This would be one of the most dramatic demographic shifts in history. By the end of the century, if current demographic patterns continue for another 85 years (which they may not), Africa would have 4.2 billion people, against 1.1 billion today. Nigeria, whose land mass is similar to Pakistan’s or Venezuela’s, would rise from 180m today to 910m, registering one in 12 of the world’s births.
“The future of humanity is increasingly African,” says Unicef’s report, which shows a “massive shift in the world’s child population towards Africa”. The number of Africans under 18 may swell by two-thirds, to reach almost a billion by 2050, even if child-mortality rates remain relatively high. The new figures assume a reduction in fertility rates over time, as prosperity increases.
Yet Africa seems unusual in that economic growth during the past decade has not cut fertility as much as it has done elsewhere. Fertility rates in some African countries have stalled, instead of falling continuously, as happened throughout East Asia and Latin America.
The Unicef report is based on recent research that suggests that Africa is facing a population boom, nearly quadrupling it by the end of the century. The Population Research Bureau, a Washington-based outfit, said last year that Africa’s population would more than double to 2.4 billion by 2050, with the sub-Saharan part of it, currently 900m-plus, swelling to 2.2 billion. This is because Africa’s total fertility rate—the number is children a woman can expect to have in her lifetime—is 4.7. The figure in America is 2.0; in East Asia 1.7.
The prospect of so rapid a rise has triggered a host of Malthusian fears, on the continent and elsewhere. If Africa is struggling to feed a billion people, it is hard to see how it could feed 4 billion in future. Though the past decade has been relatively peaceful, perhaps a population boom will fuel civil strife. And surely, some fear, the expanding masses will destroy what is left of Africa’s flora and fauna, wiping out endangered species and pouring concrete on primal forest and grassland.
Such pessimism is probably overdone. Though fertility has not fallen as much in Africa as elsewhere, it has declined. So far, Central Africa’s tropical forests have not felt the chainsaws. And Africa remains a relatively empty continent. It covers a quarter of the globe’s land mass but hosts only 15% of its population. Asia, the most densely populated as well as most populous continent, has 137 people per square kilometre. Africa has 39. There should be room for more Africans.
Clearly, the continent needs better infrastructure, education and health care. It also needs family planning. Will governments, especially in democracies, have the nerve to tell people to drop their old cultural values in favour of smaller broods?
And can wealth creation match population growth? A new study by Standard Bank, based in South Africa, aims to measure the size of Africa’s middle class, defined as those earning at least $450 per month. This group in the continent’s 11 biggest economies has tripled, from fewer than 5m in 2000 to 15m today. In the next 15 years its numbers may swell by another 25m. The GDP of the biggest economies has also grown faster than its population. Africa’s demographic boom is exceptional. But there is some hope that the continent might be able to cope with it. – The Economist, 23 August 2014