2019 was a notable year for Africa — politically, economically, culturally, and for the coming of age of its technological revolution. Some of the year’s advancements were cyclical, but others were historic, unprecedented, and could propel a continent of largely young people forward in a region on track to overtake central and south Asia as the most populous in the coming decades. Meeting the needs of Africa’s youthful population will be one of the defining global challenges of our time.

Here are my top three change-making events for Africa’s notable year:

The Africa Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCTA)

In June, African leaders launched a continental free-trade zone of 29 nations (with the potential of as many as 55) that — if successful — could unite 1.3 billion people, create a $3.4 trillion economic bloc and unlock Africa’s long-hindered economic potential by boosting intra-regional trade, strengthening supply chains, creating mobility of jobs, and democratizing expertise.

The statistics of the lost opportunity are stupefying: Intra-African exports were 16.6 percent of total exports in 2017, compared with 68 percent in Europe and 59 percent in Asia.

There will be hurdles to its execution, including weak infrastructure, poor governance and the disparity between participating nations, where Nigeria, Egypt and South Africa account for over 50 percent of Africa’s cumulative GDP. Notwithstanding that, countries big and small have agreed to play by a new set of rules that in theory, could expand the economic pie for all participants.

The coming of age of technological innovation in Africa

Last month, following a visit to West Africa, Jack Ma, Chinese business magnate and founder of Alibaba e-commerce platform wrote in the New York Times, that “Africa is poised for radical change” as the world experiences a digital revolution, which he calls “the most inclusive technological revolution we have ever seen.”

Statistics likewise reveal the market opportunity. Nearly 400 million of the continent’s 1.25 billion people are online, according to Internet Society research. That leaves more than 800 million potential new users to be picked up.

Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter also spent his November in Africa talking with business owners in Ghana, and Ethiopia, meeting with tech startups in Nigeria and confirmed his intention to return to Africa for six months in 2020.

Max Cuvellier, of the GSM Association (GSMA) suggests that these high-profile visits show the increasing importance of the continent. “What I like the most when I look at tech giant CEO visits is that they seem to recognize the potential of the continent, not only as a market, but as a source of innovation and talent.” 

Indeed, this year Google’s first AI lab in Africa was opened in Accra, Ghana; while the Alibaba Group inaugurated a global trade platform in Ethiopia. Moreover, some 20 new venture capital funds that aim to invest in African tech startups were launched this year, with total capital into hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Sudanese uprising and the rise of Africa’s activist generation

For me, the Sudanese uprising was the African Story-of-the-Year, because — against all odds — it succeeded, due to the sheer force of will of the Sudanese people, reminding we Americans that our greatest export to the world remains our values of democratic freedoms.

One year ago, civic action to protest the high cost of living in Sudan, led by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), swelled into the most sustained civilian protest movement in the country’s modern history. Of note, more than two-thirds of the protesters were women. It resulted in the fall of a dictator, President Omar al-Bashir, the establishment of a transitional government, and it is hoped, to the eventual return to civilian rule. 

What ensued in Sudan is part of the rise of the activist generation, a phenomenon that BBC’s Africa Editor Fergal Keane suggests is the most important development in Africa politics in the last two decades. This activist generation is succeeding in getting citizens to the streets to demand political and economic reforms, and challenge leaders who overstay their constitutional welcome. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) recorded 3,791 protests in 2018, compared to 653 demonstrations in 2008.

Many factors can impact the outcome of these protest movements, and as the International Crisis Group reminds us, “Sudan’s transition remains fragile and the African Union, the United States, and the European Union, together with the Gulf States must ensure that the power-sharing deal is respected.”

Where do these promising, if not unstoppable trends in economic integration, technological innovation, and political expression lead us as a new decade begins?  

Like most things in Africa, advances are fragile, and progress will depend on whether institutions can gain independent authority — and if Africa’s global partners are prepared to tackle the issues that will continue to confound Sub-Saharan Africa like debt and climate change.

Gyude Moore of the Center for Global Development (CGD) whose podcast, “New Think,” looks at the disruptive ideas changing the future of Africa says we cannot entrepreneur-our-way-out of bad leadership. Moore suggests that while trends in innovation are encouraging, they must be applied to elections and politics in Africa if we want effective and responsive government, which he argues “there is no substitute for.”

In fact, the continent’s national elections in South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Senegal and Mozambique were some of the least inspiring events in 2019, won and done by the incumbent parties, with a civil society re-inventing itself and a political class in atrophy.

As I look toward a new decade, I am enthused by the rise of Africa’s civil society, by its change-makers and entrepreneurs and by the ambitions of Africans to build a collective market with the principle that a rising tide raises all boats. And while I agree that Africa cannot entrepreneur-its-way-out of bad governance, I am hopeful that the political innovators, (including women, youth and other disrupters of the governing status-quo), will find their way.

K. Riva Levinson