On a cold February morning in 2005, Nelson Mandela stood in front of a packed crowd in London’s Trafalgar Square. At the age of 86, the tall, authoritative figure was now in need of a walking stick. But in that moment, despite his withering appearance, Mandela was determined to share his message.
It was the final few words of his speech, 15 years ago, that still strike at the hearts of many descendants of the African diaspora today: “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great,” Mandela said. “You can be that great generation. Of course the task will not be easy. But not to do this will be a crime against humanity. Rise up!”
Africa has seen unmatched growth in numerous areas in recent years. As could be expected, at the center of the boom is a visionary generation committed to propelling itself forward in its own authentically African way. But it has not been easy.
Within the 54 countries on the continent, there are some managing decades-long wars, autocratic governments or interminable conflicts. But weaving through all of that, there is creativity, innovation and light. It is the African way.
This light emanates from music pulsating through car radios in Nigeria and Oscar-worthy films from Ghana. It exists in the protests for democracy that rocked Sudan and Algeria last year and in the cheers that filled sports bars in South Africa and Kenya during major sports wins.
As we enter a new decade of promise and growth, ESSENCE recognizes this generation’s magic with our very first Africa List. Chosen by our editors, here are the people, places, voices, ideas and movements from all over the continent that are shaping tomorrow’s Africa.
HONOREES: BEST IN MUSIC LIST
Sho Madjozi/South Africa
In early 2019, Grammy-nominated Burna Boy boldly announced that he was an “African Giant.” His fourth studio album and accompanying world tour, both also aptly named African Giant, proved his claim to the title even before Beyoncé honored him on her Lion King: The Gift album with a track all to himself.
The mesmerizing French-Malian singer Aya Nakamura has dominated the French music charts since her debut album, Nakamura, dropped in 2018. With her 450 million–plus YouTube-viewed anthem, “Djadja,” she is breaking ground as a Black woman owning the country’s music scene.
South African Sho Madjozi’s catchy “John Cena” track not only caught the attention of the WWE wrestling superstar himself, but it has also shown the world that this multitalented, multilingual star is the future of the continent’s pan-African musical dreams.
HONOREES: GLOBAL CHANGE AGENTS LIST
Groundbreakers in Africa and beyond
Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum/ Democratic Republic of Congo
From the very outset, Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum, M.D., has been pivotal in the discovery and efforts to combat Ebola in the Motherland ever since he and a team of World Health Organization researchers discovered the virus in his native Democratic Republic of Congo. Although his contributions in connection with the deadly virus have been largely overlooked, he has since received a patent for pioneering the first treatment of ebola.
In 2016 university student Letsweletse Motshidiemang decided to challenge Botswana’s colonial-era prohibition on gay sex. Last June the country’s High Court found the law unconstitutional, a progressive move in a continent where the majority of countries still criminalize consensual same-sex acts.
Somali-Canadian journalist Hodan Nalayeh’s work on her YouTube show, Integration TV, aimed to depict Somalia beyond a narrative limited to decades of war, violence and famine. Her death in a terror attack in Somalia in July, weeks after she had moved her family back to the country, was deeply mourned by a large diaspora at home and abroad.
Honorable mentions: Nigeria’s Busola Dakolo and Gambia’s Fatou Jallow, whose accusations of rape against a popular pastor and the former Gambian president, respectively, helped bring Africa’s #MeToo movement to the public’s attention.
HONOREES: BEST IN TECH LIST
Trailblazers shaking up the landscape
Flutterwave/Nigeria + San Francisco
Flutterwave has emerged as a notable fintech entity. Cofounded by Iyinoluwa Aboyeji and Olugbenga Agboola, the company produces items that are helping African businesses expand into international e-commerce while allowing them to receive and process payments. Its 2019 triumph was a new partnership with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba’s Alipay, which makes African outfits accessible to 1 billion-plus users.
WoeLab is a maker space in Togo that attracts innovators and start-ups working with robotics and e-waste. Architect Sénamé Ko Agbodjinou established the space in 2012 so that “everyone [is] equal in the face of technology.” One product to come out of the tech hub is a 3-D printer made out of electronic waste.
When Nigerians Somto Ifezue, Odunayo Eweniyi and Joshua Chibueze co-founded what would later be known as PiggyVest in 2016, they wanted to create an app that could serve as a savings platform to help Nigerians reach their financial goals efficiently. Today the app allows users to automatically deposit money into monthly savings plans that accrue interest and offers investment opportunities. By mid-2018, PiggyVest had raised $1.1 million in seed funding.
HONOREES: BEST IN SPORTS
Pioneers on and off the field
Caster Semenya/South Africa
Siya Kolisi/South Africa
The most impactful athletes are those whose physical talents transcend the sports they play. Caster Semenya, the two-time 800- meters Olympic champion, is currently fighting a ban that prohibits her from competing due to her body’s elevated levels of testosterone.
Her refusal to accept an invasive requirement that she take medication to lower those levels has raised questions about the treatment of Black women’s bodies in sports and science.
In 2019, South Africa’s first Black rugby team captain, Siya Kolisi, represented the new hopes and dreams of the modern rainbow nation when he held up the country’s first Rugby World Cup trophy in 12 years.
Even among the most elite Kenyan marathoners, Eliud Kipchoge stands in a league of his own. This past October the Olympic gold medalist and world-record holder became the first man to break the two-hour barrier in the marathon with a time of 1:59:40.
Honorable mention: Also in October, Kenya’s Brigid Kosgei shaved 81 seconds off the women’s marathon world record.
HONOREES: BEST IN ACTIVISM
Fighters for social, political and cultural change
Some of the most visceral activism on the continent is being led by powerful women. Sudanese Alaa Salah stood on the hood of a car to lead chants calling for a new government one evening last spring.
She couldn’t have known that a snapshot of that moment, shared by thousands on social media, would come to represent Sudan’s success in ending human rights abuses. Exiled Algerian singer Raja Meziane has poured that same fight into her music.
Meziane’s political music video “Allo le Système!,” which was viewed 35 million-plus times on YouTube in 2019, became one of the protest songs of the movement that forced the Algerian president to resign in April 2019.
The trial of Stella Nyanzi—a Ugandan university lecturer and activist charged with, among other things, cyberharassment for her graphic poem referencing the country’s president—opened up conversations about the freedom of speech and political oppression in the East African nation.
HONOREES: BEST IN STYLE LIST
Fashion and beauty disrupters
Thebe Magugu/South Africa
At only 26 Thebe Magugu won the prestigious LVMH Prize in 2019, marking the first time a designer from Africa has picked up the award since the event launched in 2014 to honor and support young fashion designers around the world. Magugu’s eclectic and feminine designs won over judges like Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière and Marc Jacobs.
As the beauty world rides a new wave of inclusivity, Nigerian-born beauty entrepreneur Sharon Chuter, a former LVMH executive, has been inspired by the rich ethnic diversity of Africa to create her own prestige brand, Uoma Beauty (“Uoma” means “beautiful” in Igbo).
South African brand Mantsho, the brainchild of Palesa Mokubung, became the first African label to collaborate with Swedish retail giant H&M. The colorful pieces designed by Mantsho, which means “Black is beautiful” in Sesotho, could be found in H&M stores globally.
Honorable mention: South Africa’s Precious Moloi-Motsepe is a doctor and philanthropist, but her work with African Fashion International (AFI) can’t be overlooked. Founded in 2007, AFI now organizes biannual fashion weeks in Johannesburg and Cape Town.
HONOREES: BEST IN FILM
Storytellers whose work resonates worldwide
A movie’s magic will always be its ability to transport us to places and ideas outside our imagination. And for his feature film debut, Ghana’s Samuel “Blitz” Bazawule did just that with Burial of Kojo, which became the country’s first movie considered for a Golden Globe.
French-Senegalese filmmaker Mati Diop also claimed a number of firsts with her flick Atlantics, which won the Grand Prix at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and made Diop the first Black woman to compete for the coveted Palme d’Or. But her eye, and that of Senegal, is on a bigger prize: Atlantics was among 92 other entries vying for Best International Feature Film at this year’s Academy Awards.
Kenya’s Wanuri Kahiu’s coming-of-age lesbian picture, Rafiki, became a flashpoint for freedom of expression and gay rights when it was initially banned by the country’s film- classification board.
Honorable mention: Genevieve Nnaji made history in 2019 when Lionheart became Netflix’s first original film from Nigeria.
MUST-VISIT DESTINATION: Ghana
Ghana’s star-studded The Year of Return tourism campaign—to commemorate the 400 years since enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia—was expected to attract 500,000 diasporans to the Motherland in 2019 in a cultural welcoming unlike anything ever seen on the continent before.
HONOREES: BEST IN ART AND DESIGN
Creatives with a mission
Zanele Muholi/South Africa
Last year the bronze sculptures of women created by Kenyan- American visual artist Wangechi Mutu became the first pieces to fill the niches of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s facade since the building’s completion in 1902.
South African visual activist Zanele Muholi’s intimate photographs have helped humanize the lives of their LGBTQ+ participants, posing them as Black bodies of confidence, grace and power.
David Adjaye’s work can be seen all over the world, but perhaps his most prominent design in the United States is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture. As a highly sought-after architect, the British-Ghanaian continues to push boundaries with his most recent contributions to the National Cathedral of Ghana.
Honorable mention: Dennis Osadebe is a Nigerian mixed-media artist best known for his contemporary vibrant post-pop style.
HONOREES: BEST IN BUSINESS
Entrepreneurs making their mark
Ama Marfo, Craig Henry and Emmanuel Buah cofounded Airfordable, a website that allows users to pay for airline tickets in installments. The idea of the company came from Marfo’s frustration at being unable to afford to travel home to Ghana while in college in the U.S.
Swvl is fighting back against the commuting and public transportation inconvenience found in Egypt. The bus-sharing app by Mostafa Kandil, Mahmoud Nouh and Ahmed Sabbah offers locals alternatives to unreliable public transportation and on-demand ride-hailing services as well as the stress of driving and finding parking spaces in an already congested city. Swvl has now expanded beyond Egypt.
Solar power in East Africa is booming, but most companies have foreign founders or majority foreign investment. Aptech Africa, created by Eritrean brothers Ghirmay Abraham and Metkel Zerai, provides the first off-grid solar-battery hybrid power system in South Sudan.
The firm operated in South Sudan during the civil war when other solar companies fled, leaving projects unfinished. Today Aptech is operational in Uganda, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
This piece originally ran in the January/February 2020 issue of ESSENCE magazine.