Africa’s population boom offers two outcomes: economic opportunity or humanitarian crisis

By James Hall

Analysis in brief: No continent will see population growth like Africa in the 21st century. Whether this growth brings economic progress, or the reverse, betterment of social services or their collapse and a strengthening of democracy or political chaos depends on planning and visionary leadership.

Even with deadly pandemics occuring like the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020, the remaining 80 years of the 21st century will see huge rises in Africa’s population numbers. Within the next 30 years, as the world’s population is expected by the UN to increase by 2 billion persons, from 7.7 billion today to 9.7 billion in 2050, five of the nine countries that will constitute more than half of that growth will be located in Africa. They are in order of their growth: Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Egypt. The aforementioned countries have one thing in common. In 2020, each country is experiencing some degree of political disruption, from a terrorist insurgency in Nigeria, rebel warfare in DRC, and degrees of encroaching authoritarianism in Egypt, Ethiopia and Tanzania. One fear of political observers is that as populations grow and strain available resources and degrade the environment, political instability will increase.

In response, economists say that an expanding population can also produce as well as consume, and that more workers provides the building blocks for economic growth. Therefore, the issue of population growth has become a matter of perception, a “glass half empty or half full” question rooted in one’s point of view. One certainty is agreed upon: An exploding population can be good or disastrous depending on how well authorities manage growth. What is required is investment in education, social services, housing and training. These, in turn, will produce a productive working class whose output and taxes can finance and sustain social welfare necessities. Visionary leadership that looks beyond the current election cycle is required to follow a path that leads to sustainable growth.

Forecast of the world population in 2019 and 2100, by continent (in millions)
Data courtesy of Statista 2020

The numbers are daunting, but cannot predict quality of life

Based on demographic trends, projections of Africa’s population growth are founded in a certainty that such productions can only be changed by some unimaginable occurrence. Benignly, such a development would be sound population policy that could substantially lower population grow. Such policy was enacted in Mauritus and accounted for the island’s national achievement of high-income country status in July, 2020. Much less benignly, a disaster such as a disease more deadly than COVID-19 might cut into population growth. Otherwise, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to double by 2050. North Africa will also see population growth, but at a lower rate due to the sub-region’s aging population. The global fertility rate of 3.2 children born per woman in 1990 declined to 2.5 children in 2019. However, in sub-Saharan Africa today, the rate is nearly double the global average: 4.6 children while North Africa’s figure was 2.9 children.

According to the UN report “World Population Prospect” in conjunction with Pew Research, population growth patterns show that by the end of the 21st century, Africa will have five of the world’s Top 10 most populous countries. Africa has only one country, Nigeria, among the Top 10 in terms of population in 2020. Nigeria is currently ranked as number nine. By 2100, Nigeria will be third and will have more people than the United States, a country that is ten times larger in size than Nigeria. The most populous countries in 2100 will be in order of their population size India, China, Nigeria, US, Pakistan, DRC, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Egypt. Half of the list will be comprised by African countries. Presently, these five countries have majorities of their populations living in poverty, and urban migration is expanding township slums and straining social services.

Streets are packed in Lagos, Nigeria
Picture courtesy of Sky News

As the UN Under-Secretary for Economic and Social Affairs, Liu Zhenmin, noted in the UN’s population projection report: “Many of the fastest growing populations are in the poorest countries, where population growth brings additional challenges in the effort to eradicate poverty, achieve greater equality, combat hunger and malnutrition and strengthen the coverage and quality of health and education systems to ensure that no one is left behind.” Zhenmin and other UN officials see population projection data as a roadmap of what lies ahead. Mismanaged economies, cultural imperatives for large families, faulty political leadership and an absence of population growth policies have thus far found population rises outstripping available resources, including education and other social services, and employment. However, proper management is achievable. If such management occurs, population growth will bring some benefits, such as the labour and talent needed to expand economies.

More workers mean more robust economies

As a rule, economies thrive when there is a sufficient number of workers because these individuals do not only produce, they earn incomes that raise tax revenue levels and their purchases fuel commerce. Of course, the workers must be sufficiently educated and trained in the work they do. They must also be healthy in order to be productive. Africa’s continuing strides in education and health assist the growth of African labour, management personnel and entrepreneurial talent. This comes at a time when demographic trends favour the growth of the working age group. As the UN population report notes, reductions in fertility rates in sub-Saharan Africa in recent years have caused the population of the working age demographic (people 25 to 64 years) to grow faster than other ages, “creating an opportunity for accelerated economic growth.”

The report urges African governments to take advantage of this “demographic dividend” by raising levels of spending in education and health, especially for young people. Another dividend seeing a payoff at present is the narrowing of life expectancy between sub-Saharan African countries and high-income countries in the rest of the world. In 2019, life expectancy at birth in the least developed countries was 7.4 years less than the global average, and further behind developed countries. This lag was primarily due to high levels of child and maternal mortality, as well as conflict and HIV/AIDS. Armed conflicts are growing fewer in number in sub-Saharan Africa, and HIV/AIDS is being managed while other diseases like tuberculosis are being eradicated. Inroads are being made against Malaria, and child and mortality rates are decreasing.

The world will look to African production, made possible by population growth

From being seen as a curse in recent decades to being perceived as a necessity in the near future, population growth is an evolving issue. As the world population ages, automatic condemnation of population growth is being rethought. Europe is on track for population growth less than 2.1 children per women, which means that continent’s population cannot be sustained. From a societal point of view, this will put the burden on youth to pay taxes for social services on which older citizens rely. Migration will also play a role in keeping European economies afloat. Cultural resistance to migration that has fuelled European nationalism and protectionism in recent years will give way out of necessity. The UN report notes that “Belarus, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Russia, Serbia and Ukraine will experience a net inflow of migrants over the (next) decade, helping to offset population losses caused by an excess of deaths over births.”

Much of this migration will come from Africa, much of it illegal. However, what is illegal migration today will become legalised in future as Europe’s labour needs intensify. African countries must ensure that their nationals are protected from exploitation overseas. Meanwhile, remittances sent by African workers home to families will grow further as a contributor to African economies. But more, as Africa’s work force grows in size and quality, manufacturing, agriculture and other labour-intensive enterprises will be established in Africa or be relocated from Europe and Russia. Africa’s improving energy and transportation infrastructure will facilitate such a shift. Because the workers are here, Africa may become a major producer of the world’s goods and services. It all depends on foresight, planning and investment today in social services.

Key points:

  • By the end of the 21st century, Africa will have five of the world’s Top 10 most populous countries and Africa’s fertility rate will be the world’s highest
  • Booming populations require visionary government policymaking, particularly to reduce poverty and ensure education and social services
  • Declining populations in Europe will make migration from Africa an economic necessity, and Africa’s growth working class can fuel unprecedented economic growth and see the relocation of overseas manufacturing to Africa where workers will be

The views expressed are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of In On Africa.