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Africa’s Growing Population: An Untapped Dividend or Curse?

Africa’s rapidly growing population presents a unique set of challenges as well as opportunities for the continent. If properly harnessed, the potential for economic development in the long term could be enormous.

While Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)’s population currently stands at approximately 856 million, the World Bank estimates that another half a billion people will be added to the continent by 2030. They further project that the continent will be home to two billion people by 2050, and that three out of every four persons added to the global population between now and 2100 will be in Africa.

There are a myriad of factors driving this population growth. Better health care, for instance, means more babies are surviving birth complications, and fewer adults are dying from preventable diseases. On the negative side, early marriages have been cited as among causative factors for the high birth rates in Africa. On average, mothers in Africa have 5.2 children, compared to the global average of 2.5. In Niger for instance, the country with the world’s highest fertility rate, mothers average 7.6 births, up to five times the European average of 1.6 children per woman.

However, considering that human capital accounts for up to 60% of input to the development process, and 60% of Africa’s population is made up of young people  between the ages of 15 and 25, questions about how the continent’s demographic transition can become a dividend and leveraged as a pathway out of poverty are indeed valid.

These maps of total fertility by country show birth rates, already low in much of the world, will remain high in Africa and parts of Asia through mid century. Image: UNPD 2011b
These maps of total fertility by country show birth rates, already low in much of the world, will remain high in Africa and parts of Asia through mid century. Image: UNPD 2011b

Population Growth: An Instigated Challenge

Africa’s growing population is, however, beset with challenges. SSA has the youngest population in the world but poverty is rife among these youths. More than 70% live on less than $2 USD per day and youth unemployment on the continent is as high 60%. Going forward, it is approximated that 350 million young people under the age of 25 years will be entering the labor market by 2035. This growing youthful population, coupled with poverty, hunger and lack of opportunity, has been cited as precipitating and instigating a number of challenges on the continent, including terrorism, illegal migration, and popular uprising over fundamental challenges which, if left unaddressed, will constrict long-term development.

Tapping Untapped Population Potential

Opportunities for the continent to turn its population growth into a population dividend are untapped. From agriculture, to energy, to an expanding middle class which represents a growing market, opportunities abound for inclusive economic growth and job creation. 

An Untapped Agriculture Sector: The entire agro-value chain can be optimized by using Ecosystem Based Adaptation (EBA) approaches and applying value addition technologies for processing, storage, market and financial access, among other things. This will ensure elimination of hunger while creating many jobs and combating poverty sustainably. Moreover, growth in agriculture is at least two to four times more effective in reducing poverty than in other sectors. Agricultural growth also stimulates productivity in other sectors, such as food processing.

Image: SABC
Image: SABC

An Untapped Energy Sector: Large scale job creation potential in this sector is yet to be fully unleashed, but given abundant solar, wind and hydro potential, the continent is a gold-mine for renewable energies, which are projected to provide over 40% of the continent’s energy by 2040. Clean energy can potentially create a thriving electricity supply industry with an estimated 2.5 million temporary and permanent jobs. Also, expanding grid and off-grid power to communities that have been dependent on kerosene lighting can result in cumulative household savings of up to $8 billion USD and reduce poverty in SSA by 16 – 26 million people

An Untapped Lucrative Market: The growing middleclass in Africa represents a potential lucrative market for goods and services. Now estimated at 300 million, the African middle class is demanding more nutritious, varied and processed foods. This is generating new jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities for youth, farm households and rural communities along the agribusiness value chain. Together with appropriate regional integration to create a consolidated market, Africa could earn an extra $20 billion USD annually; a huge boost in combating poverty and converting growing populations into dividends.

Turning Africa’s Population Growth into a Dividend Force

Revamped Infrastructure and Actualized Regional Integration: The continent needs to invest in infrastructure and actualize regional integration and trade policies in order to reap opportunity from a growing regional market for goods and services and enhance inclusive growth. Lack of adequate roads is translating to high transportation costs and trade barriers. Transport costs are 63% higher in Africa than in developed countries. This hampers the continent’s competitiveness in the international and local markets. Adequate connectivity infrastructure and regional integration can earn Africa an extra $20 billion USD per year in enhanced agriculture productivity alone.


Reform the Educational Polices: Education policies need to be reformed and recentered on solving the continent’s contemporary challenges, while technically benchmarking against global best practices, thus becoming globally competitive. Universities and colleges should introduce programmes that directly contribute to solving developmental challenges and equip students to take up opportunities in contemporary sectors, such as renewable energy.

Invest in Compulsory Universal Education: Early marriages have been cited as among causative factors for the high birth rates in Africa. With compulsory affordable and accessible education for all, family decisions can thus be delayed as a culture of educational and career pursuits takes root. This will ensure Africa builds on a literate populace capable of developing solutions to the myriad challenges facing the continent.

Reform Incentive Polices on Subsidies: Incentive policies should be reviewed. Reforming incentive polices in oil and extractive sectors can release up to $ 8 billion USD to be reinvested to develop infrastructure and improve productivity in inclusive sectors, such as agriculture, or the budding clean energy sector

Empowering the growing population to take up opportunities in emerging sectors will potentially turn the hitherto growing population curse into fruitful dividends for the continent. This will foster a future in Africa that is not marked by conflict but by cooperation, not by human suffering but by human progress, as we seek to achieve, in the words of Nelson Mandela, “an Africa where there is work, bread, water, salt  and a dignified livelihood for all.’

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