Africa’s population boom is both danger and opportunity

Image of David Pilling

Some events, such as the 9/11 terror attacks or Brexit, change the world overnight. Others do so by stealth. Africa’s population explosion is a stealth event.

One of the great structural changes of the coming decades will be the huge relative shift of the global population to Africa. Today more than 1bn people live in Africa, roughly the same as in each of Europe and the Americas. But those continents have stopped growing.

Africa’s population, by contrast, will double to 2bn by 2050. Asia will also add 1bn to reach 5bn — and then stop. Africa will keep going. By 2100, its population could easily have doubled again, according to the United Nations, from which these estimates come. If that is right, at least 4bn of the world’s 11bn people will be African, against just 1bn today.

The precipitous rise owes to the fact that infant mortality has dropped dramatically, and life expectancy, though still low, has improved. Birth rates remain high at about five children per woman (by comparison, Bangladeshi women have, on average, two children each). Until Africa’s fertility rate falls sharply, its population will grow exponentially.

For excitable management consultants, this is a huge “demographic dividend”. McKinsey’s 2010 Lions on the Move study was largely predicated on a theory of economic growth known informally as “just add people”. In management speak, teenagers flooding in their millions into the fields and cities of Africa are “consumers” and “markets”. One does not have to be Thomas Malthus to take a more sceptical view.

The numbers are startling. Africa’s population is young, with a median age of just 20. That compares with 43 in Europe. By 2035, more than half of all new jobseekers will be African. In a 1994 essay, “The Myth of Asia’s Miracle”, Paul Krugman attributed remarkable economic growth not to a productivity surge but to added inputs of labour.

Yet Asia’s successful economies had obvious advantages: high savings, competent civil services and a sense of national identity that is lacking in relatively new African countries thrown together by colonialist cartographers. What was a boon for Asia could be a bomb for Africa.

Africa is a net importer of food. Most farming is for subsistence. In Tanzania, where the population has more than quintupled from 10m at independence to an estimated 55m today, 70 per cent of farmers use nothing more sophisticated than a hoe. Tanzania’s population could double again by 2035. Fortunately, it is fertile and about twice the size of California. Even so, it will have to double food production just to stand still. Disputes over land are intensifying because of the competing demands of peasant and commercial farmers and those of development.

Tanzania is better placed than many. Take drought-stricken Niger, where several million of the 17m inhabitants have only precarious access to food. Women in Niger have, on average, 7.6 babies. The population is expected to triple to 55m by 2050. By 2100, Niger could be one of the 10 most populous countries on earth. (Four of the others are likely to be Nigeria, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania.) Food security will be paramount.

Much of the action will take place in cities. In the next 35 years, Africa’s urban population will rise from 470m to 1.3bn, according to the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. In 1960, there were only three African cities with more than 1m people. Today there are 56 and by 2030 there will be nearly 100. Ideally, such cities would be vertical, like many in south-east and north Asia, to maximise creativity, productivity and efficiency. Unfortunately, most are sprawling and unplanned. About half of Africa’s city dwellers live in “informal settlements” like Kibera in Nairobi, one of the largest slums in the world.

The biggest problem can be summed up in one word: jobs. Unlike in Asia, which turned farmers into factory workers, manufacturing may not be enough. Only a few countries, among them Ethiopia, have anything like a coherent industrial policy. Robots may beat African workers to the punch.

Africa’s story will be played out at the level of states and cities. It requires, at a minimum, bringing fertility rates down so that dependency ratios fall. But it will require much more than that: an agricultural revolution, planned cities, tens of millions of formal, taxable jobs, and trustworthy institutions.

It is a tall order. Get it right and Africa could yet be an engine for the world. Get it wrong, and mass migration, terrorism and conflict beckon. It is in the interests not just of Africans, but of the whole world, that Africa grasps this nettle.

Letters in response to this column:

A fall in fertility rates will help Africa prosper / From Dr John F May

Unleash Africa’s most creative generation / From Margaret Mliwa

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