How to describe this moment in Africa? Not to be dramatic, but yet it is dramatic. This is the deluge; history is speeding up in the continent like a muddy river in the rainy season, swollen and turbulent, life-giving but treacherous. The old is being swept away into places without memory, creatures are being annihilated.

Indeed, this second point, on nature, should be put front and centre and not as an apologetic footnote: the failure of Africa to protect its life forms in (what can be futuristically called) the acceleration is abject and will come to be judged so. I am thinking here especially of the smaller beings, untold ants and beetles, their giving mulch, butterflies and moths, birds, plants and trees – the mopane woodlands, the silvery muhoho and other indigenous hardwoods hacked down.

Even the mighty trophies are staggering under the blows. Gorillas are almost gone, so too rhinos; elephants are being poached in record numbers, and out in the ocean sharks are being fished out without ever being known. All of this will be hard (though not impossible) to replenish.

What is true for nature is even truer for the brittle constructs of African statehood. The central political and economic question that must be asked: How can African countries take advantage of their demographic dividend in a post-industrial world where manufacturing is dominated by China, where products and services are commodified, and where 3D printing and new genetic and medical technologies will continue to push the advantage of capital over labour?

The economic boost of having a young population lasts for about a decade. After that, the young drag you under. Because Africa is more cheerful and resilient than the rest, we can push doomsday back until 2025. Then again, if we are honest and factor in the deleterious risks of climate change, with its expected famines and increased food prices, we need to knock a couple of years off. So, somewhat arbitrarily, 2022 as the tipping point. Ten years in which to make decisions that will decide the future of the continent for the next century or more (admittedly this is far from unitary picture).

The weight of consideration has to be on the youth. Where will the jobs come from to stave off populist unrest? What will happen to the brilliant and the valorous young Africans who are violently turned back from economic migration to Europe and elsewhere by ever higher biometric borders? What about the vulnerable ones left at home? Sub-Saharan Africa already has 70 million abandoned children, many of them living in squalor. In the villages, there is the great unspoken of physically and mentally stunted children who cannot compete. There is also the question of rights for girls – a right to an education, healthcare, contraception and inheritance.

We cannot talk about anarchism, or Marxism, we are no longer sure of capitalism, it is impossible to say what a future Africa will look like, but the courageous decision will be to come up with a new paradigm that is infused with African community, imagination and rhythms. Africa needs to move with the audacity of Victorian engineers (who built their bridges and sewers to last for an age) towards hi-tech, and to keep labour-intensive low-tech while eschewing imported, consumptive and inefficient middle-tech (cars, air conditioners, diesel generators). And it needs to do this swiftly.

Jonathan Ledgard is the Africa correspondent for The Economist and a Fellow of Future African Cities at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. His second novel is Submergence: