African Century

According to the U.N., Africa’s population is projected to quadruple to over 4.4. billion people by 2100. By then, the total number of people in the world is estimated to be around 11 billion, meaning that Africa alone will account for over a third of the global population and almost all of the new population growth over the next century.

As The Economist points out, this staggeringly high growth rate — contrasted with stagnating, if not declining, populations almost everywhere else  — will have tremendous implications for both the continent and the world at large.

If the new projections are right, geopolitics will be turned upside-down. By the end of this century, Africa will be home to 39% of the world’s population, almost as much as Asia, and four times the share of North America and Europe put together. At present only one of the world’s ten most populous countries is in Africa: Nigeria. In 2100, the UN believes, five will be: Nigeria, Congo, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Niger.

Although much could change in the next 85 years, none of those countries is a byword for stability or prosperity. A quadrupling of their population is unlikely to improve matters. If nothing else, the number of Africans seeking a better life in Europe and other richer places is likely to increase several times over.

What is more, Africa’s unexpected fecundity will change the shape of the world’s population. The declining birth rate elsewhere has brought the world to the verge of what Hans Rosling, a Swedish demographer, calls “peak child”. In 1950 the world had some 850m people aged 14 or under. By 1975 that number had almost doubled, to 1.5 billion. This year it was a little over 1.9 billion—but it has almost stopped growing. It is expected to continue to climb only very slightly in the coming years, reaching 2 billion in 2024, but never exceeding 2.1 billion.

Thanks to the continued growth of Africa’s population, however, the peak will be more of a plateau. High birth rates in Africa and low ones elsewhere will more or less balance out. Africans will make up a bigger and bigger share of the world’s young people: by 2100, they will account for 48% of those aged 14 and under.

With nearly half of the world’s young people living in Africa, the continent will have tremendous sway in economic and cultural matters; it is the youth who drive markets, sustain the labor force, develop innovations and businesses, and shape political trajectories. As the rest of the world contends with a dwindling population — and with that, fewer workers, care-givers for the elderly, etc. — Africa’s young, vibrant, and dynamic population may come to be its biggest resource (something I touched on a bit in a previous post).

Of course, an obvious response to this development is that Africa is far from suited to sustain such a fast-growing and large population, what with its plethora of political, economic, and public health problems. How does the continent even manage such a feat when most of the world, including much of the developing world, has seen birth rates and natural growth plummet?

Sub-Saharan Africa, sadly, is very poor and unstable, which helps explain why its demographic transition seems to be proceeding more slowly than that of other parts of the world and to have stalled or not yet started in several countries. But even relative to their levels of income, health and education, the countries of sub-Saharan Africa have high fertility rates. That has prompted some scholars to posit cultural explanations.

One theory is that African men want big families to enhance their status; another that communal land-holding makes them economically beneficial, since resources are shared according to family size. Without dismissing these arguments, John Bongaarts of the Population Council, an international non-profit group, suggests a third: relatively low use of modern contraception. In many places, after all, vigorous campaigns to disseminate contraceptives and discourage big families have contributed to sudden and deep falls in fertility. Such a drive in the 1970s in Matlab, a district in Bangladesh, saw the share of women using contraceptives increase six-fold in 18 months.

The African countries that have seen big falls in fertility are those, such as Burundi, Ethiopia and Senegal, with similar campaigns. In Ethiopia the fertility rate has fallen by about 0.15 a year for the past decade—blisteringly fast by demographic standards. That is probably thanks in large part to the nationwide network of 38,000 “health-extension workers”—one for every 2,500 people. Their job is to pay regular visits to each household within their locality and provide coaching on public health, from immunisations to hygiene. One of the 16 subjects in which they drill every Ethiopian is family planning.

Other African nations are and will follow suit. A lot can change from now to 2100, and the U.N. and other demographers have had to revise their numbers before. But even if the continent does not grow as much or as fast as projected, the overall trend will remain: the coming century could become one where Africans are the primary drivers of economic, academic, and cultural development — provided that leaders take the big steps needed to accommodate their people and help them realize their full potential. All those young people harbor considerable talent and opportunity if they are given the right resources and conditions. The world as a whole may be depending on them.

What are your thoughts?


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