ACCRA, Ghana (AP) — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris has a favorite number on her trip to Africa, it’s undoubtedly 19. That’s the median age on this continent, and she repeats the fact at every opportunity.
For Harris, it’s not a piece of trivia but the driving force behind the United States’ reenergized outreach to Africa. Washington is racing to build partnerships on the oldest inhabited continent with the youngest population, a test that could reshape the economy here and, by extension, the rest of the world.
As part of that effort, Harris unveiled more than $1 billion in public and private funding for women’s economic empowerment on Wednesday. The money is expected to come from a mix of nonprofit foundations, private companies and the federal government, and it’s intended to expand access to digital services, provide job training and support entrepreneurs.
The American vice president made the announcement during a meeting with six Ghanaian female entrepreneurs, at the Mix Design Hub, a modern building that features a restaurant, art gallery and co-working space. It’s her final event in Ghana before continuing to Tanzania and Zambia for her weeklong tour in Africa.
She called the women at the table “a model for the potential of all people,” and said that “the wellbeing of women will be a reflection of the wellbeing of all of society.”
Harris is the most high-profile member of President Joe Biden’s administration to visit Africa this year as the U.S. steps up its outreach. She’s paid particular attention to economic development and young people during her time in Ghana.
Harris has visited a skate park and recording studio, released a Spotify playlist of African musicians, spoken to a crowd of thousands of young people, and invited a coterie of celebrities, civil rights leaders and businesspeople to join her at a banquet in her honor.
It’s a carefully calibrated campaign to reframe how Americans view opportunities in Africa, something that senior officials from Harris’ office described as central to her goals for the trip. New investments could not only benefit U.S. businesses 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 the political stability on the continent,” said Rama Yade, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center. “Because they will attack the institutions if they don’t have the means for living.”
Harris is keenly aware of the thin line between risk and opportunity in Africa, according to the officials, who spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity. She personally worked the phones to line up commitments for Wednesday’s financial announcement and edited drafts of her speech from earlier in the week.
Her vision, officials said, was a trip centered around youth, women and innovation, rather than the humanitarian assistance that often characterizes American perception of Africa.
It’s a vision that requires money, however, and the desire for investment was on full display during a state banquet on Monday evening at the presidential palace known as the Jubilee House. Washington officials ditched their usual staid attire for vibrant dresses and sharp tuxedos for the state banquet, and Hollywood stars Spike Lee, Idris Elba and Rosario Dawson were among the attendees.
Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo entered with Harris, he in a dark, double-breasted suit and she in a white gown and cape adorned with a purple flower on the right shoulder.
Although the atmosphere was festive, the message was all business. A large screen at the far end of the banquet tent showed a computer-generated animation of future development in Accra, a vision of a modern African metropolis.
“We’re encouraged by the fact that more American companies than ever are looking to invest in Ghana,” Akufo-Addo said. “And we will continue to create and maintain the conducive investment atmosphere that will not only guarantee the safety of their investments, but good returns on those investments as well.”
By diversifying the country’s economy beyond exporting natural resources, Akufo-Addo said, he envisioned “a Ghana beyond aid.”
Ghana is being squeezed by skyrocketing inflation and a bulging debt burden, and Akufo-Addo noted the impact of “pernicious developments” like the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We want to work together to change the African narrative, which has been characterized largely by a concentration on disease, hunger, poverty and illegal mass migration,” he said. “Together, we must help make Africa the place for investment, progress and prosperity.”
It’s a change that Harris is eager to help foster.
“While we face real challenges, I look around tonight and I am truly more optimistic than ever,” Harris said in her own toast. “And I know that by working together, the United States and Ghana, alongside the diaspora and the people of this beautiful continent, will share and share our future for the better.”
Harris’ husband, Doug Emhoff, joined the effort as well. He went to a girls’ basketball clinic and spoke with students at a town hall discussion with the cast of the local television series “You Only Live Once,” which addresses public health issues and other challenges facing Ghanaian youth.
Emhoff said the message was about “having confidence in yourself to know that you can do whatever you want to do in this world.”
But that hope for the future isn’t necessarily widespread.
Adwoa Brentuo, who graduated four years ago with a degree in information science, is one of many who fear their education was no help.
“I have now given up about getting a job because they are nonexistent,” she said. “I have also realized that writing applications have become a waste of time.”
Ghana’s minister of youth and sports, Mustapha Yussif, estimated that only one out of 10 college graduates gets a job.
“The rest will not be able to get any employment for a long time,” Yussif said.
It’s a problem across the continent. The African Development Bank estimates that there are on average about 11 million people entering the job market while at the same time only about 3 million jobs are created.
Harris has tried to seek out bright spots in Africa during her trip, finding one of them at Vibrate Studio in Accra, a hub for young artists with a recording studio and music business program. Names of supporters like Kendrick Lamar and the late fashion designer Virgil Abloh are written on the outside of the sunny yellow building.
At the adjacent skate park, young people glided back and forth as Harris arrived, their boards occasionally clattering against the pavement.
Inside, a staff member said that teenagers can learn topics like accounting in addition to recording music.
“We are all learning from scratch,” the staff member told Harris. “Let us hope for the next generation in here.”