Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana. Photo credit Joshua Duneebon

Demography is destiny: The future will be African

Our future will be African. By 2100, one in three people on the planet will be African according to all demographic forecasts. Relative to other continents, this growth in Africa is unprecedented in human history.

Published: July 11, 2021, 12:18 pm

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    Because one in three people will come from sub-Saharan Africa, Nigeria’s population will exceed that of China or India.  Within less than three decades, the Democratic Republic of the Congo will have 200 million inhabitants and Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast will have 10 million people.

    In the Sahel the overall population of at least four countries will triple, according to Gilles Pison, professor at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris (MNHN – Sorbonne Universités) and associate researcher at INED.

    The African population, estimated at 140 million in 1900, reached one billion inhabitants in 2010. It will number 2,5 billion in 2050 and more than 4 billion in 2100, according to United Nations projections. One in 6 people today lives in Africa. In 2050, it will be 1 in 4, and more than 1 in 3 by 2100, according to these same projections.

    This rapid increase is because of the excess of births over deaths, with four times more births than deaths. Although the mortality on the continent may be the highest in the world, and fertility has also declined, African women were still giving birth to an average of 4,5 children each in 2017, compared to more than 6,5 forty years ago.

    By comparison, only 2,1 children were born per woman in Asia in 2017, 2,0 in Latin America, 1,9 in North America. and 1,6 in Europe. So even if fertility continues to decline, as the average United Nations scenario assumes, this will not immediately result in a significant decrease in the growth rate.

    Assuming that African fertility suddenly falls to 1,6 children per woman as in Europe or China – a highly improbable scenario – the population would however continue to increase for a few more decades to reach nearly 1,6 billion in 2050. Africa’s population includes many young adults of childbearing age, and therefore the result would still be a high number of births.

    The evolution of fertility: several recent surprises

    Population projections published by the United Nations in 1981 predicted 10,5 billion human souls on the planet in 2100 in their average scenario. The latest projections published in June 2017 predict 11,2.

    The total is therefore a little higher but the real change is in the distribution by continent: The revision is also downward for Asian and Latin America. Conversely, Africa, projected to have 2,2 billion inhabitants in 2100 according to the 1981 vision, now has double that with 4,4 billion.

    Another surprise, more recent, is from intertropical Africa: A fertility decline was expected later than in Asia and Latin America, because of its delay in socio-economic development. This is indeed what happened in North Africa and Southern Africa, but not in intertropical Africa where the decline in fertility is very slow – hence an increase in projections for Africa.

    Economic development and the decline in fertility often go hand in hand, the second being often seen as a consequence of the first. The education of women is a key factor in this process: those who have been to school give birth to fewer children than those who have not. Asian and Latin American countries have invested heavily in education decades ago. In intertropical Africa this has not happened.

    The question of the “demographic dividend”

    To convince African governments to make birth control one of their priorities, international organizations have been promoting a “demographic dividend”.

    In fact, when fertility drops rapidly in a country, the share of young people drops sharply without the share of older people increasing significantly at the start. As a result, the share of the working-age population increases significantly, providing an opportunity for the country to develop economically . This favorable situation lasts only a short while. A few decades later, the very large number of people of working age have aged and considerably increased the weight of the elderly population.

    It is estimated that a number of Asian countries, including China, have benefited from this dividend and may have accounted for up to 10-30 percent of their economic growth. On the other hand, the Latin American countries would not have benefited for the most part, for lack of jobs created in sufficient quantity to employ the excess of people of working age.

    In the case of Africa, the conditions for a demographic dividend do not exist: Fertility is falling too slowly and assuming it begins to decline rapidly, the outlook for job growth is too modest and is unlikely to absorb the additional labor. In the unlikely event that there is a demographic dividend, it is only a distant prospect.

    Therefore, Africa will not escape a doubling of its population by 2050 due to demographic inertia that no one can prevent. Not only the continent, but the world will suffer the consequences.

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