Africa’s demographic transition

Africa is still something of a demographic outlier compared with the rest of the developing world. Long berated (or loved) as the sleepiest continent, it has now become the fastest-growing and fastest-urbanising one. Its population has grown from 110m in 1850 to 1 billion today. Its fertility rate is still high: the average woman born today can expect to have five children in her child-bearing years, compared with just 1.7 in East Asia. Barring catastrophe, Africa’s population will reach 2 billion by 2050. To get a sense of this kind of increase, consider that in 1950 there were two Europeans for every African; by 2050, on present trends, there will be two Africans for every European.

Yet Africa is also starting out, a little late, on a demographic transition that others have already traced: as people get richer, they have fewer children. In 1990 the continent’s total fertility rate was over six, compared with two in East Asia. By 2030, according to United Nations projections, the total fertility rate in sub-Saharan Africa could fall to three. By 2050 it could be below 2.5…..

Africa does not have much time to get things right. The period of greatest potential, when the working-age population is disproportionately large, is not open-ended. In demographic terms, it is just a moment or two. Societies age, and as they do the number of older dependents grows and the moment passes.

Africa’s population: The baby bonanza“, The Economist, 29 August 2009.

The demographic transition to lower fertility can yield what is known as a “demographic dividend”. This brief essay explores its potential in Africa. “On some calculations, demography accounted for about a third of East Asia’s phenomenal growth over the past 30 years.” But a high working-age share is no guarantee that a population will reap the potential demographic dividend. Demography is not destiny. Poverty, hunger, disease and civil war makes it difficult if not impossible for Africa to take full advantage of its demographic transition. Urban unemployment and underemployment produces crime and violence, not economic growth.

This essay is a quick but rewarding read, with clear and helpful charts.


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