improve health, because they’re much safer than kerosene and other traditional fuels.
When I was in South Africa last year for the International AIDS Conference, I caught a fascinating TV show one night. The show is called “Rhythm City,” and it’s the most popular soap opera in South Africa. The show, which has characters speaking in the four main languages of South Africa (Xhosa, Zulu, English, and Afrikaans), revolves around people trying to break into the music industry. Some of the storylines are a bit out there (it is a soap opera, after all), but when you see the show it really brings home how far South Africa has come since the end of apartheid. You take a step into the lives of everyday South Africans who are dealing with the relationship and business issues you’d see anywhere in the world. As the continent continues to develop and thrive, I predict we’ll see many other shows like this in other countries.