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February 23, 2019

Africa's future looks uncertain

Unruly matatus on Tomboya street Nairobi. Photo/Monicah Mwangi
Unruly matatus on Tomboya street Nairobi. Photo/Monicah Mwangi

The lions of the Savannah have roared. Our economies have been growing at about 50 per cent faster than the average global GDP. In Ethiopia, for example, the rate of GDP growth is about 111 per cent faster than average global average.

But there is another side to the Africa growth saga. Huge chasms of inequality have burst open across the continent. Rural economies are comatose. Agriculture is trapped in a cubicle of unproductive low input and low-technology subsistence production systems.

Moreover, an urban underclass is on the march. Hundreds of millions of Africa’s surging urban population live in squalid subhuman conditions. They lack access to basic social services such as affordable housing, security, water, sanitation, health and education.

Jobs are in short supply. A majority of young Africans are either unemployed or underemployed. Working poverty among relatively well-educated youth is becoming a significant social challenge.

A new challenge, borne out of Africa’s modest progress, is emerging. According to recent population projections by UN Population Division, Africa’s population will more than double from the current 1.2 billion to about four billion by 2100. Africa’s demographic trends and projections will compound every conceivable challenge we face today.

A large and youthful population will severely constrain sufficient and equitable provision of basis social services. Currently Africa faces large food deficits and must rely on external food aid. Investment and productivity in agriculture are stagnant and falling compared to Asia and Latin America.

Less than 30 per cent of Africans in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to improved, reliable and sustainable water and sanitation. About 40 per cent of Africa’s population lives under water stress today and is on course to increase to 64 per cent under climate change and given the rate of population growth.

Water stress will have significant consequences both for agriculture and livestock production, touching off or exacerbating conflict over water and pasture resources. Declining domestic water supplies could erode health gains, causing a surge in waterborne diseases, especially among children under five years.

Unchecked, rapid population growth will compound poverty, lack of economic opportunities, exacerbate inequality and heighten the risk of social and ecological decline, and trigger political instability on the continent.

Africa’s youth need jobs urgently. There will be no demographic dividend without well-paying jobs for Africa’s relatively well-educated youth. And yes, there will be socioeconomic turmoil without jobs for the youth.

Creating jobs is not a trivial issue. And it will not be business as usual for Africa’s political class. Estimates by IMF show that Africa will need to create 18-20 million new jobs annually over the next 25 years. By 2050, Africa will need an about 700 million new jobs for the 1.3 billion that will be added to the continent.

Can we leverage the demographic dividend and grapple with the urgent challenges posed by a burgeoning population and climate change? Can we harness the last decade of impressive GDP growth to drive fundamental economic transformation and produce equitable prosperity?

Alex O Awiti is the director of the East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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