The African continent can cash in on its demographic dividend to drive huge growth over the next few decades and bring more people out of poverty, so long as focus is given to the three issues of malnourishment, education and economic opportunity.

That’s the opinion of Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, who delivered the 14th Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture in Pretoria tonight.

The world’s richest man, Gates talked about inequality across Africa and said that great progress had been made in meeting the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for reducing child mortality, malnutrition and access to education across the continent.

“But the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative doesn’t tell whole story of life on the continent,” Gates said, “Progress has been uneven. You know this in South Africa.”

The solution to many of the issues on the continent and driving economic growth lay in young people, he said.

“Economists talk of a ‘demographic dividend’,” Gates explained, “When you have more people of working age than dependents… The dramatic growth in Asia in the 1980s was partly driven by age of workforce.”

Young people are more innovative, he said, citing his own age (19) when he started Microsoft and the youth other tech founders like Steve Jobs.

During his speech, Gates singled out several young African entrepreneurs for praise, including the teams at Repurpose Schoolbags and open data experts at Nigeria’s BudgIT, which keeps tabs on government spending.

“BugIT Nigeria is an example of what one person can do,” Gates said.

He recognised, however, that innovation needs the right environment to thrive: “Computers alone can’t feed children and if they can’t be turned on they’re no good at all.” As well as basic healthcare and food, young people need better access to education and economic structures including, critically, energy.

“Seven out of ten Africans lack access to power, which makes it harder to do everything,” Gates said, including attracting businesses to invest in areas with poor infrastructure.

“Our duty is to invest in young people,” Gates said, “To put in place the basic building blocks so they can build the future. And to do it now.”

He described a “unique opportunity” given the demographics of the continent, but one which won’t last if it’s not seized.

It’s fair to assume that given his own well known opinions about the power of education and the potential of young people, Mandela would have agreed with the sentiment.

Getting personal

For the most part, Gates focused his speech on anecdotes of the young people he’s met while travelling with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and on successes in healthcare which his organisation has helped to fund. Specifically, he pointed out reductions in death from malaria and the near eradication of polio – although TB and HIV cases continue to rise.

Gates explained that he came to know Madiba personally through his work in HIV/AIDS campaigning, a story he has written about on his blog before. Intriguingly, he said that the first time the pair spoke was in 1994, when Mandela called the then-CEO of Microsoft to ask if he could help fund the first democratic elections in South Africa.

Those looking for a new commitment to spending or a truly barnstorming speech may have been slightly disappointed by Gates’ performance tonight. Only at one stage did he seem to get truly personal.

“It makes me angry,” he said, “That Africa is suffering the worst effects of climate change, although Africans had almost nothing to do with causing it.”

For which he received a deserved round of applause.