by John Cleland

65 years and over: 3.2%

Life expectancy at birth: 54.2 years

Population in 2050: 2bn

Sub-Saharan Africa is the one remaining region where big families are the norm. Fertility is still high with five births per woman and rapid population growth is inevitable. Africa's population will more than double from 900 million today to 1.96 billion by mid-century, according to UN projections, and increase to 3.36 billion by the end of the century.

If forecasts are correct, Africa's share of world population will have grown from 7 per cent in 1950 to 21 per cent in 2050, and to 33 per cent by the year 3000. In contrast, Europe's share will fall from 22 per cent in 1950 to 8 per cent by 2050.

How seriously should we take these figures? The UN has been making projections since 1950 and its accuracy over several decades has been impressive. Barring a horrendous mortality crisis, far worse than the HIV pandemic, its forecast for Africa over the next 40 years should prove to be close to the mark. Beyond that is mere speculation resting on assumptions about the reproduction of people yet to be born. The focus here will thus be on the next four decades.

Population growth is not the only factor when assessing the implications of demographic change. Age and spatial distribution need to be taken into account. Africa's labour force will increase by 144 million per decade, from 466 million in 2010 to 1,132 million by 2050. But with fertility rates expected to fall to three births per woman by 2050, the ratio of workers to children will increase, which should boost living standards.

Unlike industrialized countries, population ageing will be modest; the proportion of people aged 65 years or more will rise from 3 per cent to 5 per cent. Urban population will double in the next 20 years.

This transformation is both an opportunity and a threat. Cities are often the engine of economic growth and innovation, but in Africa urbanization is taking place without major industrialization and more than half of city dwellers live in slums, a situation unlikely to improve in the face of such a rapid population increase.

Whether these trends prove to be an economic blessing or a curse depends critically on job creation. Currently, only about 10 per cent of adults receive a regular wage. The majority are smallscale farmers or exist on the margins of the urban economy close to the subsistence level.

Africa has a poor record for creating jobs when compared to Asian countries because of low levels of domestic savings and foreign investment. But rising commodity prices and improved governance have seen foreign investment increase from $9 billion in 2000 to $62 billion in 2008, although much of this has gone into extractive industries which do not create jobs on the required scale. Agricultural development is key to converting Africa's growing population into an economic asset.

Food production has not kept pace with population increase as yields per hectare have failed to improve and although two thirds of people work on the land many countries are dependent on cereal imports. What is needed is an African version of the Green Revolution, with an emphasis on improved varieties of staple crops, better water management and agro-processing. Climate change may become a threat to progress. Tropical agriculture is especially vulnerable to temperature rises and greater variability in rainfall would cause additional problems because 75 per cent of Africa's agriculture is rain-fed.

For cities, labour-intensive light manufacturing offers the best prospect. Growing concentrations of young adults willing to work for low wages should act as a magnet for foreign investors. Matching skills to the job market will be necessary. Many African countries have made solid progress in primary and secondary school enrolments but technical and vocational training has been neglected.

Sweeping generalizations about such a varied region are unwarranted and economic trajectories will undoubtedly diverge. For some countries, a Malthusian future, where continued rapid population growth outstrips production, is probable.

The Sahelian countries of Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger are of special concern. Their population is projected to treble from 46 million to 132 million by 2050, overwhelming their fragile eco-systems. Mass migration is the most obvious escape but this rarely occurs without civil unrest in receiving countries.

For countries that are better endowed in terms of climate and natural resources, the future is potentially much brighter, if job creation can meet the expectations of school leavers. If not, Africa will face its version of an Arab Spring rather than an East Asian Miracle.

John Cleland is Professor of Medical Demography at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

 

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