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A quarter of the world will be African by 2050

Africa’s population is growing even faster than previously thought, according to new projections published on October 26 by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef).

The revised figures predict an extraordinary explosion in the numbers of African children and youths, driven by high fertility rates and much improved medical care.

Key statistics include:

  • By 2050, a quarter of the world will be African, with the continent’s population likely to rise from 1.2-billion today to 2.5-billion in 2050.
  • By 2100, half the world’s children will be African. Child populations on other continents are likely to decline or stagnate.
  • Africa’s child population currently stands at 580-million, which is four times larger than Europe’s child population.
  • To cope with this growing population, Africa needs another 5.6-million frontline health professionals — three times current numbers — to meet minimum standards set by the World Health Organisation, and another 5.8-million teachers to meet international education standards.

Unicef argues that this “demographic dividend” represents a huge opportunity to effect positive change on the continent — but only if it’s managed correctly.

“It is imperative to recognise that today’s rapidly increasing child and youth populations will soon constitute Africa’s working-age population,” said the report. “Investing in their health, protection and education holds the promise for reaping a demographic dividend in the 21st century that could lift hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty and contribute to enhanced prosperity, stability and peace on the continent.”

But in this opportunity there is also risk. “If Africa misses this opportunity, population growth could lead to rising poverty, marginalisation and instability. Inaction will result in an unprecedented burden, as the continent will need to cope with the exponentially rising demand on natural resources while attempting to meet the needs of billions of inhabitants,” the report concludes.

Unicef is not alone in its concerns.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo said that his greatest fear was the possibility of a dramatic, poorly managed increase in Africa’s youth population.

“A youth explosion will not be localised. It will be global. It will cut across religion. It will cut across tribe and ethnic areas. It will cut across geographical areas. It will cut across social areas. It will be a mess,” Obasanjo said.

So seriously are some policymakers taking this issue that parliamentarians from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) recently proposed imposing a “three-child policy” on citizens that would limit reproductive freedom, and precipitate a dramatic decline in birth rates in the region. The current birth rate in the West African bloc is 5.6 children per woman, a rate that is among the highest in the world.

The late Salifou Diallo, who was the former speaker of the national assembly of Burkina Faso, recently said: “We are in a situation of uncontrolled demography and we cannot hope for development with such a situation.

“It is urgent that we contain the demographic push in the Ecowas space to promote real, viable and durable development,” he said.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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