Making Sense of Africa’s Population Explosion

UNICEF New Zealand
Nov 5, 2017 · 5 min read

If the world thinks it is already struggling with overcrowding, poverty, migrants and refugees, and inequality, the world ain’t seen nothing yet.

A new report from Unicef into the changing demographics of Africa paints a dizzying picture of how the planet’s second largest continent is changing. An explosion is coming.

In 1950, Africa’s child population was 110 million. It has since grown to almost 600 million. By 2055 Africa will be home to one billion children, and by the end of the century, if current trends continue, Africa will be home to half the world’s child population.

Far from being a disaster though, the changes are being viewed as an unparalleled opportunity.

“Imagine the potential of one billion children,” said Marie-Pierre Poirier, UNICEF’s Director for West and Central Africa.

“If Africa steps up its investments in children and youth now, transforms its education systems and empowers women and girls to participate fully in community, workplace and political life, it will be able to reap faster, deeper and longer dividends,” she says.

“It is achievable. The potential of one billion kids is vast. But no one is shying away from what needs to be done.”

It’s known as a demographic dividend — when changes in a country’s demographics result in a large labour force with fewer dependent children and elderly.

“It means those workers have more disposable income — meaning greater consumption, production and investment, driving growth upwards,” says James Elder, UNICEF’s regional communications chief.

The report suggests Africa can increase per capita incomes four-fold by 2050, but only if the right policies and investments are made in the continent’s economy.

“It is achievable. The potential of one billion kids is vast. But no one is shying away from what needs to be done,” says Elder.

The myth of an overcrowded continent

There is a common assumption that Africa is overpopulated. With 20% of the world’s landmass, and 1.2 billion people — it is less densely populated than Asia, Europe, and South America.

In fact, Europe has about twice Africa’s population density, and Asia about three times.

Much of Africa’s recent population growth has come about through advances in medical care. Just 30 years ago one in six children died before their fifth birthday. Since then, mortality rates have more than halved, meaning more children are surviving, and as increased numbers of girls reach childbearing age, even more children are born.

Immunization is free in Côte d’Ivoire for children bellow one year old. Yet, three children out of five do not get vaccinated before their first birthday.

Fertility rates in Africa remain far above the global average. In 2016, each African woman of reproductive age had 4.5 children on average, compared to 2.5 children globally.

Providing education to women is one of the fastest ways to reduce poverty and high fertility rates. In sub-Saharan Africa women with no education have 6.7 births on average, falling to 5.8 for those with primary education and just 3.9 for those with secondary education.

Put simply, the poorer and less educated a community, the higher the fertility rate is. Provide education, and encourage investment, and fertility rates will drop.

Reaping the rewards of a demographic dividend

Linda Adongo fell pregnant to her boyfriend in high school. She dropped out of school and gave birth to her daughter, Jennifer. While the boy and his parents support Linda with food and clothing for the baby, Linda says “it’s not fair” that she has had to drop out of school while the baby’s father has been able to continue his education. Photo: Nyani Quarmyne

The report calls for the urgent expansion of reproductive health services and education. One quarter of the world’s population will be African by 2050, so Africa will need ten million skilled health and education professionals over the next decade to prepare for that.

Huge improvements have already been shown in education, health, and child mortality statistics. However too many children are still not attending school, too many births are happening with medical supervision, and too many children are still dying. Shockingly, half of the world’s under-five deaths occur in Africa.

But progress is possible, and achievable. For example, Rwanda — a country wracked by crises just two decades ago — put its poorest citizens at the centre of approaches to strengthen their health systems and reduce under-five mortality.

By expanding community health services, training rural health workers, increasing salaries and performance incentives, and ramping up efforts to encourage women to give birth in health facilities, Rwanda was able to achieve rapid progress on child mortality.

“If the young children of today — who will be entering the labour force in just a decade and a half’s time — are skilled, dynamic and entrepreneurial, and can be productively and fully employed, Africa — and the world — will reap the reward,” says Elder.

“The opposite is also true. Without the right conditions, Africa’s boom could turn into a disaster, with mass deprivation, scarcity, unemployment and low productivity, and negative implications for the continent’s stability and security.”

The population explosion in Africa is already happening.

It is up to Africa and the world, to decide how to prepare for it.

Do nothing, and wait for the chaos? Or invest, and watch as a billion children reap the benefits.

To support Unicef’s development work for children around the world, please visit

UNICEF New Zealand

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