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ANDERS ÖSTMAN: Africa has to make right choices for its population

People walk in Nairobi county CBD. Photo/file
People walk in Nairobi county CBD. Photo/file

Are Africans becoming too many?

Many outside Africa think so, but that’s too simplistic.

In 1950 Africa’s total population was around 200 million, equivalent to Russia and North America at that time.

Europe had almost 400 million inhabitants on a rather small area, particularly compared to Africa. Asia was the most populous continent with 1.3 billion people.
It was not until recently that Africa’s population became larger than Europe’s. Throughout the period 1800-1950 more than half the world’s population lived in Asia. It is still the most populous continent, but Africa is catching up very rapidly. Today it has a population of over 1.2 billion. Kenya had approximately eight million in 1960 and it will soon stand at 50 million. In comparison and in rough figures Asia has today four billion, Europe and the Americas one billion inhabitants each.

At the end of the century Asia will have five billion, Europe and the Americas will remain with one billion each and the for long, least populated continent, Africa will have reached four billion.

Thus, it is only in Africa that the increase is not slowing yet.

I am not going to go into all reasons behind this dramatic rise in population and despite diseases in general, HIV-Aids famines, conflicts and wars, the population has increased primarily because of better health, high fertility rates and lower infant mortality i.e. more children survive beyond their first years.

Other factors are only marginally important.
Is this phenomenon unique for Africa? No, it’s not. It has happened on the other continents as well, though not so rapidly. From around 200 million to four billion in a little more than hundred years is dramatic and requires rapid solutions. Africa’s population has doubled in 25 yeas (1990-2015). In comparison Europe grew from 200 to 400 million between 1850 and 1950.
Many African leaders often talk proudly about the blistering pace with which the population has increased.

President Yoweri Museveni is enthusiastic that the population of Uganda could have reached 100 million in a couple of decades, because, he claims, such a huge population is a vehicle for increased purchase power and investment opportunities. At independence, Uganda had seven million people.
It is absolutely correct that a country’s most valuable asset is its people, in particular if it is educated. However, when an asset is growing so rapidly that it cannot be taken care of, it becomes a liability, a dead weight. Africa has a very young population and continues to have challenges with feeding it, educating it and providing jobs. It is not the rise in population by itself that is the problem, but rather how it can be managed with the resources available (which are very unevenly distributed).

This is a dilemma for Africans and there is an equation here that must be solved. To achieve the much needed and sough-after prosperity everyone is looking for, handling the population issue becomes paramount. If solved successfully there is a dividend for Africa to tap into.

What happened on the other continents? How did Asia manage to slow down its population growth and at the same time making it more prosperous?

To understand what happened, we have firstly to look at the demographic transition. A perhaps very technical term, but it means a shift from a situation where many children are born but also die, to a situation where few are born and die. It is revolution that profoundly effects societies and has the power to lift it from poverty to prosperity. This shift is taking place almost invisibly and is best explained, though somewhat simplified, by dividing it in four phases.

  1. Birth and death rates are high. Mankind dies in balance.
  2. Death rates are dropping, but birth rates are still high. The burden of support increases.
  3. The birth rate slows. Young people dominate. The population dividend is there to catch.
  4. Both birth and death rates are low. Mankind is living in balance. The first phase is how the world looked like for most of mankind’s time on earth. Many children are born, but almost as many dies. The population is stable or increases only slowly.

In the second phase, child mortality decreases due to better health and the population grows rapidly. To support all the children born the burden on the working population increases.

In the third, the number of children is decreasing, because parents are starting to see that all their children are surviving. Instead of seven, six, five children they start having two or three. The potential for prosperity has come.

When the number of children decreases and at the same time the number of people of working age continues to increase significantly, we have a situation called the demographic dividend.

This is what happened in Asia in the 1970s and only over only a couple of decades. This shift took place in Europe much earlier during a hundred years and then in the Americas.

Africa is somewhere in the second and tentatively approaching the third phase, although with huge variations between countries. A country such as Niger has a fertility rate today of 7.6, ie women between 15-49 have almost eight children, whereas in Ghana the figure is around three and in South Africa 2.5. Kenya is at 3.8. So, the jury is still out. Is Africa going to take advantage of the dividend, the bonus that so far has escaped Africa?

Finally, in the fourth phase, the hump of people of working age have become retirees and the burden for those who work have become heavier. This is the situation in many parts of Europe and also in Japan and without immigration, the population will shrink. However, globally in the fourth phase mankind is living in balance as both birth and death rates are low.

We may think that countries with low infant mortality would have a higher population growth than those with high infant mortality. It is the opposite. We think that in countries where women have six or seven children only two or three survive, as the situation was before the health revolution. Countries as those do not exist any longer.

Niger, Afghanistan and the DRC have the highest population growth, but also the highest infant mortality. One out of five die before they have reached the age of five and this was the situation 50 years ago globally. It is a sadly high figure, but it does not keep the population growth down. The global average today is that one child of 20 born dies. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, still has a high figure, 5,5, but it is slowing, though unevenly within the country.

At the same time the correlation between low infant mortality and smaller families is evident in those part of the world that this demographic shift has taken place. China’s much talked about one-child policy only had a minor influence on its population. It had more to do with economic prosperity, taking advantage of the demographic dividend. In China’s economically successful neighbouring countries fertility rates are about the same as in Europe, without pursuing a one-child policy.

We can argue about what Africa needs to do to become economically prosperous and take advantage of the population boom. Is it industrialisation, trade, improved farming, women’s role, education or better governance? Certainly, agriculture is a must for a continent that has failed miserably to feed its own population, but all have a role in shaping the future, where Africans are destined to constitute 40 per cent of the World’s population.

There is a window of opportunity today, where peace and population conditions could push Africa over the threshold and become part of the rest of the world. It won’t be open for ever. If the wrong choices are made today there is a risk that we in the next 20, 30 years in despair watch the window is closing without Africa getting the chance.

Let’s us hope Africa makes the right choices and finally take off!

Östman is a development analyst

Reference “Miljardlyftet” (The billion take off) by Erik Esbjörnsson and Anders Bolling