Remarks at the Pan-African Youth Innovation Forum
June 21, 2023
Good morning. Thank you to the Lagos Business School and Co-Creation Hub for hosting me, and to all of you for joining us—including those of you who are here virtually.
The last time I visited Nigeria, in 2018, I spoke to government leaders about your country’s potential for growth.
This time, I wanted to speak also with you: Nigeria’s next generation of innovators.
Ever since I was a teenager, writing computer code on a terminal at my high school, and later at Microsoft, I have loved the feeling of innovating to make something a little better for people—or a lot better.
I’m sure you know this feeling too.
There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for you to continue to make a difference in the world, because of the unprecedented potential of new technologies.
Even though Nigerians are still facing many of the challenges I talked about five years ago—and you’re having to contend with economic instability and security threats—I have a lot of faith that your generation will persevere and improve lives throughout Nigeria and beyond.
When it comes to making the world a better place, talented young people are a powerful asset.
Nigeria has one of the biggest youth populations in the world, and it’s growing fast. That represents a lot of potential skills and passion to solve big problems.
Yesterday I met some impressive Nigerians whom the Gates Foundation has been partnering with for years. These scientists are improving seeds, fertilizer, and biopesticides so farmers can thrive in the face of climate change and grow crops free of toxins.
And I met with a researcher scaling up an effective way to reduce anemia in pregnant women.
And while I didn’t get to visit this time, I hope in the future I get to see LBS’s Virtual Human Computer Interaction Lab, where researchers are figuring out how virtual and augmented reality can contribute to solving the world’s problems.
For young people to shine like this, they need support, starting with a great education. In this capacity, Nigeria has a strong foundation, with some of the best educational and research institutions across the continent. In Africa, Nigeria is a hub for venture capital and financial technology.
There are also many exciting innovations in the global pipeline that are going to improve lives here in Nigeria. They’re going to prevent infectious diseases, provide life-saving interventions for mothers and babies, make food more nutritious, and give women more convenient contraception options. Down the road, artificial intelligence will be applied in ways that will bring quality health care and education to more people.
In addition to the science and health sectors, I’m also excited by what I've seen in Nigeria’s booming creative industries.
Afrobeats are popular everywhere. My daughter Phoebe loves Burna Boy and Rema, and I got to see Davido and Wizkid perform live, here in Lagos.
My kids don’t usually think I’m cool, but that won me some points.
It’s not just music. Nigerian authors are producing incredible work—and the world is noticing.
And the success of Nollywood is amazing. Your film and music industries provide jobs for more than a million people, and add trillions of naira to the economy each year.
These creatives and entrepreneurs demonstrate the vibrancy of Nigerian culture and are evidence of how Nigeria can bring amazing things to the world.
That kind of talent and determination should also be used to close the big equity gaps in the country.
Many of you have been part of the revolution in digital financial tools in Nigeria.
I’ve gotten to meet people around the world whose lives were changed once they were able to reliably save, transact, and borrow money through digital devices.
It’s inspiring to see the rapid innovation and widespread uptake—at least in this part of the country.
Some of the payment apps that most of you use didn’t even exist a few years ago. They were scaled up really quickly to meet the country’s urgent need for cashless transactions.
But as great as these apps are for those who have them, they’re a good example of how progress has not been distributed equitably.
You’ve got seamless access to accounts and payments on your phone. But if your loved ones live in a rural part of the country, chances are they do not have that same access.
Nigerians living in urban areas are twice as likely to make digital payments as those in rural areas. Everyone should have that access.
To make that possible, you need a more reliable telecom network, more agents, and more people connected to the digital ID system—everywhere in the country.
There are equity gaps like this to close in health and education too. A mother’s chance of surviving childbirth, and her baby’s chance of thriving in childhood, has a lot to do with the luck of where they’re born.
In some Nigerian states, most women give birth in a place where they have the help of skilled birth assistants. But in other states, 90 percent of women deliver at home, where they may not get life-saving care.
Inequality isn’t just about where you are born, but also your gender.
For example, the gender gap in labor force participation has nearly doubled in the last decade.
Men are more than twice as likely as women to have a mobile money account.
In some states, nearly 9 in 10 women have no education at all.
I’m a huge believer in the power of science and innovation to help people lead long, healthy lives. But one of the big lessons I’ve learned is that the benefits don’t automatically reach everyone.
To do that, the people creating new breakthroughs, the people funding them, and the people getting them into the world all need to prioritize equity.
Take AI as an example. I’m excited about AI’s potential to save and improve lives. But that won’t happen if profit is the only motive.
So, our foundation is thinking about what we can do to help AI develop in ways that improve the lives and well-being of everyone, not just the wealthiest people in a few rich countries.
The foundation has issued a call for proposals—or what we call a “Grand Challenge”— for innovative, safe uses of large language models.
We received 1,300 proposals, and half of them were from Africa. The winners will be announced in Senegal in October.
We hope what emerges will help build an evidence base for advancing equitable outcomes in health and development everywhere in the world.
The innovators I met with yesterday epitomize everything I’ve talked about today.
Dr. Bosede Afolabi, a professor at the University of Lagos, is working to solve one of your country’s most stubborn problems: the high rate of anemia among pregnant women.
In its mild form, anemia makes women fatigued, but a serious case can cause hemorrhage during childbirth or cognitive impairments for babies.
Like many problems that mostly affect women, it doesn’t get nearly enough attention from the medical community. Often anemia isn’t even diagnosed, because women are just told being tired is part of pregnancy.
When it is diagnosed, typically they’re given vitamins. But for women with severe anemia caused by iron deficiency, vitamins don’t solve the problem.
There’s a much more effective treatment for them, which I got to see administered yesterday: an IV infusion of iron that takes minutes and lasts an entire pregnancy.
Dr. Afolabi is getting IV iron to women not just in Lagos and River states but also in Kano and Kwara. Her goal is to make sure that IV iron is an option for Nigerian women no matter where they live.
The agricultural experts I met yesterday were also thinking about how to close equity gaps.
The products they’ve developed include a biofertilizer that doubles soybean productivity and a cassava plant that’s vastly more productive than conventional breeds.
These are impressive products. And they’re incredibly important in the face of food insecurity and the effects of climate change.
But breakthroughs like these don’t matter if they don’t get out of the lab to the people who need them most.
The people I spoke with think not just about building products, but about building pipelines.
They are partnering with others to expand their distribution networks, training extension agents, and getting on radio shows to inform farmers in the most remote areas about what’s available to them.
Being around young innovators like these is inspiring.
It gives me hope that one day, babies born in Nigeria can have just as strong a chance as children born in any other part of the world.
But, of course, individuals can’t do it alone.
The message that I shared with President Tinubu Monday, and what I’ll share with other leaders tomorrow, is that they must invest in equitable solutions—and invest in the people who are working on them.
Nigeria is full of talented people with a lot of potential. But it can be very hard to fulfill that potential if you don’t have access to the most basic building blocks of life.
It may not surprise you that Nigeria’s state and federal governments only spend the equivalent of $10 per person on health each year, compared to $31 in sub-Saharan Africa as a whole.
Leaders need to make a much bigger financial commitment, focused most of all on improving primary health systems.
Making sure clinics are well-staffed and supplied, making sure children get the vaccines they need—all of this is absolutely essential to improving health and opportunity and unlocking all of Nigeria’s potential.
I’ll also be talking with Nigeria’s government leaders about increasing commitments to agriculture and digital financial systems.
Young people in Nigeria have shown how passionate they are about progress. I know that you will encourage your leaders to follow through on these kinds of commitments.
The Gates Foundation remains committed to the future of Nigeria—to your future.
Since our founding, Africa has been at the heart of our mission to ensure everyone has the chance to live healthy, productive lives. We have long partnered with talented people and organizations hard at work in Nigeria.
That includes Solina and HSCL, which are working to ensure that health facilities in rural Nigeria have enough trained staff and resources.
The Society for Family Health increases access to family planning options through drug shops and community pharmacies.
TechnoServe is giving people the tools they need to build successful businesses, and GAIN is making sure the flour and oil you buy for your family is fortified with essential nutrients.
These are just a few of the many partners improving and saving lives in Nigeria.
I know the problems you face are persistent. But so are the people solving them.
I am looking forward to seeing all the ways that, together, you make life in Nigeria better for everyone. Thank you.